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Saturday 17 March 2018

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch

Mother of Rupert Murdoch, she was one of Australia's great philanthropists and believed materialism was a menace

DAME Elisabeth Murdoch, who died last Wednesday aged 103, was one of Australia's greatest philanthropists and the mother of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.

They had an affectionate relationship, often speaking three times a week on the telephone wherever he was in the world. But she could go for days without looking at a newspaper, and voiced doubts about his hard-nosed approach to business .

There were also financial strains. In 2007 the Australian tax authorities claimed that changes Rupert had made to a family trust meant that his mother owed them $85m, though a decision in their favour by the administrative appeals tribunal was later reversed by the federal court.

Dame Elisabeth was clear in her belief that materialism had become "quite a menace. I am always thinking how fortunate I am to have the opportunity [for philanthropy] because the joy of giving is so wonderful, and I'm worried that some people, a few people, miss that joy because they don't have the knowledge of how important philanthropy is". Yet although compassionate, she was no soft touch.

She was "devastated" when it was announced that Rupert and his second wife, Anna, were divorcing after 31 years, warning: "Rupert, you're going to be very, very lonely, and the first desiring female that comes along will snap you up." He replied: "Don't be ridiculous, Mum, I'm far too old for that" – he then met, and shortly afterwards married, Wendi Deng, 37 years his junior. Also, his mother was upset when he became an American citizen to advance his interests in the United States; she was mollified, however, by his assurance that he was not intending to sell his Australian holdings.

As a leader of Melbourne society, she was considered for the role of Australia's governor-general. Malcolm Fraser, the Liberal prime minister, believed that she was exactly what the country needed as a replacement for Sir John Kerr, who had sacked the Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam amid great controversy in 1974. But she was ruled out because her son stood only a little behind Kerr and Fraser in Labour's demonology at the time.

When told about this years later, Dame Elisabeth dismissed the suggestion as ridiculous, saying she did not have the intelligence, education or experience, and that she would never have accepted the position. This was unduly modest. She had all the necessary character and temperament, while public service and duty to others came to her naturally.

A small, comely woman whose speech had a markedly English tone, she had the physical and mental energy to fight a state premier or a bushfire – both of which she did – and in her 80s would rise at dawn to swim. Even when approaching 100, she would open her front door with one hand while holding her walking frame in the other; and a portrait painter who stayed with her was surprised to find Dame Elisabeth bringing her breakfast in bed.

Elisabeth Joy Greene was born in Melbourne on February 8, 1909, the third daughter of Rupert Greene, a hard-drinking wool valuer, sportsman and gambler, and Marie de Lancey Forth, a descendant of Nathaniel Parker Forth, the diplomat and secret agent who worked as a British spy during the French Revolution.

Elisabeth was an 18-year-old debutante when Keith Murdoch, editor of the Melbourne Herald, who had made his name by revealing the mismanagement of the Dardanelles campaign during the First World War, saw her pensive picture in one of his magazines. A 42-year-old bachelor, he arranged to meet her, and they married in 1928, going on to have three daughters as well as their son Rupert.

Within a few years her husband had become Sir Keith, chairman and managing director, and she, aged 24, was Lady Murdoch (to close friends "Lady Liz"). She liked to tell the story of a dinner with Herald staff at which her husband, who was proud of his antiques, asked a young woman: "Do you like old things?" "Oh yes, Sir Keith," she said nervously. "I'm very fond of you."

Although Sir Keith was an archetypal Australian Victorian, it was his wife who was the disciplinarian in the family. All four of her children were made to take piano lessons, and she made her son sleep in a hut at the bottom of the garden without heat, electricity or running water – no great imposition, considering the climate, Rupert later conceded. She once threw him into the deep end of a swimming pool aboard ship, then let no one near while he screamed and struggled out.

When Keith Murdoch died in 1952, his will stated: "I declare it is no wish of mine that my wife should not remarry." By her own account she never considered it. At 43, she launched herself into an independent life. She had never interfered in her husband's business decisions, and had no inclination to tell her son what to do. Rupert wanted to settle his father's estate in a way that gave him a newspaper base in Brisbane; but she preferred to see the debts cleared, leaving a small group of papers in Adelaide. It was a decision he thought wrong and about which she remained uncertain, though she had believed that smaller beginnings would be good for his character.

When Rupert felt driven to eviscerate the old Melbourne Herald, the paper his father had made great, he dreaded having to tell her. She took the news coolly, declaring that they would just have to put it behind them and look to the new 24-hour tabloid that was to swallow it up. Her charm helped to persuade Sir William Carr, chairman of the News of the World, to accept Rupert's offer to become a shareholder in order to keep out Robert Maxwell. But when Rupert told her that the Sunday Times planned to publish Hitler's newly discovered "diaries", she told him: "Rupert, you've been sold a pup."

She was bemused to be presented with the keys to Melbourne in 2003. "Will I get a free parking space?" she asked the city's lord mayor.

On the eve of her century she was photographed sniffing a Dame Elisabeth Murdoch rose, named in her honour, which flowered for six months. "As tough as old boots," she declared. "Wonderful."

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