On Elisabeth Wynhausen

Features, News

By Foong Ling Kong

When events in life take a turn for the absurd, I often summon Elisabeth Wynhausen to mind and wonder what she would say and do. For instance, when Australia changed Prime Ministers for the third time in the five years since her death, with the Liberal Party recently installing Scott Morrison, more than anyone I wished she were still around to give her take on it.

To read Elisabeth on Ronald Reagan

Reagan can act his part (as long as he does not have to think on his feet) but seems peculiarly incapable of adapting it to the resistant realities. In recent weeks there have been recurrent problems with his staff … But the nine-to-five President has made other dubious appointments, and has a habit of appointing foxes to mind the chicken coops … What was noticeable about these extremists is that they are also lightweights, rank amateurs at the business of government. They happened to agree with Reagan, and he was beguiled by what they said, not what they did. It is possible he cannot tell the difference.

– is to wonder what she would have made of the present occupant of the White House.

Her Twitter account is replete with zingers:

Like many people, I first encountered Elisabeth in the pages of the Australian. I still remember the piece – it was on garment workers. Even to this reader, her concerns and sympathies, along with a small handful of other writers, seemed a lousy fit with the rest of the Murdoch mastheads. By the time we met and periodically caught up near the News Corp offices in Surry Hills, she was never less than frank and brutally hilarious in her dissection of newspaper politics, and which boss she’d told off that day or week. Everyone knew Elisabeth was brilliant at telling off her bosses, especially the told-off bosses.

Spending time with Elisabeth always made me a little more fearless, and unafraid to be what is often disparaged as ‘bleeding heart’, and to care about ideas, and equality, human rights and how people live and work. The small things. Elisabeth cared, which showed in her journalism and in her books Dirt Cheap and The Short Goodbye; not for nothing was her email address oddjobs@ …

Elisabeth’s care came through in the way she captured her subjects’ stories, which never had condescension or pity, but aimed to show, through personal accounts and first-person voices, the dignity and the resilience needed when systems fail and odds mount. These are the people who fall through the cracks when rolls of the dice in the top end of town do not deliver, and when the fluctuations of the Dow Jones, Nasdaq, Hang Seng, FTSE100 and the AFX dictate that headcounts must shrink. The contrasts are everywhere in her books; in The Short Goodbye the gritty precariousness of, say, an aluminium worker in a recession-hit workplace sits alongside a portrait of a professional habitué of boards who has lived off the system his whole life who could pass off million-dollar bonuses – rewards of the kind that had inspired so much restless activity – as nothing much at all: ‘In Goldman Sachs it would have been regarded as an insult.’

How she tempered her outrage at the carelessness and callousness she reported on is testament to her craft. It is that kind of legwork, eye for a damn fine quote, patience, hard work and Elisabeth’s impeccable judgement that makes for an ‘Elisabeth story’. Few are the people who write these stories these days because they are too slow to produce. Besides, which outlets will pay for them? (A recent book-length example I can think of is Sarah Krasnostein’s terrific Trauma Cleaner.)

Elisabeth’s great interest was people, and how we made and invented ourselves, and connected to each other. Her essay On Resilience, ostensibly on the trait, told through a tribute to her mother Marianne and her brother Jules, is a virtuoso performance, the narrative always under Elisabeth’s full control. Of her mother, Elisabeth wrote:

no small part of her resilience sprung from a stubbornly wilful streak that meant, for instance, that in years to come she treated taxes as something that involved a sporting contest between herself and the tax man, but freely gave money away, as if making up her own rules about what she owed society … She was a curious combination, a soft touch who regarded it as soft-headed to let opportunities slip through your fingers, who for all her own generosity, was aghast at the realisation that both her children lacked her instinct for business.

The book’s sad end was made all the more poignant when I re-read it at Elisabeth’s death and last week, on the anniversary of her own death, a woman who had kept going in the face of her own sadness almost through the same sheer force of will she had noted in her mother. Elisabeth was always brilliant at showing and not telling.

The last word on Elisabeth belongs with those who knew her best. Tom Dusevic, a colleague who became a friend, in his eulogy said:

Elisabeth was always big; it’s journalism that got small.

Because of her passing, we have lost a master storyteller; a kinetic motor-mouth, who niggled and nudged and made us laugh and cry; a person of rare insight into the human condition, who ventured high and low to the frontiers of contemporary life. Her craft was really social anthropology; her tools were street wisdom and the senses, each one of them used to create stories a reader could see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

I published Elisabeth’s books at MUP, and all of us in editorial, production and publicity adored working with her. I left before The Short Goodbye was published. It was a period of adjustment for me, and Elisabeth made it her business to call and email me for months after, ostensibly to seek advice on this and that, but we both knew it was to make sure I was OK. I realised I was on the road back when the calls started tapering off. In one of her last emails to me, Elisabeth signed off by saying, ‘I’ve just had a swim and a salad then spoiled everything with Scotches and chocolates’. In life, as in her work, all Elisabeth sought was balance, or some squaring off of a ledger somewhere. No more, no less.

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Foong Ling Kong is Chair of the Feminist Writers Festival board. She has two decades’ experience in the publishing industry as an editor and a publisher of books across a wide range of genres, from children’s books to fiction, non-fiction and illustrated titles. She has worked in-house at Penguin, Hardie Grant, Melbourne University Press and Allen & Unwin, and freelanced for many others. She was Managing Editor of Anne Summers Reports and is presently working at the Parliament of Victoria as Editor of Debates. @foonglingkong

You can read a selection of Elisabeth Wynhausen’s journalism on her website. Of her four books – Manly Girls, Dirt Cheap, On Resilience and The Short Goodbye – the last two are still in print, but the others may require some sleuthing.

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