Plainly Jane, a woman of style and sub­stance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Daw­son

Jane Fraser Jour­nal­ist and colum­nist Born Johannesburg, Novem­ber 27, 1942. Died Syd­ney, Septem­ber 23, aged 72.

For 30 years Jane Fraser wrote for this news­pa­per, cho­sen, she once noted, be­cause she was “a fe­male who shaved her legs and un­der­arms, and wasn’t a Bal­main bas­ketweaver”. It was a typ­i­cally acer­bic ob­ser­va­tion, made in the self-deprecating style that en­deared her to many thou­sands of read­ers, but it un­der­played her tal­ent and de­ter­mi­na­tion in her pro­fes­sion.

South African-born Fraser was an out­stand­ing jour­nal­ist long be­fore she landed at The Aus­tralian, where she be­came the pa­per’s first editor of a women’s sec­tion and, most no­tably, a long-time colum­nist and cel­e­brated fea­tures writer. Her work ex­panded into novel writ­ing: Lip Ser­vice and So­cial Death en­joyed some time on the best­seller lists. More re­cently she was also on the board of The Catholic Weekly and the mag­a­zine Quad­rant.

But be­neath the light­hearted ban­ter Fraser had another qual­ity not known to many of her friends and col­leagues: she was fear­less in the face of con­sid­er­able per­sonal risk. As a young woman at Wit­wa­ter­srand Univer­sity, Jane was, rarely for a white per­son at that time, a mem­ber of the African Na­tional Congress. These were very dan­ger­ous days to be in­volved in black South African pol­i­tics. The Afrikaner gov­ern­ment treated its ANC op­po­nents harshly; Fraser’s close friend John Harris was the only white per­son to be hanged for po­lit­i­cal crimes.

A mea­sure of her role in the fight against apartheid is that when Nel­son Man­dela vis­ited Aus­tralia many years later, he en­sured that he made con­tact with her.

Fraser was born in Johannesburg in 1942. Her fa­ther, Fred­er­ick Owen, was chief ex­ec­u­tive of Goodyear Tyres in South Africa. She was ed­u­cated in Johannesburg and stud­ied math­e­mat­ics at Wit­wa­ter­srand. Af­ter she com­pleted her univer­sity de­gree, her fa­ther, a friend of the po­lice com­mis­sioner, ar­ranged for Jane to come and teach in Syd­ney, which she did at Rand­wick Girls High School. How­ever, some years later she re­turned to South Africa and worked as a jour­nal­ist on the Rand Daily Mail.

There she met Hamish Fraser, a fi­nance jour­nal­ist. Af­ter they were mar­ried the cou­ple de­cided to mi­grate to Aus­tralia. The de­ci­sion was made eas­ier by their al­le­giance to the an­ti­a­partheid cru­sad­ing of the Rand Daily Mail; their de­fi­ance of the regime meant Hamish Fraser risked house ar­rest had they stayed. The news­pa­per was hounded by the gov­ern­ment un­til it was shut down in 1985.

Ar­riv­ing in Syd­ney, Jane Fraser first worked on the eastern sub­urbs news­pa­per the Went­worth Courier be­fore join­ing The Aus­tralian in 1983 to edit the new women’s sec­tion. Her pages were lively and well-read; one of her suc­cesses was to run a col­umn about cook­ing long be­fore the idea of celebrity chefs had been born. One con­trib­u­tor fa­mously wrote about the worst cook­ing he had ever come across: his mother’s.

Fraser had a sure touch in the realm of women’s is­sues and started to make her rep­u­ta­tion. One favourite area of ex­per­tise she de­vel­oped was royal tours. She was al­ways ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing copy on women’s dress styles as well as other more gen­eral as­pects of the royal progress.

Af­ter trips to Lon­don and China, Fraser steadily rose in the pa­per’s es­ti­ma­tion. She was given a weekly col­umn, Plainly Jane, where she ex­celled. This was ea­gerly fol­lowed each Satur­day as she com­mented on a wide range of things that caught her per­cep­tive eye, from the woman who had gained “ev­ery­thing from the bot­tle — gin and perox­ide”, to Syd­ney’s com­mem­o­ra­tion cer­e­mony on the Boer War. Plainly Jane was one of the first col­umns in Aus­tralia to be na­tion­ally syn­di­cated and was broad­cast weekly on ra­dio. At this time she joined a co­terie of regularly lunch­ing News Lim­ited jour­nal­ists — The Aus­tralian’s editor Frank Devine, colum­nist Paddy McGuin­ness and re­li­gious af­fairs writer and Angli­can priest James Mur­ray. They were a noisy and ar­gu­men­ta­tive lot, but Fraser easily held her own in such rowdy com­pany. Her grow­ing friend­ship with Devine and his fam­ily led to her be­ing asked to de­liver a strik­ing eu­logy when he died in 2009

She was also in­tro­duced to other lunch­ing groups in Syd­ney, where she would ex­cel as a con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. She had a ge­nius for friend­ship, though you would not want to cross her. She did not have fiery red hair for noth­ing.

One of Fraser’s best friends was Ge­orge Pell, the for­mer Catholic arch­bishop of Syd­ney. In­deed it was the car­di­nal who, af­ter she had been ill for some years but kept re­fus­ing to go to the doc­tor, per­suaded her to see her GP. He had been con­tacted in Rome by jour­nal­ist Piers Ak­er­man and, on his re­turn, vis­ited Fraser at Dar­ling Point. He re­fused to leave the house un­til she promised she would go to her doc­tor. When fi­nally he had her prom­ise, he lifted up a prayer. He later vis­ited her in hos­pi­tal. Pell de­scribed her from Rome this week as “a dear friend, great com­pany and good to be with”.

Dur­ing the past few years Fraser suf­fered a num­ber of health prob­lems, and even­tu­ally was di­ag­nosed with de­men­tia. It was tragic to wit­ness her de­cline, although for some time she was still able to join her for­mer jour­nal­ist col­leagues for lunch. But, con­scious of her ill­ness, she would shed heart-rend­ing tears on the way home. Now those tears are shed by all those who knew and loved her.

Af­ter her di­vorce from Hamish, she mar­ried Syd­ney ear, nose and throat spe­cial­ist Ken How­i­son. This was a very suc­cess­ful and happy union.

She has been sus­tained in hos­pi­tal by her chil­dren, Kirsty, Philippa and Adam, and Ken. Hamish died some years ago.

The Fo­rum and This Life col­umns will re­turn next week.

Jane Fraser, left; as a child in South Africa, right; and sign­ing copies of one of her books, be­low

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