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Renouf, Lady Susan (1942–2016)

by Daphne Guinness

Susan Renouf, by Rennie Ellis, 1985

Susan Renouf, by Rennie Ellis, 1985

State Library of Victoria, 49304493

If Lady (Susan) Renouf is to be defined by anything – and wish that she wasn't – it's the word marriage. She had three very public nuptials spanning 26 years, with equally public divorces from politician Andrew Peacock in 1977, then from English racehorse breeder Robert Sangster in 1985, and finally from the New Zealand financier Sir Frank Renouf in 1988, followed by many years of living on her own, about which she remarked "Goodness I have been good. I'm almost shocked, it's gone too quickly."

She always did live in the fast lane even at Firbank private girls' grammar school, frolicking at weekends on the beach near the family home in Melbourne's Bayside suburb of Brighton. Thence at Star of the Sea College, Brighton, Melbourne University, RMIT International Marketing Institute, Boston USA, and Monash University, Melbourne.  She was a law student (failing at Melbourne University), then switched to reporter on the women's pages of the Melbourne Sun (now Herald Sun), earning herself the nickname of "Scoop" from her father Sir John Rossiter, Liberal member of Victoria's Legislative Assembly for 21 years and later the state's agent-general in London. Her mother was Joan (nee Stewart). As his only child she grew up in the cut-and-thrust of politics and became a seasoned political campaigner and Young Liberal before marriage and motherhood claimed her at the age of 20.

That was 1963 and for 13 years the Peacocks, with their children Caroline, Anne and Jane were the golden duo of Australian politics, dubbed the "Young Kennedys", Andrew going places with Susan the perfect politician's wife. So good, she was offered the safe Victorian seat in Kooyong. "I always wanted to go into politics but Andrew said you are in politics as the wife of a shadow minister, so I made my decision in his favour." She regretted it. "I should have been more assertive." Which she became, first in 1970 splashed on front page news for modelling in an advertisement for Sheridan sheets, almost bringing her husband's political career to an end through its implied connection. He offered to resign but Prime Minister John Gorton refused. Then at Sir Frank Packer's invitation and with her husband's consent she worked part-time on an all-female Channel Nine TV current affairs show No Man's Land.

Then life changed. She met and eloped with "the love of my life" Robert Sangster, leaving behind her three children to the opprobrium of Melbourne society. They married in 1978, the children visited and all was well living in Sangster's tax-free haven Isle of Man property The Nunnery which she did up in decadent Edwardian/Victorian style. Their life was dominated by horses, jet-hopping around the world, partying with royalty and international A-listers with exuberant Susan dancing on the table at the Dorchester, London, singing Waltzing Matilda at the bar of the Hotel George V, Paris, culminating with encore table tapping at Maxim's in Melbourne to celebrate winning the Melbourne Cup in 1980 with Sangster's horse Beldale Ball.

Their idyllic romance lasted two years. Sangster had an affair with Jerry Hall, the leggy model girlfriend of rock star Mick Jagger. Susan was the last to know. "It was devastatingly hurtful", she said. "It's a funny thing that happens to men, they just pull a roller down on their actions. They can't cope and don't want to be part of the angst they've caused. It's very brutal." He returned "for a minute". Then in May 1984 turned his attention to another Susan, former model Sue Lilley, wife of a British shoe millionaire, whom he later married. He died in 2004.

As for Sir Frank Renouf, then 67, marrying him on the rebound with a 25-year gap, she wished her friends had put a gun to her head and stopped it becoming, as she put it "a catastrophic relationship vis-a-vis our age difference. He monitored me." For a while she immersed herself in the world of finance, becoming a director of Renouf Corporation, but it ended bitterly in 1988. A drop in fortunes with the global financial crisis and a public struggle for possession of Paradis Sur Mer, the $8 million Sydney harbourside mansion he bought her from Sangster (previously known as Toisson D'Or after Sangster's horse Golden Fleece, which won the English Derby in 1982), kept Australia enthralled with media coverage of his-and-her efforts to retain the property (later demolished and replaced with two houses in 1990). Sir Frank died in 1998.

Life sans a husband continued but it was not without its dramatic moments. Cars were stolen, houses burgled and she had a traffic accident in Double Bay from which she fled but escaped with a $200 fine and $100 costs, the magistrate dismissing the negligent driving charge. Later Renouf admitted she panicked. The British singer Bryan Ferry was waiting to take her out to dinner but she didn't feel that a good defence to mention in court. Her sense of humour was always keen, except when her housekeeper of 14 years stole $50,000 of her jewellery, which she recognised on the wife of a Sydney meat wholesaler at a PR lunch. She wouldn't return them and it became a legal scenario. It wasn't the loss of the jewellery Renouf minded, it was the betrayal of the housekeeper in whom she had complete faith that hurt. 

While she was famous for her marital problems she was also well known for her houses. The Susan Renouf Housebook (with plans) was an idea she toyed with for a while but only fleetingly. She much preferred hands-on decorating her homes and since 1988 moved six times, making good profits on at least four properties. Showing this journalist around a bijou Point Piper home, serving French pink champagne at 10 am, she proudly declared the bedroom was decorated frill-free with her signature white, beige, gilt, brass and botanical fabrics and done with a resale possibility to a man. "Horny and blokey" was how her late friend and former editor of Vogue Australia Sheila Scotter described her final touches.

At the same time her fashion career flourished with Just Jeans, Myer, and L'Oreal Fashion week. Her forays into finance extended to Jesuit Social Services (Marketing), Chairman St. Joan of Arc, Treasurer of the Inaugural Board of Star of the Sea College, and of course Renouf Corp director.

She will be remembered for her charity work in many areas and one spectacular medical philanthropic gesture in particular, when she gave $37,400 to Melbourne's St. Vincent Institute to buy a protein identification machine, after the sale of her Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly Outlaw painting for $1.475 million in 2007. Her wish was others would see this was a lovely thing to do and copy-cat her deed, after which she focussed on the works of up-and-coming artists.

Her joie de vivre never skipped a beat and, when told she had cancer with less than five months to live, said "Give me a pill and get it over with quickly", then changed her mind. Leaving quietly was not her style. "If I'm going I want to go out with a bang," she declared. Which she did on 15 July, her 74th birthday. She is survived by daughters Caroline, Anne and Jane.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Daphne Guinness, 'Renouf, Lady Susan (1942–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/renouf-lady-susan-25328/text33742, accessed 25 June 2022.

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