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Lady Mary Fairfax (1922–2017)

from Australian

Mary Fairfax, 2008

Mary Fairfax, 2008

image from Australia Post stamp series of Australian Legends

Lady (Mary) Fairfax AC OBE has died at her family home, known as Fairwater, on the shores of Double Bay in Sydney. She was 95.

Lady (Mary) Fairfax, socialite, businesswoman and one of the nation’s most generous philanthropists, has died at her Sydney waterfront property at the age of 95.

Her death is being mourned by family members who have gathered at her home, which has been in the Fairfax family since 1900.

Lady Fairfax was one of the nation’s most generous philanthropists, providing support to the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera over many years, as well as medical research.

She was appointed an Officer of Order of the British Empire in 1976, and a Member of the Order of Australia in 1988.

Lady Fairfax played a stellar role in the power struggle that ended family control over Australia’s oldest media empire. From the time of her marriage to Warwick Fairfax Snr in 1959, until son Warwick Jnr’s privatised company collapsed in 1990, Mary Fairfax was active both onstage and off.

Intense ambition was manifest throughout her life as she ruthlessly pursued personal authority in corporate affairs, social aggrandisement and family intrigue.

If this assessment reads like an indictment of her character, it must also be acknowledged that Fairfax was warm-hearted, prodigal with her riches and generous of spirit.

Withal, she was formidably intelligent. For a time she was Australia’s richest woman — and not all of it, by any means, resulted from her alliance with entrenched wealth. Yet neither was she a feminist. 

“I believe that home is where a husband is,” she opined, “from a hotel suite to the desert in a sandstorm, everything should be done to please him, even to getting up early in the morning.”

The dour yet romantic Warwick Fairfax adored the ground upon which she trod and demanded respect for his sassy wife. Nor did he or she permit the austere Fairfax in-laws to quell her natural joie de vivre.

She was born Marie Wein. The family fled Jewish persecution in Poland in the mid-1920s. Mary referred to her mother as little as did Margaret Thatcher to hers. Nor was there mention of siblings.

The family settled in Broken Hill, where her father Kevin Wein hawked clothing from door to door. They arrived in Sydney in the mid-30s where Papa established a chain of clothing shops.

Mary (who no longer fancied the name Marie) was educated at the Presbyterian Ladies College and the University of Sydney where, she maintained, she graduated in chemical science. Later in life she claimed the clothing shops had been set up by her and she had established seven of them by the age of 22. The flagship seems to have been one in Burwood Road, Burwood.

Fairfax then married the prominent Sydney family lawyer Cedric Symonds. It was her first step up the social ladder. The couple had a son, Garth. Warwick and wife Hanne Fairfax invited the Symonds to dinner. Fellow guests reported that Warwick and Mary fell instantly in love.

Both couples divorced and Warwick and Mary married in 1959. They had one birth child, Warwick jnr, and adopted two more, Charles and Anna.

Trouble in the boardroom of John Fairfax Ltd commenced almost immediately. Warwick’s first son James arrived back from Oxford. It soon became evident that James (despite his passionate interest in the arts) possessed business talents superior to those of his father. Warwick snr was losing his grip, spending less and less time in the Sydney Morning Herald office and more at home working on a book exploring his spiritual approach to philosophy. This concentration on intellectual activity as opposed to business was as worrying to his wife as it was to the Fairfax board.

Enter Lady Macbeth. Mary urged her compliant husband to take over full executive control of John Fairfax Ltd. His authority became known as “the committee of one” and did nothing to please the managing director, Rupert Henderson. SMH editor Angus Maude referred to Warwick snr as “little Kruschev”.

Henderson bided his time until 1976 when he masterminded a coup. The board replaced chairman Warwick with son James. Mary set about creating her own financial empire and pursuing her place in society. The old Sydney establishment was crumbling and Mary, with her prodigious energy, filled a social gap. What did it matter if she was considered outre? She was no WASP.

In 1973 she threw a ball for 1000 to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Opera House. It was a night to remember: present were prime minister Gough Whitlam, governor-general John Kerr, first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev and entertainer Liberace. This party seemed to consolidate her social credentials.

When Warwick Fairfax snr died in 1987 Mary was truly bereft. Warwick jnr returned from exile in the US to institute a takeover bid for John Fairfax Ltd. He was encouraged by Mary who found consolation in an endeavour she considered a natural progression of family interests.

Warwick borrowed recklessly, bought out James Fairfax and other family members and succeeded to the top position barely a year after his father’s death. Within four years his new company collapsed.

Mary — miraculously — survived financially after losing $192 million in her son’s doomed venture. Apparently she had succumbed to her boy’s plea when he said, “Mummy, I have just got to get another 1 per cent of the company”. It had been worth $2.55 billion all told.

She sought to assuage her various griefs by conquering New York. She purchased and refurbished a three-storey apartment atop the Pierre Hotel on 5th Avenue. A gilded birdcage was home to a flock of Australian parrots. She entertained Britain’s Prince Edward and Romania’s Princess Margarita but the locals were unimpressed. She was lost and lonely in this stony-hearted city. She discovered she was as much an arriviste here as she had been early on in Sydney. After five years she and the birds came home to roost.

Fairfax devoted the rest of her life to a multitude of charitable and cultural bodies. They included Freedom from Hunger and Opera Foundation Australia to which latter she donated $1m annually. She became the honorary NSW consul for Monaco and lectured Princess Caroline on how to change a baby’s nappy.

In 2002, Business Review Weekly listed her wealth at $285m. “I always had a little talent for making money,” she remarked with studied nonchalance. She gave a million and more for breast cancer research and an equal amount to the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

She was an avowed monarchist and, in 2003, backed Peter King to be member for the electorate of Wentworth in his unsuccessful battle to fend off republican Malcolm Turnbull.

Mary Fairfax was one of a kind. In her latter years she had been estranged from her son Warwick and daughter Anna. She leaves her four children.

Her health had been deteriorating significantly recently. “She died peacefully last night at the family home, Fairwater,” said a statement released by the family. “ Members of the family have gathered at Fairwater. This is a deeply distressing time for the family.”

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Citation details

'Fairfax, Lady Mary (1922–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Mary Fairfax, 2008

Mary Fairfax, 2008

image from Australia Post stamp series of Australian Legends

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Symonds, Mary
  • Wein, Marie
  • Wajntraub, Marie

15 August, 1922
Warsaw, Poland


17 September, 2017 (aged 95)
Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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