Robert Wainwright, Rocky Road 

Allen and Unwin, 424pp., ISBN: 9781760291556, p/bk, RRP: $32.99

‘Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get’ – Forrest Gump’s philosophising may not be the most prosaic observation but it is certainly true of the family behind the Darrell Lea chocolate shops.

In his twelfth book, former journalist Robert Wainwright tells the story of Monty Lea and his irrepressible but forbidden love and marriage to Valerie Everitt, who was a vivacious, curvaceous sixteen year old when they met. This is not new ground, Brenda Lea’s How Sweet it is: The Darrell Lea story was published in 2012. However, Wainwright uses his investigative research skills to uncover the untold story of the Jewish family behind the iconic candy business.

Rocky Road is a sobering and tragic family saga – Valerie wanted many children but birthing complications meant she had to stop after four. She went on to adopt three more children and it is their stories that are the focus of Wainwright’s book. He doesn’t trust the smiling family happy snaps and home movies – today’s equivalent of Instagram and Facebook posts. By speaking to the family members, and with access to Valerie’s diaries and letters, he uncovers the bitter story of family divisions which lead to the demise of their sweets business.

The Darrell Lea story starts on Manly’s Corso in 1916 when Monty’s father Harry – born Manessah Jablinovich in East London, but who later changed his name to Harry Levy and then Lea – wanted something to sell in the winter when people weren’t buying his fruit and vegetables. Chocolates and candies, supposedly made to old European recipes, were the answer and he could sell them by the wheelbarrow full on the Manly ferry. This proved so successful that Harry expanded to a tiny shopfront in Haymarket. By 1928 the family-owned and operated business had grown so much that they could afford to move to the retail precinct of Pitt Street. Six years later, Harry and his quartet of sons (Monty was the second child) were operating a dozen stores in and around the CBD. Darrell was the name of Harry’s fourth son, born when business was booming.

Wainwright’s descriptions are visual and evocative: ‘Whatever they were selling, the displays were a kaleidoscope of colour. . . There was affordable joy in a Darrel Lea window . . . As if rebelling against the sad drabness of the Depression’ (p.22). Sydney-siders might recall the Darrell Lea shop in Pitt Street with its pyramids of enticing sweets and chocolates. From 1935 the sales girls wore pink uniforms with a big bow at the collar, which made them look like a wrapped box of chocolates. These were a ‘one size fits all’ creation – even pregnant women could wear them. They were designed by Valerie, who had studied dress-making before becoming a ticket writer for Darrell Lea. Wainwright reveals that Darrell Lea prices were written on ‘tickets’ which had a yellow background and red lettering – colours that hamburger empire McDonalds later adopted. Research shows that red increases your appetite and yellow is seen as a warm and friendly colour.

Wainwright tells this classic migrant success story succinctly in the first three chapters, leaving him 370 pages to detail and analyse its unravelling. By 2012, the bitterness and rivalry between Monty and Valerie’s seven children contributed to the family company collapsing into voluntary administration. This rags-to-riches-to-rags tale is sure to fascinate those who have a soft spot (centre?) for the Sydney start-up, Darrell Lea.


Reviewed by Alison Wishart, September 2018.

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