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Buttrose, Charles Oswald (1909–1999)

by Joyce Morgan

If a music critic had not tripped while getting off a tram, Charles Buttrose later speculated, he might have remained as a proofreader on The News in Adelaide.

Instead, the critic's broken leg became Buttrose's break into journalism. Buttrose, who has died in Sydney at the age of 89, began writing music reviews, the first step in a career that would see him become first a war correspondent and editor, then develop a long association with the ABC orchestras and eventually become the national broadcaster's assistant general manager. Along the way, he would have memorable encounters with everyone from Sir Robert Menzies to US President Lyndon Johnson.

Music and journalism were the two themes of his life. Born in the genteel Adelaide suburb of Unley, Buttrose was educated at the Dominican Convent, Glenelg, and Christian Brothers' Colleges in Victoria and Western Australia.

He sang in cafes as a youth, where he was billed as "The Boy with the Angel's Voice", and later studied singing at Adelaide's Elder Conservatorium.

After beginning his newspaper career reading proofs at The News, he moved to Melbourne's Sun-Pictorial, where he covered State and Federal politics. Federal politics remained his domain at The Sydney Morning Herald until he was posted to Indonesia, then the Netherlands East Indies, in 1942.

He became friends during his Herald years with the celebrated British music critic and cricket commentator Neville Cardus.

Buttrose left Australia for New York in 1944, where he joined the Australian News and Information Bureau and served as the Australian delegation's press attache to the conference that formulated the United Nations Charter. He met the Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence while in New York and ghosted her autobiography, Interrupted Melody.

Buttrose returned to newspapers in New York, becoming a foreign correspondent for Sydney's Daily Mirror, a publication he edited from 1951-54. After a period as chief editorial writer on The Daily Telegraph, he joined the ABC in 1957 as federal supervisor of publicity and the following year became director of publicity and concerts.

With his working life spent outside the Public Service, he could be impatient with the bureaucracy he encountered within the ABC and was at times scathing of colleagues he regarded as not up to scratch. He regarded public servants as slower to think and act than his journalistic colleagues.

While he was critical of public servants, he was equally critical of contemporary journalism and the publication of what he believed were too many "windy think pieces, any of which might be improved by the cutting by a third or more". He was disdainful of the growing number of first-person stories in which the author appeared more important than the subject.

Buttrose's work with the ABC took him again to the US where he met US President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. In his entertaining autobiography Words & Music, Buttrose recalled Johnson's comments about former Prime Minister Harold Holt: "You know the Boy Holt was here recently. He got out on the front lawn and said: 'All the way with LBJ.' Sure, you heard about it. I was pleased, but I know what a political clanger it must have been in Australia. Old Man Menzies would never have said a thing like that."

Buttrose encountered Menzies many times and regarded him as a political backwoodsman, but an entertaining storyteller and mimic. Menzies had little interest in music, although Buttrose recalled him attending a Canberra recital by Isaac Stern, a concert that coincided with the broadcast of a Test match between England and Australia. Throughout the performance Menzies was updated every 15 minutes with the score.

Buttrose became assistant general manager of the ABC in 1974. After retiring from the ABC the same year, he worked for six years in executive posts for the Australia Council.

As well as his autobiography, Buttrose was the author of Playing For Australia, A Story about ABC Orchestras and Music in Australia.

Buttrose married, first, in 1937, Clare Rodgers (deceased 1994); they had four children, Julian, Will, Ita and Charles, all of whom survive him. He married, second, in 1962, Margot Weisener, who also survives him.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1999, p 39

Additional Resources

Citation details

Joyce Morgan, 'Buttrose, Charles Oswald (1909–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/buttrose-charles-oswald-20459/text31396, accessed 20 June 2019.

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