Kerry Stokes has gone from rags to riches. But as Malcolm Knox reports, truth and closure are elusive in the story of the media mogul who is a master of reinvention.
Media mogul Kerry Stokes has always tried to control the story of his life. But an imminent unauthorised biography is about to change all that, writes Malcolm Knox.
“I’m a beginning,” Kerry Stokes has said of himself, “not an end.” But a man can’t get to 73 years of age without a past. Stokes is the media mogul who inherited nothing; the arts patron who learnt from scratch; the collector and donor of important national artefacts who says that Australia’s national narrative is, for him, a substitute for having no history of his own.
Margaret Simon’s biography on Kerry Stokes
Stokes didn’t co-operate with Simons’s biography, which she regrets. She asked to interview him shortly after her book was commissioned by Penguin Books in late 2010, but his corporate counsel, Robin Waters, told her in April 2011 that an authorised biography was “well underway”. It would be almost another year before Harper-Collins announced it was publishing that biography, by journalist Andrew Rule, most likely in 2014. Simons doubts that the Rule book was in process in April 2011, feeling it was an attempt by Stokes “to manage his image”. Rule would be given the access that she was denied.
Stokes had possibly heard that Simons had spoken to his first wife, Dorothy, his two eldest children, Russell and Raelene, and his granddaughter, Tara. Little is known of this first family, and many of those who have worked with him over a long period have never heard them mentioned. His designated heirs are Ryan and Bryant, his sons with his second wife, Denise Bryant. “People know there’s a first family there, but it’s not often spoken about,” says Simons. “That family is a key aspect of Stokes’s character and something he’s tried to keep private.”
From interviews with Dorothy, Russell, Raelene and Tara emerged an often dark story. Dorothy Ebert and Stokes had married in 1960; she came from Perth, and he followed her there. She was the reason he adopted Perth as his home town. He worked briefly installing television aerials before talking his way into a job with the real estate agent Seymour’s. He built contacts through local rugby and Australian rules football clubs and moved into property speculation and development as Perth boomed after the 1962 Commonwealth Games.
The couple’s two children came in their first two years of married life. The night Raelene was born, Stokes dropped her and Dorothy at home and then drove back to work. “I remember yelling at him that he was giving me no support,” Dorothy told Simons. “I had two babies. I’d have to carry them to the shops in the pram, and he’d not help.” Dorothy’s father had warned her about Stokes. “It’s only his looks you’re looking at,” he’d said. “You can’t see beyond that.” Much later, she had to admit that it was true.
In business, Stokes was displaying his uncanny eye for an opportunity. In the words of his colleague, Peter Bailey, “There was a madness to land sales in Perth. It was as though the last block of land in town was for sale, and everyone had to race to get it.” Stokes established his own fast-growing real estate agency, and he was known to party as hard as he worked. A neighbour told Simons, “I felt sorry for Dot. He was just leaving her behind.” His friends assumed that his womanising was behind the final breakdown of the marriage in 1970. A catalyst also seems to have been an incident that year when a four-year-old boy from a neighbouring house got into the Stokes’s unfenced swimming pool and drowned. Stokes moved out days later; Dorothy suffered a nervous breakdown.
Once he left the family home, his relationships with Russell and Raelene became irretrievably damaged. Stokes saw little of them, telling Bailey, “I go round there, and there is a fight. I made a decision they are better off without me.” He moved in with his receptionist, Denise Bryant, whom he would later marry and, in the mid-’70s, they became parents to two sons.
Dorothy was left with a small settlement and expunged from Stokes’s versions of himself. While she’d sued successfully for divorce in the pre-no-fault era, proving his adultery, she was never made privy to the true extent of his wealth and received the family home, $60,000 and a small maintenance allowance at a time when he was already a millionaire and becoming wealthier by the day. “To say she is bitter about her former husband,” says Simons, “is a considerable understatement.”