|MILESAGO: Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975||Obituaries|
Businessman and publisher (1929-2005)
"A style all of his own"
Obituary by Valerie Lawson
Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 2005
Few men suit a decade as well as Gordon Barton. His was the 1960s. "A great time," he once said, "for making money, starting enterprises, for making love ... for most things."
Barton's enterprises won him a fortune and lost him a fortune. The maverick businessman, who died last Monday in Spain, was a man of style who loved cats, not only for their looks, but for their cunning. He founded a political party, owned two radical newspapers, captivated women, built a business empire and counted among his friends the mistress of the whip Madam Lash, the lawyer Sir Laurence Street, the private eye Tim Bristow and the writer Francis James.
Barton's son, Geoffrey, remembers them all attending a dinner party at the Barton home in Sydney. The thought of them gathered around the dining table brings to mind the cast of the who-done-it board game Cluedo: Miss Scarlet, with Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard and the Rev Green. But the most colourful character at the table would have been Barton - good-looking, with intense, deep-set eyes and a talent to amuse. "Tell us a story, Gordon," his guests would urge, and he happily obliged with tales of his life, first in Sydney, then London and the Netherlands, and finally in Italy and Spain.
His was a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, but despite his financial losses he spent his last years in an idyllic place, on the shores of Lake Como, where he lived with Geoffrey and Geoffrey's Italian girlfriend. His favourite restaurant was Il Gatto Nero (The Black Cat), on the hill above Cernobbio, with a beautiful view over the lake and the lights of the city. Like the Great Gatsby in F.Scott Fitzgerald's novel, there was always an aura of mystery about Barton. When he left Australia in 1979, the question was: "Where did he go?" The question around Lake Como was: "Where did he come from?"
Born in Surabaya, Java, in 1929, he was the younger son of a Dutch schoolteacher mother, and an Australian father who managed a pearl schooner and worked for Burns Philp. When World War II began, he moved with his mother and brother, Basil, to the safety of Sydney, leaving his father behind. By the end of the war, Basil was dead, killed on air-force duty, and his father had been scarred by Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Barton once recalled his childhood as "traumatic. I had a tremendous feeling of insecurity".
The scars faded when Barton excelled at the University of Sydney. There, he met Greg Farrell, later his business partner, and Yvonne Hand, later to become his wife and the mother of his two children, Cindy and Geoffrey. He drank with the Push at the Royal George, became a follower of the philosopher John Anderson and appeared in a photo in The Sydney Morning Herald dressed as a female ballet dancer climbing the clock tower in Martin Place.
In 1953, he created Sydney University history by graduating with three degrees simultaneously, in law, arts and economics. "To pay for his tutoring," Geoffrey Barton said, "he borrowed a friend's truck, and began offering delivery services. This included carrying onions across the state border in the dead of night, which risked substantial fines due to harsh monopolies imposed by the government on their trade." Within a decade the trucking business became Ipec, Australia's largest express transport company with a fleet of several thousand trucks. From this base, Barton expanded into merchant banking through Tjuringa Securities, which eventually took over about 15 companies. Shann Turnbull, one of the seven equity partners in the company, once told me: "Tjuringa bought companies low and sold them high by adding value by tax effects." Tjuringa, an Aboriginal word for sacred object - and Barton's choice of name - was based in the old NSW Club in Sydney's Bligh Street which Barton decorated with Persian carpets.
One of his great skills in business was finding ways around rules and regulations. When he seemed to sail too close to the wind, his colleague Graham Cooke could sometimes nag him by suggesting that Norman Cowper (former managing partner of the law firm Allen Allen & Hemsley) or Tom Fitzgerald (a finance journalist) "wouldn't approve of that".
Style was the word most used of Barton at the time, and the word was usually linked to "anarchist" or "millionaire". Yet he was a careless millionaire. He once told the journalist Peter Hastings: "I've always had the knack of making it [money]. Mind you, I'm careless with it. I couldn't tell you whether I had spent $50 yesterday or mislaid $100 today." As for the anarchy, his business interests helped fund two radical newspapers, The Sunday Observer and Nation Review. Said Geoffrey Barton: "He encouraged his journalists to poke fun at the establishment, regardless of the political fallout."
His Sydney base was Loch Maree, a waterfront home in Vaucluse, where he lived with his de facto wife, Mary Ellen Ayrton, a glamorous publicist for Estee Lauder who he met after his wife had died of cancer in 1970. But Barton was bored, not by his personal life, but with Australia. In 1979, he set up Ipec in Europe and, with some staff from Australia, moved into a medieval castle in the Netherlands. He loved to take guests on a tour of the castle's three moats, and on one occasion greeted a group of Dutch bankers from Amro wearing a suit of armour. Barton and Ayrton's London home was in Thurloe Square, in west London, where a guest in 1982 was the journalist Sandra Jobson. After drinks -- kir and white wine -- she was whisked by Barton and Ayrton in a white Mercedes to Heathrow, bound for the Netherlands. On the plane, Ayrton brought out a picnic basket containing their dinner -- salmon, chicken, salad and a bottle of rosé. The flight crew were not particularly amused.
The good life, however, turned sour within a decade. Barton was forced to sell his European businesses to cover losses by his Australian companies. He parted with Ayrton, the London house was sold and he travelled to Milan with Geoffrey. They lived in a townhouse in Cernobbio and then in a villa, called Paradiso, in the village of Moltrasio. Father and son began their mornings at a cafe near home, reading the Herald Tribune and drinking cappuccino before travelling to the Milan office.
"He would write copious letters to various friends around the world," said Geoffrey, or "offer me some piece of sage advice about some intractable problem or other. The 10 years we spent together building up the business [IMX Ltd] were great fun - it was just us, father, son and, for many years, daughter [Cindy] in a strange, beautiful country, building a business, generally quite happy to forget the rest of the world.
"Occasionally, some old friend would wonder through, Jimmy Staples, John Crew, Marion Manton and others, to remind him and us of our roots, and of course they all wanted to know when he was coming back. I think he missed the old country but, as he would have put it, 'home is where the cat is' [or his children]. Some eccentric Andersonian friends used to send him once a month their largely incomprehensible Heraclitus newsletter, which he dutifully read. History was one of his favourite subjects, and where we would debate with each other until late into the night."
From the early 1990s, Barton became increasingly deaf and in noisy places his family and friends would communicate with him by writing notes. About two years ago, Barton began losing his memory and his reasoning. His hearing worsened, his walking slowed. He spent time with his daughter and her husband, Jose-Maria Cepero Rojas, in Marbella, Spain, but his children felt they were losing him, a little piece at a time.
"There was very little left at the end," said Geoffrey, who thinks Barton would most like to be remembered as a "gentleman. His favourite advice to me when I was growing up was 'a gentleman should never lose his nerve -- or his temper."'