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Fairfax, Sir Warwick Oswald (1901–1987)

by Bridget Griffen-Foley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Warwick Oswald Fairfax (1901-1987), newspaper proprietor, was born on 19 December 1901 at Fairwater, Double Bay, Sydney, only child of Sydney-born parents (Sir) James Oswald Fairfax, newspaper proprietor, and his wife Mabel Alice Emmeline, née Hixson. Warwick was educated privately in Sydney and spent a year at Warden House School, Kent, England, before returning to Australia in 1914. The following year he entered Geelong Church of England Grammar School. He edited the school magazine, and although he passed the Leaving certificate in 1917, he took it again with further subjects in 1918 and 1919. The shy, industrious youth studied Greek and Latin at the University of Sydney in 1920 before going to England and reading philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford (BA, 1925).

On Fairfax’s return to Australia, he joined his family’s company, John Fairfax & Sons Ltd. A contributor of numerous articles, particularly on foreign affairs and history, to the Sydney Morning Herald, he worked as a sub-editor before becoming a director in 1927. He married Marcie Elizabeth ('Betty') Wilson on 27 March 1928 at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point. They were honeymooning overseas when Fairfax’s father died. Following other sudden deaths within John Fairfax & Sons, 28-year-old Warwick became managing director in 1930; he personally held 35 per cent of shares in the group. He edited A Century of Journalism (1931), a rather grandiloquent celebration of the Herald’s 'unremitting service to the public'. Slender and 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall, with a long face, blue eyes and brown wavy hair, the quietly-spoken Fairfax struck one of his editors, J. D. Pringle, as 'rather like a sensitive, intelligent, slightly neurotic don'.

In 1934 John Fairfax & Sons Ltd acquired the Home, notable for its graphic modernity, and Art in Australia, a champion of modern and Australian art. Fairfax installed his friend Peter Bellew, also the Herald’s art critic, as editor (1941-42) of Art in Australia. In an unwarranted attack in 1942, Howard Ashton accused Fairfax ('a playboy proprietor') and his 'boy friends' of setting out to belittle 'all established artists'. In the Herald, Fairfax staunchly defended the award of the 1943 Archibald prize to (Sir) William Dobell for his portrait of Joshua Smith, buying the study for the portrait, as well as works by (Sir) Sidney Nolan, Lloyd Rees and Sali Herman. A ballet enthusiast, he backed the Kirsova company and, donning the hat of a dance critic, compared the chorus of the rival Borovansky Ballet to a row of sheep.

Fairfax usually attended the Herald’s daily editorial conferences and was unconcerned when the meetings of directors and editorial executives were stridently interrupted by the general manager, R. A. G. Henderson. The pair had first met in the early 1920s, and Fairfax allowed Henderson to modernise the company in the second half of the 1930s as it faced a resurgent Daily Telegraph. Fairfax and 'Mr Henderson' usually lunched together, sometimes with others. For all his love of tradition, Fairfax rarely feared change. He supported the proposal (realised in 1944) to banish advertisements from the front page.

In the 1940 Federal election the traditionally conservative newspaper urged readers to vote in certain electorates for outstanding men irrespective of party allegiances; (Sir) Robert Menzies held the press partly responsible for his downfall in 1941 and there were stories of Fairfax’s being cut in the Union Club. In 1943, as the Herald renewed its fervent appeal for 'outstanding men', Fairfax contributed articles under the byline of 'A Political Observer'. He looked to a government unshackled by party loyalties, which would develop the greatest possible opportunities for every citizen, and wrote lively, penetrating profiles of leading politicians. Reprinting the Herald’s articles in Men, Parties and Politics (1943), Fairfax observed that 'the difficulty about politics is that when it does matter at all, it matters desperately and tremendously'.

During World War II Fairfax experienced bouts of ill health and his marriage disintegrated. He was determined to explore the fundamentals for 'reconstruct[ing] our national life'. 'Ethics and National Life', published in the Herald in December 1944, argued that the Christian message must be given in its original simplicity, purged of all theological fogginess. Henderson was disturbed by the suggestion of a 'personal crusade' and tendered his resignation. In the end Henderson stayed, and did much to consolidate ownership of John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd in the hands of Warwick and his cousin (Sir) Vincent Fairfax.

Divorced in 1945, Warwick Fairfax married Hanne Anderson, née Bendixsen, a 32-year-old Danish divorcee, on 1 May 1948 at St Paul’s Church of England, Cobbitty. Some disquiet developed about Fairfax’s increasing absences from the office as he restored Harrington Park, a property at Narellan, and began breeding Poll Hereford cattle. The motoring enthusiast, whose garage housed a Phantom V Rolls Royce, enjoyed driving a tractor and riding a pony around the property. He was also preoccupied with self-publishing Metaphysics of the Mystic (1947) and writing a book on science, religion and philosophy, eventually published as The Triple Abyss: Towards a Modern Synthesis (1965). He wrote three plays—A Victorian Marriage, Vintage for Heroes and The Bishop’s Wife—which were performed in Sydney in the 1950s, and served as a director (1954-69), vice-president (1969-74) and governor (1975-85) of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.

In 1956, in the midst of a period of aggressive expansion—including the acquisition of Associated Newspapers Ltd and one of Sydney’s first television licences—overseen by Henderson, John Fairfax Ltd was incorporated as a public company and Fairfax became chairman. In 1959 Hanne obtained a divorce; on 4 July at his home Barford, Bellevue Hill, Fairfax married a 30-year-old Polish-born businesswoman, Mary Symonds, née Wein. Her former husband, Cedric, had issued a Supreme Court writ against Fairfax alleging that he had induced her to leave him. In January 1961 Fairfax resigned as chairman in order to avoid embarrassing the company; he was reinstated in March when the case was settled out of court.

The episode did little to improve relations with James, the son of his first marriage and now a director, and Henderson, who resented Mary’s influence on her husband. Fairfax’s health improved and he began to involve himself more closely in the daily concerns of the office. At the 1961 election, apparently concerned at the impact of the Menzies government’s credit squeeze on the Herald’s volume of classified advertising, he threw the company’s resources behind Arthur Calwell and the Australian Labor Party. In 1964 Fairfax unhesitatingly accepted Henderson’s decision to retire. When Fairfax proposed weekly meetings with executives, the new managing director, A. H. McLachlan, objected, believing that Fairfax was acting like an executive chairman.

Knighted in 1967, Fairfax served (1963-74) on the council of the Australian National University. On McLachlan’s retirement in 1969, Fairfax argued for his own appointment as executive chairman. James Fairfax brokered a compromise whereby his father was constituted a 'Committee of One' and the position of managing director was abolished. Although denied the title, 68-year-old Fairfax relished the opportunity to wield practical power. Presiding over a period of steady growth rather than omnivorous acquisition, he kept a careful eye on the Herald’s editorial page and appeared intolerant of criticism at board meetings. He suspended his overseas jaunts, choosing instead to investigate outback Australia, and, with Mary, hosted lavish parties at Fairwater, their home at Double Bay.

In 1976 Fairfax tabled a proposal to increase the general manager’s salary, with the implication that his own should also be increased. In Sir Vincent’s view the time had come for a new generation to assume the chairman’s responsibility; Sir Warwick’s executive authority was terminated and, in March 1977, he reluctantly resigned as chairman. At the first board meeting under James’s chairmanship, his father was accused of having engaged in discussions with David Syme & Co. Ltd, publisher of the Herald’s sister paper, the Melbourne Age, concerning the possible takeover of John Fairfax Ltd. It did not eventuate and Sir Warwick resigned from the Syme board. After disagreeing with other directors on the matter of managerial succession, he accepted several changes approved by the board, although he opposed plans to raise extra capital without a specific project in mind. He retained an office and the services of a secretary and driver, resumed normal relations with James, and in 1984 wrote a statement of principles on the Herald’s traditions and policy.

Fairfax died on 14 January 1987 at Double Bay. At his funeral at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, mourners heard extracts from his unfinished book 'Purpose': 'Existence for us is best defined as PURPOSE … I prefer an incomprehensible God to a meaningless world'. Sir James Darling paid tribute to his integrity, honour, intelligence and courage. Buried in South Head cemetery, Fairfax was survived by his wife, his son and daughter from his first marriage, the daughter and stepson from his second marriage and the son and adopted daughter and son from his third marriage. His son Warwick soon made a disastrous attempt to take over the company, which, within a few years, was lost to the family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Pringle, Have Pen: Will Travel (1973)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981)
  • G. Souter, Heralds and Angels (1991)
  • J. Fairfax, My Regards to Broadway (1991)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 2 June 1945, p 12
  • People (Sydney), 11 Mar 1953, p 5
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Jan 1987, p 1, 31 Jan 1987, p 2
  • Australian, 15 Jan 1987, p 2
  • W. O. Fairfax and R. A. Henderson files (John Fairfax Holdings Ltd archives, Sydney).

Citation details

Bridget Griffen-Foley, 'Fairfax, Sir Warwick Oswald (1901–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fairfax-sir-warwick-oswald-12475/text22439, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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