Canadian Aviatrix #6 – Julia MacBrien (1909-1983)

Born Julia Clarissa MacBrien on 18 September 1909 in Port Perry, Ontario, to Major General James Howden MacBrien (Chief of General Staff of the Canadian Army 1920-1927, Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police 1931-1938, President of the Aviation League of Canada) and Nellie Louise Ross.

 

1911 census

1921 census

 

Toronto, ON

Russell, ON

James

31

42

Nellie

31

41

Julia

1

12

James

-

9

William

-

7

Michael

-

3

Diana Louise

-

10m

 

In December 1921, Nellie died, due to a ruptured ectopic pregnancy – she was only 41 years old and left behind five children. James remarried in 1925 in New York, to Emelyn Hartridge, and they had a daughter - Lynette.

Due to her father’s position, Julia’s life was filled with society events – attending the opening of Parliament, balls at the Royal Military College, horseraces at Connaught Park, and being presented as a debutante in the 1927 season, when she was 18.

In 1928, Julia began acting at the Ottawa Little Theatre – in their production of ‘Mary the Third’.

On 14 August 1929, Julia passed her flying test and received PPL #325, making her the sixth female pilot in Canada. She was 19 years old.

Canadian Aviatrix #6 - Julia MacBrien (1909-1983)

Photo: The Vancouver Sun (March 12, 1935)

Shortly after this, she moved to London and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for two years. Upon her return in 1931, she immediately began performing with the Ottawa Little Theatre – taking part both as an actor and a director, as well as various roles behind the scenes (choreographer, set design, stage manager, and Board member). She also taught drama at her old school – Elmwood, a private school for girls.

Julia knew Yousuf Karsh (the famous photographer) and, in May 1933, she asked him to take some photos of Elmwood School’s production of ‘The Faithful’. In October, she was photographed by him herself, as she prepared to play Juliet opposite Lord Duncannon, eldest son of the Governor General.   

The production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was incredibly popular – playing both in Ottawa and Montreal, with Yousuf’s photos being published in many newspapers, including The Sketch in England. Julia received rave reviews, one even saying she gave “the best performance of a woman amateur the reviewer has seen in Ottawa”.

In June 1935, Julia got married to George Arnold Murphy, who worked at a life insurance company, but was also an actor and involved in society events. Their honeymoon was in Bermuda.

In an article in 1939, Julia said that she was stepping back from acting due to “more urgent domestic duties” and that she wants to be able to support herself and be independent. “Lots of women marry the wrong man just because they are bored or don’t know what else to do. Or supposing a woman were married and she wanted to walk out? She couldn’t if she didn’t have some means of earning her own living.”

By 1946, Julia was back to acting on stage and, in 1948, Julia was one of three women who started the Ottawa Junior Theatre, with drama classes for adults and children, working together to put on productions for children. She was also an accomplished painter – having her first exhibition in 1949.

In March 1951, Julia filed for divorce against her husband “and another”. In May, the divorce was granted and, in September, her husband got remarried.

Throughout the 1950s, Julia was an active part of Canada’s theatrical community, appearing in many plays and directing countless others.

By 1955, her day job was at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal – directing informational films for teenagers, such as ‘Being Different’. Julia was included in Take One Magazine’s filmography of Canadian women directors in 1972, the Museum of Modern Art’s 50th anniversary sampler of NFB films in 1989, and the Documentary Organization of Canada’s 70th anniversary spotlight on the NFB in 2009.

Around 1960, Julia married Francis Orr Templeton, a Scottish architect who moved to Montreal in 1929, then Ottawa in 1934. Francis had been part of the Ottawa Little Theatre, including being directed by his future wife a few times in the late 1930s. The couple moved to Portugal and lived there for several years, before returning to Canada.

Francis died in 1972 and Julia died in 1983, aged 74.

P.S. Julia was another pilot with an asterisk by her name in the list in No Place for a Lady – meaning the author hadn’t been able to find her. The flying was such a tiny part of Julia’s life, it’s really no wonder!

The First 100 Canadian Women Pilots

 

 

 

 

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