Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Howard, William Stewart McPhee (1903–1983)

by Bridget Griffen-Foley

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

William Stewart McPhee Howard (1903-1983), journalist, author and public relations consultant, was born on 13 October 1903 at Balmain, Sydney, only child of Sydney-born parents William John Howard, bank clerk, and his wife Florence Irene, née Falconer. At Fort Street Boys’ High School, Stewart contributed to the school magazine and became a prefect. He won an exhibition to the University of Sydney but did not continue past first-year economics.

In the 1920s Howard held executive positions with various manufacturing, agricultural and marketing firms. On 11 February 1928 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Dorothy Annie Elizabeth Young, a stenographer. He worked as a freelance journalist and published short stories in the Bulletin and Triad. Associate editor of the Sydney Opinion during its brief existence (1929-30), he contributed short stories and theatre and film reviews.

Howard was part of Sydney’s bohemian literary circles in the 1930s. His first novel, the slapstick You’re Telling Me! (1934), centred on a party involving a group of thinly disguised Smith’s Weekly journalists. Other humorous novels followed, including Uncle Aethelred (1944), dedicated to Adam McCay. In 1934 Howard joined (Sir) Frank Packer’s Sydney Newspapers Ltd, where he reviewed books for the Daily Telegraph and the Australian Women’s Weekly and edited the latter’s film supplement. Frustrated by having to observe `certain rigid taboos’ at a women’s magazine, Howard joined Smith’s Weekly in 1938 and the Sydney Morning Herald in 1940.

Between 1939 and 1941 Howard had two spells as publicity officer for (Sir) William McKell. He moved increasingly into public administration, serving as secretary of the State War Effort Co-ordination Committee before becoming, in 1942, Packer’s deputy-director of personnel for the Allied Works Council. Trade union and newspaper suggestions that Howard had implemented a `dictatorship’ and employed `Gestapo methods’ helped to precipitate an inquiry into the AWC; Sir Harry Brown’s report in 1943 concluded that Howard’s behaviour generally showed him to be `a human, sympathetic type’.

Divorced in 1945, Howard married Marie Winifred McKinney, née Ducker, a divorcee, on 28 July at Fullerton Memorial Presbyterian Church, Sydney. Something of a dandy who wore a monocle, he enjoyed sailing, swimming, cooking and `loafing’ at his weekend retreat at Church Point. In 1947 Brian Penton, who regarded Howard as `the best critic in Australia’, despatched Dymphna Cusack there to discuss her unwieldy manuscript of Come in Spinner; Cusack found him sensitive and helpful but later had cause to suspect that he was two-faced. Miles Franklin thought him `poisonous’ andFrank Browne wrote in Things I Hear that he had an `uncanny felicity’ for looking after himself.

Howard had returned in 1945 to the Sydney Morning Herald, where he was reputedly Rupert Henderson’s `white-haired boy’. He specialised in writing on industrial matters. Worried about totalitarianism and the prospect of people becoming the servants of the state, Howard began working privately as a public relations adviser in 1946 and established a `Research Service’ in 1947. His statistical reports `proving’ communist instrumentality in strikes found ready outlets in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph.

In February 1949 Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey persuaded the federal executive of the Liberal Party of Australia to choose Howard—one of Australia’s `most capable, resourceful and experienced public relations’ men—as (Sir) Robert Menzies’ public relations adviser. Several State divisions were uneasy about his appointment. Howard supported conscription and advocated legislation amending the Constitution to make bank nationalisation impossible without a referendum. Despite the success of Menzies’ nationwide tour, Howard was asked in September to accept a two-thirds cut in his remuneration, and the Hansen-Rubensohn advertising agency declined to employ him as the December election neared.

From his dingy office in George Street, Sydney, Howard represented the interests of, among others, the Australian Council of Employers’ Federations, the Graziers’ Association of New South Wales and some Sydney bookmakers, and produced periodicals for his clients. Adamant that public relations work must `build up, in the public mind, a feeling of informed friendliness towards … industry and an appreciation of the role it plays in the nation’s economic and social life’, in 1952 through his Research Service Howard started to publish a monthly industrial index and economic analysis. Next year he began hosting a weekly `Book Parade’ on the Macquarie network for Angus & Robertson Ltd.

Stewart Howard & Associates Pty Ltd, his public relations consultancy, continued until 1977. He moved to New Zealand in 1982. Survived by his wife and the daughter of his first marriage, he died on 30 September 1983 at Palmerston North, New Zealand. The death of that enigmatic and often controversial pioneer of the Australian public relations industry went largely unnoticed.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Buckridge, The Scandalous Penton (1994)
  • B. Griffen-Foley, The House of Packer (1999)
  • M. North (ed), Yarn Spinners (2001)
  • Meanjin, vol 10, no 1, 1951, p 56
  • Things I Hear, 3 Mar 1947, p 1, 21 Feb 1949, p 3, 14 Mar 1949, p 2, 6 Nov 1952, p 3, 8 Jan 1953, p 2
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 16 Feb 1949, p 11
  • Record (Melbourne Chamber of Commerce), Oct 1950, p 18
  • series A1608, item AK27/1/2 (National Archives of Australia)
  • AWM93, item 50/2/23/219 (Australian War Memorial)
  • Casey family papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Dymphna Cusack papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Liberal Party of Australia records (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bridget Griffen-Foley, 'Howard, William Stewart McPhee (1903–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/howard-william-stewart-mcphee-12659/text22813, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 13 December 2017.

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

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