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Norton, Ezra (1897–1967)

by Valerie Lawson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Ezra Norton (1897-1967), newspaper proprietor, was born on 8 April 1897 at Watsons Bay, Sydney, elder child of John Norton, the English-born proprietor of Truth, and Ada McGrath who was native-born. John married Ada a few weeks later and may have chosen the infant's name in honour of the scribe in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Ezra never recovered from his parents' tempestuous relationship. His birth was legitimized in 1907. By the time he was 15, he had learned how to defend his mother from his father's assaults and to stand up for his own rights in the face of continuing mental and physical abuse. He was educated at Scots College, Bellevue Hill. There he was ridiculed by a teacher because of his infamous father. As a result, Norton often stayed away from school and was thrashed when he did attend. After he failed to matriculate for the second time, he was sent to Christian Brothers' College, Waverley, where he was treated with kindness.

Ezra worked in his father's business and quickly acquired the basics of newspaper production. John died in 1916. He disinherited his wife and son, and left his estate (sworn for probate at £140,331) to his daughter Joan. In 1920 Ada Norton successfully challenged the will in the Equity Court, receiving a third share of the estate, with the remainder divided equally between Ezra and Joan. At St James's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 30 November 1922 Norton married Lillian Mary (Molly) Willoughby (d.1952), a 29-year-old teacher of dancing; he adopted her son.

On gaining control of his father's company, Norton became managing director of Truth and Sportsman Ltd which published the Sunday paper, Truth, in various State editions, and the weekly Sydney Sportsman. He tried at first to broaden the Truth formula from its staples of divorce reports and sport. Under a new slogan, 'The People's Paper', it waged war against crime in Sydney, added a smattering of culture, and temporarily abandoned columns called 'Sheisms' (about the silliness of women) and 'Prickly Pairs' (about relationships in trouble). They soon returned as Truth fell back on its familiar mix of sport, crime and divorce, all told with an alliterative flourish (such as 'From Lounge Lizard to Long Bay Lodger').

Norton frightened his staff, treating reporters and executives alike with calculated rudeness. A stream of abuse was often preceded by a twitching of his nose. Any sign of weakness in his targets encouraged him to greater sarcasm and ridicule. In frequent sacking blitzes, up to twenty reporters were dismissed at a time. Eric Baume said that Norton 'was never a great editor but he was a genius in newspaper machinery matters. Before you joined him he was all politeness. Once you had joined him it was all fear and you became his body-servant. I loathed every bit of my service with him'. Norton was known as a 'tightwad' in business matters, but in private he was generous to staff who were ill or in financial trouble. Unable to accept gratitude with ease, he turned away thanks as if receiving an insult.

For all his crudity and roughhouse manner, Norton was not uncouth. He was polite to women and sentimental towards animals, especially dogs. Considered enigmatic and a lone wolf, he was a short, trim man, usually clad in expensively tailored suits. He invariably wore a hat and often a camelhair coat, even on warm days. His manner was furtive, he seldom smiled, and his mouth seemed permanently set at '20 to 4'. He frequently went to the cinema, read history and literature, collected paintings, and was fond of certain operas, operettas, and musical comedies, especially those by Rodgers and Hammerstein. His friends included the politicians Arthur Calwell, (Sir) Eric Harrison and Eddie Ward. A close friend was Dr Kenneth Smith, a general practitioner of Darlinghurst, who accompanied Norton to the races, and to the boxing at the Stadium. He made other friends through his interests in racing and the Trocadero nightclub which he established in George Street in 1936.

On Derby Day 1939 Norton had came to blows in the members' enclosure at Randwick Racecourse with his 'enemy' (Sir) Frank Packer of Consolidated Press Ltd. Provoked by Packer, who had published unflattering photographs of him in the Telegraph, Norton struck the first blow and was forced to apologize to the Australian Jockey Club committee. Maurice Grogan, studmaster at Blandford Lodge, Matamata, New Zealand, selected racehorses for Norton, among them Straight Draw, winner of the A.J.C. Metropolitan Handicap and the Melbourne Cup in 1957, and the Sydney Cup in 1958.

The launch of Packer's Sunday Telegraph in 1939 had weakened Truth. Norton envied Packer's success and, during World War II, resented his commission in the Australian Imperial Force. For some time Truth ran a photograph of 'Captain Frank Packer' enjoying himself at the races, with the comment 'Captain Packer will be leaving for the front shortly'. Norton decided to launch a daily tabloid in competition with both Packer's Telegraph and Associated Newspapers Ltd's Sun. He lobbied politicians for a licence to import newsprint, despite the Menzies government's decision to introduce newsprint rationing. After setbacks and fierce opposition from his rivals, Norton gained the licence in January 1941, with the help of Harrison who was by then the Federal minister for trade and customs. The afternoon Daily Mirror was launched in May; by 1947 its circulation had overtaken that of the Sun.

By the mid-1950s the 'news' in Truth revolved around 'the Dogs' Home, the race courses, Sydney Stadium, the doings of Mr Justice Dovey, adulterated food, White Australia and the threat of atomic radiation' and what it was doing to the weather. Both the Daily Mirror and Truth had fallen in circulation, and Norton wanted to quit. In October 1958 Truth was replaced by Norton's new Sunday Mirror. He considered selling his newspaper interests to the Daily Mirror group in Britain and the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd in Melbourne, but instead approached Rupert Henderson, managing director of John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald. In December 1958 Norton and his associates sold their shares in Truth and Sportsman Ltd to O'Connell Pty Ltd, a company controlled by Fairfax, which in turn disposed of a controlling interest to Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd.

On 11 June 1953 at St James's Church, Sydney, Norton had married Emma Georgina ('Peggy') Morrison, his 38-year-old secretary. They lived at Carmel, Albert Street, Woollahra, where a bust of Norton as a young man was placed in the hall. Peggy believed that her husband sold his newspaper interests because he feared ill health and knew he had no clear successor; moreover, he anticipated that the Matrimonial Causes Act (1959) would proscribe the reporting of evidence in divorce cases. After his retirement Norton said, 'I'm now a piece of cheese with everyone trying to have a nibble at me'. He owned a publishing business, Invincible Press, and a parking station in the city, and he continued to take an interest in the Trocadero. Having sold Carmel, he built a house at Vaucluse, with an Olympic-sized, salt-water swimming-pool.

Driven by his fears and prejudices, Norton was 'a tortured soul seeking inward peace', according to a former employee, Irvine Douglas. Norton loathed Freemasons and despised homosexuals. His alarm at what Cyril Pearl had written about his father led him to attempt to prevent the publication of Wild Men of Sydney (1958). It was widely believed that Norton had lobbied the State government to introduce and pass the controversial Defamation Act (1958) which redefined criminal libel to include the dead. He was afraid of travelling by air or in welded ships (as he had heard of Liberty ships breaking up in wartime). Norton was as fond of alcohol as his father had been, and frequented the Australia Hotel where he often drank French champagne.

Still fit in his fifties and early sixties, Norton learned in 1966 that he had cancer. He converted to Catholicism and was received into the Church by Cardinal (Sir) Norman Gilroy. Grateful to the Sisters of Mercy who had cared for his sister when she was dying, Norton was a benefactor of the Order. Survived by his wife and their daughter, and by his adopted son, he died on 4 January 1967 at his Vaucluse home and was buried in South Head cemetery with Catholic rites. His estate was sworn for probate in Canberra at $3,844,672.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Manning, Larger Than Life (Syd, 1967)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melb, 1972)
  • D. McNicoll, Luck's a Fortune (Syd, 1979)
  • M. Cannon, That Damned Democrat (Melb, 1981)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (Melb, 1981)
  • P. Knightley, A Hack's Progress (Lond, 1997)
  • Nation, 20 Dec 1958, p 8, 3 Jan 1959, p 19, 14 Jan 1967, p 5
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Jan 1967, 4 Sept 1982.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Valerie Lawson, 'Norton, Ezra (1897–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/norton-ezra-11260/text20085, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 31 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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