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Gilly, Edward (1948–2005)

by Mark McGinness

Edward Gilly, who died suddenly last month in Florence at the age of 57, led an extraordinary life. Blessed with good looks, a cosmopolitan upbringing, a good education and, in his early middle years, a good fortune, Gilly lived the good life, sharing it with his family and with many friends.

Gilly was born in a Tokyo still occupied by General McArthur. At five kilograms, he was thought to be one of the heaviest babies the hospital had seen. From the beginning, he had presence. He was the son of Marcie Elizabeth (Betty) Wilson and her second husband, Pierre Gilly. Betty was the daughter of a leading Sydney equity silk and had married Warwick Fairfax in 1928. They had two children, Caroline and James.

Betty ("Betty Fair" to her friends) was vivacious, chic and very social, a popular figure in Sydney before and during the war. When asked to describe her, an old friend said: "Cocktails and laughter — and yet she also had a strong aesthetic sense and a spiritual dimension." (This was to emerge more strongly later in her life).

In 1943, the French vessel Le Triomphant sailed into Sydney with Pierre Gilly at its helm. From an old Breton naval family — his father was an admiral — Pierre had been in North Africa with de Gaulle's Free French. Tall, dark and almost forbidding, he was not conventionally handsome, but appeared to share the particular charm of Nancy Mitford's fictional hero Fabrice, Duc de Sauveterre.

By the end of the war, Fairfax, too, had fallen in love — with Hanne Andersen — and he and Betty divorced. In March 1946, Betty and Pierre wed quietly at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church in Macquarie Street and left Sydney for Chungking, headquarters of General Chiang Kai-Shek, where Pierre was military naval attache. His next posting was to Tokyo, where Gilly was born.

Gilly's godfather was the head of the French military mission to Japan, General Zinovi Pechkoff, the son of Maxim Gorky. (Gilly was later to adopt a more conventional and eminently suitable choice when he asked Michael Collins Persse, his brother James's Oxford contemporary and friend, to accept the role). Pierre retired from the foreign service in 1948 and took his young family to Paris, where they eventually settled into an apartment off the Avenue Foch.

Gilly enjoyed an infancy rather typical of the haut bourgeoisie, except that he had a sensible English nanny, Margery Timms, from the British Midlands.

He would always regard his Frenchness as important, but his French childhood came to an abrupt end when his mother learnt that his father had rekindled an old affair. Grandfather Wilson labelled him a "dreadful bounder"; while Grandmother attributed it to his being a "Roman Catholic". Betty left Pierre — and France — and went to London, settling into a flat off the Fulham Road. Gilly would not see his father until adulthood.

He adapted to his new life quickly. When asked, at five or six, what he thought of England, he confidently proclaimed: "More people speak English and the lavatories are cleaner." He started at Lady Eden's Kindergarten in the Gloucester Road and then went to Scaitcliff, a prep school in Berkshire, run by the Vickers family.

Peggy Fairbairn, the widow of a Menzies government minister, James Fairbairn, lived nearby and became close to Gilly. His mother had embraced the moral rearmament movement and eventually was received into the Catholic Church. Gilly followed her and went to Downside, one of England's leading Catholic public schools, run by the Benedictines. He enjoyed his time at school and retained an affection for the order ( "they were deeply civilised men"). He soon spoke like any English prep school boy, having lost the slight Midlands tones of his nanny.

Betty's finances were tied to the fortunes of John Fairfax, then a private company, so her household was not always flush with funds — but this, of course, was a relative concept. For one holiday, when he was still quite young, Gilly stayed with "Nursie" Timms, who said reproachfully: "Poor little Edward never goes anywhere."

He would make up for this deprivation and soon joined his mother, James and Caroline on their regular holidays in the south of France with Sheila Fourcaud, Betty's closest friend and an early influence in his life. In his memoirs, Regards to Broadway, James Fairfax quotes a friend as saying that Fourcaud had "the face of Garbo and the character of Harpo Marx".

Gilly went to Queen's College, Oxford, studying languages, and then to the Science Polytechnique in Paris. This was 1968, when French students were in revolt. Gilly was living on the Left Bank with a poster of Mao on his wall but he would still cross the student barricades to dine on the Right Bank at the Rothschild Hotel.

Before completing this course, he crossed the Atlantic to enrol at the Columbia Business School. It was in New York that he was introduced (by the legendary social figure Nin Ryan) to Marie-Helene Claudel, daughter of the French consul-general, granddaughter of the poet Paul Claudel, and great-niece of the sculptress Camille Claudel, Rodin's mistress. Marie-Helene's mother, Christina Diplarakos, was Greek (Christina's sister, Aliki, had been Miss Europe). Gilly and Claudel wed in New York, with Jacqueline Onassis among the guests.

The couple spent the next few years in London, where Gilly worked for Kleinwort Benson. He also spent time in Belgium before meeting an Egyptian who offered him a job in Kuwait. Marie-Helene learnt Arabic while Gilly played Oberon and Orsino in theatricals at the British embassy. The four daughters of the emir of Kuwait also became friends.

In 1981, Gilly, his wife and their three children came to live in Sydney. Gilly, who had been a Frenchman in France and an Englishman in Britain, also relished being half Australian. The family settled into life in Sydney's eastern suburbs and saw much of Gilly's brother James and sister Caroline Simpson and her family. He established and, throughout the '80s, successfully ran a venture capital company, Sydney Fund Managers. In 1987, he fought off a takeover bid from Rene Rivkin.

Betty, along with other members of the family, profited handsomely (if reluctantly) from young Warwick Fairfax's folly when he took over John Fairfax, and Gilly was to benefit from this windfall. In a way, this would be his undoing — after this, he tended to spend money rather than make it.

He had always lived well but now did so like Croesus. Seated in IA on a Concorde flight from Heathrow to New York, he was asked by a flight attendant if he would mind making way for a VIP passenger. "Who?" he inquired. "Juan Antonio Samaranch," was the reply.

He said: "But haven't you seen pictures of him performing a fascist salute with Franco?" and refused to give up his seat.

He entertained generously. Each meal was a carefully conceived production and although guests were chosen because they were friends, they were often eminent, talented and good company.

Gilly was something of a gadfly. He apparently did The Times crossword in 15 minutes. The breadth of his interests was extraordinary. He read widely and voraciously, if not always deeply, from an impressive library. His interests ranged from Homer and Caesar to Donatello and Dante, Milton and Vermeer; from Adam Smith to F. A. Hayek; St Benedict to St Teresa of Avila.

He waxed lyrical on naval history, early French explorers, Japanese art and gardens, cricket and rugby. He was expansive, discursive, self-assured and contagiously enthusiastic. He became a passionate supporter and patron, with his siblings, of the venture to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.

He shared his sister Caroline's disdain for political correctness, and was not above the odd mischievous joke. In 1995, on the day John Howard toppled Alexander Downer as leader of the Liberal Party, Gilly (who bore more than a passing resemblance to the latter) was in the lift of Sydney's smartest gentlemen's club, having enjoyed a long lunch. An elderly member joined him in the lift and, assuming him to be the vanquished Downer, conveyed his sympathy. Without missing a beat, Gilly exclaimed: "John Howard is a c--- and you can quote me on that." He swept into his car and the old gent — his eyes on stalks and ears ringing — hurried back to his chums.

Like his mother, he had a spiritual dimension. Amid the high life and high jinks he was a man whose Catholic faith was a key. He loved the form and occasion of the Latin Mass and was close to the Jesuits at St Canice's Church, Elizabeth Bay, where he would help out in its kitchen for the homeless.

By the new century, the prosperity of the '90s was behind him; he had experienced a brush with cancer and seemed restless and unhappy. His chief remaining endeavour was the promotion of Razorback, an innovative heavy vehicle, under the umbrella of Fairgill, a private family company owned by himself, Caroline Simpson and James Fairfax.  

Then, in 2001, he left Sydney and his family to live in Florence with a new companion, Stefania Barone. An architect and mother of three, she owned a Double Bay restaurant. They moved initially into a flat owned by Barone and subsequently settled in a farmhouse in Poggio de la Croce, overlooking Florence. It was here that he died.

Gilly is also survived by Marie-Helene and their three children, Alexander, Oliver and Aurelie-Anne, and his brother, James.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 2005, p 32

Citation details

Mark McGinness, 'Gilly, Edward (1948–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/gilly-edward-13887/text24759, accessed 16 November 2018.

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