In­ves­ti­ga­tion: the mys­tery of Colleen McCul­lough’s mil­lions

She was a best-selling au­thor who was larger than life, yet even in death Colleen McCul­lough is hav­ing the last laugh. As Sue Smethurst re­ports, the bat­tle be­tween her hus­band and a uni­ver­sity over her will is set to be one hell of a story.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

It is ar­guably one of the most mem­o­rable scenes in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, when the cun­ning widow Mary Car­son re­veals to hand­some priest Fa­ther Ralph de Bri­c­as­sart that she has se­cretly crafted a sec­ond will that for­ever changes the lives and for­tunes of those liv­ing on the Out­back cat­tle sta­tion, Drogheda.

The Machi­avel­lian mas­ter­stroke was one of many page-turn­ing twists in the plot of Colleen McCul­lough’s novel The Thorn Birds, the biggest­selling book in Aus­tralian his­tory.

The char­ac­ters of the sweep­ing fam­ily saga, which sold a stag­ger­ing 33 mil­lion copies world­wide, were in­spired by Colleen’s own life. The itin­er­ant work­ers fol­lowed the no­madic Out­back ex­is­tence of her par­ents and the tragic drown­ing of a pre­cious son mir­rored the demise of Colleen’s much-loved brother, Carl.

Now, two years af­ter her death, an in­trigu­ing chap­ter is be­ing writ­ten in the life of Colleen McCul­lough and it reads as if straight from the pages of her most fa­mous and dra­matic story.

In a case of life im­i­tat­ing art, it’s been re­vealed that like her pro­tag­o­nist Mary Car­son, Colleen also left an­other will, shun­ning her hus­band of 30 years, Ric Robin­son, and giv­ing her multi-mil­lion dol­lar es­tate to an Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity.

And it’s now the sub­ject of a bit­ter court bat­tle, which has all the mak­ings of a best-seller.

“Col knew ex­actly what she was do­ing all the time,” says her long-time pub­lisher at HarperCollins and friend, Shona Mar­tyn.

“In her fi­nal years, al­though her body was let­ting her down, her mind was as sharp as ever and she con­tin­ued to write un­til the end. As much as she’d hate hav­ing her per­sonal life raked over the coals, she’d have known some­thing like this would be­come pub­lic – I think she’s hav­ing the last laugh.”

A sec­ond will ap­pears

The bat­tle for the 77-year-old’s for­tune be­gan shortly af­ter her death from a se­ries of strokes in Jan­uary 2015, when it was re­vealed there was more than one will in her name.

The first, signed in July 2014, be­queathed her es­tate, which in­cludes land on Nor­folk Is­land where she made her home, price­less art works and the roy­al­ties from her 25 books, to the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa.

The sec­ond will is a copy of the first will, re­vok­ing the July 2014 ver­sion and leav­ing ev­ery­thing to Ric – al­ready the ben­e­fi­ciary of prop­erty in their joint names, in­clud­ing a sprawl­ing Nor­folk Is­land man­sion.

The case, bat­tled out be­hind closed doors, hinges upon a re­port from a foren­sic ex­pert who put both wills un­der the mi­cro­scope to val­i­date the au­then­tic­ity of the hand­writ­ing.

The re­sults, due to be de­liv­ered to the NSW Supreme Court in Au­gust, will de­ter­mine if this be­comes a very pub­lic, very bit­ter hear­ing.

“The only valid will is the will that ben­e­fits my client, Ric Robin­son. We dis­pute all other claims,” says Ric’s Nor­folk Is­land lawyer John Brown. “When the ev­i­dence comes be­fore the court, peo­ple will make up their own minds.”

Re­spected Syd­ney lit­er­ary agent Selwa An­thony, ex­ecu­tor of Colleen’s es­tate, ar­gues that is not the case and her wishes were well known. “I loved

Col dearly. We were friends for 40 years and I be­lieve in my heart the will she signed in [July] 2014 was the cor­rect one. It was widely known that she wanted to make a large be­quest to the uni­ver­sity, to cre­ate a space or li­brary or a schol­ar­ship in her name. She com­mu­ni­cated this to me, to the uni­ver­sity and to many others, and I will hon­our what I be­lieve is right.”

Heart of gold

Colleen McCul­lough – Col as those clos­est to her called her – was the undis­puted queen of Aus­tralian pub­lish­ing. Her first man­u­script Tim was pub­lished by Harper & Row in 1974 and be­came an in­stant best-seller. Her sec­ond novel, The Thorn Birds, proved it wasn’t a fluke.

The pa­per­back rights for The Thorn Birds sold at auc­tion for US$1.9 mil­lion, a world record at the time, and the book went on to smash ev­ery pub­lish­ing record ever set. It has re­mained in con­tin­u­ous print since it was first pub­lished.

“She was so sig­nif­i­cant. She was one of the big­gest fig­ures in the lit­er­ary world and an ab­so­lute trail­blazer for women and Aus­tralian writ­ers,” says Shona Mar­tyn. “She wasn’t just huge in Aus­tralia – she was one of the first to re­ally make it on the world stage.”

Colleen’s path to lit­er­ary fame and for­tune was an un­con­ven­tional one be­cause she made her name in sci­ence be­fore turn­ing to writ­ing. The dili­gent school­girl planned to be­come a doc­tor, but in­stead stud­ied neu­ro­phys­i­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney. Colleen im­pressed her lec­tur­ers so much, she was sent to the UK, then the US to fur­ther her work, where was of­fered a place at Yale Uni­ver­sity, to take up a role ex­pand­ing the uni­ver­sity’s re­search lab.

De­scribed as a poly­math, she taught neu­roanatomy, neu­ro­phys­i­ol­ogy and neu­ro­log­i­cal elec­tron­ics, and called the US home for 14 years be­fore even­tu­ally re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia.

Her aca­demic achieve­ments were widely lauded, but at the time, fe­male sci­en­tists were paid about half what their male col­leagues were. So Colleen, who had proudly de­clared she wanted to be a “life­long, ded­i­cated spin­ster” and who was con­scious about her fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity dur­ing old age, de­cided con­fi­dently that she would write a best-seller. And she did.

By 1980, Tim was a box-of­fice hit movie star­ring Mel Gib­son, The Thorn Birds be­came a TV minis­eries in 1983 and Colleen was a house­hold name. She re­treated to a new home on Nor­folk Is­land, where she met painter Ric Robin­son, who she had com­mis­sioned to freshen up her walls. She was smit­ten with the strap­ping Nor­folk Is­lander, who is 13 years her ju­nior and a de­scen­dant of Bounty mu­ti­neers. “He was six foot three and drop-dead gor­geous!” she en­thused.

They mar­ried in 1984 and built their dream home, a sweep­ing white weath­er­board man­sion, Out Yenna (Out Yon­der in Nor­folk). “It’s big,” she boasted, “but so am I!”

The home is open to the pub­lic and fans of the au­thor wan­der through the fern-lined con­ser­va­tory where she would host wild din­ner par­ties, the pur­ple ‘‘scrip­to­rium”, as she called her of­fice, and the grand foyer with tow­er­ing gold col­umns and bold Florence Broad­hurst wall­pa­per.

“Col did noth­ing by halves,” says Selwa An­thony, who isn’t a ben­e­fi­ciary of the will and will re­ceive no per­sonal

She had the big­gest laugh and big­gest heart.

ben­e­fit. The pair be­came friends just af­ter The Thorn Birds was re­leased and Colleen came to do a book sign­ing at Gra­ham’s book­store in Syd­ney, where Selwa then worked. “I was so ex­cited when I read it, I said, ‘I’ll take 500 copies’ – the sales rep nearly fell over. We’d sold half by the time she came in to sign the books. She had the big­gest laugh, threw the big­gest din­ner par­ties and had the big­gest heart; she was so gen­er­ous,” says Selwa.

“When my mother died, know­ing she loved red roses, Col rang ev­ery florist she could find and or­dered ev­ery rose she could get her hands on to dec­o­rate the church. There wasn’t a red rose left in all of Syd­ney.”

News of the sec­ond will shocked the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa, which be­lieved Colleen’s es­tate had been be­queathed to it. Guy Pat­ton, Pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa Foun­da­tion, said it wanted to be­come in­volved in the ju­di­cial process. “It is ab­so­lutely our belief that we are ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Colleen’s es­tate. Colleen spoke of­ten of her af­fec­tion for her re­la­tion­ship with the uni­ver­sity.”

In fact, Colleen had given to sci­ence be­fore. A por­tion of the roy­al­ties from her 1998 book, Ro­den Cut­ler, V.C., were do­nated to the Prince of Wales Med­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute for the Neu­ro­sciences.

A writer to the end

It was her se­ries, Mas­ters of Rome, which cap­tured the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa’s at­ten­tion. The seven vol­umes, de­scribed as a “huge, rich and in­cred­i­bly de­tailed” ac­count of the fi­nal days of the Ro­man Em­pire, are still used in schools as ref­er­ence books, even though they’re tech­ni­cally fic­tion. Colleen was awarded a Doc­tor of Let­ters from Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity for her work and in­vited to join the found­ing board of the po­lit­i­cal sci­ence de­part­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa, where she be­came friends with Henry Kissinger, Ge­orge Bush Snr and Newt Gin­grich.

For many years, she reg­u­larly flew to the US to at­tend uni­ver­sity board meet­ings, thriv­ing in the world of the po­lit­i­cal and aca­demic glit­terati, but her first love was writ­ing. She wrote pro­lif­i­cally us­ing an old-fash­ioned type­writer, never a com­puter, un­til mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion cru­elly robbed her of her sight, af­ter which she be­gan us­ing voice recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy and dic­tat­ing her work.

Colleen’s fi­nal book, Bit­ter­sweet, was pub­lished in 2014 and she was three-quar­ters of the way through a new man­u­script when she died.

“She was a per­fec­tion­ist,” says Shona Mar­tyn, “and al­though sick to­wards the end, she never lost the de­sire to write and was writ­ing un­til she died. It was ex­cit­ing when the sig­na­ture box [she fa­mously de­liv­ered manuscripts in ma­roon boxes with her name em­bossed in gold] landed on my desk.

“Col was old school, she had class and pres­ence. When she came into the of­fice, ev­ery­one stopped in their tracks. She was so well-loved and such a big fig­ure in pub­lish­ing. There’ll never be an­other Colleen McCul­lough – she was one of a kind, a true char­ac­ter, and no one will ever take her place.”

Renowned ed­i­tor and pub­lisher Linda Fun­nell, who worked with Colleen for 15 years, de­scribes the au­thor’s ar­rival in the of­fice as an “event”, with staff cran­ing over their desks to catch a glimpse of her.

One morn­ing Linda came into work to find Colleen wait­ing. She had de­cided to de­liver a man­u­script in per­son. “I ar­rived to find her and Selwa [An­thony] in my of­fice,” she says. “Col wore a leop­ard print wrap and I closed the of­fice door so she could smoke. The of­fice al­lowed a bit of wrig­gle room on the no-smok­ing rules af­ter 6pm when most peo­ple had left. How­ever, this was Colleen McCul­lough and you weren’t go­ing to say no to her at nine o’clock in the morn­ing, were you? Not when she was de­liv­er­ing her man­u­script!

“She was a de­mand­ing, straighttalk­ing, gen­er­ous, hi­lar­i­ous woman.”

With the bat­tle over her will now set to be­come a pub­lic drama, maybe the lady her­self has had the last laugh, plot­ting a must-watch fi­nal chap­ter that will en­sure the au­thor is mak­ing head­lines all over again.

“The whole thing is very sad,” says Linda, not­ing that Colleen, in her es­say, Life With­out the Bor­ing Bits, ac­knowl­edged that her early years were thinly dis­guised in The Thorn Birds. “But I don’t think we can see his­tory re­peat­ing,” says Linda, smil­ing. “No priests in­volved as far as I know!”

FROM ABOVE: Colleen in her “scrip­to­rium”, where she wrote her books on a type­writer; her mul­ti­ple copies of The Thorn Birds; Colleen in the gar­den of her Nor­folk Is­land home in 1990.

ABOVE: The Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa, where Colleen sat on the found­ing board of the po­lit­i­cal sci­ence de­part­ment, has made a claim to Colleen’s es­tate. RIGHT: Colleen with her hus­band, Ric Robin­son, in 2013. He says that his late wife in­tended to leave her en­tire es­tate to him.

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