JANET CALVERT-JONES: following in Dame Elisabeth’s footsteps.
Janet Calvert-Jones, the selfproclaimed “spoilt” youngest of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch’s children, talks to Juliet Rieden about growing up in an Aussie dynasty, introducing Jerry Hall to brother Rupert, and why now she is proud to follow in Mum’s footsteps.
Janet Calvert-Jones is gentle, shy and rarely gives interviews. It’s hard to believe she’s the sister of rumbustious media mogul Rupert, and for close to 25 years worked as his Aussie lieutenant as chairman of Melbourne’s Herald and Weekly Times, the company her father Sir Keith Murdoch ran before them.
But I suspect Janet, who turns 80 next year, is far steelier than she looks. Much of her adult life has also been devoted to charity work, something she learned from her mother, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, the inspirational matriarch who she says became her great friend as well as a mentor.
“It was just following in her footsteps,” says Janet. “Her philanthropy – I hate the word – her giving was
more than giving money – it was being interested in things, and that’s the difference, I think. People give money, lots of money, but actually to follow it up and to help people get more donations, to give them advice on how to proceed – she was incredible.” Janet and Dame Elisabeth made a formidable team at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, an innovative organisation which, in just 32 years, has grown from ambitious idea to a worldleading centre of excellence, nurturing scienti c studies that are already saving lives. “Mum was always far more interested in prevention than cure and it was originally called the Murdoch Institute, funding research into birth defects. She thought it was a fantastic idea.”
Today Director Kathryn North’s stem cell work is creating new hearts, kidneys and products for the treatment of leukaemia and blood disorders. It’s like something from a science ction novel, only thanks to the MCRI, these breakthroughs are very much science fact. “It’s developed way beyond my wildest dreams,” beams Janet, who a couple of times a year joins a very special get together of the charity’s council of ambassadors – Dame Quentin Bryce, Paula Fox, Jean Miller, Lady Primrose Potter, Jeanne Pratt and Frances Underwood. They’re all grandmothers and represent the largest philanthropic families and foundations in Australia. “They’re a remarkable group of women and generous to a tee. I love being a part of that,” she says smiling.
We are sitting in Janet’s Melbourne home, where she and husband John raised their own three sons and a daughter, and now welcome their grandchildren. Even though they are spread far and wide, family and children are the heart of the Murdoch family, something engendered from what Janet describes as an “oldfashioned” but “wonderful” childhood.
“I was born just before the war when we moved down to Cruden Farm [the 133-acre country Victoria property given to Dame Elisabeth as a wedding present by Sir Keith in 1928]. I was the spoilt youngest child and I had a wonderful father who would always be there to play with me when he wasn’t at work. I was closest to my sister Anne because we were more that age, whereas Rupert and Helen were a bit older. But we were all very close and I had a fantastic, happy childhood. Fantastic. It was oldfashioned, you know. We had a governess and a nanny.”
As the only son, I wonder if Rupert was spoilt but Janet says, if anything, it was the opposite. “They were very strict with Rupert; they made him sleep outdoors in a ‘sleepout’ to toughen him up. It was just one room, made of wood, with open windows so the air and the rain and everything came in ... Well, he didn’t need any toughening up really, but I suppose my father was very much hoping he’d follow in his footsteps.
“Dame Elisabeth was a very loving mother but she was strict, too. You would never lie to her and there were certain standards. We had a carefree life – Mum allowed us to go to parties and things – but she de nitely led by example and taught us to be considerate of others.
“I was very close to Mum and as she got older, very, very close to her, and saw a lot of her. We were great friends. She was de nitely a role model and I would love to be a quarter as good as her in all she did.”
Dame Elisabeth reportedly worried that the family’s wealth might have a detrimental effect on especially her grandchildren, and she loathed gratuitous spending. “She didn’t need to worry because each of us has been
very careful to instil in our children that, if you have money, you must make sure other people have the bene t of it,” says Janet.
“She was very generous, but she never spent money on herself. She would think anything expensive was a terrible waste. I remember my brother [Rupert] giving her a bottle of Grange Hermitage, something like $100 a bottle, and she could hardly bear to drink it.” Nevertheless, Janet says, Dame Elisabeth was “terribly proud” of Rupert, adding “they got on like a house on re”. I wonder what Dame Elisabeth would have made of her son’s fourth wife, the model and actress Jerry Hall. But I’m obviously way off beam, for it was actually Janet’s daughter, Penny, who played matchmaker between the couple. “We knew Jerry before Rupert did,” Janet reveals. “She came out here with The Graduate, years and years ago, and we became friendly with her then. It was Penny who introduced Jerry and Rupert. We were absolutely thrilled [when they got together]. We were waiting and waiting for it to happen because she’s so gorgeous and they’re just so happy, it’s a joy to see.”
Janet rst met her husband, John, then a stockbroker, in London, but it was a while before romance developed. Dame Elisabeth played chaperone to the pair in Singapore and they wed in 1962. “We’ve been married 56 years now, so we’ve been extremely fortunate. Much luckier than Mum. She only had 23 years. But she always said she’d much rather be married to somebody she loved for a short time than for a long time to someone she didn’t love. Even when she was 100, she used to wake up sometimes thinking, ‘I must tell Keith that’. Wonderful. It’s remarkable she had 60 years after he died by herself and never looked at anybody else.”
Janet says Sir Keith’s death, at 66 years old, hit the family hard. “I was only 13 and I was devastated, I adored my father. My mother of course was in grief, but she never let it show to anybody.”
Dame Elisabeth threw herself into her work and her family. “She wasn’t a hugging, kissing grandmother but she was totally non-judgemental, so the grandchildren could go to her, whether they were in trouble or whatever, and she would care for them and advise them.”
Janet needed that support herself when she and John discovered their son, James, was deaf. “He was a very quiet baby and because he was number three, all very close together I suppose, we didn’t notice it at all. It was my mother-in-law and my mum who got together and said,
‘We don’t think this child is hearing; it seems to be a bit strange that he’s not reacting to things’. So we took him off to a hearing doctor and we discovered that I had had rubella. We were extremely lucky in a way – if you can call it good luck – because when you have rubella the child can be blind, deaf or mentally impaired. So James got away lightly with it, although of course it didn’t seem like it at the time.”
James’ condition certainly had an impact on the family but “because the kids were young they took James for granted – that was the secret of his success in a way,” says Janet. “He was treated as though he was normally hearing, so he just had to muck in.”
True to family form, Janet used her experience to help others and set up Taralye, one of the world’s leading early intervention centres for children with hearing loss. “It’s 50 years old now. It’s the thing I’m proudest about of all, I think,” she says.
I ask Janet how it feels being a part of one of our most famous dynasties. “I never think of it being that, but I think for me it’s about trying to uphold the values and live up to the expectations of my mum. I think good old-fashioned values of family life still hold true and family comes rst.”
To make a donation to the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, visit mcri.edu.au
“I think good oldfashioned values of family life still hold true.”
Below: Janet (right) with her mother, Dame Elisabeth.
Janet (seated) with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute Council of Ambassadors.