In the past few months, two biographies about Seven media mogul Kerry Stokes have been published: Kerry Stokes: The Boy From Nowhere by Andrew Rule and Kerry Stokes: Self-made Man by Margaret Simons.
The books weave tales of the dyslexic, working class boy cum media magnate and his journey to the top of Australian business.
Stokes, the chairman of Seven West Media, has been at the forefront of the nation’s business leaders, with a diverse portfolio that includes the illustrious Seven Network, newspapers, websites and mining.
Now one of Australia’s richest people, Stokes has become a well known philanthropist and an historical artefacts and art collector.
Journalist Doug Aiton has scoured the two Stokes biographies and has picked out 25 things that make this man an intriguing figure.
1. His mother was unmarried 20-year old barmaid Marie Jean Alford and he never met her. Born John Patrick Alford on 13 September 1940 in Melbourne, he was adopted out to Matthew and Irene Stokes, an impoverished Catholic couple. One early home was at Camp Pell, the Melbourne post-war slum housing area.
2. The Perth real estate boom was the basis of Stokes becoming a millionaire in the 1960s. Stokes started work installing television antennae and moved on to selling land at a time when a competitor in the same business was Alan Bond. He moved on to further fortunes in mining, construction, shopping centres, print and electronic media.
3. There is one significant difference between Stokes and fellow Australian media barons Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch and Packer came from spectacularly wealthy media families; Stokes came from nowhere and owned nothing.
4. From a young age, women were attracted to the good looking and athletic Stokes. Early on, Stokes and a mate shared bunk rooms on trips away, equipped with a bell to be run when either “scored”.
5. Stokes has never been an accomplished speaker. In 2008 he said: “I have a fear of public speaking. I try to think of a word and it’s just blank. I handle diagrams very well but words are something I can’t handle. Writing is difficult.”
6. His first wife, Dot, is today not rich and believed to be still bitter about Kerry. She and their children, Russell and Raelene, “have remained a shadow on the publicly available story of his triumph over adversity”. Russell long ago changed his surname. Raelene says: “Kerry didn’t give a shit.” Yet there were times when Kerry clearly tried to assist them financially. He has been married four times and has two other children.
7. Now recognised as a significant collector of art, his first purchase was in the early 1960s. It cost him $350 and was a charcoal work by Robert Dickerson who specialised in shadowy, angular drawings which illuminated Australian post-war poverty.
8. He has always kept up with the latest technology. With the arrival of computers, Stokes was one of the first people in Perth to own the new Apple 11, the earliest successfully mass-produced home computer, released in 1977.
9. In 1994, Stokes, the dyslexic boy from the slums of Melbourne, was invited to deliver the prestigious Boyer Lectures. In the six lectures, Stokes displayed a prescient intelligence. More than anything, he presented as a patriot, deeply concerned about the preservation of the Australian identity.
10. As the new proprietor of The Canberra Times, Stokes in 1993 appointed Michelle Grattan as first female editor of a capital city daily. “Of course Michelle wasn’t appointed because she’s a woman. She was appointed because I thought she was the best person for the job.” However, when she was dismissed in 1995, Stokes was not present and “left the dirty work to his lieutenants”.
11. At the time he became chairman of the Seven network, his third marriage to actress Peta Toppano was breaking down. A decade later, Toppano was working at the china and glass counter of David Jones in Warringah Mall, Sydney, for $17 an hour. However she had earlier received a settlement from Stokes.
12. A Seven executive compared working for both Packer’s Nine and Seven’s Stokes thus: “If you worked at Channel Nine, you would take calls from Kerry Packer yelling at you over your news judgment. Stokes was never like that. He wasn’t an interventionist proprietor, which was good. But at the same time there was this feeling that he didn’t have the confidence, or the knowledge, really, to call the shots.”
13. For half a century, media ownership in Australia had been dominated by Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. But with the emigration of Murdoch to the United States, and the death of Packer in 2005, Kerry Stokes became Australia’s biggest locally-based media proprietor.
14. Both books have a collection of photographs. Stokes is variously shown with the following luminaries: Bill Clinton, John Howard, Kerry Packer, Julia Gillard, James Packer, Andrew Denton, Henry Kissinger, President Xi Jinping, Peter Costello, George W. Bush, Kevin Rudd, Therese Rudd, Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, RM Williams.
15. The Rothschild Prayerbook was created in the 16th Century and was stolen from the Rothschild family by Hitler in 1938 when Germany invaded Austria. It was recently purchased by Stokes for more than $15 million. Also in his collection are a mountaineer’s ice axe scratched with the name Ed Hillary, conqueror of Mount Everest, and four Picasso paintings.
16. His houses include one in Dalkeith, on the Swan River, Perth; a sandstone property on Sydney Harbor; one set in acres of bushland fronting Cable Beach, Broome; a hunting lodge in Vail, near Aspen, Colorado.
17. As a teenager, he once observed a pretty girl on a tram reading Mikhail Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows The Don, and subsequently became attracted to Russian literature because they told of the “real life” of class, poverty, and wealth.
18. Prime Minister John Howard made his first visit to China in 1997, and later praised Stokes as part of the visiting team. “He understood years ahead of a lot of other Australian businessmen the importance of China. Kerry would have put more time into developing relationships because he’s that sort of person. He takes an interest in people, and it’s an art.”
19. With his first pay packet as a teenager, Stokes bought his first packet of cigarettes. He gave up only in 2003 after emergency back surgery in Denver, Colorado. Stokes was in intensive care for two weeks and needed a blood transfusion. He said the surgeons had to open his abdomen and move the intestines aside to work on the blocked arteries which they replaced with artificial arteries before re-packing his stomach.
20. Kerry Packer’s Nine network and Stokes’ Seven battled hard in the dying years of the 20th Century, especially over the rights to the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Packer once growled to Stokes: “I should have crushed you when I had the chance”. Stokes replied, “But I never gave you the chance.”
21. At 19 he arrived in Perth, along with his special running spikes. These shoes were made in the eastern states by Hope Sweeney and they were featherweight masterpieces to “give an extra yard”. They were made of soft kangaroo hide, sewn to fit so tightly that they had to be eased on with fine power. They cost Stokes two weeks pay.
22. Author Andrew Rule relished the chance to write Stokes’ biography, with Stokes’ co-operation. “It’s a story worthy of Dickens but with a dash of Henry Lawson: Oliver with an Australian twist. It echoes one of the oldest yarns of all, about the foundling who survives, thrives and conquers – a potent myth since baby Moses was found in a basket in the bulrushes.”
23. Author Margaret Simons wrote her biography without Stokes’ assistance, which she regretted. ”While there are certainly things in it that he would prefer not to be published, I believe he emerges as a complex, driven, in many ways admirable but also a ruthless man, with, as is the case with all of us and perhaps particularly the rich and powerful, elements of both saint and sinner.”
24. Second wife Denise now lives in Queensland. They have two sons, Ryan and Bryant, born in 1976 and 1977, who were about to turn eleven and twelve when she left the marriage in 1988. “There wasn’t one big reason, but a thousand small ones,” she said.
25. Present wife Christine has an identical twin. Like Stokes, she came from a modest background and built a successful career. At one stage she was a television newsreader on the Ten network in Perth, and then on Sky in Sydney. She went to a Seven function in 1996 where she met new proprietor Kerry Stokes who asked her to write speeches and work on presentation delivery for him. They’ve been together ever since.
Doug Aiton is a newspaper journalist and radio broadcaster. He has worked for The London Times, The Age, ABC radio and 3AW.
Purchase a copy of Andrew Rule’s Kerry Stokes: The Boy From Nowhere from Booktopia here.
Kerry Stokes is a remarkable Australian. Not because he is one of Australia’s wealthiest and most powerful people, but because of what he overcame to get there and because he has endured when others didn’t. His success and his rise have intrigued the business world for decades but there is so much more to him than multi-million dollar deals or mergers.
Purchase a copy of Kerry Stokes: Self-made Man by Margaret Simons from Booktopia here.
Mysterious and elusive, Stokes is the archetypal self-made man, determined to escape his past and the legacy of disadvantage. But what did he discard along the way? ‘A very fine book.’ Sydney Morning Herald ‘Magnificent …Simons, a seasoned journalist and lecturer …has undertaken enormous research and detective work.’ Launceston Examiner ‘A must-read.’ Weekly Review.