A Sheila who captured London's heart

A century ago Sheila Chisholm travelled from Sydney to London and was soon best friends with two future kings of England - yet few people know her story.

The woman who likely inspired the phrase "a good-looking sheila" wasn't good looking - she was stunning.

But Australian Sheila Chisholm was also smart, sassy and, in more ways than one, regal.

Journalist Robert Wainwright launched his biography of the socialite who "bewitched" British society at Australia House in London this week.

Chisholm herself visited the high commission almost 100 years ago when she was a fashion icon and society fundraiser in the English capital.

Originally from near Goulburn in NSW, Chisholm would, over time, marry a lord, a baronet and a Russian prince. She could have married a king.

But she's little known today.

Wainwright first found out about Chisholm from the 2009 official biography of the Queen Mother.

She was referred to fleetingly as the "beautiful Australian" that King George V demanded his second eldest son Prince Albert stop seeing.

Albert, known to most as Bertie, was portrayed by Colin Firth in The King's Speech, which co-stared Geoffrey Rush.

Wainwright, an Australian journalist living in London, says Chisholm is likely responsible for the Aussie phrase "a good-looking sheila".

"The first instance I can find of that in the media was very soon after she returned to London (in 1923)," he tells AAP.

"She was very much a returning superstar and the phrase emerged very soon after she left.

"She was probably the inspiration behind that one."

Chisholm could even have been a queen.

The affair with Bertie at the end of the Great War was a long time before he became King George VI.

Albert could have married her not expecting to ever take the throne, "then further down the track who knows we could have had a Queen Sheila", Wainwright says.

In the 1920s and 1930s Chisholm knew politicians, actors, artists and aristocrats. She was an "It" girl who'd been close to both Bertie and his older brother Prince Edward, and who was known in all the top nightclubs.

But when she died in 1969 only two obituaries were published.

Her biographer says that's because she was less prominent after the Second World War and the people who knew her as a celebrity weren't running newspapers anymore.

Wainwright wrote the biography while simultaneously penning swimmer Ian Thorpe's autobiography.

"When I got bored with one I switched to the other," the writer admits.

"They were both celebrities of their time and they were both far more complex individuals than their celebrity status showed."

Thorpe suffered terrible depression that he only revealed in the autobiography while Chisholm's whole life had become hidden.

But in the mid-1920s the Australian socialite - who'd married Lord Loughborough in 1915 - was one of London's most prominent society women.

She also enjoyed an intense relationship with Italian movie star Rudolph Valentino who many thought was gay.

Asked about the relationship at Australia House, Wainwright noted he was asked similar questions when the Thorpe autobiography came out.

"Do I think he was gay? I'd rather let somebody else decide that," the journalist said.

Valentino had many wives and girlfriends but the fact he wore a gold bracelet fuelled speculation he was homosexual.

"He gave that to Sheila," Wainwright notes of the bracelet.

"It was his good luck symbol. There was an intense relationship between the two. Whether there was anything more to it ... I can't answer all the questions."

Chisholm wrote a memoir she called Waltzing Matilda in later life but it was never published.

Wainwright had completed a first draft of his biography before Chisholm's grandson - the current Earl of Rossyln, who was at the high commission this week - granted access to the manuscript.

The biographer had already purchased 60 books for research even though most contained just a few words or sentences about Chisholm.

The Spectator in its review criticised Wainwright for relying too much on newspaper gossip columns.

But the journalist says they were "the only way to track her".

Wainwright also found letters from Prince Albert to Chisholm in the Scottish archives, which he describes as a "Eureka moment".

Chisholm married Sir John Milbanke in 1928 and, following his death in a car accident, Prince Dimitri Romanoff in 1954.

But Wainwright insists she wasn't interested in titles and married for love.

She once said no to the richest man in the world, Vincent Astor, who built the world's largest private yacht and asked her to go sailing.

The pair constantly quarrelled and her mother pointed out the biggest boat was still too small if you were on it with someone you didn't love.

When 18-year-old Chisholm first left Sydney in 1914 the Sunday Times marked the event on its social pages by declaring: "Miss Sheila Chisholm is very popular."

London subsequently fell in love with her - as did Wainwright 100 years on.

"I don't think you can write a biography without feeling something for the person," he says.

"Yeah - I loved her looks, but I like her spirit more than anything else."

Her appeal could soon be transferred to the screen with Wainwright hinting at a possible TV deal.

"It's Downton (Abbey) meets Neighbours."

* Sheila: the Australian ingenue who bewitched British society is published by Allen & Unwin RRP $33.99.

Source: AAP

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