A bitter stoush has erupted over the 1973 death of rock journalism legend Lillian Roxon, after Germaine Greer implied veteran broadcaster Derryn Hinch had contributed to her premature demise.
Last Friday, in a question and answer session following the premiere of Mother of Rock: The Life and Times of Lillian Roxon at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Greer said that of “all the fuckwits” in Fairfax’s New York bureau in the early 1970s, Hinch was the “biggest fuckwit of them all” and suggested he had sent Roxon to an early grave through overwork.
Roxon, the aunt of federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon, served as Fairfax’s New York correspondent for 10 years before a 28-year-old Hinch took over as bureau chief — and Roxon’s boss — in 1972. Hinch, who had arrived in the Big Apple in 1966, was one of the last people to see Roxon alive on the night before her death when he swung by to pick up tickets for a Helen Reddy concert. He later identified her body in the Manhattan morgue.
Roxon, who was simultaneously writing for the New York Daily News, the Herald and then-Fairfax publication Woman’s Day, as well as compiling her legendary Rock Encyclopedia, had a fatal asthma attack in her East 21st Street apartment on August 10, 1973. She had become the leading chronicler of the city’s nascent underground rock scene based around the infamous Max’s Kansas City bar frequented by Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper.
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At another MIFF forum the next day, Greer described a phone call between Roxon and Hinch in which Hinch yelled down the phone while Roxon struggled for breath on the other end of the line. Greer said the anxiety over her day job was a major factor but that the feminist trailblazer was also wronged by the “US medical establishment” which failed to provide her with proper asthma drugs. She also attacked Australian doctors for diagnosing her without seeing her, and for posting her drugs that were too strong.
Hinch hit back yesterday, telling Crikey the claims of Fairfax-induced overwork were a “disgrace” and that Greer wouldn’t know the full story because she “wasn’t there”.
“I have no guilt, I feel sorry about it and it was a tragedy what happened but that’s disgraceful. I adored Lillian; when I first went to New York she was the first person to take me out to lunch at Sardi’s before I even went and joined the bureau.
“But it doesn’t surprise me, because she’s such a bitter old person. In her dotage, Greer has become the female Malcolm Muggeridge.”
The Fairfax New York bureau in the late 1960s was rent with tension, with the firebrand Roxon regularly clashing with the straight-laced Margaret Jones and Hinch pre-cursor Peter Michelmore. Jones was later despatched to Washington.
Hinch said he will soon release his own account of the era, titled The Queen of the Big Apple, in which he repeats his claims from the documentary that Greer “used” Roxon to further her own fame during her first trip Stateside in 1968.
“Germaine Greer came to New York and leeched onto her like some limpet mine using some of Lillian’s contacts and friends and colleagues and then wrote a dreadful intro in The Female Eunuch in which she referred to Lillian as living with cockroaches. It made its sound like Lillian was some kind of grot.”
At the Friday session, Greer said she had puzzled over the amount of money Roxon was being paid by Fairfax and that Roxon’s ballooning weight stemmed from the fact she was “forced to eat crap because she couldn’t afford anything else”. However, Hinch revealed to Crikey last night he later discovered Roxon was hoarding tens of thousands of dollars in a savings account.
“When we were sorting through Lillian’s clothes and effects after she died I found one bank book, which had $US60,000 in a savings account and I remember saying ‘fuck you Lillian’; I was so angry that she hadn’t spent the money on looking after herself.
“Lillian was becoming increasingly successful in New York but she needed an Australian connection to keep her visa, and so we did a deal that she would work from home and work only for our magazines and you bloody well couldn’t get to her, she wouldn’t answer her phone.”
“I was paying her a retainer almost as much I was paying some journalists for full-time work,” he said.
When he picked up the Reddy tickets, Hinch said he had lectured Roxon at the door of her apartment: “She looked flushed and hot because it was a mid-summer night. I said ‘Lillian, you’ve got to get yourself bloody air conditioning or get yourself a better apartment and she was like ‘you don’t pay me enough’.”
There have been other suggestions Roxon was under pressure from Hinch to devote more time to her day job. In his 2002 book Mother of Rock: The Lillian Roxon Story, The Economist‘s Sydney stringer Robert Milliken quotes a 1972 letter from Hinch to Roxon after he took over as bureau chief:
“Since I took over two months ago I know there have been extenuating circumstances and you have been ill, but I really don’t think you have been giving our publications a fair share of your concentration … the fact that your retainer for all Sungravure magazines is only $200 a week probably comes into it, but you must know that’s only a few dollars less than some journalists get working here full-time. Let’s get together and talk it out when you get back from London.”
Roxon was about to jet off to the UK to write a story on burgeoning rockers Slade, who would later serve as an inspiration for Oasis.
Nicola Roxon also gave an unbilled speech at Friday’s forum, in which she expressed relief at being able to temporarily escape the demands of the federal election campaign and jokingly bemoaned the lack of “sex, drugs and rock and roll” on the trail so far.
A publicist for Greer told Crikey she had a long-standing policy of not granting interviews that were to appear in print. Nicola Roxon’s office did not return calls.