Behind the iron curtain
Sparks fly … the drama of Rinehart's life is relentless. Photo: Bloomberg
I don't mean to toss a spanner in the works, but years ago while I was interviewing Peter Wright, he suddenly chuckled and said: ''I was supposed to have signed that contract but I never did and they never found out, but you must promise not to tell anyone.''
I didn't, until now. (Never trust a journalist, as the legendary Janet Malcolm puts it in The Journalist and the Murderer.)
Lang Hancock's business partner didn't specify which contract, and it's hard to trace in Adele Ferguson's unauthorised biography of Rinehart. There are so many agreements signed, counter-signed, rubbished and rescued, but a sharp-eyed legal lizard closer to the action might dig it out. I just lay back and wallowed in the story of the world's richest woman, who is worth $29.17 billion. To put that into perspective (well, someone has to and it might as well be an Aussie), she earns $600 a second. And I have to say, nothing beats reading it on the page in a book.
Gina Rinehart by Adele Ferguson. Pan Macmillan, $34.99.
Details are fleshed out in a way no extract or television documentary could with their space limitations: even the minutiae (Gina's voluptuous body problems) are gripping; the verbatim quotes (the ''ers'' and ''ums'' juxtaposed against the ''with Gina you are shot at dawn if you beg to differ'' ring lumberingly true; the emails are shocking in their content (signed ''Mother. Dictated. Typing not checked''). Throughout, an air of overwhelming doom interlaced with imperious triumph leaves the reader gasping.
As the story unfolds, for which Ferguson - a business journalist with Fairfax Media - spoke to friends, enemies, relatives, former employees and colleagues, its soap-opera ambience (The Bold and the Beautiful multiplied by a million) is all-pervading, and the question must be asked: how could a woman blessed with so much become the person she appears to be? Is she a brilliant businesswoman/monster mother/power-hungry megalomaniac, or what?
Whatever, the timing is brilliant. Ferguson could have had no idea when she began writing that Rinehart would make her spectacular bid for Fairfax, or be in public legal strife with her children. She must be ecstatic about the huge media coverage and, by extension, for her book, which to her credit is not judgmental: she presents the evidence and lets the reader decide.
I flew from Gina's childhood, always at her father's side, to the teenager learning the business embedded in Hancock's meetings with global bigwigs, groomed by him to take over his ore-mining empire, one of the world's biggest.
Then it was off into her first marriage at 18 to Hancock employee Greg Milton aka Hayward (airbrushed out of the family history), producing two children, John and Bianca, and zooming back to work, the millions flowing to Lang Hancock and Peter Wright from Rio Tinto royalties, but a mine of their own elusive. They split acrimoniously in 1985; Lang was a no-show at his once-close partner's funeral two months later.
At this point the story takes another of its frequent life-changing twists. Hope, Gina's mother, dies. Gina, 29, marries husband No.2, Frank Rinehart, a rich 68-year-old American lawyer, and bears daughters Hope and Ginia.
Enter sexy Filipina housekeeper Rose Porteous. Lang is smitten, they marry, Gina accuses her of gold-digging. Trouble at mill ensues. Scandalous publicity follows. Lang dies: Gina wonders, was he murdered? More SP! Porteous is sued, they settle out of court. Three children sue Gina for mishandling their trust. Gina loses her battle to gag them. Power is definitely Gina's goal. She buys a seat on Ten Network's board, then buys into Fairfax, demanding two board seats, refusing to accept editorial charter rights. SP goes viral!
That's as far as the biography goes. If Ferguson isn't working on a sequel, she is mad because the drama is relentless. Her last words are ''Whatever she does, the House of Hancock always comes first. Nothing will stand in the way of that. Nothing. Not even her children.'' Then Gina plays cat and mouse with Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett: if his game is not lifted by November's AGM, she will demand his resignation.
But hang on, there's a flashback. On page 145, Ferguson writes: ''… her earthly assets multiply as her wealth grows and everyone will want a piece of the action. Old contracts will be revisited to check they are correct as an alleged minor error could be the difference between millions of dollars.''
I hate to appear crass, but is there a finder's fee? And even though I possess Fairfax shares, would I qualify? (See paragraph one.)
Pan Macmillan, 400pp, $34.99