Back in the Day … in the editor’s chair at "Woman’s Day".
Scoop by salacious scoop, Nene King drove Woman's Day into a fierce circulation battle with arch rival New Idea - now the subject of a new telemovie. But the "magazine wars" extracted a personal cost, she tells Greg Callaghan.
Opening night of an opera at the Melbourne Arts Centre, and the cavernous bar area is a rustling sea of lacquered silver bouffants, shimmering black gowns and tuxes. Amid the buzz of cocktail chatter during the interval, Sheila Scotter, former editor of Vogue Australia and Melbourne society doyenne, is holding court among a clutch of Very (Self) Important People.
Suddenly, a sharp elbow digs into the small of La Scotter's back and she lurches forward - Owww! What the %?!$?? - but with a deft, ladylike flick of her wrist saves her French bubbly from spilling. Swinging around, the Silver Duchess is face-to-face with - Oh no, not her! - one Nene King, editor of Woman's Day magazine, who is in no mood for an air kiss. Only weeks earlier, Scotter, a close friend of King's arch-nemesis Dulcie Boling, editor of New Idea, had bad-mouthed King in a newspaper story focusing on the bitter circulation wars between the two mass-circulation weeklies. "Nene King is vulgar," Scotter sniped in one quote (failing to mention she was on Boling's payroll), while Boling chided King for dragging Woman's Day downmarket. Now, having spotted Scotter across the floor, King can't resist putting her in her place. "Vulgar, am I?" she hisses, as she strides off to the ladies.
The King's speech … as a young reporter on "The Australian Jewish News". Photo: Courtesy of Nene King
It's 1992, and New Idea and Woman's Day are in a fierce battle to be number one, driven by two editors who could not be more different if they tried. Sitting upright behind her immaculate antique desk in an expansive office in west Melbourne is the editor of New Idea, the so-called ice maiden Dulcie Boling: blonde, soft-spoken, calm under pressure, impeccably dressed. Perched behind her plain grey desk in a small cluttered office decorated with figurine cats in Sydney's Park Street is the editor of Woman's Day, Nene King: brassy, loud, tempestuous, frizzy-haired, disarmingly rumpled. Between them, the two editors are rewriting the rules of weekly women's magazines. Goodbye weekly knitting patterns, scone recipes, and heartwarming tales of life's hurdles overcome - plucky little Freddy beats cancer, handsome fireman Bruce marries girl he saves from burning house - hello royal sex scandals and saucy celebrity snaps. Think Fergie having her toes sucked by her bodyguard (exclusive photos in Woman's Day!). Think Prince Charles breathily telling Camilla he wishes he could live in her pants (full transcript in New Idea!).
Tacky, tawdry, sleazy, cheesy. No wonder sales soared, passing the magic one million mark for both magazines. And no wonder the producers of Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, which drew more than 2.2 million viewers in 2011, chose the two cut-throat super editors, King and Boling, as the subject of the second part of their trilogy, to follow on from Ita Buttrose's rise in the 1970s. The two-part telemovie, Paper Giants: Magazine Wars, airs on ABC1 on June 2 and 9, and stars Mandy McElhinney as King and Rachel Griffiths as Boling. It covers the years from 1987 to 1997.
Two of the highest-paid women in Australia at the time, Boling and King were affectionately dubbed "cash cows" by their respective media overlords Kerry Packer (then owner of Woman's Day) and Rupert Murdoch (then owner of New Idea), each magazine generating more than $100 million apiece annually in profits. Both women smiled beatifically for the TV cameras for commercials and chat show appearances while sharpening their painted talons behind closed doors, outbidding one another for stories, copying ideas and jockeying for a more prominent position on the supermarket shelves. What gave the battle almost Shakespearean dimensions was that for more than six years the two women had been New Idea's dynamic duo, with King rising from writer to news editor to Boling's deputy.
Tragic loss … mourning the death of Bowring after a diving accident in 1996. Photo: Barry Newberry
But in 1987, when King applied to be editor of TV Week, and Boling, as editor-in-chief of both magazines, said nyet, rubbing salt into the wound by telling colleagues her deputy wasn't an editor's bootlace, it was the final straw. Already feeling unloved, King stormed out, moved to Sydney and was soon sitting in the editor's chair at Woman's Day, then besieged with sales numbers half that of New Idea.
Those last couple of years with Boling gave King a hunger to prove herself. Wooing her new readers with a potent mix of muckraking gossip, sex, clairvoyants and innovative giveaways, King drove Woman's Day through consistent circulation increases until - boom! - after four years the one million sales threshold was passed, exceeding the total figures of New Idea in Australia and New Zealand. Champagne for everyone!
Did the ice-maiden lower the drawbridge and admit defeat? Not on your sweet life. Boling fired a volley of fresh shots across the glossy battlement, scoring the journalistic coup of her life when she ran a transcript of an illegally taped phone conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. After the National Enquirer and two major European titles squeamishly pulled out of publishing the steamy transcript at the last minute, New Idea found itself with a world exclusive - and copies of the magazine selling for up to £10 a pop on the streets of London. The rivalry for scoops then became so fierce that the fax machine in the corner of Boling's office was overheating from threats of legal action from quick-on-the-draw King over some story Woman's Day had bought but New Idea had tried to "spoil".
Land of the giants … Rachel Griffiths (at left) as Dulcie Boling and Mandy McElhinney as Nene King in "Paper Giants: Magazine Wars". Photo: Ben King/ABC-TV
While the docile broadsheets were reporting that all was rosy in the House of Windsor, Woman's Day and New Idea published story after story on Dianagate, Camillagate and Fergiegate. Little did King expect that in the coming years her own life would turn into Nenegate, a feverish tabloid headline in action. Husband Patrick Bowring killed by a shark. A very public breakdown. A very public facelift. House and life savings lost to a former flatmate. A dramatic "I'm a drug addict" confession on national TV. In short, the very haywire headlines King would have paid mega bucks to keep out of Boling's clutches.
"I've gone from Tiffany to Target, from a Lexus to a Honda, from South Caulfield to a lean-to in Ballarat," King roars, before cackling to herself (no girly giggles from this woman). We're sipping on takeaway coffees in her "lean to" - not so much down-and-out in Ballarat as cosy weatherboard home with a neat rose garden - and King is recollecting her encounter with Sheila Scotter as the husky strains of Dusty Springfield ring out in the background. "I don't like to speak ill of the dead [Scotter passed away last year] but she was pretty unpleasant to me. While I was on New Idea, I accompanied her to the Logies one year, but as soon as I went to Woman's Day, I became her court jester. When I glared at her that night at the opera, I thought her hair was going to fall out."
King, now 70, has never spoken to Boling, now 76, since that day in early 1987 when she marched out of her office. "She was the queen bee and my problem was wanting to please her all the time," says King. During her last 12 months at New Idea, King claims that Boling left her out of meetings, off invitation lists and generally made her feel unwelcome. "It was very distressing and it was noticed by other colleagues."
Career woman … Mandy McElhinney as Nene King in "Paper Giants: Magazine Wars". Photo: Ben King/ABC-TV
As King warms to the theme, the tattoos on her arms and chest seem to jump out at you. She has 14 in all, forming a scrapbook of her life; she got her first - a rose on her left wrist - to celebrate being made editor of Woman's Day. "Some people turn up their noses at the sight of an old woman with tattoos - 'How common, and at her age!' - but I don't give a f... what people think."
Most gossip magazine editors, while happy to frolic through the private lives of others, tend to be fiercely protective of their own. This is certainly true of the notoriously private Boling, but King is happy to talk about her life with a disarming candour. "Journalists expect others to open up about their personal lives, so why shouldn't we?" she asks. Throughout the day we spend together, King talks about her two abortions, a terrible night in Athens - when, as a young tourist, a man forced his way into her room and raped her - as well as her chequered relationship with her family. "I talk like a threshing machine," she says later.
Paper Giants: Magazine Wars very much concentrates on King's side of the saga, no doubt because the many jagged facts of her life are a screenwriter's dream. Although both King and Boling were never shown a script, both were interviewed at length during the research and writing phases of the production (King was paid a modest month-long consultancy fee), which led to the odd moment of high-wire tension for the producers when both former editors threatened to sue over some proposed scenes. Indeed, speak to these two women to clarify their, ahem, conflicting recollections of the same key events and you risk getting caught up in a she-said, she-said stoush. "I had a good laugh when the writers, after interviewing Dulcie, asked me whether it was true I asked for my job back after resigning from New Idea," says King. "Give me a break."
Even from an early age, King wasn't afraid to speak her mind. Raised in a conservative, upper-middle-class Jewish family in Melbourne in the 1950s - her father, Lionel, was a tailor and her mother, Emily, a former ballet dancer - the young woman with the frizzy red hair was, in her own words, "a handful". At 15, she wagged a day from Melbourne's Methodist Ladies' College to join a demonstration at the naval dockyards at Port Phillip Bay, where the American navy was stationed at the time, to demonstrate against racial segregation in the high schools of America's south. She wound up, in her grey MLC uniform, brandishing a sign "Justice for Blacks" on the evening news. "My mother would shake her head. All she wanted was for me to marry a nice Jewish boy."
But it was not to be. At 17, her mother took her on a grand tour of Europe, which turned into a maternal nightmare from the moment they boarded the boat. "I thought I was in a sweets shop," she smiles. "There was the cook, the second mate, and then Paco, an aspiring bullfighter I met in Spain." She'd come out of an ugly-duckling phase ("I'd been this fat, little, frizzy-haired girl") and now there was no turning back. "I wanted to spread my wings."
Well, a girl needs a hobby. "I've always liked men," she says airily. "It's not the sex, it's the build- up; the eyes across the room; the racing heartbeat; the first rush of physical contact."
King went on to marry three times: first to newspaper photographer Tony Hope, with whom she had an open relationship ("I was a terrible wife to Tony"), later to sports writer Peter Simunovich ("He was very handsome, but I wasn't cut out to be his pinned-down housewife"), and finally to journalist Patrick Bowring ("The love of my life"), with whom she would spend nearly 21 contented years.
If King was a party animal in her youth, she was also a workhorse. After stints at The Australian Jewish News and Channel 9 in Melbourne, she moved to London (where she worked at the BBC) and later Hong Kong (where she found her tabloid calling on The China Mail) during her marriage to Hope. "The journos on the Mail were tabloid to their finger tips," she recalls of those hard-reportin', hard-drinkin' days. "If there was a hole in the paper, they'd find a body floating in the South China Sea."
After returning to Melbourne, King was hired by Boling in 1980 as a news writer. "I learnt a lot during my years on New Idea, but I ran a very different ship at Woman's Day. I was a much more open editor than Dulcie ever was; people felt free to express their minds. I had nightmares about her for those first few months after I left New Idea. We used to have a sign saying, 'The dragon lady is in today.' But I later heard that people became as afraid of me at Woman's Day as I'd been of Dulcie."
Richard Walsh, who was head of Australian Consolidated Press between 1986 until 1999, says it was one of his canniest editorial decisions to snap up King once she exited New Idea. "Nene had a brilliant tabloid mind; it was widely known she'd been a big factor in making New Idea number one. By that stage, Dulcie didn't seem to be doing much hands-on editing any more, but was playing the princess, looking after different titles, and sitting on the board of Southdown [Press]". Walsh occasionally saw Boling at corporate events during his earlier years at Angus & Robertson, then a subsidiary of News Ltd. "She got along well with Rupert [Murdoch], but she seemed a bit up herself."
Walsh says that both Kerry Packer and his then baby-faced son James really admired King. "She was a knockabout person like Kerry. She was raunchy, feisty and called a spade a spade."
King complains that the producers of Paper Giants took a little artistic licence with their portrayal of her relationship with Packer, so convincingly played in the show by Rob Carlton. "The show has me yelling at Kerry in a couple of scenes - I never did that. And when he told me I'd been made editor of The Australian Women's Weekly, I walked around his desk and gave him a peck on the cheek. The show has me sitting on his knee, hugging and kissing him all over as if I'm about to rape him."
One thing she never had to depend on while at ACP, she says, was a pretty face. "I joked with Kerry once that I wished I was tall, thin, blonde and sophisticated. He looked at me said, 'Love, you stay on the factory floor. You'll last longer.' "
Journalist Lorrae Willox, who worked with Boling and King during their years together on New Idea, says their styles of dealing with staff were starkly different. "Nene had more of the common touch, but her weakness was her volatility. Dulcie could be very demanding of her staff, but she was perfectly controlled and never lost her temper."
Pubs full of former journalists and sub-editors recall King's brilliant news sense and her warmth, but curse her quick temper and tantrums, which sometimes involved foul language directed at staff. Richard Walsh recalls frequent tantrums and resignations, swiftly withdrawn after a quiet reassuring chat in his office. "Nene was fun to work with, but over time she became the very person she'd accused Boling of being: the queen bee."
Why then did people continue to work for her? For one thing, she was startlingly generous, whisking her art director and his new wife overseas for their honeymoon, helping a sub-editor out when he was down on his luck, flying her old friend Susie Palmer to Paris for her 50th birthday. Willox says that after dressing someone down for an infraction, King would rush out and buy them a designer handbag. "Nene didn't care about money; she could have had a chauffeur-driven car like Ita, but all she worried about was how many magazines were sold each week."
Much of King's career, however, seems to have been a lesson on how to lose friends and influence people. In 1993, when she was appointed editor-in-chief of The Australian Women's Weekly and Woman's Day, King hired journalist Susan Duncan, a close friend of nearly 20 years, to be editor of the Weekly. It was only a few short months before the pair had a bitter falling out, when Duncan resisted King's attempts to turn the venerable Weekly into a second Woman's Day with her formula of celebrities and hot gossip. The brewing conflict between the pair sadly coincided with Duncan's husband being diagnosed with a brain tumour and her brother with cancer. King claims she went to Richard Walsh to request that Duncan be granted three months' leave on full pay, to spend time with her family. "She [Duncan] said I fired her but that's a lie," says King. "Would I sack someone whose husband and brother were dying? I told the producers of Paper Giants to change that scene or I'll sue."
Duncan, however, is emphatic. "I was sacked," she tells me flatly in a phone interview. "Nene orchestrated it and the deed was done by Richard. I was given an hour to vacate my office. After my conversation with Richard, I went into Nene's office and told her she was a fool. I was going to have to resign in three weeks anyway because of my husband's cancer."
After Duncan's departure, King installed a new editor, but was unable to stem the Weekly's haemorrhaging circulation. King continued, however, outlaying megabucks for juicy "tell-alls" - that is, until the night a certain black Mercedes, with 10 paparazzi in hot pursuit, crashed into the 13th pillar in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris. The months of mourning that followed Princess Diana's death on August 31, 1997, also saw an outpouring of revulsion at paparazzi tactics. King arrived at work in Park Street the following week to find "Kerry Killed Di" spray-painted across Packer's private garage roller-door. "When Princess Diana died, we suddenly became the wicked witches of the media," she says.
Long before Andrew Morton's best-selling book detailing Princess Diana's bulimia, suicide attempts and affairs was published, King never quite bought Diana's Joan of Arc image. But she also saw that the princess's death was a game changer for women's gossip magazines. By 1997, the halcyon years of ever-rising circulations for Woman's Day and New Idea were over, beset by a host of new competitors entering the fray and the rise of the internet.
"I love you; I'm sorry I was cranky last night." These were the last words that King heard her husband utter, made from his car as he drove over the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a sparkling May morning in 1996, on his way to a scuba dive. What happened later that day - only seven kilometres from the sands of Bondi, at the shipwreck of the Koputai, an early 1900s steamer, is still not clear. Somehow Bowring's ascent wasn't quite right. Somehow he became disoriented when he surfaced. Somehow he slipped under the waves, never to be seen again.
In the weeks before his death, Bowring was deeply stressed over an upcoming inquest into the death of his close mate, Paul Cavanagh, who had perished near another shipwreck off the NSW south coast. "The only time I saw Patrick cry was at Paul's funeral," recalls King. "He wasn't sleeping and he'd lost weight." Bowring's body was never recovered - only his wetsuit, with a large chunk bitten out of it. "People say you need closure, but for me, I was relieved they didn't retrieve Pat's body. I couldn't have stood looking at it after a shark had torn it apart."
For weeks after his death, King slept with his clothes in the bed, so she could have the smell of him. "He was my little toy boy [Bowring had been seven years her junior; they met when she was 32 and he 25]. We were together for 18 years before finally marrying in Thailand in 1993. I'm so glad I married him before he went off into the sunset."
Things began to fray, and fray badly, for King after Bowring's death, which came just five weeks after the passing of her beloved father. She admits she returned to work too soon, her dark moods taxing even her most loyal staff. When she returned home to a cold, empty house, prescription drugs and alcohol became an all too tempting escape from the ongoing heartbreak and pain.
King finally quit Woman's Day in 1999 to look after her ailing mother, first in Noosa for a few years and later back in Melbourne. By now sinking into a deep depression, King was seeing a psychiatrist. "I've never been a natural carer," she says, "and the constant grind of caring for Mum led me to a nervous breakdown."
But much worse was to come after her mother passed away in 2007. "Nene was alone for the first time in her life, and she was terribly lonely and vulnerable," says hairdresser Terry Frankel, a close friend of 30 years. It was around this time that Larry Sutcliffe, a friend of her niece's, moved in to her large home in Caulfield, later joined by his lover Colin Hahne, who swiftly won King's affections. "I was so grateful for their friendship," she says. So grateful she had their names, "Lazza and Colly", tattooed on the inside of her right arm (she has subsequently had them covered over with a fetching red rose).
The now 43-year-old Hahne stands accused of draining almost $217,000 from King's bank accounts in a case that goes to trial in late November. At a hearing in late January, prosecutor Douglas Trapnell, SC, told the court that King was a vulnerable woman "preyed on by a clever, manipulative con man who used her as a cash cow to fund his gambling addiction and extravagant lifestyle".
Frankel still can't fully fathom why King was living with two gay men. "Nene had a couple of gay friends, but she was never a fag hag," he says.
"Much has been said about my 'downfall', " writes King in her afterword to Peter FitzSimons' book Nene, first published in 2002 and recently revised. "For legal reasons, much more must be left unsaid."
King was forced to sell her much-loved home in Caulfield and move to cheaper premises in Ballarat. "The thing that really embarrasses me is I'm normally very streetwise. I was a schmuck."
A sudden squall has blown up outside, and rain is coursing down the window panes in King's living room. We've been speaking for several hours, the light is starting to fade, and King's voice momentarily becomes heavier. "I've sabotaged my life. I know I embarrass my family [King has an older brother and two nieces]. Maybe if I had some good publicity they'll talk to me again."
Then suddenly she tears up. "Look at me, I'm crying now. Isn't that peculiar? I probably come across as a pathetic old lady."
Not at all, I reassure her. Even if she hasn't wound up as happy as some of her pals, it's odds-on she's had more fun along the way. If she'd been born a man, they'd be patting her on the back for her toughness and joie de vivre.
And the upcoming TV show, I add hopefully, may grant her a renewed burst of renown, just as Birth of Cleo did for Ita Buttrose. "Ita and I are like chalk and cheese; she is a class act," she says. "She knows how to conduct herself publicly; I've become a freak show."
If King has been her own worst enemy at times, it's clear she's not seeking a sympathy vote. She's "pretty content" right now, she says - and thanks for asking. Does she regret not having children? "When Pat and I first got together, I thought it would be lovely to have his kids, but somehow it never seemed to happen. I probably would have made a terrible mother anyway."
She's given up marijuana, drinks only on special occasions and has picked up the pieces of her life, writing a popular weekly advice column in New Idea. "Boy, if there's anyone who can give advice, it's me," she hollers, as her two small dogs, Marvin and Duddles, jump about.
Despite having a hip replaced only months ago, King suddenly jumps up like a person half her age, and grabs a popular women's magazine (not New Idea) from the rack, its cover a confusing jungle of photos, black boxes and big red arrows.
"Look at this clutter of cover lines, all these small photos," she sighs, before reworking some of the lines out loud, making them sound far punchier. "Gosh," she says, "I'd love to get my hands on this magazine."
For exclusive scenes from Paper Giants: Magazine Wars, go to smh.com.au
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
To say that opinions from Dulcie Boling are as trim and dagger-sharp as she is would be an understatement. She has a simple explanation for Nene King's often wild and eccentric behaviour while the two worked together on New Idea in the 1980s. "She's brain-damaged," says Boling. "She'd been running around like a teenager with Patrick [Bowring, her partner] and they were high as a kite on alcohol and drugs".
King was consistently high maintenance, insists Boling. "I made some bad management decisions in my time, but employing Nene was one of them. Behind my back, she was abusing the sub-editors, saying I was going to sack them for incompetence and calling them f...ing c...s. It even pains me to repeat bad words like that". (Good Weekend was unable to confirm these claims).
But if King was as difficult as this, why put up with her for so many years? "She would chase a news story into the ground, and had good ideas, but she was a poor writer." As to King's charge that she was being sidelined as deputy, Boling simply says, "I don't play nasty power games with people."
Both Boling and King had a reputation for being workaholics. Staff were astonished when Boling turned up for work one morning in 1987 after her apartment building in South Yarra had been bombed. "I had a cover to finish," she says simply. "We had to evacuate the building anyway because it was extensively damaged" [the bomb in the apartment below Doling's killed rally-driving businessman Stewart McLeod; his wife Leonie lost her feet in the explosion].
Boling, who won a Melbourne Press Club Lifetime Achievement Award at the Quills in March, said in her acceptance speech that her weapon of choice with intransigent male executives was a long, cold stare. But Rachel Griffiths outdid herself in portraying the death stare in Paper Giants, she gushes. "I would have killed for that stare."
Lead-in photograph by Mark Chew. Hair and make-up by Bradwyn Jones. Styling by Hayley Callander. Nene wears dress, pants and scarf from Feathers.
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