What happened to Sydney socialite Juanita Neilsen?

This story appears on RNZ.co.nz

When Juanita Nielsen disappeared from Sydney’s King Cross in July 1975 the story received intense public interest.

Nielsen was a journalist, socialite, model and heiress to the Mark Foy family fortune. She was also known for her anti-gentrification activism.

She lived on Victoria Street in Sydney’s Kings Cross and became involved in the fight to save its old Victorian houses from the wrecking ball and plans by developer Frank Theeman to build high rise tower blocks in their place.

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Photo: Supplied

Nearly 50 years later Nielsen’s disappearance remains a mystery. She was last seen at The Carousel nightclub in the Cross where she had gone to discuss advertising for her local newspaper Now.

The club was owned by underworld figure Abe Saffron, a personal friend of Theeman.

The people responsible for her disappearance have never been identified, and her remains have never been found.

Nielsen’s niece, Keiran McGee decided to investigate the case herself and has a podcast about her aunt’s disappearance for the ABC called Unravel – My Aunt Juanita.

One thing McGee wanted to clear up was the persistent description of Nielsen as a society kind of woman with a beehive.

“Myself and the family find it really insulting that she’s minimised in that way. I mean, this is a woman who ran her own newspaper in the 1970s. She organised a shareholder revolt against the sale of the family department stores – she was this really dynamic woman.”

Nielsen came from the family that owned the famous Mark Foy’s department store in Sydney – her father Neil was a wealthy heir to part of that fortune.

“It was all based on the Bon Marche in Paris. And it was beautiful, it brought a lot of European fashion and style from to Sydney.”

By the 1970s Nielsen was living in the Cross and publishing a newspaper from her house in Victoria Street.

“When she first purchased Now it was more kind of a social newspaper. It was all about the cool places to go in Kings Cross and where to buy or your cool clothes and things like that. She was modelling for it, she was writing everything, she was going out and getting it the advertising.

“And then she steps out of front door and sees this essentially a warzone on her street, with protesters trying to protect these terraces for low income renters and she starts to write about it and then she gets more activated.

“You kind of see this transition in her paper.”

The old Victorian terraces on Victoria Street had been converted into flats and the working-class tenants there were being evicted by Theeman, who had been buying up much property in the area.

At the time Kings Cross was an exotic and bohemian area, McGhee says.

“It was quite different to how it is now, it was more this place for artists and this kind of amazing mix of art and low-income workers and people who’d come up the hill from the docks and just this really interesting place.”

But the developers were moving in helped by changes to the planning laws brought in by Liberal state premier Robert Askin.

“Robert Askin was the premier of New South Wales. And he is roundly considered to be the most corrupt premier in Australian history, which is a big call.

“But he was, he was super corrupt. And he kind of changed a whole lot of the planning laws to allow all this redevelopment of areas such as Kings Cross in the inner city, which destabilised a lot of local communities.”

Protesting against the development was a dangerous business, McGhee says.

Arthur King, a leader of the anti-development protestors, was abducted. He still doesn’t talk about what happened to this day, she says.

“But what I know about it is very traumatic. And he was just scared for his life … he was in a very, very dangerous position.

“So, he did everything he could survive, and he listened to what his abductors told him to do. And he survived.”

The BLF construction union supported the protestors, she says, and declared a “green ban” on the street, effectively meaning no union member could carry out demolition work. The head of the union was Jack Mundey

“In 1973, he was the head of the New South Wales BLF. And what the green ban did it was it was essentially like a strike. But instead of it being about union wages and things like that, the BLF wanted to protect the integrity of the environment.

“They were declaring green bans on building sites around Sydney.

“In one place in Kelly’s Bush it was to protect literally a reserve and then in other places in Woolloomooloo it was to protect low income housing.

“And it was really inspiring, and it was kind of this amazing moment in time that some lay people were activated. And unions joined forces with these protesters for higher purpose.”

Nielsen founded the Victoria Street Ratepayers Association to put pressure on the council to resist the developer, Theeman meanwhile had the police on his side.

At the Victoria street siege where Theeman’s thugs tried to forcibly evict tenants, the police either watched on or actively helped, she says.

“I spoke to a couple of people who were at the siege, their descriptions of how scary it was, and how they were arrested and just dragged out by the police.

“And you just think that should not have happened – the police should have been there to keep peace.

“But they were there with the thugs who one protester told me had axes and chains.”

Nielsen was overseas when the siege took place, shortly before her own disappearance.

There had been one or two attempts to get Nielsen to visit The Carousel before, McGhee says, but Nielsen was suspicious and by this time worried for her own safety.

“In the morning she has her phone call with [business partner] David Farrell. Because she checks in every morning with him and tells him how her day’s going to be planned out because they are concerned about her safety.

“And she says that she’s going to this meeting at The Carousel and David’s not comfortable with that. But you know, you can’t tell Juanita what to do.”

The Carousel club was owned by the notorious “Mr Sin” Abe Saffron

“He was friends with Theeman. They knew each other …I still haven’t worked out the extent of their friendship. But they do know each other.”

There has long been suspicion about the police investigation into Nielsen’s disappearance, she says.

“When we spoke to Arthur King he said that the investigation, it should have been solved within three days – she walked into The Carousel club and was never seen again.  I mean, how hard can it be?”

In 1983 a coroner’s finding said the investigation was inhibited “by the atmosphere of corruption, real or imagined, that existed at the time.”

“We have to look at the police corruption at the time, which was rife. And that’s been established through the Wood Royal Commission, that it was systemic and endemic.”

Just last year the NSW Police offered a reward of $1 million for information that could lead to the recovery of Nielsen’s remains.

“It’s for information leading to the discovery of her body, rather than any final kind of convictions.”


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