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mouthing off

Virginia trioli \ THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A DAME

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hen the 18-year-old debutante Elisabeth as she really seemed to be the most fulfilled of souls. Greene resolved to marry the “dark-eyed and Nothing more needs to be said about Dame compelling” Keith Murdoch, a man 24 years Elisabeth’s generosity: it’s all true, and her gifts live on her senior, her former headmistress warned her against in institutions, large and tiny. Some will say – and they the match: “I know someone who sadly married a man did – that when you are that wealthy you should give 20 years older than herself, and after 20 years a great deal away, but that’s too glib, and frankly she was a widow.” Elisabeth, already a young crass when you consider the extent of Dame She woman of remarkable character, replied: “I giving, and the very little she spent really seemed Elisabeth’s would rather have 20 years with Keith than 40 on herself. to be the most years with any other man.” I was fortunate enough to meet her on fulfilled of And so it was to be. Dame Elisabeth, one many occasions and interview her many of the greatest figures in the history of this times, too. My last interview with Dame souls state and this country, had four children and Elisabeth in 2009 at her lifelong home, Cruden 24 years with her beloved Keith, and spent the rest Farm, revealed that apparently no creature comfort of her long, productive and generous life a widow, and had been added since my first visit there with her seemingly without a moment’s regret. granddaughter, Kate, in 1983. It was a cold day, and the There’s an extraordinary peace, calm and resolve only heating in the slightly shabby lounge was the wood that seems to come from knowing your own mind, and fire. Her extravagance, if that’s even the right term, was Dame Elisabeth always did. She was direct but never on the garden, and that was something for all to enjoy, rude; blunt but not offensive. not just herself. She was simply sure of herself, entirely happy with her But what I most admired about Dame Elisabeth was choices and lived them accordingly. Her death last week not the chequebook she opened, but the front door she at the age of 103 was something to celebrate, not grieve, walked out of, over and over again and the presence she

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had in Melbourne life. She gave but, more importantly, she showed up, and that was always her best gift. I recall attending the opening of works by final-year VCA students one miserable midweek winter evening. I didn’t want to be there, and then, slowly and with a stick, in walked Dame Elisabeth, a supporter to the very end. I shut up and stopped grumbling, as I should. She could be funny and sharp, telling me at the time of Wendi Murdoch’s first pregnancy that she doubted Rupert would be any good at getting up to the baby in the night: “He’s no spring chicken,” said the nonagenarian. I think part of the great impact of her death is a sense that this is truly the last vestige of a Victorian golden age of great families, great wealth but also great patronage: a sense of social obligation that was distinctly Melbourne, arising from the self-confident and self-made people that first colonised Batman’s village in defiance of the New South Wales governor. The next generation lives on in the good work of people such as Harold Mitchell and the extended Besen family. It’s a very Victorian tradition: long may it reign. \

Virginia Trioli is on leave from presenting ABC News Breakfast.

Follow Virginia on Twitter @latrioli

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