WASHINGTON – Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, the matriarch of the English-speaking world’s most pervasive media empire who instilled toughness in her son, Rupert, by tossing him as a child into the deep end of a cruise ship’s pool to teach him how to swim, died Dec. 5 at her estate outside Melbourne, Australia.
She was 103 and had been in failing health since a fall in September in which she broke her leg. Her death was confirmed by the Murdoch family.
Although she became one of Australia’s leading philanthropists and spent many years working with charities on behalf of botanical gardens, tapestries and deaf children, Murdoch was best known for her sharp views on her son and his business and personal decisions.
As Rupert Murdoch built his holdings to include newspapers, movie and TV studios, broadcast and satellite channels, and digital media on four continents, his mother gave a series of interviews over four decades in which she questioned his acquisitions, criticized his divorce of his second wife, sarcastically called him “that wretched boy of mine” and observed that “making money is not greatness.”
“I took the slipper to Rupert twice because he was very rude to his governess,” Murdoch said on Australian television in 2002.
Murdoch, who received her title in 1963, had 77 descendants, including Rupert and three other children: Anne Kantor, Janet Calvert-Jones and Helen Handbury, her eldest daughter who died of cancer in 2004. She also had 50 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.
Elisabeth Joy Greene was born Feb. 8, 1909, in Melbourne to a socially elite but financially shaky family. Her father, Rupert, was a wool valuer at a New Zealand loan company, horseman and charming rogue with a habit of gambling away the family fortune. Her mother, the former Marie Grace de Lancey Forth, was a socialite.
Brought up by governesses and in boarding schools, she was 18 and dressed for her debutante celebration when her photo was published in Table Talk, a magazine owned by Keith Murdoch, an Australian editor and publisher who was then 42. He was smitten as soon as he saw the photo and arranged to meet Greene at a ball, beginning a courtship that led to their marriage in 1928.
Elizabeth Murdoch was proper and connected. She escorted Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Australia, and famously never forgave a portrait artist who in the late 1920s greeted her with a friendly slap on the back.
Although some historians portrayed Keith Murdoch as a remote father, Rupert Murdoch told biographer William Shawcross that “Dad was the indulgent one. . . . My mother was the severe one.” Elisabeth Murdoch confirmed that account, suggesting her children “thought I was an old monster in those days. But I think they all really appreciate it now.”