Happy 75th birth­day Ita But­trose: “I’m not done yet!”

Me­dia icon Ita But­trose, who turned 75 in Jan­uary, talks to Larry Writer about her ca­reer, her tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship with bil­lion­aire Kerry Packer, be­ing a grand­mother and how she plans to stay fit, healthy and a pow­er­house for years to come.


What’s good about turn­ing 75?” pon­ders Ita But­trose, hav­ing just swept into the room like a sum­mer breeze to meet The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly. “Well,” she of­fers af­ter a hard think, “best of all,” she ex­ults, “I’m still here!”

And three cheers for that. Af­ter cel­e­brat­ing her mile­stone birth­day on Jan­uary 17, “life is just as won­der­fully fran­tic as ever”.

So what bet­ter time to re­flect on what has been, and still is, a re­mark­able life? In her 60 years in the me­dia, Ita has in­ter­viewed and writ­ten about the world’s most fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple – yet few could be as com­pelling as the lady her­self. Although usu­ally too busy to rem­i­nisce, to­day, for The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly, the mag­a­zine that re­mains in her heart 41 years af­ter she be­came its youngest edi­tor, she’s happy to make an ex­cep­tion.

Aged 15 in 1957, Ita joined Sir Frank Packer’s Aus­tralian Con­sol­i­dated Press, pub­lisher of The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly and the Daily and Sun­day Tele­graph news­pa­pers, pay­ing her jour­nal­is­tic dues as, var­i­ously, copy­girl, sec­re­tary, cadet and re­porter on The Weekly. At 23, she was named Women’s Edi­tor of both Tele­graphs. When, in 1967, she won – oh, the de­li­cious irony – a trip over­seas in a Sydney Morn­ing Her­ald fash­ion con­test, she landed in Lon­don with hus­band of four years Alas­dair Mac­don­ald and worked on Woman’s Own mag­a­zine. Their first child, Kate, was born in 1968, and Ita re­turned to the Packer fold in 1970 to again edit the women’s pages of the Tele­graphs.

In 1972, Sir Frank’s son, Kerry, ap­pointed Ita as found­ing Edi­tor of Cleo, a glossy of­fer­ing young women frank sex ad­vice and the guilty plea­sure of a nude male cen­tre­fold. “Our de­but is­sue sold out in two days,” she says. By the end of 1973, Cleo was sell­ing a rip-roar­ing 200,000 copies a month.

“Cleo was a golden time,” says Ita, one im­mor­talised in the 2011 minis­eries Pa­per Gi­ants: The Birth of Cleo. For her por­trayal of Ita, Asher Ked­die won a Lo­gie award for nail­ing Ita’s dis­tinc­tive walk and man­ner­isms, her never-out-of-place honey coif­fure, per­fect make-up and be­guil­ing mix of co­quet­tish­ness and steel, but may have over-egged Ita’s lisp, which is scarcely dis­cernible in real life.

In 1975, when Ita was 33, Kerry Packer made her Edi­tor of The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly, the most pres­ti­gious job in mag­a­zines.

“The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly is the pro­fes­sional love af­fair of my life,” Ita says.

In 1981, she joined Ru­pert Mur­doch’s News Lim­ited, which now owned the Tele­graphs, and be­came the first woman to edit a ma­jor metropoli­tan news­pa­per. She went on to be­come a ra­dio talk­back host, Edi­tor-in-Chief of Fair­fax’s Sun-Her­ald and pub­lish her own monthly, ITA mag­a­zine, from 1989-94. Re­spected – and feared by some – as a tough, savvy edi­tor who de­manded the best from her staff, she was made an Of­fi­cer of the Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire in 1979, an Of­fi­cer of the Or­der of Australia in 1988 and Aus­tralian of the Year in 2013.

Be­ing a grand­mother

For all her plau­dits, Ita says, “My chil­dren are my great­est achieve­ment.” Long-term read­ers of The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly will re­mem­ber Ita’s folksy tales of young Kate and Ben. To­day, Kate is 48 and runs the ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice of her late fa­ther, and Dr Ben Mac­don­ald, 43, is an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist.

“They turned out re­ally nice adults,” says Ita. “We’re great friends. A par­ent can’t be a friend when their child

Over-50s of­ten don’t re­ceive due re­spect.

is lit­tle, you’re too busy set­ting bound­aries and in­still­ing val­ues, but when they’re older your re­la­tion­ship changes. Kate and Ben’s dad died three years ago and that was dif­fi­cult for them be­cause they were close. I try to fill that gap in their lives as best I can.”

Ita dotes on her five grand­chil­dren – Kate has Sa­man­tha, eight, and Clare, seven, and Ben is dad to By­ron, eight, El­yse, six, and Jack, four. “They’re lovely, they hug my legs and give me kisses,” she says. “I get a buzz see­ing in them lit­tle bits of my­self and of my own chil­dren. I look at Jack, Ben’s youngest, and it’s like look­ing at

Ben when he was lit­tle. I do all the grand­moth­erly things. I take them to movies like Bal­le­rina and Sing, and I read them sto­ries and turn up at Grand­par­ents Day at school. I play mon­sters with them and chase them all over the house. I en­cour­age them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and tell Sa­man­tha, Clare and El­yse, ‘Re­mem­ber, di­a­monds are a girl’s best friend!’”

Gaz­ing into her grand­chil­dren’s eyes makes Ita melt. “They are so trust­ing, so in­gen­u­ous… They still be­lieve in Santa and the tooth fairy! They still have their il­lu­sions. They’ve yet to meet any­one un­kind. Noth­ing ter­ri­ble has hap­pened to them. Eyes are so re­veal­ing. I’ve seen pho­tos of chil­dren in­volved in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases and their eyes don’t have that trust­ing look.”

Ita’s com­pas­sion shines through in word and deed. She’s long cham­pi­oned so­ci­ety’s sick and vul­ner­a­ble, work­ing with the likes of the Na­tional Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee on AIDS, Alzheimer’s Australia, Mac­u­lar Dis­ease Foun­da­tion and Arthri­tis Australia, among oth­ers. “If you’re in a po­si­tion to make a dif­fer­ence, you must try,” she says.

Her causes tend to be deeply per­sonal. When Kate was young, she was stricken with a rare form of ju­ve­nile arthri­tis, so Ita of­fered her ser­vices to Arthri­tis Australia, and her work with the Na­tional Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee on AIDS was spurred by the deaths of gay friends.

Ita’s fa­ther, Charles’, health tra­vails were the cat­a­lyst for her de­men­tia and mac­u­lar dis­ease cru­sades. In 1999, the year he died, aged 89, Charles was hos­pi­talised with Alzheimer’s, mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion and deaf­ness. When a nurse com­plained to Ita that her fa­ther was ag­gres­sive and ig­nored her, “I very gen­tly pointed out that Dad couldn’t see, couldn’t hear and, like many with de­men­tia, he be­came ag­i­tated when in an unfamiliar sit­u­a­tion,” she re­calls. “The nurse should have known that. There’s such ig­no­rance about de­men­tia, which is the sin­gle great­est cause of dis­abil­ity in older Aus­tralians and the sec­ond lead­ing cause of death, and there’s a huge short­age of prop­erly trained car­ers.”

Ita wants the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to es­tab­lish a na­tional fully funded de­men­tia strat­egy. “The plight of those liv­ing with de­men­tia must be recog­nised and re­dressed,” she says. “We want a de­men­tia-friendly so­ci­ety. We should ask our­selves how we’d like to be treated if we had de­men­tia and the an­swer would be with re­spect and com­pas­sion. If we see some­one who seems con­fused on pub­lic trans­port or at the check-out, let’s not turn our back, but of­fer a help­ing hand.”

To boost her own chances of a healthy old age, she eats well – “plain food, lots of fish and veges” – and keeps fit. She swears by seven hours’ sleep a night, though her 5am starts on Stu­dio 10, the Network Ten panel show she co-hosts, can make that a chal­lenge. She walks her groo­dle (a golden re­triever crossed with a poo­dle), Cleo, daily and works out twice weekly with neigh­bours at her eastern Sydney apart­ment block. To ex­er­cise her brain, Ita reads widely and deeply, and she writes – the au­thor of 11 books is cur­rently pen­ning her sec­ond novel. She is an in-de­mand pub­lic speaker. She trav­els when work al­lows and en­joys the opera, bal­let, theatre and mu­si­cals – “I love mu­si­cals!”

Ita has not been in a se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship since her sec­ond mar­riage, to busi­ness­man Peter Sawyer, ended af­ter two years in 1981. “I don’t feel sorry for my­self,” she once told The Weekly. “You can’t just go out on the street and lasso a bloke. If it’s not meant to be, I ac­cept it’s not meant to be.” While she ad­mits to oc­ca­sional lone­li­ness, she rev­els in sin­gle­dom. “I can say no if I don’t want to go out to din­ner, I can switch on the box and wal­low in a ro­man­tic movie for the sixth time or a mu­si­cal with­out any­one say­ing, ‘Ita!’”

Valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence

Be­ing well and truly one her­self now, Ita ap­pre­ci­ates the chal­lenges be­set­ting older Aus­tralians. “Over-50s of­ten don’t re­ceive due re­spect,” she says. “We’re not de­crepit, we’re per­fectly ca­pa­ble. Yet 10 per cent of com­pa­nies won’t hire any­one over 50. They’re los­ing out on our ex­pe­ri­ence... When you reach 50, life holds few sur­prises and we can pro­vide the con­tin­gency plans that per­haps those who haven’t been there and done that can­not.”

An­other bug­bear of se­niors is deal­ing with con­stant change. On a per­sonal level, Ita’s baby, Cleo, closed af­ter 44 years last Fe­bru­ary. While con­ced­ing that the Cleo of 2016 bore scant re­sem­blance to the mag­a­zine she founded, Ita joined for­mer staffers to mourn its demise at a wake in a Wool­lahra ho­tel, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. “Los­ing Cleo was like a death in the fam­ily,” she says.

Ita waxes lyri­cally about the sump­tu­ous feel and “bet­ter than Chanel No.5” smell of qual­ity mag­a­zines, and shakes her head when, nowa­days, she sees younger peo­ple whose nose would once have been buried in a mag­a­zine such as

Cleo plugged into dig­i­tal de­vices in­stead. “Print me­dia is un­der siege, but it’s not dead yet,” she says. “If pub­lish­ers de­liver a qual­ity publi­ca­tion with sub­ject mat­ter vi­tal to read­ers that they can’t get else­where, bril­liant writ­ing, de­sign and photography, peo­ple will buy it.”

Cir­cu­la­tions have fallen not just be­cause of com­pe­ti­tion from the in­ter­net, she says, “but be­cause too many mag­a­zines are a load of rub­bish”.

She re­fuses to be like many of her

older friends who turn their back on tech­nol­ogy, pre­fer­ring life as it was. “Tech­nol­ogy is cre­at­ing an amaz­ing world,” she says. “Kate was born on Christ­mas Eve 1968, in Lon­don, and we couldn’t phone home be­cause all the tele­phone lines were booked out. Now, we can con­tact fam­ily and friends when­ever we like. And the in­ter­net of­fers an as­ton­ish­ing amount of in­for­ma­tion. It’s a fal­lacy that tech­nol­ogy is too com­plex for older peo­ple to un­der­stand.”

An­other cross those get­ting on in years must bear is the death of loved ones and con­tem­po­raries. Ita has lost her par­ents, her brother Will, her Aunty Billy, her first hus­band, Alas­dair, cher­ished con­fi­dantes Marj McGowen and Nan Mus­grove, Kerry Packer and more.

She grows wist­ful. “I’ve been think­ing of those I’ve loved who are no longer here and there are a lot,” she says. “Yet no one ever re­ally dies un­til every per­son who re­mem­bers them has died. They’re still part of my ta­pes­try. The things we did, the mem­o­ries I have. I wouldn’t be me with­out them.”

Kerry was a tow­er­ing pres­ence in Ita’s life and mem­o­ries of their re­la­tion­ship evoke both joy and sad­ness. Joy be­cause “we were great friends, we en­er­gised each other. Kerry was a force of na­ture, a gi­ant pres­ence. He was unique.” Sad­ness “be­cause he died so young”.

Ita says Kerry was por­trayed un­fairly in Pa­per Gi­ants. “Sure, he had a short fuse and a foul tem­per,” she says, “but he didn’t spend his whole life shout­ing at peo­ple. Mostly, he was friendly and happy, and very funny and be­cause of his shel­tered up­bring­ing lov­ably naive.”

Kerry would pull up a chair in Ita’s of­fice, light a cig­a­rette and con­trib­ute when she and her staff com­pared the at­tributes of cen­tre­fold as­pi­rants and dreamed up ar­ti­cles on sex aids and 20 ways to turn your man on.

“Kerry took a chance on me when we started Cleo,” says Ita. “He sup­ported my de­ci­sions when peo­ple said we’d fail. Well, we didn’t. He un­der­stood that we were good at what we did and gave us the free­dom to take risks and make pub­lish­ing his­tory. Cleo was Kerry’s first tri­umph and af­ter its suc­cess, his old man [Sir Frank Packer] stopped call­ing him an id­iot.”

Cleo gave Ita the courage to buck tra­di­tion and mod­ernise The Weekly when she be­came Edi­tor in 1975. In came fea­tures on women’s rights, sex, work-life bal­ance, pol­i­tics, the Pill and other once-ta­boo top­ics to bol­ster its tried-and-true menu of roy­alty, beauty, cook­ing, fash­ion and the like. In her Weekly hey­day, Ita’s col­umn and bub­bly TV ad­verts es­tab­lished her as a na­tional icon. Women loved her be­cause they felt she un­der­stood them and cared, while Jimmy Barnes spoke for many men when, in Cold Chisel’s 1980 hit Ita, he sang that while in her TV ads “the desk­top hides her hips, my imag­i­na­tion’s strong”, she was the sweet­est thing he’d ever seen and he’d like to take her out to din­ner even if he risked blow­ing his dream date by hold­ing his fork “all wrong”.

Male friends pay Ita (whose brothers, she laughs, “taught me to speak Bloke and be com­pet­i­tive”) the ul­ti­mate com­pli­ment. “She’s a good sport,” says John Ford­ham, founder of celebrity man­age­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion

The Ford­ham Com­pany.

“Ita is earthy, smart, tells a great yarn, has been known to drink beer out of a bot­tle and is loyal.”

Yet not every­one’s a fan.

Ita has been stalked, sent threat­en­ing let­ters and abused by strangers for sup­port­ing AIDS vic­tims. “It comes with the ter­ri­tory,” she sighs. When her late brother Will’s son, Richard But­trose, now 44, was jailed in 2010 for deal­ing co­caine and Will’s daugh­ter Lizzie, 47, got into strife last year, re­porters sala­ciously and un­fairly name-checked Ita in their re­ports. “The link is some­what ten­u­ous I feel!” she says. “I’m their aunt and we share a name, but my nephew and niece are adults who’ve made their own de­ci­sions and must face the con­se­quences. Which is not to say that I don’t love Richard and Lizzie. I do. I promised Will I’d look out for them. Fam­ily is fam­ily.”

Like many beau­ti­ful, suc­cess­ful women, Ita has been a gos­sip-mag­net. In­evitably, given their close work­ing re­la­tion­ship and Kerry Packer’s fu­ri­ous re­ac­tion when Ita left for News Lim­ited, ru­mour had it that they were ro­man­ti­cally in­volved. Ru­mour that Ita re­fuses to dig­nify with a re­sponse, ex­cept to say that “my pri­vate life is ex­actly that, pri­vate”. She and Kerry made a pact that nei­ther would talk about their deep friend­ship. Ita never has and vows she never will.

She has led a bold life, one of striv­ing to be the best, tak­ing chances, giv­ing 100 per cent, hang­ing tough. “I’ve had highs and lows,” Ita says. “Not ev­ery­thing in work and re­la­tion­ships and life pans out, but dis­ap­point­ment and sad­ness pass… and then, usu­ally, some­thing won­der­ful hap­pens. And sud­denly here I am, a happy 75 years of age – and I’m not fin­ished yet!”

I’ve had highs and lows. Not ev­ery­thing in life pans out.

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