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Kate’s Queen of the Harcourt dynasty

As the actress turns 95, her family shares some very special memories

By Wendyl Nissen
It's the day before Dame Kate Harcourt's surprise 95th birthday party and it's clear she has no idea what is coming, but is nevertheless happy to welcome the Weekly into her home to celebrate the milestone occasion.
As she makes her way up the internal staircase of the busy house she shares with her daughter Miranda Harcourt's family, she reaches the top with a beaming smile.
"I'd love a cup of tea, Miranda," she says before settling into a comfortable sofa in the sunroom.
She has on a cosy jumper and a beautiful greenstone manaia. Kate says she wanted to buy the pendant, but then found out in Māori tradition you can't buy it for yourself, so her friend Pinky Agnew bought it for her.
"I remember when she gave it to me, I burst into tears," says Kate. "She's a funeral celebrant as well as a comedian and she's going to do my funeral. I've got it all sorted!" she laughs.
Kate has spent her life acting and singing, and her voice is that of a trained actress. Perfect enunciation, perfect pronunciation and a great laugh to go with it.
'She sang to all our children growing up because she knows about 100 nursery rhymes'
She has lived with Miranda, her husband, writer Stuart McKenzie, and their three children Peter, 23, Thomasin, 21, and Davida, 15, for the past 20 years.
We talk about one of Kate's earliest careers when she had a radio programme called Listen with Mother. She would sing nursery rhymes and read stories for half an hour each morning, giving mums at home a much-needed break while their children listened to Kate.
"She sang to all our children growing up because she knows about 100 nursery rhymes," says Miranda, 59.
And sometimes Kate was needed for some comfort singing when one of the children couldn't get to sleep.
"We were sitting upstairs one night when Thomasin was just little and we watched as she toddled out of her bedroom and went downstairs," Miranda recalls. "It was about 10 o'clock at night. She came back upstairs, in her pyjamas, dragging Kate behind her and all the way back into her bedroom, then obviously climbed back into her bed. Kate sat there and sang her about 10 nursery rhymes like a jukebox."
Miranda featured on her mum's record cover in 1963
Miranda says she often has people stop her and tell her how much they loved Listen with Mother. "It made a huge impact and they would say to me, 'Thank God for your mother.'"
Kate has also been on hand to look after the children when Miranda or Stuart had to be away for work, giving the family the gift of another parent when needed.
The house they share sits on top of a hill in Wellington and has amazing views looking out over Cook Strait.
"When we first moved here, there were two garages downstairs and I thought, 'Well, I could live there very happily," says Kate. "So, I got the architect to put in a wall of windows so I could see the view and I'm so happy there. The view is so beautiful and lovely. There's all these different lives going on out there."
But mostly Kate says having her grandchildren living with her made a huge difference. Her beloved husband Peter Harcourt died in 1995 and so being absorbed into Miranda's family was the best thing to happen to her.
Kate at Wellington's Broadcasting House in the '70s
"Having those children around was just lovely," she enthuses.
Miranda adds that Kate has very much enhanced the lives of her grandchildren. "Oh, good,' declares a delighted Kate.
"Her grandchildren are very close to her," adds Miranda.
Kate is proud of the incredibly talented trio of Miranda and Stuart's children. Peter McKenzie is a journalist, who is about to go on a Fulbright Scholarship to do his MA in journalism at Columbia University in New York. He also has a law degree and was, like the rest of his family, a talented actor. He did a play with Sir Ian McKellen and was in The Hobbit, but decided to pull away from that life.
"I was a bit disappointed," jokes Miranda, "because he was really a very good actor. But in the end, he's chosen a life of the mind, not the life of this family."
"And he's very charming," interrupts the proud grandma. "He's a darling."
Thomasin is in the middle of an exceptional international acting career, having starred in movies and series including Leave No Trace, JoJo Rabbit, Last Night in Soho and Old. At the moment, she is taking time out before heading back to Los Angeles for work.
Kate says having her grandchildren (Davida pictured) living with her made a huge difference
And Davida, the youngest, is a keen sportswoman but is also starting to act, most recently featuring in a Waka Kotahi NZ Transport commercial. She is about to act in a short film and has a successful modelling career.
Currently, Davida is living downstairs with Kate. Each grandchild has had a turn in the spare bedroom down there and now it's her turn.
"She's totally changed the whole room," says Kate. She painted it and put in new carpet.
Kate's space downstairs allows her independence with a kitchen and bathroom, and it has the feel of a cottage with soft furnishings, lovely art, a piano, and it feels very welcoming and comfortable.
"I don't play the piano any more," says Kate. "It's' not because I have arthritis or anything, I've just forgotten about it."
At 95, the only thing Kate seems to struggle with occasionally is her memory, like most people in their 90s.
But while she may not be able to place her finger on certain details in her life, she is still up to a night out with friends and coming home late like a teenager.
"She has a lot of visitors and lots of people like to take her out," says Miranda.
Kate and Peter's engagement in 1959. 'We both decided we wanted to leave behind our family's expectations'
Kate loves to talk about her husband Peter Harcourt, who she met at the Wellington Repertory Theatre in the '50s.
"I was from a very rural family in the south and Peter was from the Harcourts real estate family," explains Kate. "We both decided we wanted to leave behind our family's expectations and pursue acting."
Miranda adds that it wasn't exactly young love as they were both in their 30s at the time and they didn't have her until Kate was aged 35, which was unusual in those days.
Kate started out working as a teacher, then organised fashion events at the Wellington department store Kirkcaldie and Stains for seven years, before her radio programme Listen with Mother and then the children's television show she did with Peter called Junior Magazine.
"We had a lovely glove puppet called Porky Potamus, which Peter operated from under the table," tells Kate. "I was at the butcher's one day and he said how much he liked the programme and how much he was looking forward to seeing the next one 'with your husband under the table,'" laughs Kate.
When it comes to inviting people to Kate's surprise birthday party, Miranda says Kate's two oldest friends couldn't make it because in Covid times it's just too risky for them to be in a gathering of people.
"So at her party it's the younger fans who are coming. She has a lot of friends who she helped in the days before the Homosexual Law Reform.
"Actors, singers, writers, magicians and a lot of gay friends," says Miranda. "She was like a godmother to many people who needed a spare parent because their own parents had rejected them for being gay or different."
Miranda says growing up with Kate and her father Peter meant that at any given time there was always someone at the house her parents had welcomed into their home.
"It was like a bus station," laughs Miranda. "There were visiting theatre celebrities from around the world, constant dinner parties and then there were the people they were looking after.
"So many people tell me how lovely my parents were to them – they basically provided a social service for anyone who needed a home and understanding."
Birthday flowers were personally picked by guests
Kate confides she can't really remember a lot about those days, but she does recall feeling that "these people weren't getting fair treatment".
Kate was extremely non-judgmental, says Miranda.
"You could be a drug addict or kicked out of your home because of your sexual orientation, or depressed and a bit lost.
"Kate would say, 'Come to our house and have dinner and we'll see what we can sort out.' She was so welcoming and supportive, and never judged anyone at a time when even the government was judging everyone."
Miranda says she had a hard time getting her mother to dress up for her surprise party, but once she saw old friends arriving, she was overwhelmed with gratitude.
"It was a blissful event," says Miranda, whose favourite part was incorporating the lovely idea of a Bucket Bouquet. "We asked everyone to bring a single flower from their garden or the roadside and we added them all together to make a big bunch to present to Kate at the end of the evening. No surprises that we needed many additional vases to fit them all, and we had a wonderful array of peculiar and beautiful blooms and foliage which was perfect to reflect Kate's life."
Flowers were the theme of the day with a flower cake produced by the local Queen Sally's Diamond Deli, and it was a lovely chance for Peter and Thomasin to say goodbye as they are both heading overseas soon.
Many people from Kate's days at Downstage Theatre and with the Hen's Teeth Women's Comedy Troupe were there, as well as family and old friends who Kate thought she would never see again.
To end the night, Kate's young cousin Celia Macdonald sang two sets of Broadway classics, ending with a very moving song called Grateful on behalf of Kate, while holding her hand.

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