By Nigel Starck, The Guardian
Philanthropist and mother of Rupert Murdoch, she was regarded as a national treasure in her native Australia
Despite the many upheavals, setbacks and disputes in his long career as a media tycoon, there was only one person whom Rupert Murdoch regarded with real trepidation: his mother, Dame Elisabeth. She has died at the age of 103.
It was she who, in 1969, cautioned him against buying the News of the World, warning – prophetically, as it turned out – that it would one day lead to trouble. “I didn’t approve at all … what they published was intruding into people’s privacy,” she told the Guardian 40 years later. Her son retorted that: “Lots of people have very empty lives and want something entertaining to read.”
Dame Elisabeth led a life that was far from empty. According to her son’s biographer Michael Wolff, she qualified as Australia‘s answer to Rose Kennedy and the Queen Mother: matriarch of the clan, champion of more than 100 causes, and elevation to the status of national treasure.
She was born the youngest of three daughters to Marie and Rupert Greene. He was a Melbourne wool-trade entrepreneur and inveterate gambler, and although the young Elisabeth was educated at genteel private colleges in the state of Victoria – St Catherine’s, Toorak and Clyde School, Woodend – money was often tight.
On one occasion, her father bought her a tricycle as a birthday present; her mother, from sensible Scottish stock, said they could not afford it and sent it back to the shop. The incident “nearly broke my heart”, Dame Elisabeth recalled in a television interview shortly before her 100th birthday.
When she was a debutante of 18, her photograph appeared in a newspaper owned by the publisher Keith Murdoch, then aged 42. He was entranced, wooing – and winning – Elisabeth despite her family’s objections to his age and their insistence on the attentions of a chaperone.
Murdoch’s gift to his bride at their wedding in 1928 was Cruden Farm, on a peninsula south of Melbourne. Over the decades, the chatelaine of Cruden would transform its 153 acres into an estate of distinction: an avenue of lemon-scented gum trees leading to a neo-classical house with landscaped gardens, where her now 77 descendants could find an Australian idyll. There were regular open days, too, for the thousands who called to admire the flora. Formal admiration was accorded as well, with horticultural authorities naming a rose (a Hybrid Tea variety) and a species of boronia (B elisabethiae) after her.
When Keith, knighted in 1933, died of cancer in 1952, Elisabeth promptly sold his Queensland press acquisitions; this decision led to some familial ill-feeling. Thereafter, her only son would direct their holdings in the newspaper industry, to the point of eventually buying out his mother and his three sisters.
The four Murdoch offspring had been raised on a regimen of affection, consistency and strict authority. Rupert always saw her as “the disciplinarian”; for her part, Dame Elisabeth would readily declare that more than once she took a slipper to his backside. Signs of such matriarchal discipline could be detected in the home-grown newspaper empire, long after she relinquished any formal corporate control; none of the Murdoch-owned tabloids in Australia ever dared to print bare-topped page-three girls.
She dispensed largesse, too, supporting the arts and education, along with less fashionable causes: prisoners’ welfare, children in care, mental health. Her philanthropy led to her appointment as DBE in 1963 and Companion of the Order of Australia in 1989. When she had turned 96 in 2005, and still with a punishing schedule of committee meetings and charity functions, Dame Elisabeth was made Victorian of the Year by her home state.
People in the neighbourhood -simply called her “the Dame”. She drove an unpretentious sedan, liked to answer her own telephone calls and preached the virtue of breakfast in bed. The artist Judy Cassab, staying at Cruden to work on Dame Elisabeth’s portrait, awoke to that luxury – cooked and delivered by the lady of the house herself.
“I’m like my rose,” Dame Elisabeth told a reporter on the eve of turning 100. “As tough as old boots.”
She is survived by her son and two daughters; a third daughter predeceased her.
• Elisabeth Joy Murdoch, philanthropist, born 8 February 1909; died 5 December 2012