In the early-mid 1990s I was sufficiently unchallenged in my 9-5 office job to take up the lease on an eatery at a pub in Erskineville. I ran it after work and on weekends, and my then-husband Nick took care of the weekday lunch trade.
I got the fully-equipped bistro on the cheap on the condition that as well as whatever kind of menu I wanted to put up (pseudo-Chinese/Malaysian – I was still experimenting), I had to sell steaks + chips to cater to the pub regulars. It worked for me since, if nothing else, I could use their kitchen facilities to prep for the two monthly markets I had started trading at.
This was before the gentrification of Erskineville had kicked in, and the pub’s patrons were that rough that one time just before I started there, one of them got punched in the head out on the street, came in for a beer anyway, then walked out and promptly dropped dead from the injuries sustained.
The decor was dated, the carpet loud and obnoxious and the toilets must surely violate all known health codes based on their condition. But with a newly fitted-out kitchen I figured the $100 per week asking price was a good enough deal for me to work with.
There was some limited pub accommodation upstairs, and the rooms were taken up by a handful of older, displaced misfits and hobos who I never paid any attention to. Except for one.
My first day of trading, this old, grizzled, scrawny and bearded Aussie guy came down and sat at one of the tables. Loud and friendly with a tinge of the larrikin in him, he introduced himself – Peter Kenny. He almost immediately gave me a $50 note which he said to put towards his tab. Considering the price range for the menu was around the $5 mark, along with the fact that he’d never met me before that day nor tried any of my food, I was suitably stunned and impressed with his show of faith.
And that was the beginning of my association with the man who’s had the biggest impact on my life since coming to Australia.
Peter came down every day for his meals and stayed around a good amount of time to chat. I guessed at the time that living like the hermit he was, he didn’t get to meet a lot of people – and he was such a fascinating person that sitting down to listen to his stories became a daily ritual.
As I got to know him, I learned about his life – and a picture emerged of an incredibly complex character with stories that belonged more in a best-selling biography than in the dining room of, well, a shitty inner-city pub.
Apparently, Peter started his career as an academic – he was a psychology lecturer at Sydney University (my alma mater) before he met the as-yet-unknown John Singleton. They went on to start up an ad agency which made Singleton what he is today – the biggest name in advertising in Australia, and one of its richest people. Thanks to their business venture, Peter was the first person under 30 to become a millionaire in this country – back in the day when a million dollars actually meant something.
He and John revolutionised advertising in Australia – they were the first to come up with ad spots for music album releases – up until then it had always been considered too expensive a medium for it; they made TV advertising accessible to smaller businesses by using cheap production values and employing shock value in their ads.
Those late night TV ads starring the business owner yelling at the screen were introduced in this country by Peter and John. He described how this guy who had a golfing supplies store wanted to do an ad to salvage his ailing business. When Peter told him his idea, he said the guy turned sheet white. He went along with it anyhow – so, on camera, in front of his shop, he wielded a golf club, talked about his knockdown prices, and started smashing his glass storefront with it until it broke into smithereens. The ad was a roaring success.
And for a no-frills barber shop, he created the tagline – You Grow It, We’ll Mow It.
Being a psychology lecturer/professor, he was an expert with human behaviour. He described the time he was stopped for speeding on the way back from Canberra. Instead of displaying any contrition, he flew into a rage towards the cops. They let him off the hook .
He talked about the time he and Singleton went to this high-end seafood restaurant, and when told they could pick their own lobsters, they rolled up their trouser legs and climbed into the lobster tank to do so. They were banned for life.
And the time they said something derogatory about billionaire businessman Kerry Packer, who sent some big guys to their office the next day to politely elicit, and obtain, a public apology.
Obviously, despite his illustrious career, he had hit upon hard times. He was now old, lonely, had no assets, and lived above a pub. He’d lived a decadent life, been married 5 times, the last time to a high-class prostitute in her 40s. He said he even wrote her classifieds for her – the hook – I could be the most beautiful woman you’ve ever met. He said she was never short on clients, even though by his account she wasn’t that beautiful. The combined psychology of the ad and the way she carried herself meant her clients were never disappointed.
I remember him telling me about the meaning of the Swahili words ‘njaro’ and ‘ki’ and ‘lima’ and how they combined to form ‘Kilimanjaro’ meaning ‘small, snow-covered hill’ as we discussed etymology and word construction. Long before the food thing and the IT thing, I held a keen interest in languages – and still in my 20s and with 8 languages behind me and my degree in languages not the distant memory it is today – I was completely intellectually seduced by the 80-year old man.
He talked about worldly possessions, about how it was when he finally owned nothing, that it was then he realised he owned everything – he slept on park benches in beautiful Hyde Park in the knowledge that as public property, he ‘owned’ it. He owned the entire country, as far as he was concerned. He wasn’t anti-capitalistic or anything like that, but saw the folly of spending your money protecting what you already had and being a slave to your possessions. He was anti-establishment and was living largely off the grid.
He stayed in the good books with the lady owner of the pub by also paying her big advances towards his rent, and helping clean the communal toilets etc. I couldn’t understand where he got his money from, but he hinted that he was still writing ads for businesses on a cash basis. And I wasn’t sure what to make of all his stories – how much of it was true, how much was embellished and how much was just the creation of a crazy, deluded mind.
Back then, I was just starting out and traded under a different, innocuous business name. Keeping in mind this was light years before the cult of the celebrity chef took the world by storm, Peter kept trying to convince me – YOU are the biggest selling point of your business. You need to sell yourself more than anything else. It seemed incredibly narcissistic to me, and in response, he guessed correctly that I was a middle child in a big family, hence my discomfort with the whole notion of self-promotion.
Then, one day, Peter said – hey, you want to see what I do to make money? I’m holding this meeting in the city.
I had no idea what was in store when I went along that evening. I walked into a packed room of suits in this hotel in Sydney’s CBD. Then, as proceedings got started, John Singleton himself walked up to introduce Peter. All this time I had thought that maybe the relationship had been exaggerated but no, John, the godfather of Australian advertising, owner of radio stations and one of the most recognizable figures in the country, talked warmly and at great length about his old friend and confirmed everything Peter had been telling me.
Then Peter himself took to the podium. Not the grizzled, old geezer in singlet and shorts and sandals I was used to seeing at my joint, dribbling as he chewed my food and talked at the same time, but this incredibly sharp-looking man in a Christian Dior suit and polished shoes, crisp shirt and expensive-looking tie and cufflinks.
When he started talking, he oozed charisma and the roomful of important-looking corporate types were transfixed. At the end of it, people were willingly handing over their business cards so Peter’s associates could get in touch afterwards to discuss ways to market their products and services.
I found out after that night that Peter would hold these meetings every now and then, when his funds were depleted; in between, he basically wrote and designed marketing campaigns for the leads gained through these meetings. He made, he said, about $100K cash a year doing that; not too shabby for a hobo in the early 1990s.
I left the Erskineville pub after a few months. Towards the end, Peter would come down later and later each day, complaining about how he was having trouble getting up in the morning. I figured it was just part and parcel of old age and tried not to think too much of it..
Shortly after I left, I heard he’d died in his sleep.
It turned out the cause of death was a brain tumour.
I never made a cent in all that time working at the pub. It was a rough and exhausting time of my life, running that as well as another cafe in Balmain on top of my 9-to-5 corporate job without any days off. I’d passed off my then-2yr old daughter to my parents to look after full-time and only saw her occasionally. I missed my younger sister’s wedding because of having to work. I was assaulted by an aboriginal guy who thought mine was the place that sold his son bad pizza (I’ve never sold pizza). Looking back, I don’t know why I took on so much with no financial gratification. But the one thing that made it all worthwhile was to have met Peter Kenny.
I did take his advice many years later, by naming my business after myself. It’s a fine line to tread for someone like me who’s not short on cynicism about the culture of celebrity, but I think it’s the right call.
I still think about Peter after all these years. Memories of our conversations keep me awake at night. I miss him.