After marrying a U.S. sailor who’d survived two weeks in a life raft, Australian Gloria “Teddy” Key eventually made it to Jacksonville, where she ran a day care and private school for many years.
Gloria “Teddy” Key grew up in Australia, and as a headstrong teen in 1942 she fell for an older American sailor, a Texan who’d been plucked from a life raft after two hellish weeks in a dangerous sea, circled by sharks.
They met by chance, and on such things lives turn: She went to America and spent most of the rest of her life in Jacksonville, where she started a day-care center and school that taught music and cared for many hundreds of the city’s children. She raised a family of her own, and though she never saw Australia again, she kept her accent her. And she lived long enough to see “Aussie Song,” a musical based on her life, written by one of her daughters, as it was staged in her adopted home in 2009. She attended all 10 performances at the Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre, along with family members and many former students. The next year, she passed away. She was 86.
The musical is being staged again this fall, this time in New York City, where it was accepted as part of the New York Theater Festival. “Aussie Song” will be performed three times, Sept. 30, Oct. 4 and Oct. 6 at the Hudson Guild Theater.
It’s a 90-minute show with 18 songs, all written by Teddy’s daughter, Frances Rae Key of Jacksonville, a composer and music teacher.
She’d always thought her mother’s story was a fine World War II romance, the story of an independent-minded woman with a deep love for her parents but a hankering for adventure in a new land.
Upon seeing the finished work, her mother agreed. “She was so delighted,” she said, “that she couldn’t really talk about it without filling up with tears. It meant a great deal to her.”
Teddy Trager was born in 1924 in New South Wales, Australia, and grew up in various towns in that state before moving across the continent to Perth, on the western coast. Her family had gone ahead while she was in a convent school. So she, at 16, boarded a train alone and crossed the Outback to her new home.
Once in Perth, she went to college to become a teacher. That plan was put on hold when she met a tall, handsome Yank, a navigator on a Navy plane shot that was down by the Japanese over the Timor Sea off northern Australia.
Raymond Key and several other men spent at least two weeks in a life raft before the Australian Navy rescued them — though not before one of the men died in the raft. They threw his body overboard, where it was torn apart by sharks.
The Americans were taken to Perth to recuperate. Around Christmas of 1942, Teddy came home from college to her parents’ apartment. The Navy navigator was staying in a nearby apartment. He was a Texan, and at first Teddy didn’t know what to make of that accent. Was he Dutch?
They were soon married.
“She was pretty inexperienced,” Key said. “She had an Australian boyfriend — she’d known him since she’d moved over to Perth — but I guess he just swept her off her feet. They had a very short whirlwind romance. He asked her to marry him and she said yes.”
She was 18. Ray was 29. He promised to take care of her, and to take care of her family.
While Teddy’s parents liked Ray, it might not have mattered if they didn’t. “They couldn’t really stand in her way — she was a very headstrong girl anyway,” Key said.
Teddy’s other daughter, Kelly Key of Jacksonville, said she thinks her mother saw this sudden marriage as a means to a big adventure. “Adventure and love. Her adventurous spirit: She thought all Americans were like in the movies, Clark Gable, movie stars. She was a baker’s child, moved all around the countryside, and here was her chance to move to America.”
In 1943, Teddy, at 19, did go to America, crossing the Pacific on a troopship, the USS Butner. She was one of 30 war brides among the 5,000 American troops aboard (Ray, who was still at war, was not among them.)
The war brides (and a few children) were often confined to crowded officer’s quarters, to keep the brides away from the 5,000 men. When they were allowed on deck, they had to put on giant Navy-issued life jackets. Mae Wests, the men called them.
It was a dangerous trip; the Butner zigzagged to evade Japanese submarines and had total blackouts every night. But the vessel made it to the States, and Teddy traveled from California to rural Texas, where Ray’s family lived. She moved in with these strangers, without her husband, waiting for him to come home.
For Teddy, Texas was culture shock. “This was a very loving family, but a very country family,” Frances Key said. “She had been raised in Catholic convent schools, and she had more of a proper upbringing, and airs and graces, so it was a big clash.”
The Texas family treated her well, and she fell in love with them, especially his dad’s little sister, Verna. But she was homesick, so far from anything she’d known before: strange food, strange social mores. “Like so many women in World War II, they had to write letters and wait and wait and wait, and hope their husbands came back alive,” Frances Key said.
Teddy stayed with her in-laws for about a year and a half without her husband, who finally came home from the war, unannounced, in the middle of the night.
He stayed in the Navy, which eventually led the family to Jacksonville.
In 1955, they opened a day care and then a private school called Key’s Summerhill School. There were music lessons, a garden children worked in, a stable with horses that the children rode. It stayed in business until the mid-1980s, and so many children passed through that Teddy — known to most in America as Gloria — was constantly recognized throughout Jacksonville.
She was a classically trained opera singer, and was often singing. Kelly Key said that when students would arrive at the school, “they would hear that voice, singing, echoing through the halls and the rooms, all day.”
In later years, she became emergency foster mother for abused teenagers. She took them in until they could be placed elsewhere.
A Times-Union story in 2003 noted how, even though her school had been long closed, “she still gets cards, letters, public hugs and affectionate looks of recognition” from the now-grown children who attended. “I can’t tell you what a lovely feeling it is to know you’ve made a positive impact on someone’s life,” she told reporter John Carter, who took note of her “charming Australian accent.”
Teddy Key had a sister, Merle, who three years older. She too married an American sailor, arriving in the U.S. after the war. Merle eventually ended up in Jacksonville, and ran a small day care of her own.
Ray and Teddy’s marriage did not last forever. After 25 years they split up and lived apart, though they never divorced. They remained friends, though, their daughters say, and he kept the pledge he’d made back in Australia to help take care of her family.
Ray died in 1994. As his health faded, he moved back in with his wife. She cared for him until he died.
Kelly Key, 55, thinks her mother did miss her home country. “She spoke of Australia quite a bit. I think what she missed the most was how much simpler life was there. Her relationship with her father was so magical — his constant singing and humming all the songs he taught her, the music they shared.”
Teddy’s connection with her father is a big part of the story of “Aussie Song,” which has been cast with paid actors from what Frances Key calls the “incredible smorgasbord of talent in New York.” She and the director she hired, Ellie Handel, had their pick of some 300 applicants.
While the festival supplies the theater, the props and the publicity, it does keeps the ticket money. “I’m definitely funding the rest of it,” Frances Key said, “and it’s quite expensive, but I have a lot of family and friends involved too, and a Go Fund Me, which would be wonderful if you could put that in the paper.”
“Aussie Song,” she said, is “99 percent all true.”
She made one big fictional change, though, giving her mother a happy storybook ending she never had.
Teddy missed her father Frank, greatly, but after leaving Australia she never saw him again. Though Teddy’s mother, Ann, made it to the U.S., Frank had fallen ill and died before he could make the trip.
But in “Aussie Song,” Frances Key wrote a scene in which Teddy and her sister Merle go back to Australia finally and have a happy reunion with both their parents.
Her mother would have loved for that to have happened. But real life doesn’t always work out as people want, no matter how desperately they might wish otherwise.
“So when I wrote the play,” Frances Key said, “I told her, ‘Mom, I’m going to make it happen for you, on stage.’”
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.