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Fraser, Una Arnold (1902–1998)

by Philip Jones

When Una Fraser was asked what would have become of her had she not married, she replied: "I should like to have been a concert pianist or an actress." But Una Woolf was a woman of her time and place and marriage was de rigueur for a girl of beauty and cultivation. There is no doubt, however, that when the decision was made she derived enormous satisfaction from her marriage and nurturing two remarkable children.

She was one of three daughters of Louis and Amy (Booth) Woolf. The family moved to Perth when she was young and she was educated privately with special emphasis on music and French. She acted in repertory theatre.

A friend describes her as a "natural aristocrat" and from an early age she moved effortlessly in establishment circles. On a visit to Melbourne – where she stayed at Government House – she met and fell in love with John Neville Fraser, barrister at the Inns of Court and pastoralist, son of Sir Simon Fraser, a founding father of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The couple married at St Mark's Church of England, Darling Point, Sydney, in 1926 and a reception was held at the home of the bride's uncle, trader Samuel Hordern. Neville and Una then went to live at Balpool Station, north west of Deniliquin. Una set about furnishing a gimcrack concrete house with exquisite Georgian and Regency pieces as well as a Bechstein grand piano. In a somewhat grand manner, the Frasers coped with life in the semi-outback with, as Una wrote later: "Its plagues of locusts, mice, frogs, droughts, floods ...  the lot!"

It helped, of course, to be rich and – despite the Depression – the Frasers retained a Melbourne flat at 2 Collins Street as well as a house at Portsea. Both children were born in Melbourne. Lorraine (Lorri) in 1927 and Malcolm in 1930. Una possessed a strong sense of destiny for her children.

She perceived Lorri's artistic temperament early on and was tolerant of her rebelliousness and non-conformism, recognising these characteristics to be endemic of her nature and talent.

Likewise she was impressed with Malcolm's intelligence, mental discipline and single-minded application to the task in hand. When Lorri Whiting achieved success as a modern artist in Europe, Una was as proud of her as she was of her prime minister son at home in Australia: indeed the vast difference in temperament between her children served to make their successes all the more gratifying.

Neville Fraser sold Balpool in 1944 and the family moved to Nareen, near Coleraine, western Victoria. Here Una enjoyed a more cohesive and cultivated rural society. Joan, Lady Law-Smith, distinguished writer and artist became one of her closest friends.

A woman who visited Nareen as a child in the 1940s remembers Una as being "always on the side of the underdog". It seems she passed on this sympathy to her children. "I'm a soft old lefty," Lorri told me. Malcolm made the prime ministership a stepping stone to work against apartheid, the starving and the dispossessed of this world. Una's influence lives on in her granddaughter, Phoebe, in her (sometimes dangerous) work for CARE International.

Una's forbearance also extended to her husband, war hero at Ypres and in the Somme. In the 1920s, the insouciant Neville and his mate, R. G. Casey, imported French Delages cars and turned themselves into playboy salesmen. With cavalier disregard for the hoi polloi, they roped off the Geelong road and raced the cars at more than 220 kmh. When the gangster Squizzy Taylor bought one for use as a getaway car, the police were quick to arrive at the Fraser home concerned (needlessly, one should add) that Fraser and Casey were keeping bad company.

By all accounts the Fraser marriage was extremely happy, although Neville was wary of Una's interest in the arts. Neville died in 1962 and Una spent the next 36 years on her own. Home was an enormous flat in South Yarra where she entertained lavishly.

Like many widows, she developed intellectually, culturally and socially, no longer restricting herself to a narrow social elite. People of all ages, "ancient and modern like my glass", she would say: many were artists, of course, and if some were gay, so be it.

Her glass collection of the Anglo-Irish "golden age" was superior to most public repositories and she was a scholar as well as a collector.

She attended lectures in art history at the University of Melbourne, introducing herself to fellow students simply as Una. She was a strongly opinionated woman, "a great warrior", with a knowledge of history and she exhibited an intense curiosity about everything. Her memory was prodigious and 60 years later she could recall interpretations of (now) such little known singers as Audrey Mildmay at Glyndebourne, where the founders, the Christie family, were her friends.

Her wide culture and questioning, far-ranging mind stem no doubt from her partly Jewish background. It seems a pity she obscured rather than celebrated this rich heritage. She wore colourful, feminine clothes and retained a beautiful skin into her old age. She was game for anything, and in her 70s clambered up a steep rock to picnic with young friends.

Una moved with and reflected the social, cultural and historic patterns of the 20th century. She was a woman of her time both at the beginning and at the end of the century.

Apart from her illustrious son and daughter, she leaves grandchildren Phoebe, Angela, Hugh and Mark, as well as a host of loving friends.

Original publication

  • Australian, 3 June 1998, p 14

Additional Resources

Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Fraser, Una Arnold (1902–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fraser-una-arnold-19661/text31937, accessed 23 January 2018.

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