Freda Stark was born in Kaeo on New Zealand’s north island. The year was 1910. Freda was the daughter of James Stark, a shopkeeper, and Isabella Bramley. She attended St. Benedict’s School and Epsom Girls Grammar School after her parents shifted to Auckland shortly after her birth. Her father encouraged her to learn dance, and she began to do so at nine years of age.
After leaving school, Stark worked as a clerical worker by day, and danced as “L’Etoile” during the evenings, and her repertoire included tap, high kicks, tumbles and hula. During the 1930s, she also learned classical ballet, as steps toward an advanced examination certificate at New Zealand’s Academy of Dance, which she acquired in the late thirties.
Falling in Love with a Woman
Freda Stark had many lesbian relationships throughout her life. She met actress Thelma Trott in 1933 and the pair became lovers. The relationship continued after Thelma married conductor Eric Mareo, and Freda was a regular guest in the couple’s home. Thelma Mareo died in 1935 as a result of poisoning and her husband was convicted of her murder. The intimate relationship between the two women was exposed during the trial. Freda told the court that Eric Mareo found her in bed with his wife, Thelma.
In 1933, Stark joinedErnest Rolls’ revue, and met a young dancer named Thelma Trott, and the two women fell in love. In 1934, Stark was in the chorus of the Duchess of Danitz, while Trott starred. At this time, Trott married Eric Mareo., their conductor. The relationship was cut short in 1935 when Trott took a fatal overdose of the prescription drug Veronal in unexplained circumstances, leading to Mareo being charged with her murder.
Mareo was tried twice for the murder of Trott, was twice found guilty, and was twice sentenced to death by hanging (later commuted to 12 years in prison).
Stark was a prosecution witness at both trials and had to endure being outed as a lesbian and constant subsequent accusations that she had given either mistaken or selective testimony while under oath which were never proven either way. Nude photographs of Stark were reproduced during the trial, but Stark remained unperturbed, and was later described as a model Crown witness.
Despondent after the death of her close friend, Freda Stark was encouraged by theatre colleagues to begin dancing again. By day she worked as a wages clerk for the Colonial Ammunition Company, but by night she was in great demand in theatre dance troupes because of her height (4 feet 10½ inches) and petite frame (she weighed less than seven stone). During the Second World War she entertained troops at the Wintergarden cabaret and nightclub at the Civic Theatre in Auckland, earning the nickname ‘Fever of the Fleet’. Inspired by a scene in an American movie, she danced painted in gold, clothed only in a G-string and feather headdress. The paint took five hours to apply and apparently kept her warm during her numerous performances. Freda, who revelled in the attention she received, was paid handsomely to appear scantily clad as the star attraction of the revue. American troops in Auckland for rest and recreation often booked the entire Wintergarden with band and floor show. After each show the women in the troupe were safely returned home by taxi.
World War II
During the Second World War, Stark was a clerical at the Colonial Ammunition Company during the day. At night, she entertained New Zealand and American troops at the Wintergarden cabaret and nightclub. At times, she was clad only in a feather headdress, a g-string and gold bodypaint. The appreciative American Expeditionary troops bestowed the title “Fever of the Fleet” on Stark, and often booked out the Wintergarden specifically to attend her performances, hiring an accompanying band and floorshow at the same time.
War Ends in 1945
After the Second World War, Stark relocated to London, where she met and married Harold Robinson, a New Zealand-born dancer (and himself a gay man) at Sadler’s Wells. The duo starred together in New Zealand-born Robert Steel’s art film, Curves and Contrasts (1947), before their marriage ended by mutual consent. It may well have been a ‘marriage of convenience’ that hid their homosexuality because Freda went on record as stating that she had many affairs with married women.
Freda and Harold did not divorce until 1973 and remained close friends. Although based in the United Kingdom, Stark frequently revisited New Zealand, before she returned permanently in 1970, and became a secretary at the University of Auckland.
During the 1990s there was renewed interest in her days as a dancer, and her life was celebrated in a biography Freda Stark: Her Extraordinary Life and in Peter Wells and Steward Mains documentary, The Mighty Civic (1989). Stark died in the Abbey Heights Rest Home in Massey, Auckland in March 1999.