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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Kerry Francis Packer (1937–2005)

by Valerie Lawson

Kerry Packer, by Bruce Postle, 1979

Kerry Packer, by Bruce Postle, 1979

National Library of Australia, 43903413

Twelve years ago, in his office in Park Street, Kerry Packer looked forlorn. He told me: "It's a lie that life begins at 40."

At the time he was 56. He had lost weight, with the help of an acupuncturist, and abandoned his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He seemed tamer, much less belligerent than a decade before. Yet elements of the old bull remained.

He held in his hand a small red rugby ball that he tossed with enormous force from hand to hand. Behind him, on the office wall, was a huge photo of a charging elephant.

Packer said: "I got cancer. That was a turn in direction." He was in his late 40s when he learnt he had cancer in one of his kidneys. Four years later he suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

He knew, more than most, that life should be taken at full flood.

His grandfather died at 54, his mother at 53, his father at 67 and his brother at 65.

It is unlikely that Packer ever read Jane Austen. But he would have agreed with her wisdom. "Why not seize the pleasure at once?" Austen said. "How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation."

There was plenty of pleasure in Packer's life, dogged though it was with illness from the day he got out of bed as a boy and fell flat on his face. He was diagnosed with polio.

Packer learnt several things from his father, but chief among them was how to act tough and how to have fun. Money, and the aura it bestows, certainly helped both men live well, play hard and travel in style.

The heart of Packer's world was not in Park Street, where he worked from a grand office in a modest office block. The heart lay within Cairnton, a mansion on the high side of Victoria Road, Bellevue Hill.

His father, Frank, bought Cairnton for just under ££8000 in 1935, a year after he married the beautiful Ascham old girl Gretel Joyce Bullmore at All Saints' Church, Woollahra.

Over the decades, Cairnton became the nucleus of the Packer compound, stretching over one hectare and referred to as "the Taj". Packer's children do not live there, although his daughter Gretel bought a house nearby, in Fairfax Road. That independence, perhaps, is one big difference between the fourth generation of media Packers and the third.

Although Kerry and his father, Frank, were not always close, they shared many attributes, many physical similarities and many habits. Both were very tall – Frank was sometimes known as Dainty or Big Jule – a reference to the big gambler from Chicago in Guys and Dolls.

Both loved sport – Frank was a yachtsman and a boxer. Both men played golf at the Australian Golf Club, where Frank was on the committee. They shared a love of polo and a determination to improve. Kerry trained at home on a custom-made "horse". Frank's brother-in-law, Anthony Hordern, was president of the NSW Polo Association, and polo was also a big part of the Packer women's lives.

In the 1940s they rugged up in furs to watch the sport, slipped into sundresses for summer at Palm Beach, and donned their big, best hats for the Melbourne Cup.

Frank loved racehorses. He was a committeeman of the Australian Jockey Club for 12 years, liked a scotch or two in the committee room in the evenings, and won the Caulfield Cup with a horse called Columnist.

In 1939 he fell to the ground at Randwick racecourse in a fight with his media rival Ezra Norton.

Both Packers could be charming, amusing and extremely threatening. So ritualistic were Frank's firings in the lift at work that staff had a saying: "The stairway is the safe way." Kerry was apt to tell women journalists: "You're not tough enough." He was tough enough on his own senior staff.

Frank and Kerry admired women, and Frank's affairs were hardly a secret around the office. They were both lucky with their wives, the daughters of doctors. Frank married the daughter of Dr Bullmore and Kerry the daughter of Dr Weedon from Wagga Wagga, Ros.

These two women looked quite similar. Gretel was one of those women of the pre-World War II era who spent much time on charity committees and organising balls. Ros prefers the opera and theatre, and is a board member of the St Vincent's Clinic Foundation.

Frank and Kerry spent too much of their lives as patients at St Vincent's Hospital, cared for by the legendary Sister Bernice. The stories might be apocryphal, but St Vinnies' old-timers swear they could tell when Frank was about to arrive. The well-stocked fridge would come first, then Frank followed, into his private room.

But Kerry switched his allegiance to Royal Prince Alfred, where his father spent his last days, at the Page Chest Pavilion. Frank was admitted on Anzac Day 1974 and died on May 1.

Whenever Kerry was admitted to RPA in the past few years he had a room to himself that normally housed four patients. The media described this as the Packer suite.

Both Frank and Kerry, no doubt, preferred another kind of suite, at the Savoy in London, where Frank honeymooned after his second marriage, to the beautiful half-French, half-Russian, twice-married divorcee Florence Vincent.

Unlike his old man, Kerry was not a drinker. He preferred Coca-Cola to the martinis that Frank called his "mullets".

Despite the Packer money, which rolled in with the success of The Australian Women's Weekly and the family's television interests, certain sections of Sydney society looked down on the clan. It was a cause of much annoyance to Frank that he could not snare for his Daily Telegraph more advertising from David Jones. Fairfax retained the lion's share for The Sydney Morning Herald. When Frank complained to Sir Charles Lloyd Jones, the response was "we only advertise where we get results".

The suite life was not always part of the Packer family's life. Kerry's grandfather, Robert Clyde, son of a worker for Tasmanian Customs, worked his way up the food chain of Sydney journalism.

At the long-defunct paper the Daily Guardian his greatest success was launching the Miss Australia contest. Of this Packer, The Bulletin once sniffed: "He had great journalistic gifts of a sort – organising ability, energy and a keen sense of what the readers of the mental age of 15, or less, want in the way of news and stunts."

Robert Clyde died of arteriosclerosis on a boat near Marseilles. Frank took up the media reins, having been indoctrinated by his father at Smith's Newspapers, publisher of Smith's Weekly, in the 1920s.

After Frank sold his Daily Telegraph to Rupert Murdoch for $15 million in 1972 he seemed to lose all zest for living.

Donald Horne wrote that his reaction was "so great people wondered if it might kill him ... several times he cried when he spoke of it. His face was pinched and his eyes distracted ... his words wandered; he spoke of the dead as if they were still alive and gave orders about men and machinery that it was no longer in his power to give."

Despite the similarities between father and son, sentimentality was not one of them. In 1977 Packer told The Australian he thought little of owning a newspaper to put his point of view.

"To be perfectly honest with you, I think that you people who are involved in print media don't quite understand that you are now the second-class media ... your influence is nowhere near as great as the broadcast media."

Your father would never have agreed with that?

"No, of course he didn't. But you see one of the greatnesses about my father was the fact that emotionally, the last thing in the world he wanted to do was to sell The Daily Telegraph.

"It tore him to shreds. But he stood back from it as a businessman and said 'It's a good deal' and I was pushing him all the time to sell."

Kerry was good at knowing when to sell, good at timing, good at many things he inherited from his parents.

But of course, he shared the same genes, the same heart.

Just as well he had so much fun when he could, for he famously believed and said that there was nothing on the other side.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Valerie Lawson, 'Packer, Kerry Francis (1937–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 July 2024.

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