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Vale Lady Mary Fairfax, media matriarch

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...

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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.

Sir Warwick Fairfax Sr (far right) with his family (from left) Charles, wife Lady Mary, Warwick Jr and Anna, 12 September 1981. Photo: Tony Linsen
Sir Warwick Fairfax Sr (far right) with his family (from left) Charles, wife Lady Mary, Warwick Jr and Anna, 12 September 1981. Photo: Tony Linsen
At the time of the takeover and its aftermath, she was portrayed as “Mummy Dearest” – a woman who had hounded her son to take the company to avenge old wounds she and Sir Warwick had suffered at the hands of the management of the company in previous decades.
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