Jane Fraser, an extraordinarily perceptive writer and a long-time columnist for The Australian, died this week, aged 72. Her colleague Christopher Dawson pays tribute to her in this piece written for The Weekend Australian.
For 30 years Jane Fraser wrote for this newspaper, chosen, she once wrote, because she was “a female who shaved her legs and underarms, and wasn’t a Balmain basket weaver”.
It was a typically acerbic observation, made in the self-deprecating style that endeared her to many thousands of readers, but it underplayed her talent and determination in her profession.
South African-born Fraser was an outstanding journalist long before she landed at The Australian, where she became the paper’s first editor of a women’s section and, most notably, a long-time columnist and celebrated features writer. Her work expanded into novel-writing: Lip Service and Social Death enjoyed some time on the bestseller lists. More recently she was also on the board of The Catholic Weekly and the magazine Quadrant.
But beneath the light-hearted banter Fraser had another quality not known to many of her friends and colleagues: she was fearless in the face of considerable personal risk. As a young woman at Witwatersrand University, Jane was a rarity for a white person at that time – a member of the African National Congress. These were very dangerous days to be involved in black South African politics. The Afrikaner government treated its ANC opponents harshly; Fraser’s close friend, John Harris, was the only white person to be hanged for political crimes.
A measure of her role in the fight against apartheid is that when Nelson Mandela came to visit Australia many years later, he ensured that he made contact with her.
Fraser was born in Johannesburg in 1942. Her father, Frederick Owen, was CEO of Goodyear Tires in South Africa. She was educated in Johannesburg and studied mathematics at Witwatersrand. After completing her university degree, her father, a friend of the police commissioner, arranged for Jane to come and teach in Sydney, which she did at Randwick Girls High School. However, some years later she returned to South Africa and worked as a journalist on the Rand Daily Mail.
There she met Hamish Fraser, a finance journalist. After they were married they decided to emigrate to Australia. The decision was made easier by their allegiance to the anti-apartheid crusading of the Rand Daily Mail; their defiance of the regime meant Hamish risked house arrest had they stayed. The newspaper was hounded by the government until it was shut down in 1985.
Arriving in Sydney, Fraser first worked on the Eastern Suburbs’ Wentworth Courier before joining The Australian in 1983 to edit the new women’s section.
Her pages were always lively and well-read; one of her successes was to run a column about cooking long before the idea of celebrity chefs had been born. One contributor famously wrote about the worst cooking he had ever come across: his mother’s.
Jane had a sure touch in the realm of women’s issues and started to make her reputation. One favourite area of expertise she developed was on royal tours. She was always capable of providing copy on women’s dress styles as well as other more general aspects of the royal progress.
After trips to London and China Fraser steadily rose in the paper’s estimation. She was given a weekly column, Plainly Jane, where she excelled. This was eagerly followed each Saturday as she commented on a wide range of things that caught her perceptive eye, from the woman who had gained “everything from the bottle – gin and peroxide”, to Sydney’s commemoration ceremony on the Boer War. Plainly Jane was one of the first columns in Australia to be nationally syndicated and was broadcast weekly on radio.
At this time she joined a coterie of regularly lunching News Limited journalists – The Australian’s editor, Frank Devine, columnist Paddy McGuinness and religious affairs writer and Anglican priest, James Murray. They were a noisy and argumentative lot, but Jane easily held her own in such rowdy company. Her growing friendship with Devine and his family led to her being asked to deliver a striking eulogy when he died.
She was also introduced to other lunching groups in Sydney, where she would excel as a conversationalist. She had a genius for friendship, though you would not want to cross her. She did not have fiery red hair for nothing.
One of Fraser’s best friends was the former Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. Indeed it was the Cardinal who, after some years of her illness and refusing to go to the doctor, persuaded her to see her GP. He had been contacted in Rome by Piers Akerman, and on his return, visited Jane in Darling Point. He refused to leave the house until Jane promised she would go to her doctor. When finally he had her promise, he lifted up a prayer. He later came to see her in hospital. Pell described her from Rome this week as “a dear friend, great company and good to be with”.
For the past few years Jane suffered a number of health problems, and was finally diagnosed with dementia. It was tragic to witness her decline, although for some time she was still able to join her former journalist colleagues for lunch. But conscious of her illness, she would shed heart-rending tears on the way home. Now those tears are shed by all those who knew and loved her.
After her divorce from Hamish, she married Sydney ear, nose and throat specialist, Ken Howison. This was a very successful and happy union.
She has been sustained in hospital by her children Kirsty, Philippa and Adam, and Ken. Hamish died some years ago.