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Gowing, Dennis (1930–1991)

by Rita Erlich

Dennis Gowing, at his house, Whernside, c.1978

Dennis Gowing, at his house, Whernside, c.1978

photo privately sourced

Dennis Gowing, millionaire restaurateur and art collector, died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. He was 61.

It was a battle that lasted for nearly three years, and he fought every inch of the way. His death was characteristic of the man and the way he lived; he never did anything by halves. Twice married, he is survived by four children.

He was born in London as Marshall Whyte, and took the name Dennis Gowing from one of the succession of foster-parents who cared for him. His early years were difficult, although he did not regard them as deprived. "I didn't know how other children lived, did I?'' he once commented. But when he was 13 and managed to scrounge only a tin of sardines for Christmas dinner, he decided he would be rich one day.

And so he was. He arrived in Australia in 1948 and worked in a series of jobs until he became a trainee used-car salesman. By 1954 he had started his own car business, combining his own name with the name of a partner who sold out within a few months.

As Kevin Dennis, he was a household name. Legendary car salesman, tough trader, big spender, man about town, television figure. Part of the secret of his success as Kevin Dennis lay in the advice he gave one of his sons a few years ago: "People don't come in to a car yard to kick tyres, they come in to buy a car. So you sell it to them.'' As a restaurateur, he knew that people went to restaurants to spend money and have a good time eating and drinking, and he made sure they did, providing a lively scene and excellent service. He owned Jackson's, then the Londoner (taken over by Mietta's), then Gowings in East Melbourne. His last venture was the Grace Darling Hotel, bought last year.

"I bought the pub before I got sick again,'' he said. "If I'd known I was going to be crook, I wouldn't have bought it.'' But he probably would have; he did not stop anything because he was ill, and in the last weeks of his life sued his solicitors for faulty advice (and won his case) and moved house.

Mr Gowing was a naturally good host, with a sharp eye for detail and an even sharper sense of what each diner, each table, needed.

His first experience in the industry was in Yallourn, soon after he arrived in Australia, when he worked in a pub. The first big restaurant was Jackson's, which he acquired as the result of a bet with Lloyd Williams. Lloyd Williams got the money, Mr Gowing said, and he got the restaurant and the horse stud. In 1985 they were joint owners of the Melbourne Cup winner, What a Nuisance.

Dennis Gowing was a trader, a man who excelled at buying and selling. He made his fortune as a used-car salesman. But he also bought and sold paintings, houses, racehorses, property, futures and commodities. By the early 1970s, he had made his name as an art collector with a good eye, and he never made a secret of the works he bought or the prices he paid. In the early days, he paid record prices for paintings by Dobell; later, he bought entire exhibitions by Clifton Pugh and John Perceval and hung them at Gowings.

Money mattered to him. He liked making money, he took pleasure in spending it and sharing the benefits of being rich. He was a generous friend, although in his restaurants, he had established categories of wines to be offered to favored guests. "Have a drink,'' he would say. He would call over a waiter and say: "Get a bottle of wine, something good.'' When he called for "something good'', it was usually at the bottom of his preferred range. If he wanted something really good, he would always ask for it by name. "A bottle of the Mount Mary cabernet,'' for instance. His passion for wine was as great as his passion for paintings and, in both, he trusted his own tastes.

In friendship or in business, he had the doubly astute judgment of a trader and a poor boy made good. Sooner or later, he always pushed people to their limits because he needed to know what their limits were; he needed to know with whom he was dealing. And he treated himself the same way.

His virtues were the obverse of his faults. He was as kind and generous as he could be savage; he was as charming and courteous as often as he was offensive; he was wonderful company, but he was often black-tempered. He was always quick-witted, and always stylish.

The battle with cancer was, like everything else he did, well publicised. Some months ago, he asked me to lunch with him, and after lunch, I asked him if there was anything I could do. "Write a good obituary for me,'' he said.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 4 December 1991, p 20

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Citation details

Rita Erlich, 'Gowing, Dennis (1930–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/gowing-dennis-18061/text30022, accessed 24 November 2017.

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