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Roxon, Lillian (1932–1973)

by Robert Milliken

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Lillian Roxon (1932-1973), journalist and author, was born on 8 February 1932 at Savona, Italy, second of three children of Izydor Ropschitz, medical practitioner, and his wife Rosa, née Breitman. Unable to study medicine in his native Poland because of discrimination against Jews, Izydor had graduated from the University of Padua, Italy, and moved in 1926 to Alassio, on the Italian Riviera, where he built a thriving practice. Following the pact between Hitler and Mussolini, the family fled to Britain in September 1938 and reached Melbourne on 13 August 1940. Settling in Brisbane, Izydor was registered as a medical practitioner on 14 November. Next month he changed his name to Isador Roxon. Lillian boarded at St Hilda's School, Southport, for three years before attending Brisbane State High School.

Hoping to become a journalist, Roxon had sold her first article to Woman magazine (later Woman's Day) when she was 14. On leaving school in 1949, she failed 'to get even a copy girl's job'. She enrolled at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1955) and found it 'a nice place to hang out and meet boys'. She was drawn into 'the Push', a network of intellectuals and Bohemians whose libertarian philosophy towards sex and politics put it at odds with the restrictive social mores of the 1950s. Some of its most prominent figures, like Roxon, were children of European parents who had emigrated to Australia. Through the Push, she established her reputation as an independent woman, a wit, a seeker-out and promoter of talent, and a person with an almost unrivalled capacity to shock others. Craig McGregor, an Australian journalist, later described her as 'the mistress of the put-down and the send-up, the come-on and the come-uppance, the double-faced about-turn and the blunt, uncompromising insult'.

After working as a publicist for Anthony Hordern & Sons, a Sydney department store, Roxon broke into journalism in 1957 when hired by Donald Horne, editor of the magazine, Weekend. She did not stay long. A visit to New York had convinced her that that city was her milieu, and she left Australia for the United States of America in 1959. At first she freelanced at Hollywood for Weekend, then joined the New York bureau of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1963. This position enabled her to cover the rebellious social, cultural and political movements that occurred in the 1960s.

At a 1966 press conference, Danny Fields, a publicist and rock band manager, was impressed when Roxon asked Brian Epstein, manager of 'The Beatles': 'are you a millionaire?' The question indicated that she recognized that rock music was no passing fad, but likely to become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Fields introduced her to Max's Kansas City, a New York nightclub at the forefront of the 1960s counter-culture. Its patrons included artists, singers and actors, such as Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Jane Fonda, John Lennon and Janis Joplin.

Roxon became a central figure at Max's, where she held court among the stars and became a confidante to many influential people in the music business. In 1968 she set out to chronicle the rock scene and counter-culture in what was to be the world's first encyclopaedia of rock music. Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia was published in 1969. Running to 611 pages, it contained 1200 alphabetical entries. It had three printings in hardback edition before appearing as a paperback. The New York Times described it as 'the most complete book on rock music and rock culture ever written'. It was the template for many that followed.

The encyclopaedia made Roxon something of a celebrity. Her own portrait for it was taken by one of her famous friends, Linda Eastman, a photographer who later married (Sir) Paul McCartney, the 'Beatle'. The book brought Roxon a regular column on rock music in the Sunday News (New York) and another column, 'The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Sex', in Mademoiselle magazine. When Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch (London, 1970) she dedicated the book to Roxon, whose independence she admired. The two women (who had started out in the Sydney Push) had a somewhat feisty friendship. Roxon saw Greer's dedication as double-edged; she paid her back in kind in one of her columns.

While working for the S.M.H. and writing the encyclopaedia at nights and weekends, Roxon had developed asthma. She was a short woman, noted for her flawless skin and youthful looks, but the asthma attacks, and the weight she developed from the cortisone drugs prescribed for it, imposed severe strains on her. Early in August 1973, dressed in a typically flamboyant gown and feather stole, she attended a singing performance at Max's Kansas City for what proved to be the last time. Alarmed at her failure to return telephone calls, friends summoned the police, broke into her apartment on East 21st Street and found her body. She had died of a massive asthma attack on (or about) 9 August.

A memorial service for Roxon was held at the Universal Funeral Chapel, New York. Her estate was sworn for probate at $44,378. In November 1973 her younger brother Jack set up the Lillian Roxon Memorial Asthma Research Trust in Melbourne to help Australian researchers to study overseas. In 1998 Yvonne Ruskin, in her book, High on Rebellion (New York), called Lillian Roxon the 'mother of rock and roll journalism'.

Select Bibliography

  • Quadrant, Jan-Feb 1971
  • New York Times, 17 May 1970, 11 Aug 1973
  • Nation (Sydney), 15 May 1971
  • Rolling Stone, 13 Sept 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Aug, 12 Nov 1973, 7 Mar 1974, 8 Nov 1975
  • Roxon papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Milliken, 'Roxon, Lillian (1932–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roxon-lillian-11577/text20665, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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