Written by Ethan Williford
In November 2018, the Summer Avenue Merchants Association announced plans to rebrand the street into the “International District.” The decision drips with unintentional irony, as many Memphians are quick to forget that Summer Avenue was in fact the setting of one of the most sordid international scandals this city has ever seen. An Aussie prime-minister, an unsavory motel and a misplaced pair of pants all perfectly combined to deliver a forgotten piece of local mythology—the Memphis Trouser Affair.
The political climate of Australia in the mid-1970s was not so different from that in the United States. Like Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation, Australia too faced a constitutional crisis. In 1975, the Governor General, under the authority of the British Crown, dismissed the duly elected Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Architect of Australian universal healthcare and repealer of conscription laws, Whitlam was a popular figure in the Commonwealth. However, while support for the sacked Prime Minister remained strong amongst the left, Malcolm Fraser—star of the Memphis Trouser Affair— led the centrist Liberal-Country Party Coalition to a momentous victory against Whitlam in the 1975 special election.
Malcolm Fraser was born May 21, 1930 into a New South Wales political family. He grew up in relative isolation on his family’s estate in the Australian bush. After an admittedly mediocre career at Oxford University, Fraser returned to Australia. In 1955, he won the western Victorian seat of Wannon. At the tender age of 25, Malcolm Fraser had become the youngest member of federal parliament at the time. He quickly ascended through leadership of the moderate Liberal-Country Party Coalition.
As Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser’s record can be best described as inconsistent. On one hand, Fraser should be praised as a champion of multiculturalism and inclusion. His government oversaw a sweeping immigration program that accepted many thousands of Southeast Asian refugees fleeing violence in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He strongly opposed racist ethno-states in South Africa and Rhodesia. However his policies were also responsible for the severe deregulation of Australian industry, open hostility to the left and ultimately economic recession.
By the early 1980s, the Australian people had lost confidence in Malcolm Fraser’s government. The Prime Minister endured a devastating loss in 1983, relinquishing his title and parliamentary majority. He retired from civil service two months following the defeat. Fraser spent his post-ministership career lecturing around the globe. On one such international tour, Malcolm Fraser found himself in Memphis, Tennessee.
The Memphis Trouser Affair took place on a chilly October evening, 1986. The former Prime Minister came to town as a guest speaker at the Memphis Economic Club. After delivering a presentation titled “Can the Western Alliance Maintain Peace,” Fraser headed to the Peabody Hotel for some post-conference revelry with fellow delegates. He later told Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald, “Everybody after the Peabody is a blank.”
Malcolm Fraser’s memory returned the next morning when he awoke at the Admiral Benbow Inn on Summer Avenue, a favorite flashpoint of the local underworld. Upon further inspection, he realized that his passport, wallet and briefcase were missing, and to the absolute shame of the dignified statesman, so were his trousers.
Fraser rushed to the hotel lobby with only a Benbow towel shielding his legs from public gaze. A concierge at the hotel, a woman identified simply as Maryanne, later told reporters of the hotel towels, “They’re not real big, and I do remember he was a fairly big man.”
From the front desk he borrowed a bellhop’s pants and phoned his wife, Tamie. Mrs. Fraser sent a driver to retrieve the disgraced Australian leader, and the delegation departed Memphis later that day.
Local news outlets were swift to answer international calls for details surrounding the scandal. Jerry Foster, night manager of the Admiral Benbow Inn and witness of Malcolm Fraser’s transgression, told the Commercial Appeal:
“I checked him in. He seemed like he’d been drinking, but he was coherent. He did seem kind of vaguely belligerent. It was just a feeling that I got. He pulled out a $100 bill and paid for the room. He told me he was from Australia, and didn’t have a Memphis address. So I just told him to put down his address in Australia. He signed himself Joan Jones from Victoria, Australia. It was scribbled. The man had obviously been drinking. I figured he meant to write John.”
The Daily Telegraph caught up with Roy Wilson, the bellhop who offered Fraser a pair of his own pants.
“I never got them back,” said Wilson. “I never got nothing for them. That man didn’t even say thank you. They was good trousers. They didn’t pay me nothin. Australians are the cheapest people in the world.”
Upon his return to Australia, Fraser kept tight-lipped about the whole ordeal, though he implied to newspapers that was probably drugged. Tamie Fraser still maintains that the incident was the result of a prank from her husband’s fellow delegates. She told The Australian, “They were having him on. Poor old boy. Someone must have slipped him a mickey finn as soon as he walked in.”
Mrs. Fraser later reaffirmed her belief in Malcolm’s unknowing innocence to author Susan Mitchell.
“He might have gone off with someone here or there at some time but he wouldn’t go to a bar to meet someone on the off chance–they were setting him up,” she asserted. “Poor old boy. It’s really horrible. He was so embarrassed. And still is.”
Malcolm Fraser declined to file a report with local authorities. “I had a busy schedule to keep and chances of getting my stuff back seemed pretty remote,” he wrote in his memoir. The Memphis Police Department later reported that a tall blonde Texas woman with tattoos above her breasts had pulled similar heists on several unassuming Memphis businessmen in the months following the incident.
The Memphis Trouser Affair remains one of Australia’s most enduring, mysterious and, quite honestly, hilarious political scandals, and it has become mythical in political circles over the past three decades. Despite Malcolm Fraser’s embarrassment, many Australian commentators saw the incident as a humanizing moment for the stoic politician. Australian journalist Padraic McGuinness quipped, “If Malcolm Fraser had mislaid his daks in Memphis before the 1983 election he would have romped home.”
In contrast, the public memory of the Memphis Trousers Affair has faded in our city. After initial reporting, the scandal has largely disappeared from community lore. Malcolm Fraser passed away in 2015, likely taking the mystery of the Memphis Trouser Affair to his grave.
There was certainly no love lost between our fair city and the late Prime Minister. This town is not for lightweights nor the faint of heart. Perhaps Fraser summed it up best, “I wish I’d never been to bloody Memphis.”