A woman without pretensions

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at her 103rd birthday celebrations.
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at her 103rd birthday celebrations.

Six years ago Dame Elisabeth Murdoch became a permanent part of Melbourne. Her face, sculpted in stone, was set in to the steeple during renovations to St Paul's Cathedral and no one was more surprised than the dame herself. It was not something she would have sought but the dean had thought it a good idea. "I don't think anyone will see me," she said modestly. "It's a long way up."

Dame Elisabeth, who died at 103, was a woman without pretensions. When a journalist rang to inquire about the sculpture that day, she answered the phone herself - no private secretary, seemingly not even an answering machine. The dear lady was as polite and cheerful as ever.

Of course the Murdoch matriarch was already well-enshrined in the Yarra village with such landmarks as the Elisabeth Murdoch building at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Elisabeth Murdoch recital hall in Southbank, not to mention the many bursaries and fellowships and scholarships that bore her name.

Mother of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, and widow of earlier media giant Sir Keith Murdoch, Dame Elisabeth was a philanthropist of the old school, quietly helping dozens of causes and charities with minimum fanfare. She was interested in everybody and everything, equally comfortable with a gardener in overalls as she was with a governor-general in full regalia.

Sir Keith died in 1952, leaving her a widow for half a century. It had been a wonderful love story that began when Murdoch, then editor of the afternoon Herald and seen as Melbourne's most eligible bachelor, spotted a photo of the pretty 18-year-old debutante in the gossip magazine Table Talk. They were married in 1928 after a whirlwind romance. As a wedding present, Murdoch gave his young bride the Cruden Farm property which was first used as a holiday house then became her home. The farm's beautiful gardens, regularly opened to the public for charity, became almost as well-known as the dame herself.

Elisabeth was a loving but no-nonsense parent, as the world discovered when her biography came out in 1994. This revealed how Dame Elisabeth had taught her only son to swim - by throwing him into the ship's swimming pool on a voyage from England. "I had to dog-paddle to the side and I was screaming," recalled Rupert. "That was the way to teach you to swim in those days." Despite the massive family wealth, Dame Elisabeth lived a modest life and held what she called "old-fashioned" views on wealth. "I wish people weren't so conscious about material things because they don't really mean a great deal." Of her many grandchildren she said: 'There will be a horrifying amount of money available for them and I do hope they use it properly and wisely."

For media baron Murdoch, his mother was the rock upon which the powerful clan was built. "She's a woman of tremendous values," he says. She was remarkably durable. Approaching her century, the petite matriarch was still getting out and about to theatres and concert halls. She turned up at the Australian Club at age 97 to help launch a new Melba CD. That got a run in the Murdoch press but, alas, without a photograph of the dame - the Murdoch photographer who turned up was too scruffy and was refused entry. Dame Elisabeth was most amused to hear about it, which was another thing about her - jolly good sense of humour.

This story A woman without pretensions first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.