Books Australia

But does it pass the breath, er, pub test?

10 November 2018

9:00 AM

10 November 2018

9:00 AM

Anne Summers in 2011 was named by Vogue magazine as ‘one of the world’s wisest women’. After reading her memoir Unfettered and Alive, I’d say she’s feisty and crazy-brave, but wise? No.

In 1994, editing Fairfax’s Good Weekend, she rewarded readers with one of her quirky surprises in the cooking section. Celebrity chef Gay Bilson, egged on by Summers, ran a column ‘The blood of others’ about planning to make sausages for dinner guests from three litres of her own blood. Her guests begged off and readers gagged over the ‘wonderful piece of writing’. Summers ‘counted this article as one of those I was most proud to publish’.

Her career nearly collapsed in late 1983 during her switch from head of the Fin Review in the press gallery to running Keating’s Office of Status of Women (OSW, initially SOW). Driving home from a late dinner the nascemt FAS PM&C refused a breath test and overnighted in a cell. Her rationale was that the Canberra Times reported on drunk drivers, and she’d become a joke and couldn’t advance women’s causes: ‘No, I couldn’t let that happen.’ Her permanent head Geoff Yeend was ‘soothing’ and ‘gracious’, Labor minister Susan Ryan and ex-Treasurer John Howard vouched for her and the obliging magistrate let her off without a conviction. Claiming victim status, Summers now writes, ‘The only nastiness was from the media’. Such as? The Melbourne Truth, unlike the press gallery hacks, did its job and reported the charge against the gallery president; one journo tried to blackmail her by demanding leaks. She shows no contrition.

It’s Boxing Day, 1997 and one of the world’s wisest women finally gets to meet Germaine Greer at an annual party in Balmain hosted by rugby identity Murray Sime and celebrating Chairman Mao’s birthday. Summers: ‘I had had too many glasses of Jim Beam, a drink I had never tried before (or since) and, embarrassingly, had thrown up in front of her… Despite our both being champions of feminism, we have never really connected; it was probably our first meeting that saw to that.’ Amen. As for rugby, it’s ‘violent and boorish’.

In her job as Keating adviser, she organised a True Believers’ Victory Dinner for 600 in parliament’s Great Hall to celebrate Keating’s 1993 electoral win. Labor HQ was dubious about the $100 a ticket party ($180 today), but she assured them it would be self-financing with volunteer tradies and free entertainment by Yothu Yindi. At the last minute she discovered that the idle parliament unions had to be paid off for any work done by others, and Yothu Yindi’s crew also wanted pay. She flung herself on the ALP’s mercy and during the partying ‘sat on the floor at the back of the room, sobbing with humiliation’ while being pestered to sign for more booze. The bill came in at $35,000 ($64,000 today).


Summers’ peak fame was in New York in 1987-88. She organised with publisher Sandra Yates the purchase of Gloria Steinem’s struggling Ms, first for Fairfax ($US12.5m outlay) and then for themselves (plus teen mag startup Sassy) in a $US20m management buyout in mid-1988. After phase one, Summers found chaos including a Ms staffer shickered every lunchtime, subsiding under her desk and passing out.

Most staff were paid a pittance but some at the top were paying themselves ‘extremely well’. As for Steinem: ‘I’d been horrified by the patronising cruelty she dispensed to women she regarded as unimportant’.

In phase two, there was projected buyout value of $US100m value in five years, or $US40m net for the duo. But in a bare three weeks, their business model turned turtle. They’d mass-mailed a Sassy flier that offended religious conservatives. Six top advertisers withdrew $US25m billings and 53 retail chains de-stocked Sassy, dooming the business by September with a $US1m monthly deficit. Back in Canberra as Keating adviser, and dudded on her final year $US200,000 Ms contract, she had to couch-surf while dispatching almost her whole $1,700 weekly salary to New York at 50c exchange rate to pay her mortgage there.

She bags her breath-test saviour John Howard extravagantly. When he inveighed against political correctness in 1996, ‘Australian politics changed forever that day.’ He ‘literally opened the floodgates (to) astonishingly hateful racist abuse (that) points to a barely concealed violence simmering beneath the surface of our society.’

Her career was in the doldrums by 2011, which she remedied in calculated fashion with a 7,000-word hatchet-job on Andrew Bolt for the Monthly. Her scoops included embittered quotes from Bolt’s early days girlfriend/fiancee, sliming of Bolt’s dead mother as raised in the ‘notorious’ Nazi-led Dutch town of Aalsmeer, and a swipe at Bolt’s wife Sally Morell which required correction and apology. After this triumph the Left crowd snowed her under with requests for speeches and Fairfax exposure. The big one was Newcastle University’s Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture. It became her celebrated defence of Julia Gillard, sufferer of obscene internet abuse. Summer’s nose for controversy paid off again, few noticing her correction and ‘unreserved apology’ to  Medibank Private staffers she’d slandered.

Next came her free e-zine Anne Summers Reports (ASR), a bold and classy Left package. The ABC’s Richard Aedy, despite clear ABC guidelines, rattled her can on-air for donations. Summers’ book claims ASR had ‘rigorous fact checking (and) tough editing’. Maybe not. The August 2015 issue with ‘a few mistakes’ had to be e-pulped and replaced. Another had a 61 word unproofed para sprayed with 12 typos.

The reports morphed into very successful public ‘Conversations’. The one with Gillard packed out the Opera House and Melbourne Town Hall. Summers: ‘She walked out of the darkness towards the love and admiration and the sheer joy of her presence that awaited her that night.’ I doubt Summers’ conversation included questions about Gillard’s colourful one-time lover Bruce Wilson.

Alas, by 2016 digital ads remained elusive and donations from her 16,500 subscribers fell short. ASR folded in June 2016 after 13 issues and eight Conversations – notwithstanding the Copyright Agency donating $15,000 of authors’ money to the e-zine three months earlier.

After the folding, $40,000 more donations came in. But essentially, Summers had overlooked that the Left likes its stuff free.

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