Battling the ravages of time and aged well into her late 80s, Lady (Mary) Fairfax continued to play the role of grand hostess inside her equally grand harbourside pile Fairwater, though the once famed parties became more infrequent.
Propped up on her walking frame, her hair immaculately coiffed and wearing a smart black Chanel dress and a simple strand of pearls, Lady Fairfax had given up the high heels for a pair of more practical black slippers when I was among the chosen few afforded a rare glimpse into the private world of a woman who, in her prime, had played an enormously influential role in the corporate, political, artistic and social lives of not just Sydney, but the entire country.
Greeting guests one by one as they filed past the huge bronze Auguste Rodin sculpture of a muscled Adonis which stood in the entry foyer under the stained glass windows, her guests had to pass the impressive mantle piece and grand piano to make their way to Lady Fairfax.
Crammed with photos of Lady Fairfax posing with the likes of everyone from Kirk Douglas and Imelda Marcos to Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, her guests were suitably in awe by the time they came face-to-face with the diminutive yet sharp-witted woman who was holding court.
“Ah, yes, that’s my paper!,” she enthused when she learned I wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald, adding: “Yes, not a bad read really, is it?” before focusing on her next guest.
And while the curtains at Fairwater were looking a little faded and the sofas had seen better days, the enormous Federation house and its tiny owner were still impressive, both revealing their true glory when a butler ushered us into the grand ballroom for an opera recital.
Lady Fairfax took her position, somewhat regally, in the front row. Keeping a sharp eye on her guests she soon caused mild panic when she declared “her” reporter be ordained with a special spot close by, throwing the event’s official seating arrangements into disarray.
On Monday morning a short statement was released on behalf of Lady Fairfax’s four children, announcing that she had passed away, surrounded by family, on Sunday night, having recently celebrated her 95th birthday.
“It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of our mother, Lady Mary Fairfax, AC, OBE. She died peacefully last night at the family home, ‘Fairwater’.
“Our mother had recently celebrated her 95th birthday. Her health has been deteriorating significantly recently. Members of the family have gathered at Fairwater. This is a deeply distressing time for the family.”
Ever since she became media scion Warwick Fairfax’s third wife in 1959, Lady Fairfax had assumed the position of First Lady of a mind-bogglingly large and influential media empire, which at its peak ranked as one of the most impressive in the world, publishing a raft of prestigious newspapers including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review as well as a vast network of magazines, radio and television stations.
At one point she even hosted her own daily television chat show, produced out of a television studio in Wollongong, on which she had such high calibre guests as Liberace. She would commute to the studio in her chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce from Fairwater.
But it was her role as a pivotal player in the eventual demise of the media empire her in-laws had pioneered for which she would become best known.
Indeed for years she denied being the mastermind behind her son Warwick’s ill-fated ambitions to take control of the family business.
When Sir Warwick Fairfax died in 1987, their son Warwick junior returned from “exile” and launched his audacious bid to control John Fairfax Ltd, borrowing heavily and buying out other Fairfax family members.
But by 1990, the company had collapsed, costing his mother a staggering $190 million at the time, and causing a deep rift within the family after it lost control of the business it had owned for a century and a half.
Lady Fairfax had four children. Her eldest son, Garth Symonds, was from her first marriage to Sydney lawyer Cedric Symonds. She married Fairfax media scion Warwick Fairfax in 1959, just after midnight at another magnificent Sydney pile, Barford, the day after Warwick’s divorce from his second wife, Hanne, was made absolute. She gave birth to Warwick and later adopted their youngest children, Charles and Anna.
It was her relationship with Warwick Fairfax which thrust her into the public eye, going from Polish-born suburban frock shop proprietor to the grand dame of one of the oldest media dynasties in the world, and raising eyebrows along the way.
A year before Lady Fairfax had been scandalised after being named in a lawsuit Hanne brought against her husband for restitution of conjugal rights amid claims he had been having an affair with the then Mary Symonds.
Indeed it was just the beginning for Lady Fairfax, who for years sought acceptance in the “old money” world of the Fairfaxes, once buying her stepson, the late James Fairfax, a pair of gold champagne flutes he later described as “vulgar”.
Lady Fairfax is survived by Garth Symonds, Warwick Fairfax, Anna Cleary and Charles Fairfax. Her funeral will be held at St Marks Anglican Church, on Friday, at 10.30am. Her family has requested no recordings be made in the church and that donations be forwarded to the The Lady Fairfax Charitable Trust in lieu of flowers.