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Fairfax, John Fitzgerald (1904–1951)

by Gavin Souter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Fitzgerald Fairfax (1904-1951), journalist and company director, was born on 18 April 1904 in Sydney, elder son of native-born parents Edward Wilfred Fairfax, medical practitioner, and his wife Mary Marguerite, née Lamb. John was educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Victoria, and in England at Pembroke College, Oxford. Back in Sydney, he joined the Union Club in 1927 and next year entered John Fairfax & Sons Ltd, the family's newspaper firm. On 28 October 1930 he married Valerie Moule at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak; they were to have two daughters before being divorced in 1946.

Although he started work in the accounts and circulation departments, Fairfax soon displayed a talent for journalism, as had his elder cousin (Sir) Warwick, the company's managing director. As a mainly anonymous special writer, John produced many articles for the Fairfax weekly, Sydney Mail, some of which were collected in Then and Now (1937), a book of vignettes about the highways around Sydney. He was also an adventurous canoeist who took his kayak on the roof of a baby Morris to the Snowy gorges and other remote stretches of river. From these journeys came another book, Run o' Waters (1948). His The Story of John Fairfax was published in 1941 to commemorate the centenary of Fairfax ownership of the Sydney Morning Herald, which had been founded in 1831—oddly enough, on the author's own birthday.

From 1940 Fairfax served in the Militia; on 19 August 1941 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. While serving at headquarters, 1st Armoured Brigade, for the next seventeen months he edited the divisional magazine, Ack Willie (later Stand Easy). He was discharged on 16 March 1943 and accredited a war correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald with United States naval forces in the South Pacific. He covered the Solomon Islands campaign and accompanied New Zealand troops who landed on Japanese-held Mono Island (October 1943).

Returning to Sydney in 1944, Fairfax resigned from the literary staff and succeeded his father as a director of the company. By 1946 the Fairfax board consisted only of the cousins Warwick, (Sir) Vincent and John—a trio once described as the company's 'head, hands and heart'. John, an unconventional man endowed with a debonair appearance and zestful manner, was popular but erratic, and therefore more vulnerable in the board-room than the intellectual Warwick and practical Vincent. In 1946 the general manager Rupert Henderson, anxious for defensive reasons to consolidate the company's widely dispersed family shareholding into fewer hands, prevailed upon John to resign from the board and sell his shares, mainly to Warwick.

At the district registrar's office, Mosman, on 24 April 1948 Fairfax married a divorcee Gwendoline Clarice Bennett, née Annabel; that year he bought into a country newspaper owned by her brother. His moods became more unstable; for a time he underwent psychiatric treatment; and on 31 October 1951 at Gocup, his property near Tumut, he used a shotgun to commit suicide. Survived by his wife and the daughters of his first marriage, he was cremated. Two collections of his writing, Drift of Leaves (1952) and Laughter in the Camp (1958), were published posthumously.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (Melb, 1981)
  • Newspaper News (Sydney), 1 Dec 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb, 27 Dec 1941, 11 May 1944, 6 July 1946, 1 Nov 1951
  • J. F. Fairfax file (John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

Gavin Souter, 'Fairfax, John Fitzgerald (1904–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fairfax-john-fitzgerald-10143/text17911, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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