Outsiders who marry into a dynasty often end up as the villains when things go badly wrong. And when John Fairfax and Son, Australia’s and the world’s oldest family-owned newspaper company, collapsed in 1987, many saw it as the result of Lady Mary Fairfax’s machinations.
Cast as a modern-day Lady Macbeth, Lady Fairfax, who has died aged 95, was blamed when, less than a year after the death of his father Sir Warwick Fairfax, her son ‘young’ Warwick Jr mounted a takeover bid to wrest control of the company from his half-brother James.
Warwick borrowed the eye-watering sum of AU$2.5 billion on the eve of a global stock-market collapse. Lady Fairfax, who had supported her son in the bid (while maintaining it was solely his idea), then sent him a note begging him to withdraw it. He threw away the note and went ahead anyway. In the space of three years, the company had collapsed. However, Lady Fairfax, who had made a complex but clever arrangement with her son in exchange for some of her shares, succeeded in preserving a substantial part of her fortune. By all accounts, she was extremely ambitious but also intelligent, vivacious and attractive. However, she had no WASP credentials.
Born Marie Wein in Warsaw she was the daughter of Anna Szpigielglass and Kevin Wein, the son of a miller. The family were Jewish: Lady Fairfax would later describe them as “strong Zionists” but “political Jews, not religious ones.” Having been brought up in an “agnostic home” she would in later life switch to Anglicanism and then Catholicism.
Kevin Wein’s family history has been the source of debate. In a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1990, Lady Fairfax described her father as one of 11 children from a family of “long-standing wealth”, derived from vast estates as well as breweries, and educated in a “Russian military academy with relatives of the Czar.” After the Russian Revolution, “seeing no future for a family such as ours with a communist neighbour,” as she described it, her father sold their assets and moved the family to Australia. He bought a factory in Melbourne but lost half his money. He then moved to Broken Hill where, according to her account, he bought a small general store; most reports, however, give Kevin Wein’s profession as hawker.
Lady Fairfax described her mother as her role model: she had a good head for business and ran two dress shops but was also a wonderful wife who would even stir the sugar in her husband’s coffee. Lady Fairfax felt the same way: “I believe that home is where the husband is”, she declared. Young Marie (she changed her name to Mary in the 1950s) attended the Presbyterian Ladies College, Croydon, and studied chemistry and botany at Sydney University. Later she worked part-time as a pharmacist and bought into a dress shop business. She appeared to settle into a comfortable middle-class life, marrying an up-and-coming solicitor, Cedric Symonds, in Woollahra’s Temple Emmanuel in 1945 and having a son, Garth. The Symonds acquired a grand home and mixed with the Sydney upper-classes, which included Sir Warwick Fairfax, then still married to his second wife Hanne.
When they met in 1957 it was, by all accounts, love at first sight. Mary was attracted to his “grand seigneur look” but even more so by his similarity to her father. A year later Cedric divorced her for “failure to comply with an order for restitution of conjugal rights.” Hanne followed suit and, minutes after the divorce was made absolute, Mary and Sir Warwick tied the knot.
If the marriage was, undeniably, a happy one that appeared to reinvigorate Sir Warwick, the aftermath was less pleasant: Hanne sued her husband for restitution of conjugal rights and Cedric Symonds sued Sir Warwick for inducing Mary to leave him. Although the case was settled out of court, Sir Warwick was forced to step down temporarily as chairman of John Fairfax and Sons. He returned a couple of months later but the incident and his eventual replacement in 1974 by his elder son James upset Lady Fairfax.
Often covertly accused of wanting to run the company herself — a claim she strenuously denied — she was said to have transferred that ambition to her son Warwick Jr, born in 1960. She and Sir Warwick also adopted two more children, Anna and Charles. As the châtelaine of Fairwater, the family home boasting artworks by Rodin and Degas, she gave lavish parties with stellar guest lists; from Rudolf Nureyev and Glenda Jackson to Pierre Trudeau, Emilio Pucci and, famously, Imelda Marcos.
When she wasn’t serving her guests caviar from the pouch of a kangaroo ice sculpture, Lady Fairfax was a patron of the arts and a tireless fundraiser for good causes. Her generosity was honoured in 2008 with a stamp celebrating Australian philanthropists.
She is survived by her four children: Garth, Warwick, Anna and Charles and 10 grandchildren.
Lady Mary Fairfax; born August 15, 1922. Died September 17, 2017.