It has been almost 30 years since Warwick Fairfax fled Sydney to live in exile in the United States, leaving a trail of destruction from one of the greatest corporate collapses in Australian history.
And, while the years of estrangement from most of his extended family ended decades ago, on Friday at the historic St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, the scene was set for the return of the prodigal son, a little greyer and no doubt a little wiser than the ambitious young man who left town on the eve of his 30th birthday.
But this latest homecoming was a bittersweet one. Warwick Fairfax returned to his imposing, fortress-like family pile, Fairwater, to be by his mother’s side as she succumbed to the ravages of time, dying at the grand age of 95.
In doing so, he joined his three siblings – Garth, Anna and Charles – along with Lady (Mary) Fairfax’s 10 grandchildren and her “other” extended family, the loyal staff who had cared for her for decades.
“My mother was truly a remarkable woman,” a composed Warwick Fairfax said in his eulogy to his mother, standing beside her casket that had been covered in hundreds of white and pink roses and orchids.
“She was full of life, energy, exuberance, love and joy. She shone very brightly. People were drawn to Mary Fairfax.
“You wanted to be with her, to be her friend. Somehow she made your life shine a bit brighter too.
“When I think of my mother, I think of those wonderful years in the 1960s and 1970s. She was at the height of her energy. These were happy years. She was married to a man she dearly loved, and loved her family.
“She threw herself into all of life, her charity work including the Opera Foundation Australia, and supporting and helping her husband.
“What is so vivid in my memory of the public side of my mother were the incredible parties she had at Fairwater. No one had parties like Mary Fairfax. My mother knew people from all over the world. When prominent people would come to Australia, their friends would tell them that they had to see Mary Fairfax.
“My mother was anything but predictable. She was no shrinking violet and yet, at the parties she held at Fairwater, she would typically ask the women to withdraw while the men spoke of politics, business or other such matters, drinking their after-dinner cocktails.
“This seemed straight out of the 19th century, and some women understandably did not like this idea too much. But of course, my mother was firm and such protests were not successful.
“While there was the public side of my mother, there was the private side, the side that her family and a few close friends saw. She was caring, loving, loyal, encouraging and supportive. She would say, ‘I believe in you, right or wrong.’
“Yes, she would tell you what she thought and what her opinion was. The conversation could become quite active. But at the end of the day, she was for you.”
And, while he made mention of “mummy’s” cooking prowess, admitting she rarely rattled the pans personally but could tell her chefs instantly “when a herb was missing”, he avoided making direct reference to those dark days in the late 1980s that ended the Fairfax family’s 150-year hold on absolute power in Australia.
But those memories remained fresh for some in Friday’s congregation. Indeed one friend quietly recalled how Mary had been so intimate to her son’s ambitions she once had her chauffeur deliver hand-written notes from her Rolls-Royce parked outside the old Sydney Morning Herald offices on Broadway. Sitting in the back was Mary offering motherly counsel.
St Mark’s was packed to capacity as NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian joined former federal MP Bronwyn Bishop, millionaire hotelier and long-time family friend Bruce Solomon, Professor Ross Steele, business identity Charles Curran and extended members of the Fairfax family including cousin John B. Fairfax, to bid farewell to a woman who had an enormous impact on the social, artistic, philanthropic, corporate and political lives of not just Sydney, but the entire country.