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Who Wants to be a Billionaire?
The James Packer Story
By Paul Barry
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Paul Barry
All rights reserved.
I want them to know only one thing, really — that I adore them. I'd do anything for them and they know that.
At the age of ten, young 'Jamie' Packer was packed off to prep school in Bowral, in the southern highlands of New South Wales, to a big old rambling property called Tudor House, which had a working farm with green paddocks beyond the gardens and playing fields. A tall boy with freckles, big ears and a big grin that revealed two rows of protruding teeth, he was five years older than his father had been when he was sent off to board and apparently a fair bit happier at the prospect. But he was being sent away from his mother, nonetheless.
Poor Kerry had suffered miserably from such partings, yet he clearly felt that a dose of this medicine would do James good. 'I think boarding school is very important for kids,' he told Michael Parkinson. 'I think particularly for kids who have been very lucky and had a lot of privileges. I think it's very important for them to learn to get along with other people and other kids, some of them not quite as well off as they are, and to learn their responsibilities.'
In the event, Tudor House probably proved to be a great deal more fun than Kerry intended. There was a creek with yabbies, a dam with canoes, and a wood where the boys could climb trees and make camps. At weekends they were free to roam wherever they wanted, taking their meals along with them. 'On Sunday we would just disappear,' one of James's schoolmates remembers. 'You could go to the kitchen and get a flask of billy tea and some flour, then ride out on the bikes, make a fire and cook damper. We all had cubby houses made out of branches. Most of our free time we would go and work on them.'
James was in a boarding house with fifty boys in five dormitories of ten and precious little privacy. It was like a large close-knit family according to his housemaster, Phillip Richards, whose wife Louise washed the boys' clothes, made their beds and acted as a surrogate mum for two years. Both remember James as vague and absent-minded, 'an expert at losing his socks ... one of those boys who could shed things as he walked'.
One Easter James went off on holidays, leaving a heap of his stuff strewn about the floor. 'That night,' says Richards, 'we saw Kerry telling a story on television about the time he'd left his tennis racquet behind in Geelong, and how his father, to teach him a lesson, had sent him back on the train from Sydney to retrieve it. Well, we saw this and my wife and I were thrown into a complete panic! James had left everything! His tennis racquet, his cricket gear, his clothes. We just imagined the scene back at the house when he arrived home and Mrs Packer would be going through his bags. We genuinely expected poor James to be knocking on our door in the early hours of the morning. To our great relief he didn't turn up.'
It was no accident that history did not repeat itself because it was Kerry's mission to be much less hard on his son than Sir Frank had been on him. Kerry had endured brutal punishment as a child, received very little love, and spent a huge amount of time away from the family home. And as he told the broadcaster Terry Lane, he was determined not to make the same mistake with his two children, James and Gretel. 'I want them to know only one thing, really — that I adore them. I'd do anything for them and they know that. They know they're loved ... That doesn't mean I don't put them over my knee — I do, but I hope fairly and never in anger. It's a belief that when you've done something wrong you've got to pay a price. Then we talk about it after it happens and say, "It's paid now, but let's learn the lesson and not do it again."' As James grew older, and more of a rival, Kerry found it impossible to avoid competing with him and slapping him down. But in these early days, he appears to have been a good father and James a happy, confident, cheerful boy who got on well with everyone. In almost all the official school photographs he's wearing a wide, easy smile, in stark contrast to the famous photo of Kerry, taken at the age of five, in which he is sitting on a step in the garden, staring sadly into the lens.
At Tudor House, James was at ease with his teachers, popular with his peers and excelled at just about everything. He played for the Firsts at rugby and cricket, and captained the school at cricket and tennis. He was a senior chorister, starred in the school play and won prizes for most subjects. Academically, he was also above average, especially at mathematics, which was taught by the headmaster,
Bob Darke. 'He was a pretty smart fella,' Darke remembers, 'who grasped the concepts quickly. He understood the subject.'
He was also quite definitely not dyslexic, despite the claims he and Kerry made over the years. In his last year at Tudor House James won the reading prize, which involved all the contestants standing up in front of the school and reading aloud from a piece of literature they had never seen before. 'James could not have done that if he was dyslexic,' says Darke, who was one of the judges. Furthermore, he played the lead role in the school play, The Flying Pieman, for which he had to learn lines and sing solos. He would have struggled with that had he been dyslexic, according to Richards, but he was 'great, he carried the show'.
For all the freedom that Tudor House allowed its boys, it was an old-fashioned school with a set routine, as befitted an institution that had educated an Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Patrick White. 'We had classes all day,' one of James's schoolmates recalls, 'then sport and play, dinner, prep, showers, bed and lights out. Saturday evening there was always a movie in the hall. There was a projector and a rough sort of screen up on the stage and we'd have to sit on these cold steel chairs, but you could bring a blanket in to keep warm, and it was always fun.'
The film show was also precisely choreographed according to Alan Caradus, the teacher who ran it. 'The boys would have showers at 4.30 p.m., then they would get ready for dinner. Dinner was at 5.25 p.m. They came out of dinner at 5.55 p.m., went across and got their woollen blazers, then lined up in the gym with their eiderdowns over their shoulders and their teddy bears under their arms. Then they paraded down the aisle to their seats, these cold metal seats. Then they watched the film.'
James, who was one of a select band of projectionists, would sit up in a little box at the top of a metal ladder, ensuring that nothing went wrong. Sadly, there is no picture of him clutching his eiderdown and teddy.
Even as a ten-year-old, James stood out from the crowd because he was taller than most of his classmates and because his father was Kerry Packer. It was hard to get lost in the background when your cricket bat was signed by every member of every team in World Series Cricket. It was hard, too, if you arrived for your first day at school in a chauffeur-driven Jaguar, with another chauffeur-driven Jaguar carrying your luggage. But James was obviously inured to all this. Bob Darke was struck by how composed the young boy was on his first day. While all the other kids tugged at their parents, asked questions and demanded attention, James sat cross-legged on the floor outside the headmaster's study playing quietly with a toy. He was 'a very self-contained little boy,' says Darke. 'He didn't cry when they left.'
One possible explanation for this is that he knew it would do him no good to cling to his parents. Only a couple of weeks earlier, James had been sent to a cricket camp at Cranbrook School, just down the road from the Packer family home, and found himself in one of the boarding houses on a Sunday afternoon facing a week away from his family. Also in the dormitory was a keen young cricketer called Malcolm Knox, later the Sydney Morning Herald's cricket correspondent, who was struck by how desperately unhappy he was:
We were unpacking when a pasty, freckly boy dumped himself on the next bunk with his bag. The boy sat there and cried. My grandmother made his bed for him. She and my mother helped him sort out his clothes. He sat with his face in his hands and kept crying. I don't know if he moved from the bed at all. That night ... I fell asleep to the sound of my lonely neighbour's weeping.
The boy, of course, was James Packer, who was upset at being abandoned by his parents. He was gone the next day.
It's hard to know how much to make of such an incident, but it is a constant theme in James's life that Kerry thought him too soft and a mummy's boy. Almost everyone who recalls discussing James with his father over the years says that Kerry ordered them to give the boy a hard time, beat him about the head and toughen him up a bit. If this was Kerry's way of letting his son know he was adored, it surely didn't work. But after the abuse Kerry had suffered from his own father, it was probably the only way he knew.
Certainly, Kerry found it hard — if not impossible — to give praise, so it wasn't surprising that James craved it from others. One boy at Tudor House remembers him chasing the headmaster after a maths lesson 'to offer his knowledge of the eight-times table', which he then began to recite unasked. 'He was eager to please,' says the schoolmate, 'not in a suck-up way, just innocent.'
During his two years at Tudor House, James was visited every fortnight by his mother Ros — a 'warm', 'wonderful' woman — who came by car and stayed at Milton Park with Kerry's cousins, the Baillieus. His father came down once a term and always arrived in the Channel Nine helicopter, touching down on the playing fields, which had to be cleared so it was safe for him to land. This was another thing that marked James out from his classmates. The only other person who had ever arrived this way was Rupert Murdoch when he flew up one day in the Channel Ten helicopter to see if the school was right for Lachlan. It wasn't.
As soon as Kerry's chopper came to rest on the oval, the big man would jump out to be greeted by Bob Darke, a formidable figure in his own right, who always went down to meet him. 'I liked Kerry tremendously,' Darke says. 'I found him straightforward and interesting to talk to, but then I didn't have to do business with him.'
On his visits, Kerry only ever bothered to deal with the boss, talking to James's housemaster just once, apparently in error. 'I think he mistook me for someone else,' says Phillip Richards. 'The subject of the conversation was how I could win my fortune betting on the races. It went something like, "First, always go. Second, never bet on the TAB. And third, only ever bet on horses that are 6-1 or 7-1." I'm not a betting man, I've only been to the races once in my life, so I never took advantage of his advice. And he never made the mistake of speaking to me again.'
Naturally, Kerry played a leading role in the Fathers and Sons cricket match when it came around at the end of the year. And, naturally, he created a lasting impression, especially after landing his helicopter on the square before captaining one of the sides. 'He came out to bat and proceeded to whack about ten fours and sixes in a row off the two eleven-year-old boys bowling to him,' says Geoffrey Boyden, whose father captained the opposing side. 'After a short while, he said, "That's enough" and walked off the pitch. You would have thought he would have given us some catches or made us run for the ball and then done a good job of getting out without making it look deliberate. But that obviously wasn't Kerry's style.'
'He didn't bother running much, just hit a lot of boundaries,' Tudor House's cricket master, Ken Walker, recalls. 'He was smoking back in those days — most of the fathers did — and I remember him in the slips taking a purler of a catch with a smoke hanging out of his mouth. He didn't look like a sportsman or an athlete, but he had very good hand-eye coordination.'
Kerry's showing-off did not endear him to many people, and some teachers gave James a hard time because of it. Others suggested the boy was getting preferential treatment, and more than his fair share of prizes, because his father was so rich and powerful. In James's last year at Tudor House, these critics were given some ammunition when he was made joint school captain. Some asked how he got the job, others why he only got half of it. The position had been split like this only three times in thirty years.
James would not have been considered at all in a good year says Bob Darke, who adds that he was confident and a natural leader but had little time for the stragglers and liked being the centre of attention. 'Was he above himself ? No. He wouldn't have dared be above himself with Kerry in the background.'
If any favouritism was shown, it wasn't to reward Kerry for donations to the school, because he made none. But after James left he did become a benefactor, telling Darke he wanted to start a Frank Packer scholarship to help children from poorer families. By the time the headmaster had worked on him, Kerry had agreed to finance two years at Tudor House and eight at King's School, Parramatta, paying all fees and boarding costs, plus skiing trips and excursions and a clothing allowance. 'We had a policeman's kid, we had farmers' kids, we had a minister's kid, a single-parent child,' says Alan Caradus, adding that part of the deal for the lucky recipient was to have dinner with the Packers.
The scholarship lasted for fourteen years — from 1981 until 1995 — before Kerry became convinced that he was being taken advantage of. The shop assistants at David Jones, where the scholarship students were asked to shop for their school needs, would bring out the most expensive items if they knew he was paying, says Darke, and Kerry always believed that the boys' parents added things on for themselves. For some reason he always suspected the world was out to get him.
However happy James was boarding at Tudor House, he did not want to be exiled from home for six more years of senior school, and with Ros's help he won a reprieve. In January 1980, at the age of twelve, he started as a day boy at Cranbrook in Sydney, where Kerry had been thirty years before. His first-year photo there shows him kneeling in the front row with his collar askew, squinting against the sun, looking like a real-life Ginger Meggs.
But while he was now only 500 metres from the family home he no longer enjoyed a charmed life. Cranbrook had five times as many pupils as Tudor House and he was right at the bottom of the heap. Instead of starring in the school production of Oliver he would be just one of Fagin's chorus. And instead of playing for the First XV at rugby, he was turning out for one of the weakest teams in his year.
Academically, he was also back in the pack, winning none of the prizes, cups and awards that had piled up in Bowral. One teacher remembers him as 'halfway down the class or worse' and says he was 'full of himself, lazy and a chatterbox'. Another who knew him well says he didn't take his studies seriously, didn't do his homework and scored regular detentions. A third confirms 'he just wasn't interested'. James's own account is that he 'bludged' his way through without distinction.
Excerpted from Who Wants to be a Billionaire? by Paul Barry. Copyright © 2009 Paul Barry. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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