If one randomly came across the name of the Hon. Mrs Ashley Dawson-Damer, before the publication of A Particular Woman, it would likely be in the social pages, such as when the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year described her as a "celebrated arts patron, staunch Liberal and one of the wealthiest women in Sydney".
Few, however, would be aware of her unusual and colourful life, with a significant number of ups and downs, both personally and financially. In her autobiography, Dawson-Damer, born Ashley Mann in 1945, reflects on many issues, particularly the changing roles of women in a man's world, mental health, family relationships, political loyalties and cultural philanthropy.
Ashley's father, William Mann, a young Wing Commander in the Second World War and her mother, Judith Drake -Brockman, constituted, "A war-torn traumatised family - a restless home which couldn't settle after the turbulence of the war years". Her parents ultimately divorced.
Ashley attended Wenona School and graduated with a Bachelor of Economics from Sydney University in the mid-1960s. It's a sign of the times that there was a Miss Economics contest in which Maggie Taberer awarded Ashley second prize.
After graduation, Ashley began working as a market researcher. She imagined a successful career, husband and a house full of children. Instead, she sacrificed her career after marrying Phil, a 25-year-old "blonde equine veterinarian" and relocating with him to Canada. Phil's switch to a mutual fund job took them variously to the Philippines, Singapore, Nigeria, and Argentina.
Her description of life in these countries ranges from a jet-setting social life to absolute despair, particularly after several miscarriages; the description of one in Nigeria, through a lack of adequate medical support, is particularly harrowing.
Ashley comments, "Grieving mothers . .. were given no tools then with which to deal with their grief . . . I continued to believe I was responsible for the deaths of my little ones by failing to give them life".
They adopted two children, Piers and Adelicia, but, in 1980, Phil left her after 12 years of marriage. Ashley "hadn't anticipated Phil's ability to turn his back on people, as many men do . . . my complicated pregnancies were a burden".
During a prolonged divorce settlement, Ashley faced, as a single mother, the possibility of Adelicia being taken away by the New South Wales Department of Youth and Community services.
After surviving that crisis, Ashley used her marketing skills to begin a modelling career, often taking her children along to the shoots. She took pleasure in defeating Phil's new wife as the model chosen to feature in Arnott's commercials!
Ashley notes, "I've always been a seeker of adventure and interesting people and not of sex". She certainly found an interesting person at a dinner party in 1980 in the Honourable Lionel John Charles Seymour Dawson-Damer, "a slightly tubby Englishman, an aristocrat with floppy hair . . . with an infectious laugh ".
They would marry two years later in April, 1982. 18 happy family years followed, including restoring the historic house and gardens of Oran Park, which John had bought in 1969. Ashley has reflected, "During my desolate years as a single mother I had no sense of this richness to come".
Dawson -Damer had assembled one of the world's best private collection of Lotus racing cars. On June 24, 2000, however, he tragically died racing his rare Lotus 63 at Goodwood.
After the funeral formalities, Ashley's mental health again took a downward spiral: "I was on my own again without a life partner. Now I was a widow and my identity had suddenly shifted."
Oran Park "lost its vitality" and it was sold in 2006 for $19 million. Ashley found solace in philanthropy: "John had given me the financial security to enable me to stretch my wings . . . And to step up and step out".
Her wings spread over work for, and substantial donations, to Opera Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum of Sydney, the Art Gallery of NSW, and the National Institute of Dramatic Art, where she played the major role in gaining $25 million from the Howard government.
In the COVID era, we need philanthropy more than ever. Ashley comments, "Too often it's the same people who are generous time and again . . . A lot of men are selfish, they've made enormous amounts and they have a closed mind to sharing it."
She cogently outlines the problems for women in the "jungle" of high level male dominated boards. She, however, never shirks a fight. Her father, "had a fierce ego, too fierce sometimes. Yet I understand him, as I'm made of the same cloth."
Ashley's life didn't play out as she expected in the 1960s, but through self-belief, hard work and love of family, "if we are lucky, we will survive the tragedies that might occur and go on to be stronger".
- A Particular Woman by Ashley Dawson-Damer. Ventura Press $32.99.