Philanthropist Lady Mary Fairfax has died in Sydney. She was 95 and died peacefully in her Point Piper home, Fairwater, on Saturday night.
Lady Mary was the third wife of late Sir Warwick Oswald Fairfax, scion of the media company founded by his grandfather John, in 1841 (now Fairfax Media).
Born in 1922 into a family of Polish Jews, who fled rising antisemitism for Australia when she was an infant, Marie Wein grew up in Sydney, first married solicitor Cedric Symonds, and became a dress shop proprietor on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst. They had one son, Garth, and divorced in 1958. She married Warwick Fairfax the following year, as soon as her divorce became official.
When her husband was knighted in 1967, she became Lady Mary, and later received an OBE. She was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2005 for her philanthropic efforts, most notably to medical research and the arts. She founded Friends of The Australian Ballet and was the president of the Australian Opera Foundation. To mark her 80th birthday, she gave away $1 million shared between the St Vincent’s Foundation and Garvan Foundations.
Their harbourside estate, Fairwater, became famous for its parties, most notably following the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, where the guest list included Rudolf Nureyev, Liberace and Imelda Marcos. But Lady Mary sparked internal family jealousies, and her husband’s majority ownership of Fairfax was gradually whittled away amid concerns about her ambitions and influence on the paper. Sir Warwick was forced to step down twice as company chairman during their marriage, ousted for the final time in 1977. He died a decade later, aged 85.
They had three children: Warwick, Anna and Charles. That earlier family fight over control of the Fairfax empire led her to back her then 26-year-old son Warwick’s ill-feted attempt to re-privatise the listed company following the death of his father. It ended with Fairfax’s disastrous collapse three years later in December 1990 with debts of $1.7 billion.
Lady Mary moved to Manhattan, in 1988, buying a 1,270m2 penthouse dubbed Chateau in the Sky, in the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue, New York, for $12 million. She continued to host lavish fundraising parties there, but moved back to Sydney in 1999.
She was famed for her Christmas cards featuring a family photo and details. Journalist David Leser’s 1991 profile on her remarkable life can be read here.
She was listed at 133 on the BRW Rich List in 2017 with $597 million, most notably from the conversion of the former Fairfax cattle property Harrington Park on the outskirts of Sydney into a residential estate.
The family issued a stage saying Lady Mary’s health “has been deteriorating significantly recently” and it was a “deeply distressing time”.
“We ask that the media respect the emotionally difficult time we are now facing. Funeral details will be announced in due course. We have no further comment at this time,” it said.
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