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Harold Gemmell (Harry) Kippax (1920–1999)

by H. P. Heseltine

This article was published online in 2023

Harold Gemmel Kippax (1920–1999), journalist and theatre critic, was born on 6 October 1920 in North Sydney, eldest of four children of New South Wales-born parents Arthur Craigie Kippax, exporter’s clerk, and his wife Marion Emily, née Gibson. Harry attended Knox Grammar School on Sydney’s North Shore. He edited the school magazine, developed a love of theatre and literature, and, in spite of his love of cricket, was unable to emulate his uncle Alan Kippax, whose skill and elegance as a batsman took him to the highest levels of the game. In 1937 Harry came first in the State in the Leaving certificate English examination, and achieved second-class honours in modern history. Offered a cadetship with the Sydney Morning Herald, in 1938 he embarked on a long career in journalism. In the same year he enrolled in English and history as a part-time student at the University of Sydney. He never completed a degree, but, through his involvement in undergraduate theatre, made some lifelong friends and confirmed his passion for drama and the stage.

As a young cadet Kippax experienced the usual round of assignments, but he later recalled that it was in court reporting ‘that the romance of journalism gripped me’ (Kippax 1972). In 1941 he was sent to Canberra, where he reported on the opening of the Australian War Memorial, the fall of the government of (Sir) Robert Menzies, and the accession of John Curtin to the prime ministership. After finishing his cadetship, he volunteered for service in World War II, beginning full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces on 17 August 1942 and transferring to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in March 1943. He had, as he put it, ‘an unheroic war’ (Kippax 1972) in Australia and at Lae, New Guinea (July 1944–July 1945), as a corporal (1943) with the 81st Wireless Section (Light) and, from April 1945, the 19th Lines of Communication Signals. In both places he took part in amateur theatrical productions. His superiors at the Herald, having decided he would be of greater value as a war correspondent, successfully applied for his discharge from the AIF, which was effected on 6 August.

Kippax’s abilities soon came to the notice of the Herald’s news editor, Angus McLachlan, and in late 1946 Kippax was dispatched to the paper’s London office, where he found another mentor, Colin Bingham. Over the next four years he reported from Britain, Germany, Spain, and Greece. Two of his reports from the civil war in Greece were picked up by the United States of America’s Life magazine and reprinted in its issue for 13 September 1948. Towards the end of his London stay he was appointed manager of the Fleet Street office, but management was never to his taste. He saw himself, first and foremost, as a frontline journalist.

By 1951 Kippax was back in Sydney, and facing some challenges in his private life. On 20 August that year he married Pamela Shearer, née Lymburner, at the registrar general’s office, but his wife had a stillbirth, and the marriage was dissolved. Professionally, his career was flourishing under the guidance of the Herald’s recently appointed editor, John Douglas Pringle. In 1951 he was appointed news editor, a position he held until 1954, when he was sent overseas again, this time to the United States, to report on the Army-McCarthy hearings investigating Senator Joseph McCarthy’s allegations of communist interference in the army. He sent back to Sydney perceptive stories about mid-century America, ranging across its landscapes, people, cities, and history. By December of that year he was in Britain. One of the first two foreign journalists to be granted a visa to the Soviet Union following the death of Stalin in 1953, in 1955 he travelled widely in Russia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan, reporting from all of them. In November 1956 he arrived in Suez the day after British paratroopers had been dropped to take control of the canal.

Returning to Sydney in late 1957, the following year Kippax accepted an invitation from his colleague and friend Tom Fitzgerald to be theatre reviewer for the newly founded fortnightly magazine Nation. His first review (of the Phillip Street Theatre’s Bats) appeared in October 1958 under the nom de plume of ‘Brek,’ the sound made by the chorus in Aristophanes’s The Frogs. The identity of the writer behind the pseudonym would become an open secret, and his authority as a reviewer secure. His personal relationships did not proceed so smoothly. On 4 February 1965 at the registrar general’s office he married for a second time; his bride, Susan Caroline James, a market researcher, was some twenty years his junior. Their marriage lasted a little more than three years.

In 1966 at Pringle’s insistence Kippax moved his theatre reviewing from Nation to the Herald, where he published reviews under his own name. With one major break, his assessments of (mainly) Sydney stage performances continued until 13 January 1989, when the Herald printed his last review—of David Williamson’s Top Silk. Williamson was one of many playwrights, actors, and other theatre practitioners whom Kippax had encouraged and promoted. There were others who were the objects of his trenchant criticism. His increasing disappointment with Patrick White’s work for the stage led to a bitter break between the two men. By the time of his retirement he had created a body of work that established him as one of the most astute commentators on theatre and drama in Australian history.

Theatre criticism was only one facet of Kippax’s contribution to print journalism. From 1965 to 1968 he was the Herald’s literary editor, and from 1971 to 1979 its associate editor. Between 1958 and 1983 he wrote 3,456 editorials. Their range and variety are as striking as their number. Inevitably their political attitudes mirrored those of the Herald’s proprietors. The dismissal of the Australian Labor Party government of Gough Whitlam on 11 November 1975, the events leading up to it, and its consequences elicited from him a series of editorials strongly critical of Whitlam and his government. Privately, however, he retained his independence. ‘I find it impossible to adhere to any particular political party or even a particular political creed,’ he told Hazel de Berg (Kippax 1972).

The 1970s brought Kippax further travel abroad. In 1971 he had visited Iran, Turkey, Singapore, and India; in 1976 he travelled to Saudi Arabia. As he approached sixty, he began to feel the cumulative weight of the travel, late nights, and draining hard work of years of devotion to his craft. He was not in good health. Although he had intended to retire in late 1985, his last editorial appeared on 25 June 1983. For several more years he continued his theatre reviewing. He was appointed AO in 1988. On 4 March 1988 he was assaulted after leaving a performance at the Belvoir Street Theatre. It was an experience from which he never fully recovered, and in retirement he rarely attended performances. He supported a range of charities, and attempted unsuccessfully to bring some of his life’s work to book publication. On 12 August 1999 he died at Mosman; he was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Heseltine, Harry, ed. A Leader of His Craft: Theatre Reviews by H. G. Kippax. Strawberry Hills, NSW: Currency House, 2004
  • Heseltine, Harry, ed. The Voice of the Thunderer: Journalism of H. G. Kippax. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2006
  • Kippax, Harold Gemmell. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 23 June 1972. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX148764
  • Souter, Gavin. Company of Heralds: A Century and a Half of Australian Publishing by John Fairfax Limited and Its Predecessors 1831–1981. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1981
  • State Library of New South Wales. H. G. Kippax papers, 1932–1997

Additional Resources

Citation details

H. P. Heseltine, 'Kippax, Harold Gemmell (Harry) (1920–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kippax-harold-gemmell-harry-32718/text40670, published online 2023, accessed online 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Brek
Birth

6 October, 1920
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

12 August, 1999 (aged 78)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lung)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Education
Occupation
Military Service
Awards
Key Organisations
Workplaces