Freda Beatrice Stark was born on 27 March 1910 in Kaeo, Northland, the daughter of James William Stark, a storekeeper, and his wife, Isabella Matilda Bramley. Soon after, her parents moved to Auckland, where Freda attended Grafton School, St Benedict’s Convent School and later Epsom Girls’ Grammar School. Freda’s father encouraged her to dance, teaching her tumbling and basic dance steps. She began formal dancing lessons when she was about nine and was taught acrobatics by a circus performer.
After leaving school Freda worked as a secretary during the day and danced under the stage name ‘L’Etoile’ at night. She varied her performances with tap-dancing, high kicks, tumbles and hulas, and gained a reputation as an adagio dancer. In the early 1930s she studied at several Auckland dancing schools, where she was persuaded to take up classical ballet. She also took private lessons towards her Royal Academy of Dancing advanced examination, which she gained in the late 1930s.
In 1933 she joined Ernest Rolls’s revue company, where she met Thelma Trott, an accomplished actress and dancer. The two women developed a close friendship.
In 1934 Stark performed in the chorus of an opera, The Duchess of Dantzic , at His Majesty’s Theatre in Auckland. Thelma, the star of the show, was now married to the conductor, Eric Mareo. Freda was a frequent visitor to the couple’s home in Mount Eden, where on 15 April 1935 Thelma took a fatal dose of the drug Veronal. Eric Mareo was arrested, and in the much-publicised murder case that followed, Freda was the star witness for the prosecution.
During the trial the relationship between Thelma and Freda became public. Mareo testified that ‘his wife’s desires were met by association with women’. To discredit Stark’s testimony, the defence alluded to nude photographs of her, originally displayed at an art exhibition in London. However, she was said to have ‘remained calm and self-possessed after hours of cross-examination’ and ‘earned a reputation as “the perfect Crown witness” ’. Her testimony was a vital factor in the conviction of Mareo, who was twice condemned to death and eventually served 12 years in prison.
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.
At the end of the war Stark retired from the theatre. She went to England and worked as a secretary at New Zealand House in London. Always immaculately presented, she took with her 14 pieces of luggage, including two boxes of hats. On 13 September 1947, in London, she married New Zealand dancer Harold George Robinson, a student at the Sadler’s Wells ballet school. He had just returned from military service in the Middle East and the Pacific, and had received a scholarship to study ballet. They shared a love of dance and starred in the 1947 film Curves and contrasts , a study of the human form directed by New Zealander Robert Steele. Although the couple remained firm friends until Freda’s death, the marriage did not last.
Freda made frequent visits to New Zealand during her years in London and returned permanently in 1970, becoming a secretary in the University of Auckland Library. Her final years were relatively uneventful, although her memories were keenly sought by writers and dramatists. In the first scene of the New Zealand feature film Constance (1983), an actress imitates Stark’s golden dance. In the 1990s Amanda Rees celebrated Freda’s life in her one-woman play Stark , Peter Wells’s documentary The mighty Civic explored her time at the theatre, and the television series Epitaph revisited the sensation of the Mareo trial. Freda Stark died on 19 March 1999 at the Abbey Heights Rest Home in Massey, Auckland.