Woman of quiet influence always put others first
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch cast a long shadow, if such a thing can be said of a woman who brought so much light to the world.
It was a shadow that touched the many charities and organisations to which she offered her support, her time and her considerable money. And it was a shadow that touched and influenced the many members of the Murdoch clan - none more so than her only son, Rupert.
As tributes poured in from all corners for the Murdoch matriarch, who died in her sleep on Wednesday night aged 103, the 81-year-old media mogul took to Twitter to express his gratitude.
Dame Elisabeth passes away
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch with her grandson Lachlan and granddaughter Elizabeth at her 103rd birthday celebrations at The Melbourne Recital Centre on February 8, 2012. Photo: Pat Scala
''Many thanks for condolences about my Mum,'' Rupert Murdoch tweeted. ''A great lady, wife, mother and citizen. 193 yo, but still a blow.''
Shortly afterwards, he corrected himself, for the record. ''No, 103 yo! There are limits!''
But there were few limits for Dame Elisabeth Murdoch when it came to giving.
Wife, mother, philanthropist … Elisabeth Murdoch in the 1920s. Photo: Murdoch family
''One's chief obligation,'' she told The Australian Women's Weekly in 2003, ''is to think about other people and how one can help them.''
That same year Philanthropy Australia compiled a 40-page tribute to what it called Dame Elisabeth's ''extraordinary contribution'' and her part in ''setting a wonderful example of giving so much with such thought and care''. The 43 charities and organisations it named ranged across the arts and culture to mental health, special-needs education, animal welfare and the environment. It was a conservative tally; a more up-to-date figure would likely top 100.
She was ''undoubtedly one of the most wonderful Victorians of all time'', said the state's Premier, Ted Baillieu. ''Her life was devoted to others.''
With her son, Rupert, in 1994.
She was ''a national treasure, and her legacy will live forever,'' said News Limited's Victorian managing director of editorial, Peter Blunden. ''She was generous, gracious and humble, and always put others first.''
To Lachlan Murdoch, who briefly paid tribute at Channel Ten's annual meeting yesterday, his grandmother was ''absolutely a remarkable person and is the closest person I will ever know, the closest, frankly, to a saint, in my view''.
Compassionate she may have been but Dame Elisabeth Murdoch was no soft touch. Speaking to The Age's gardening writer Denise Gadd in 2009, she said the rose that had been named after her was ''tough as old boots, like me''.
Elisabeth Murdoch in her garden at Cruden Farm. Photo: Getty Images
In 2008 the American writer Michael Wolff observed that ''at the centre of the Murdoch family structure, dominating not just by longevity (although that surely helps) but by all manner of maternal force and wiles, is Dame Elisabeth Murdoch''. Within the family, Wolff wrote, Rupert Murdoch ''is put in his place''.
That dynamic has been noted by numerous Murdoch biographers. In his 1976 book Rupert Murdoch: A Business Biography, Simon Regan claimed Dame Elisabeth ''is perhaps Rupert's sternest critic, reminding him always that, however far he goes, he must not lose his principles or ever succumb to overindulgence''.
Regan also claimed ''she is … embarrassed about the sheer amount of money her son is amassing''.
In Barefaced Cheek in 1983, Michael Leapman imagined himself into Murdoch's mind as he plotted to buy The Times and The Sunday Times: ''Wouldn't it vindicate him once and for all in his mother's eyes?''
Throughout his career, Leapman added, Murdoch had ''operated as though his mother's approval was paramount among the criteria for taking decisions''.
He noted they talked ''two or three times a week'', a habit that News insiders confirmed today had been maintained until fairly recently, when Dame Elisabeth's health had begun to falter.
She regularly criticised him for his tabloid papers' more intrusive practices.
''She never failed to make her views known to him,'' said Andrew Butcher, former corporate affairs chief at News Corp's head office in New York. ''They were always extremely typical mother-son conversations - polite and robust and humorous and always respectful on his part even if, like most sons, he didn't particularly want her giving her views. Their arguments and debates were the same as for any of us - just with bigger numbers.''
And always, in her eyes, there was the comparison to his late father, Keith.
Rupert Murdoch's incredible media adventure began in 1953 when the then 22-year-old returned to Australia to take the helm of the Adelaide News, all that remained of the empire his father had built up before his untimely death.
''His father dying so young was a great challenge to Rupert,'' Dame Elisabeth said in William Shawcross's 1992 book Murdoch. ''Subconsciously, he wanted to prove he was worth all his father's trust and worth all his praise. It was a challenge. And that is probably the secret of his success.''
Others believed she had kept alive an idealised notion of her late husband as the benchmark against which Rupert was compared, and all too often found wanting.
''Dame Elisabeth Murdoch … holds intact the image of the hero she married when she was 19,'' wrote former the Sunday Times investigative journalist, Bruce Page, in The Murdoch Archipelago in 2004. ''To this example she has consistently and publicly insisted the heir should conform.''
She loathed the more egregious transgressions of his tabloid papers. And despite her reluctance to be drawn into situations that might embarrass him, last year she signed a petition in support a price on carbon - a measure Rupert's Australian papers opposed.
She was perhaps never so proud of Rupert as the day, just more than 26 years ago, when he succeeded in his bid for the company his father had managed, the Herald and Weekly Times. Rupert, she said, was ''a modern-day version of my husband … He's very much like his father.''
But in his determination and drive, and his ability to inspire fierce loyalty in the people around him, it is clear that he is also very much like his mother.
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch will be honoured in a state memorial service at 11am on Tuesday, December 18, at St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne. The service will be broadcast live to the screens at Federation Square.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, one of the many foundations of which Dame Elisabeth was a patron.