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Fenston, Esmé (Ezzie) (1908–1972)

by Valerie Lawson

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

Esmé (Ezzie) Fenston (1908-1972), journalist, was born on 29 July 1908 at Annandale, Sydney, youngest of three children of native-born parents Henry Lovell Woolacott, furniture salesman, and his second wife Jane Kate, née Wilmot. Esmé was educated at a private college at Drummoyne and in 1921 at Sydney Girls' High School. At the age of 17 she took a job as a reporter on the magazine, the Triad, where her half-brother Les Woolacott was employed. (He was the son of her father and his first wife, whose marriage had ended in divorce.) Esmé next worked on the women's pages of the Daily Guardian and Daily Telegraph Pictorial. In the garden of her parents' home at Cremorne on 15 February 1930 she married with Presbyterian forms 31-year-old Jack Fenston, an education officer. A former officer in the British Army, he later became circulation manager of the Land newspaper. After her marriage, Esmé Fenston edited the women's pages of the Land. She joined the staff of John Fairfax & Sons Ltd's Sydney Mail in August 1933 and was soon its social editor.

In May 1938 she resigned, having received 'a very attractive offer' from the Australian Women's Weekly, founded in 1933 and published by (Sir) Frank Packer's Consolidated Press Ltd. She was one of several talented newspaperwomen, including Dorothy Drain, Adele ('Tilly') Shelton Smith and Joyce Bowden, recruited before World War II by Alice Jackson and George Warnecke. Unlike Drain, Shelton Smith and Bowden who became her friends as well as colleagues, Fenston was not a reporter on the magazine, but concentrated on sub-editing. In 1944, however, she wrote an article, 'Who Will Do the Housework?', in which she suggested that there could be problems ahead when men returned from war and women 'wanted to discard the duster and earn pay envelopes of our own'.

Jack's ambition to be a herb-farmer led the Fenstons in 1940 to move from a flat at Mosman to West Pennant Hills. At a party she was presented with a card produced by the artists at the Weekly showing her being dragged to Pennant Hills by a caveman. The Fenstons lived comfortably there, in a timber house surrounded by trees. The house, designed by her elder brother Frank Woolacott, featured a huge fireplace. On the walls the Fenstons hung paintings by Sali Herman, Pro Hart and Norman Lindsay, collected by Jack who was to become friendly with the art dealer Rudy Komon. Her colleagues often spent the weekend as house guests with 'Jackie' and 'Ezzie'. Although they often found Jack infuriating, they acknowledged his cheerful personality and his knack, especially during the war years, of obtaining scarce goods. He supplied the Weekly's staff with eggs and an even rarer commodity for the time, sanitary pads.

One of their neighbours was the barrister (Sir) Garfield Barwick who was entertained by the Fenstons' contrasting personalities and became a close friend. He found Jack 'coarse but she was refined. Jack swore like a trooper or truck driver, and liked to shock if he could'. Esmé was 'ladylike, gentle, pure minded, quiet and confident. She did not like anything improper but had a good sense of humour. When Jack went off she would say, ''Now Jack, that's a bit high"'. Fenston's workmates did not think her husband was her intellectual equal, but it was, nevertheless, a good and companionable marriage. When the Weekly bought a personality quiz from an overseas magazine, the staff first tested the questions on themselves. Drain and Fenston answered identically, except for the last question: 'Do you usually do what you want?' Drain wrote 'Yes' and Fenston 'No', telling Drain that she usually did what Jack wanted. The couple were to remain childless. Fenston made a fuss of her niece Jill and sewed clothes for the child. Packer's son Kerry thought that the Weekly was Esmé's baby.

In June 1950 Fenston succeeded Jackson as editor of the Weekly; its circulation had reached 750,000, its cover price was sixpence, and in two months the magazine would move to full rotogravure printing. Some of its staff were surprised that she had been offered the editorship. They did not believe that Packer knew how smart she was, how clear in her thinking. Her close friends detected an additional quality—she was innocent without being naive. She had simple tastes—she liked gardening, embroidering linen and making her own underwear—yet she brought to her job a sharp mind, a perceptive nature and common sense.

Fenston's office was spartan. Most days she ate at her desk, the lunch brought to her by one of the copygirls or cadet reporters, among them Ita Buttrose. Fenston was not a star editor and confided that she did not like having her photograph taken. Nor did she want to appear on television, thinking that people would be disappointed by her manner—by the gap between who she really was and what they expected an editor to be. Fenston was not a beauty. She had poor skin, a long chin, a broad forehead and wore heavy-rimmed spectacles; her best feature was her striking chestnut-coloured hair.

Her secret was her empathy with the readers, the suburban families of Australia. Fenston knew what the market wanted without being too far in advance of it. Her motto was that the Weekly did not attempt to lead public taste, but merely reflected it. She edited the magazine in its best years—the Menzies years—before colour television was a competing medium and at a time when the Weekly was as much a colour newspaper (with a strong male readership) as simply a women's magazine. Fenston gradually moved the magazine with the times, introducing articles on the contraceptive pill in 1964 and on women's knowledge of sex in 1968. Both issues sold well, in excess of 800,000. She told a market researcher that half the magazine was devoted to service features, such as cooking, sewing and knitting, because 'women's lib notwithstanding, the facts of life are that most women in jobs . . . must also do their own chores'.

Packer and Fenston spent a great deal of time with each other at work, even appearing conspiratorial to senior staff. He admired her talent, judgement and dedication, his admiration fuelled by the Weekly's ability to attract substantial advertising and cover-price revenue, and to carry the rest of the company. Packer said that the Weekly paid everyone's salary, that it was the milk cow and Fenston the milkmaid. Packer himself oversaw the publication. After him she was the most senior executive in the company and, according to Packer's son Kerry, 'ran the Women's Weekly as if it were her own business'. She knew how to manage Packer and stood up to him while most turned to jelly. When he announced that brown envelopes were too expensive and that parcels were to be delivered wrapped in paper and string, she agreed, but pointed out that the Weekly would need a new staff member to wrap the parcels. Packer abandoned the plan.

Fenston also knew how to control other executives. When asked in the company taproom, where executives gathered for drinks after work, if she was aware of a particular news event, she was likely to reply, 'the pictures are coming in tomorrow'. Kerry Packer knew that 'whatever you suggested, she had already thought of it'. Her staff respected her, despite her subtle way of loading them with work, and called her, affectionately, 'Mrs Fen'. She arrived at the office before them and finished after them. To some degree, she was not worldly; she presumed the best of people, never raised her voice, never appeared to lose her temper. The most emotion she displayed was to replace the telephone receiver after an irritating conversation and merely sigh; if very displeased, she rolled her eyes and muttered 'Oh God, Oh Montreal'.

Unhappy with Esmés distance from the city, Packer bought her a large house near the Lane Cove River where the Fenstons entertained. They employed a housekeeper and chef, Susan Roth, who became a friend of them both. The three subsequently moved to a two-storey house at Darling Point. In the 1950s the Fenstons visited England, at Packer's expense. Jack went ahead by ship, and Esmé flew after, as Packer did not want her away from the office for too long. She loved London and told staff who went there, 'If you don't like London, don't come back'. Although she often talked of retiring, her salary continued to rise and the Fenstons' way of life was governed by her increasing financial security. Packer offered her a car. She accepted, obtained a licence, but seldom drove, as her husband was not happy about her driving.

In 1967 she was appointed O.B.E. for services to journalism. After Jack's death on 16 February 1969, Esmé bought a house at Mosman, overlooking Chinaman's Beach, where Roth cared for her. Fenston's staff believed that she kept excellent health and thought Packer was fussing when he suggested she should go to hospital after a bout of pneumonia. She entered the Mater Misericordiae, North Sydney. She died there of myocardial infarction on 16 April 1972 and was cremated with Anglican rites at a private ceremony. One confused, elderly relation distressed the mourners by asking repeatedly, 'Where's Esmé?' Fenston's estate was valued at $87,428. Joyce Bowden helped to clean the empty house. In the wardrobe she found eight hats and remembered how her former boss often had to rush to David Jones Ltd to buy a hat when Packer asked her to lunch at the last minute. A memorial service was held at St James's Church, King Street. Barwick, then chief justice, was asked by Packer if he would 'go and speak for Esmé'. Packer said that he himself would become 'too emotional'. Fenston was a modest woman whose twenty-two years as editor of the most successful publication of its day was built on the foundations of a calm personality, sound financial knowledge, an affinity with her readers and a strong working relationship with her employer.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McNicoll, Luck's a Fortune (Syd, 1979)
  • D. O'Brien, The Weekly (Melb, 1982)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 3 May 1972
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 1967
  • E. Fenston file (John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd Archives, Sydney)
  • Sydney Girls' High School Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Valerie Lawson, 'Fenston, Esmé (Ezzie) (1908–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fenston-esme-ezzie-10165/text17957, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 July 2014.

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

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