Matriarch of the Fairfax family, Lady Mary Fairfax, passed away on Sunday at Fairweather, the Fairfax family home on Sydney Harbour, aged 95. VALERIE LAWSON sums up the life of the formidable woman who played a key role in Australian media.
Lady (Mary) Fairfax headed her list of recreations in Who’s Who, as “working”. Those who really knew her understood that she did in fact work assiduously – restlessly – all her life, at her business interests, at entertaining, and at maintaining her role as the chatelaine of the Sydney Harbourside mansion, Fairwater.
Yet, to a wider audience who knew her only through her comings and goings chronicled in the social pages, this “chestnut-haired daisy of a lady in a black cocktail dress”, as she was once described, was a woman who seldom worked, but who had, in fact, perfected the art of leisure – leisure spent in chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces, New York apartments on top of the Pierre Hotel and long sojourns to Europe.
This public image was partly her own doing. She liked to reflect, in the words of Noel Coward, that she had “a certain talent to amuse”. Fairfax’s amusement playground was Fairwater, one of Sydney’s most perfectly sited houses on the harbour between Double Bay and Point Piper, where she maintained a household staff led by a butler called Welton.
The chatelaine of Fairwater was only one of the roles she played. Lady Fairfax was also a businesswoman, property owner, charity worker, client of Europe’s haute couture houses, lover of the arts, particularly poetry and sculpture, and mother of four children, two of whom were adopted.
Her aim, she once said, was to “work ’til I’m 90”. The “work” often took place at the shoulder of a number of powerful men, most notably her husband of 28 years, Sir Warwick Fairfax. Her vivid public image was enhanced by her union with the media proprietor whom she married in 1959 as an attractive young divorcee. She said that Sir Warwick married her for her looks, not her brain, although she was proud of her academic and business achievements.
A friend said of her then, “there’s nothing evil about Mary. She’s just an ambitious woman”. Lady Fairfax was distinctive in voice and manner, devoting herself to the maintenance of her appearance, growing reed thin in her 70s.
Her international network of friends and contacts was impressive, built partly through extensive travel especially to New York, and membership of clubs as diverse as the Royal Yacht Squadron, Union Club, of which she was an associate, the American, Lansdowne (London), Metropolitan (New York), and River (New York.) She was also a member of the international committee for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
Lady Fairfax was especially well known for her love of quotations, sayings and proverbs, among them, “good better best, never let it rest, ’til your good is better and your better best”. Her motto, she said, was “touch every life with good”.
Her famous eight-page Christmas cards were based on the contents of a “marvellous leather book of quotations” which she found at Mark Cross in New York. As she said, “people collect my Christmas cards. They take a year to do.”
Mary Fairfax was born Marie Wein, in Warsaw, Poland on August 15, 1922, the daughter of Anna Wein, who was, in turn, the Warsaw-born daughter of merchant Moses Szpigielglass, and Kevin Wein, the son of a miller. The Weins had married in Warsaw in 1921.
In 1990, Lady Fairfax wrote a letter to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald to say her father, one of 11 children, was “educated in a Russian military academy with relatives of the Czar towards the end of the Czarist regime … the long standing and inherited wealth of our family came from real estate in Warsaw”, as well as breweries, and a contract for wheat from the Russian army. The family, she wrote, had “vast estates” in Poland.
After the revolution, and “seeing no future for a family such as ours with a communist neighbour, the family sold all their assets and divided them. My father came to the furthest away place from communism, Australia”, to Melbourne, where he bought a factory “but lost half the money that he had brought with him”.
Kevin Wein then moved to Broken Hill. It is not clear exactly what he did there. Lady Fairfax said he bought “a small general store”, while other reports suggest he was a hawker. He sent for his wife and young daughter, Marie, and in 1930, the family moved to Sydney where they were naturalised three years later.
Lady Fairfax said her mother was her role model, with a head for business as well as being a “wonderful wife and mother” who “adored” her husband, even “stirring the sugar in his coffee”.
Anna Wein used her “head for business” to run two dress shops, called Annettes, in partnership with her husband, in Liverpool Street, Sydney, and Oxford Street, Paddington. Mrs Wein died, aged 52, in 1952. Her estate included a number of apartments in Rose Bay and Bellevue Hill. (Kevin Wein died in 1960, aged 62. He had married again earlier that year, to Rena Defler, in Cyprus.)
Marie, who changed her name to Mary in the 1950s, was a boarder at Presbyterian Ladies College, Croydon, in 1938 and 1939. The fact that her parents were Jewish and strong Zionists, did not affect the choice of school. As she said, she was “brought up in an agnostic home” and her parents were “political Jews not religious ones”. Lady Fairfax became an Anglican in the early 1960s and later adopted the Catholic faith.
At the time she left PLC, she was known to her father as “the little philosopher”. Lady Fairfax studied Chemistry 1 and Botany 1 at Sydney University in 1941, and Materia Medica (concerning the materials used in pharmacy) in 1942. The self-described “idealistic teenager”, whose heroine was Madame Curie, then worked part-time, in an honorary capacity, as a materia medica researcher, and studied music, the history of architecture, sculpture and fine arts. None took her fancy, for she then completed a cookery course at East Sydney Technical College. Lady Fairfax loved to discuss recipes in later life, with particular favourites being “drunken chicken” and apricot souffle.
She worked part-time as a pharmacist and, in about 1945, bought a small share in a business which owned Webbs, a frock shop in Auburn.
In December 1945, she married Cedric Symonds – who was soon to be admitted as a lawyer – at Temple Emmanuel in Woollahra. They jointly bought Sir Theo Kelly’s old home, complete with ballroom and swimming pool, in Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay. The Symonds also bought a half share in the frock shop business which, by then, owned three Webbs’ outlets in Auburn, Ashfield and Marrickville, and Gay Fashions in Marrickville. The business was owned in partnership with Lady Fairfax’s younger brother, Paul Wein. In 1951, the Symonds had their only child, Garth.
The couple found their way into the same social circles as Sir Warwick Fairfax, then Mr Fairfax, and his second wife, Hanne, whom he had married in 1948 after divorcing his first wife, Marcie Elizabeth (Betty), in 1946. The conduit was a mutual friendship with the Norwegian Consul General.
Lady Fairfax was strongly attracted to Sir Warwick whom she later described as “a wonderful objet d’art”, and a “long greyhound type” with “the grand seigneur look”. She was convinced she “fell in love” with him “because he and my father were pretty much the same. I was Daddy’s little girl and I wanted to be Daddy’s little girl forever”. The Symonds’ marriage ended in divorce in August 1958 on the grounds of “failure to comply with an order for restitution of conjugal rights”. Cedric Symonds was given custody of their son, Garth, with Mary allowed access. Cedric transferred his interest in the fashion shops to Lady Fairfax and she transferred her interest in the matrimonial home to him.
In June 1958, Hanne Fairfax sued her husband, Warwick, for restitution of conjugal rights amid speculation, not confirmed by Hanne in divorce proceedings in court, that he had been having an affair with Mary Symonds. She denied an affair and said she had left Cedric Symonds because of fears for her safety. This was later denied by him.
Lady Fairfax married Warwick Fairfax, then 58, just after midnight on July 4, 1959, at his home, Barford, the day after his divorce was made absolute. The newly weds left for ten months overseas.
It was said by Gavin Souter in Company of Heralds, the history of the Fairfax company, that in the “vivacious presence” of Lady Fairfax, Warwick “altered perceptibly”, “gained a new lease of life”, was “happier, his health improved”. These phrases suggested Lady Fairfax brought Sir Warwick sexual contentment. Mr Souter also wrote that “in due course, he began to involve himself more closely in the daily concerns of the office”. This affected the comfortable, long lasting working relationship between Sir Warwick and his managing director, Rupert Henderson.
The Fairfax’s son, Warwick, was born on December 2, 1960, after a difficult pregnancy, much of it spent by the mother-to-be resting in a double bed placed in the library of Barford.
Always “very broody”, in her own words, Lady Fairfax then had five miscarriages in the next seven years. In November 1961, she applied to the NSW Supreme Court for specific access rights to her 10-year-old son, Garth, who made it clear he did not want to see her. The specific reason for the application was for Garth to be examined by a psychiatrist. Lady Fairfax won the case, but lost on appeal when Cedric Symonds went to the NSW Court of Appeal that held that the Matrimonial Causes Act did not allow power to grant access for the limited purposes specified in the order. Lady Fairfax then appealed unsuccessfully to the High Court. She did not see her son again until he was 18.
In January 1961, Rupert Henderson told Sir Warwick he thought he should temporarily stand down as chairman of John Fairfax and Sons because of issues that would be raised in a forthcoming law suit. Sir Warwick had been issued with a NSW Supreme Court writ by Cedric Symonds who claimed he had induced Lady Fairfax into leaving him.
Sir Warwick’s eldest son, James Fairfax, used a new block of shares he owned in the company, in combination with another member of the family, Sir Vincent Fairfax, to have his father step down. Eventually Cedric Symonds and Sir Warwick settled out of court. It was commonly believed that Sir Warwick paid Mr Symonds £100,000, but Mr Symonds later denied this. In March 1961, Sir Warwick resumed his chairmanship.
The incident was the first trigger for subsequent family problems. Lady Fairfax later said she had never been bitter or conducted a vendetta with any members of the Fairfax family, although she did feel “distaste” and, for one or two years, did not want to see them. However it was “Mr Henderson who started this misinformation about me, I believe, motivated by the desire to take the spotlight off himself. I do not believe John (Fairfax) and James were responsible for the events of 1961 and 1976. I believe Mr Henderson was responsible”. Mr Henderson’s “oft-repeated statements about me wanting to run the company” were “direct lies”, she said.
In 1964, Lady Fairfax established the Australian Opera Auditions in co-operation with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This was the first of a string of charitable organisations connected with the arts which she joined or initiated, among them the Australian Opera Scholarships to Bayreuth, La Scala and the London Opera Centre, the Friends of the Ballet, the Lady James Fairfax Memorial Prize for Painting, and for photography and art portraiture, and the Juilliard Scholarship.
In 1967, she and the newly knighted Sir Warwick left Sydney for a 20-month journey to England where again, she miscarried. The couple lived mainly in London, where they lived in a household with 11 servants, as they wanted to establish the residency necessary for the adoption of children. Sir Warwick, then 66, was considered too old to adopt in Australia. In 1968, they adopted babies Charles and Anna, both born (a few weeks apart) in the United Kingdom. The babies travelled by air to Australia and were installed at Barford by the time Sir Warwick and Lady Fairfax returned home, first by train to Istanbul, then driven to Delhi in hired cars, and then by ship from Bombay.
Soon after, the family moved to Fairwater, the Fairfax family home that had been the residence of Sir Warwick’s mother, Lady Mabel Fairfax, who had died in 1965.
At Fairwater, with its rolling lawns stretching to Seven Shillings Beach, Lady Fairfax conducted a never-ending salon where guests were able to admire the art works of Rodin, Epstein, Dobell and Degas. Among those she entertained at the Gothic mansion were Rex Harrison, Rudolf Nureyev, Pierre Trudeau, Phyllis Diller, Liberace, Glenda Jackson, Emilio Pucci, and Imelda Marcos, for whom the band struck up Ho Ho My Nut Brown Maiden. A smorgasbord of politicians, businessmen and media proprietors dined there too, among them Neville Wran, Paul Keating, Sir Peter Abeles and Kerry Packer. The Sydney Swans were launched at Fairwater, which was also often opened for events held by the Australian Ireland Fund or the Red Cross. In 1973, Fairwater was the scene of a ball for 1000 to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Opera House.
Another famous party at the house was the Concourse of Canine Elegance, when the pool was lined with gold and filled with flowers. Piped Mozart and Haydn accompanied the fashion parade of people and pooches. A kangaroo ice sculpture held caviar in its pouch.
Lady Fairfax was a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW from 1971 to 1980, and, from 1972 to 1977, a member of the cultural grants committee of the NSW Ministry for Culture, Sport and Recreation. She was made an OBE in 1975, for her services to the community and arts and she became honorary consul of Monaco in 1979.
In 1976, there was further trouble for her husband when James Fairfax replaced him as chairman of John Fairfax and Sons.
During the mid 1980s, Lady Fairfax became more involved in business. She joined the board of IEL in 1985 and resigned from the company in 1989. Much of her time was spent in business matters involving Harrington Park at Camden, bought by her husband as a cattle property in the 1940s. The Fairfaxes attempted, through political avenues, to have half the property rezoned residential. This was ultimately achieved with the help of Lady Fairfax’s neighbour, public relations executive Marty Dougherty. In 1987, she announced that 40 hectares at Harrington Park would be donated for a branch of the William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Rochester in New York State. The MBA course began with a limited number of students in 1991 in Watsons Bay, never moved to Camden, and lasted only a few years.
“Young Warwick” launched his takeover bid for John Fairfax in 1987 with the help of Dougherty, merchant banker, Laurie Connell, and lawyer Aleco Vrisakis. At the time, Lady Fairfax was in Salzburg, attending the opera. Warwick called her to tell her he “had to do it”. She said she replied “it’s your life, if you think you are doing the right thing, go ahead”, then went to five masses and “prayed so many rosaries I practically wore out my beads”.
The takeover, on the eve of a global stockmarket collapse, proved a disaster. A day after the market fell Lady Fairfax tried to get her son to withdraw the bid. He refused to see her and crumpled a note she written to him in a wastepaper basket at the Regent Hotel.
Lady Fairfax made a complicated arrangement with her son concerning her stake in Fairfax. In summary, it amounted to her receiving from Warwick a personal cheque for $3.9 million, a guaranteed income for life of $2.9 million tax free and indexed upwards for inflation, sole ownership of the Grand Hotel in Sydney and outright ownership of Harrington Park. In return, she agreed that he could use her shares in the family company, Rockwood Pastoral Company, for his takeover bid. The shares she held through Rockwood became non-voting shares in the company. Also, Warwick was granted an option over her shares in her own private company, Acrux Holdings Ltd.
In 1988, the agreement was renegotiated in order to secure the financing of the takeover. She then received nearly $30 million for her Acrux shares. Mother and son fell out; Lady Fairfax continued to claim she was a big financial loser in the takeover, telling reporters that if she had sold her shares in 1987, she would have received $192 million.
She received a total of $18 million from the annuity arrangement that was stopped by the receiver of John Fairfax in 1991. Lady Fairfax then sued; the case was settled out of court in 1993.
In 1988 she bought radio station 2GB’s Sussex Street headquarters for $15 million, but sold it three years later for $9.8 million. She bought the top floors, levels 41 to 43, of the Pierre Hotel in New York for $US12 million in 1989, and three years later, sold the Grand Hotel for more than $4 million.
The Pierre Hotel floors were renovated and put on the market as a grand apartment for a rental of $US50,000 ($62,000) a month. Added attractions were a Rodin sculpture, Chagall paintings and a Rothschild dresser.
The apartment failed to sell for $US50 million in 1993. It then failed to sell for $US33 million in 1995 and for $US28 million in 1998.
With help from her children Anna and Charles, Lady Fairfax began to develop Harrington Park in association with English company, Taylor Woodrow. It was launched in 1996 as a residential estate with a potential 6,000 home sites. The 1827 Harrington Park homestead, on a secluded 40 hectare hilltop estate, remained in Fairfax family ownership.
In 1996, Lady Fairfax said ownership of Fairwater had been transferred to a trust she had recently established, and could “never be sold”. The trust would ensure “the maintenance of Fairwater is continued”. Fairwater would be a “living house”, available for good causes and would “continue on for the people of NSW and Australia”. This was mistakenly interpreted that the house would be publicly owned. (In 1998, the estimated net worth of Fairwater was about $20 million.) Lady Fairfax was still active socially in the late 1990s, keeping fit by power walking and practising yoga.
She continued to have faith in the value of quotations all her life. One of her favourites: “In the end, your life is your testament.”
She is survived by her children, Garth, Warwick, Anna and Charles.
The article has been republished with the permission of Fairfax Media.