Good Reading : March 2009
writing life 2 Australia’s Gatsby SAM EVERINGHAM couldn’t have asked for a better subject for a biography than maverick entrepreneur Gordon Barton, often called the ‘Great Gatsby of his time’. with some (older) friends for potential biography subjects. One suggested a long- time friend of his who had ‘done great things’ – Gordon Barton. I had never heard of him, and unfortunately, he had just passed away. Nonetheless, I decided to commence a little desk research. The more I dug, the more extraordinary a story unfolded. I had discovered a subject I found both inspiring and intriguing – a multifaceted enigma of a man. Born in Indonesia, schooled in I Sydney, Barton had become politically active at a young age, taking on Menzies and his Anti-Communist Bill. Graduating in Law, Arts and Economics, Barton made millions in developing IPEC Transport into a multinational empire, creating headlines as he battled with the government to launch IPEC Air. He would use his riches to become the conscience of Australia, founding the Liberal Reform Movement (which became the Australia Party and ultimately the Democrats) in opposition to Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. His exposure of the Stock Exchange’s Antimony Nickel short- selling scandal again made national headlines as he fought for fair play. He owned and funded Australia’s first truly independent newspaper – Nation Review and bought and made-over a myriad of ailing Australian businesses, including our oldest publishing house – Angus & Robertson. I went about recording the accounts of friends and colleagues of Barton. My journey took me from the nation’s most powerful boardrooms to the quirky living rooms of some of Australia’s great eccentrics. One day I might be interviewing former Governor General William Deane; the next day Madame Lash. Sir Laurence Street had represented him in court, Harold Holt had written him angry letters, Geoffrey Robertson had stayed in his boathouse, and he had done Margaret and Denis Thatcher a favour by employing their errant son. His eclectic 54 goodreading i MARCH 2009 dinner parties included friends such as Lionel Murphy, Edward de Bono, James Wolfensohn as well as acquaintances – Dr Seuss, John Gorton, his mistress Ainsley Gotto and Germaine Greer. Locating interviewees who knew your subject decades earlier can be difficult. There was one man in particular I had been seeking for months – John Cummings. He had known Barton as a child and later joined Barton’s unusual party circle. The difficulty was, since then Cummings had changed his gender and hence his given name. After weeks of searching, I suddenly realised that at the small University Research Centre I had just joined, our rather deep-voiced septuagenarian librarian was one Katherine Cummings. Could it be? It was. I interviewed well over one hundred people, analysed thousands of pages of correspondence, press interviews, ASIO files and audio-visual archives. Old lovers and friends trusted me with access to their diaries of the time, illuminating intimate perspectives on the man. Others refused completely to cooperate with a project they saw as bound to ruin their reputations. Six months into the project, I had a contract with Allen & Unwin to publish, along with a modest advance, but I still lacked full insight into my subject’s own point of view. What had he been thinking at various key milestones of his was sitting at an alfresco lunch one day in Birchgrove, brainstroming ideas life? I knew that no decent biographer should leave a stone unturned. Could it be that Gordon Barton’s surviving family had kept his personal correspondence? On the telephone, Barton’s son Geoffrey admitted that, yes, there were some old boxes in his warehouse which may have something useful. He had simply never been through them. I salivated. The problem was, Geoffrey and his warehouse were in northern Italy. I had no budget for travel, but by now I was hooked. I would combine a research trip with a holiday. I flew to London, where Barton had lived through much of the 1980s; and then to Italy’s Lake Como, where he settled with his son after he was bankrupted. Barton’s son Geoffrey was immensely welcoming, insisting my partner and I stay in their stunning 19th-century villa on the shores of the magnificent lake. By night I dined with Geoffrey and his sister in elegant lakeside restaurants as they told stories of their father since he had vanished from the public eye. By day I sorted through dozens of dust-filled archives – ignored for over a decade – half-buried in a non-descript freight warehouse. I struck a gold mine – hundreds of personal letters Barton had written to and received from his parents as a young man, love letters to and from his first wife and, from the 1990s, heated and often poignant exchanges between Barton and his estranged partner. Set against the conservativism of 1960s and 1970s Australia and the excesses of 1980s London, I finally had the story of a great Australian thinker, idealist, and aesthete within my grasp. Here was a maverick who had battled to support both his country and those he loved – a man who inspired some of the best creative thinking and political activism ever seen in Australia. It was a tale underlined by the agony of loss, sexual desire, and a battle to turn wealth to worthwhile causes. Gordon Barton: Australia’s maverick entrepreneur by Sam Everingham is published by Allen & Unwin, $35.00.