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. The death was confirmed by her family in a statement.
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, Dame Elisabeth 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 said that “making money is not greatness.”
“I took the slipper to Rupert twice because he was very rude to his governess,” Dame Elisabeth said on Australian television in 2002.
She was not shy about publicly chastising her son, now 81 , even after he’d joined her in the ranks of senior citizens. She told reporters that she disapproved of his purchase of sensational tabloids such as Britain’s News of the World, and she was disappointed when he split up with Anna Torv, his wife of 32 years, and married Wendi Deng, his junior by 38 years.
“Rupert had a wonderful marriage to Anna, and it was a terrible thing to just end it,” she said on her 100th birthday. “When you take a vow to be loyal to someone for all your life, you don’t hurt other people for your own happiness.”
Rupert Murdoch issued a statement Wednesday on behalf of his family praising his mother for her love and wisdom; he also tweeted, “193yo, but still a blow,” which he then corrected: “No, 103 yo! There are limits!”
Dame Elisabeth, who received her title in 1963, had 77 descendants, including Rupert and three other children, Anne Kantor, Janet Calvert-Jones and the eldest daughter, Helen Handbury, 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 fortunes. Her mother, the former Marie Grace de Lancey Forth, was a socialite.
Dame Elisabeth began a life of philanthropy while still a schoolgirl. She won a tour of a Melbourne children’s hospital by knitting the most woolen undershirts in a contest, and that led to stints as a volunteer in kindergartens, hospitals and child advocacy groups.
Brought up by governesses and in boarding schools, she was 18 and dressed for her debutante celebration when her photo was taken for publication in Table Talk, a magazine owned by Keith Murdoch, an Australian editor and publisher who was then 42.
Keith Murdoch saw the photo, was smitten and arranged to meet Dame Elisabeth at a ball, beginning a courtship that led to their marriage in 1928. “His eyes — big, dark and compelling,” she later recalled of the dance where they met.
“They just seemed to follow me round the room for the rest of the night.”
For a wedding present, Keith Murdoch gave his bride the 133-acre farm where she lived until her death.
Dame Elisabeth 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.
Dame Elisabeth focused on her children and charities while her husband built a national media network that started with small newspapers and grew to include larger papers, a dozen radio stations and a TV channel, as well as real estate interests.
After Keith Murdoch’s death in 1952, Dame Elisabeth inherited her husband’s flagship paper, the Adelaide News, and gave it to her son Rupert, who used it to launch a media colossus that would span four continents.
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.”
Dame Elisabeth confirmed that account, suggesting that her children “thought I was an old monster in those days. But I think they all really appreciate it now.”