In 1977, Rupert Murdoch was King

Thursday, August 31, 2017

It’s hard to remember now, but Rupert Murdoch wasn’t always the icon he is now. When AVENUE first profiled the media tycoon, in March 1977, he was just an Australian upstart taking on the New York media establishment.

Anna Murdoch remembers the day, almost a decade ago, when her husband became an international press baron. Having built the family-owned Adelaide News and Sunday Mail into a formidable newspaper chain in his native Australia, Rupert Murdoch made a surprise twenty-million-dollar bid for the ailing Sunday News of the World in London, ten-thousand five-hundred miles from Melbourne. After a party to celebrate the purchase, Anna and Rupert looked at each other and “suddenly we got very quiet,” she recalls. “We realized what we had done. We had changed our lives completely.” They soon moved to London, where Murdoch was vilified incessantly in the local press as an uppity outsider, Anna was the target of a bungled kidnap attempt (the wife of a Murdoch company executive was killed), and bodyguards were assigned to the family’s four young children.

Nine years and a dozen or so newspapers later, the Murdochs find their lives changing again, and once more they fear it may be for the worse. By taking control of three major local publications, the New York Post, New York magazine, and the Village Voice –  all in just a few weeks – Murdoch has become probably the most notorious foreigner to hit town since Yassir Arafat. Staff members at New York called a strike when they learned Murdoch was taking over. The Justice Department began looking into Murdoch’s purchases, and his new office on the top floor of the Post’s South Street headquarters began receiving as many as ten requests a day for interviews. Staggering under a tidal wave of publicity and the burdens of his new acquisitions, Murdoch no longer takes his daily forty-lap swim in the sixteenth-floor pool at the United Nations Plaza Hotel an has cut back his weekend visits to the family’s renovated eighteenth-century farmhouse in the Berkshires. Rupert and Anna no longer slip out to the Palm Restaurant for lobster and a quiet evening as they once did, nor do they tow limousine-loads of visiting Australian friends to dinner at Windows on the World. In some ways, they have become captives of fame in a city where they had sought anonymity.

That was not exactly what they had in mind when they fled to New York from an inhospitable London four years ago. Murdoch had then decided that what this country needed was a good thirty-five cent national tabloid. So, he sold his one-hundred-and-twenty-acre estate outside London, installed the family in Manhattan, and launched the National Star. Basically, that publication was a cross between a London-style tabloid and the National Enquirer. Murdoch spent nearly six-million dollars in television promotion alone, but circulation still lagged. The Star, as it is now known, was eventually restyled into a women’s service newspaper, and is now turning a small profit.

The Star may have faltered, but the Murdochs thrived. They moved into a cavernous twelve-room duplex on Fifth Avenue in the sixties, except for Rupert’s daughter by a first marriage, Prudence, now eighteen, who stayed behind at a British boarding school. Daughter Elizabeth, eight, was enrolled at Brearly, and sons Lachlan, five, and James, four, toddled off to Dalton. Even Anna, thirty-two, a tall, slim, blonde-haired former reporter for the Sydney Daily News (she married the boss in 1967) started studying for a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature at Fordham. Between classes, she cheerfully set out to redecorate their rather formal apartment, even wallpapering a bedroom by herself. “It must be the Scottish in me,” says Scots-born Anna. “We have lived too long with other people’s taste.” She has since hired the New York decorating firm of McMillen, Inc., to help.

While Anna papered the bedroom, Rupert scoured the countryside for papers. He picked up the San Antonio News and Express for eighteen-million dollars, lost out in bidding for the Washington Star, tried unsuccessfully to buy the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the Boston Herald-American, and laid plans to launch a new daily in Boston. Then, last fall, he heard that Publisher Dorothy Schiff was willing to sell her New York Post. Within weeks, he had wined her, dined her, and relieved her of her newspaper, paying thirty-million dollars in cash.

At about that time, New York founder Clay Felker, who had helped bring Murdoch and Schiff together, asked the Australian to buy out a few troublesome New York Magazine Company directors. Murdoch was happy to, but only if he could have complete control of the firm. At one point, he even offered let Felker keep the company’s year-old California sibling, New West, if that would give him New York and the Voice. Felker decided to drop the entire matter, but by then Murdoch could not be stopped. After a week of tender offers, not-so-tender recriminations, and a New Year’s weekend hegira to Sun Valley, Idaho, to buy vacationing Carter Burden’s pivotal twenty-three-point-eight percent of shares – Murdoch also brought along his skiis – the Australian had won. “Rupert is someone who can’t stand to lose,” says former friend Felker. “He’s compulsive about it.”

Murdoch is also affable, disarmingly candid, and capable of balancing prodigious financial and legal equations in his head. Above all, he is an enormously successful businessman. Murdoch company holdings include not only newspapers, but well over a dozen magazines (he already owned four in this country in the Young Professional Group before picking up New York and New West), as well as paper mills, printing plants, a charter airline, travel agency, record company, and bauxite mine in Australia.

He is rarely seen when he is not wearing one of the dark three-piece suits he has made for himself by Nutter’s of Saville Row and, teases Anna, “his idea of relaxing is putting on a colored tie.” He has amassed a museum-quality collection of contemporary Australian art, and rhapsodizes about Australian wine – although he has trouble finding it in New York – insisting that for an oenophile he is a terrific publisher. As for politics, “some people would call me conservative, but I think of myself as liberal,” he says. As for his management style, former employees denounce him as capricious and vindictive, but current employees praise him as incisive and generous. Most lunch-table companions would find him witty and charming, but Murdoch dismisses Murdoch as “serious, a bit dull and humorless, socially rather shy.”

He is not timid in his feelings for New York. “It’s terrible,” he growls in mock disgust. “There are all these wonderful things to go and see. You’ll say, ‘I’ll go and see them next week,’ but you never do.” Despite the city’s well-publicized problems, Murdoch finds the city a promising place for newspapering. “There are a lot of readers here,” he says, explaining that New York is the only U.S. city with a pool of readers as large as in Britain, where most major newspapers circulate nationally. The result, he adds, is that British newspapers generally appear to a particular social class. As for the New York Post, however, he promises: “It’s a middle-class newspaper now, and we intend to keep it that way.”

Murdoch also claims he plans no dramatic alterations at his other new publications. He wants to make New York more of an “upper middle-class service magazine,” he says. “I’m beginning to tire of all this pop psychology.” He would also like to prune back the profusion of culture and lifestyle articles in the Voice, “and make it more political again.” As for New West, “I wouldn’t want to change anything. It’s going to be a great success.”

Whether Murdoch will stick by those intentions is still an open question, as are his prospects for making any money off the forty-five million dollars he has invested in New York. Both the Post and New York Magazine Company were barely break-even propositions last year. Yet even if Murdoch – whose three-continent empire is valued at one-hundred-million dollars – does not immediately find the city’s streets paved with gold, he intends to continue walking them. “I live in New York now,” says the East Side’s newest press lord. “This is my home.”


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