Dawn O’Donnell (1927-2007)

Dawn O'Donnell, 1993

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Intern

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2021, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from previous years to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

“Convent girl turned ice skater [who] became the godmother of Sydney’s Golden Mile”. [1] So begins the hour-long documentary on Dawn O’Donnell, Croc-A-Dyke Dundee, perfectly summarising the vibrant life and career of one of Australia’s most successful businesswomen, and a key figure in Sydney’s now iconic gay and lesbian nightclub scene. 

Dawn O'Donnell, 1993

Dawn O’Donnell photographed in 1993 by Greg Barrett. [Image courtesy Peter Weiss collection of portraits of notable Australians, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-142843715]

Dawn was born in Paddington in 1927. Following an unruly childhood, she was sent to St Vincent’s College in Potts Point to “become a lady”. Dawn herself would later say it did not work. [2] It was at St Vincent’s and, later, St Benedict’s Business College, that Dawn discovered ice skating. Her pursuit of a professional career took her to London then Paris, where she entered into her first serious relationship with a woman, a dancer at the Folies Bergère. [3] The affair lasted the duration of Dawn’s Parisian stay and ended upon her return to London. So, too, did her ice-skating career following a training accident. 

Dawn returned to Sydney and a far more conservative existence than she had grown used to in Europe. Back inside the closet, in a country where homosexuality was illegal, she married butcher Des Irwin. Their union was extremely brief but even after the divorce Dawn continued in the butcher business. Her shop in Double Bay gave her the first intoxicating taste of financial success she would chase her whole career.

It was on Oxford Street that Dawn made her name and career. A year after opening her first gay bar in Ultimo in 1968, she established Capriccio’s, a gay nightclub that would become world famous for its drag shows. Dawn herself became well known for bailing out gay men and drag queens from police custody so they could continue to party. “It was all illegal,” Dawn recalled for an interview in Croc-A-Dyke Dundee, “but it was a lot more fun.” [4]

Alongside French restauranteur Roger-Claude Teyssedre, Dawn opened Jools on Crown Street in 1973. The venue attracted such international acts as the Supremes, Eartha Kitt, and the Village People. [5] The business partners then opened Patches, Flo’s, and Ruby Reds. The latter was Sydney’s first lesbian bar and where Dawn would later meet her wife, Dutch-born Aniek Baten. The couple married in Amsterdam in 1977, twenty-four years before same-sex marriage was legalised in the Netherlands. [6]

Dawn O'Donnell with partner Aniek Baten and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier

Dawn with wife Aniek Baten and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, judging the 2000 Mardi Gras fashion parade. [Image courtesy C. Moore Hardy collection, City of Sydney Archives, 061\061304.]

In the 1980s Dawn shifted her focus to Newtown. She purchased and rebranded the Imperial Hotel, now famous for its appearance in the 1994 classic film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Director Stephan Elliot admits he was inspired by “Dawn’s world”. [7] At this time Dawn became involved in AIDs fundraising and the Sydney Mardi Gras, originally a celebration involving Oxford Street’s local businesses but which she later criticised as becoming too corporate.

Dawn passed away of ovarian cancer in 2007. Remembered by most as “a cutthroat businesswoman,” Dawn’s wife Aniek admitted that beneath the tough exterior “she was actually a pussycat really”. [8] An icon of the Sydney gay and lesbian scene, Dawn lived a wild, fruitful, exciting, extravagant, fulfilling life, and the city has not been the same since. 


[1] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee: The Legend of Dawn O’Donnell, dir. Fiona Cunningham-Reid, 2014, https://fionacunninghamreid.com/croc-a-dyke-dundee/, accessed 17 February 2021.
[2] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee.
[3] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee; Tony Stephens, ‘A leading lady of Sydney’s gay club scene’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 2007, https://www.smh.com.au/national/a-leading-lady-of-sydneys-gay-club-scene-20070613-gdqdcx.html.
[4] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee; ‘A Brief History of The Imperial’s Journey To Now’, The Imperial Erskineville, https://imperialerskineville.com.au/blog/community/a-brief-history/, accessed 17 February 2021; ‘Gay Sydney says goodbye to the one who made it so’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 2007, https://www.smh.com.au/national/gay-sydney-says-goodbye-to-one-who-made-it-so-20070616-gdqefl.html.
[5] ‘A leading lady’.
[6] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee; ‘A leading lady’.
[7] ‘A Brief History of The Imperial’s Journey’; Croc-A-Dyke Dundee.
[8] Croc-A-Dyke Dundee.