Tony Abbott once wrote of his close friend Christopher Pearson that for him lunch was both an art and a science.
Certainly, the long lunch appeared to be the social ceremony through which the Adelaide journalist, sometimes socialite and political fringe-dweller forged his alliances: the ritual, for him, was both convivial and gladiatorial, a chance to break wills in the battle of ideas and then break bread in amicable civility.
Pearson died, suddenly, in June 2013, alone in his Hurtle Square home, aged 61.
According to reports at the time, concern was raised when he failed to appear for Sunday Mass at his Catholic Church, having not been seen since his traditional Friday long lunch.
Somehow the confluence of those two events, of decadence and devotion, sum up the legend surrounding Pearson – a mass of contradictions, in turns noted for his avuncular warmth and decried for his abrasiveness, a onetime socialist turned conservative touchstone, an editor of the Labor Forum and a speechwriter for John Howard, flamboyant yet strangely solitary.
He attracted devoted friends like moths to a candle and repelled ideological opponents with the brutishness with which he peddled his convictions.
He was an aesthete who came to cherish the morality of abstinence. Never more so than when, having “come out of the closet in my student days, back in 1971″, he later in life effectively renounced his homosexuality to embrace his Catholicism.
In 2009, to mark the tenth anniversary of his reception into the Catholic Church – there was, he wrote, “nowhere else to go” – he revealed he could “never have been happy as a gay Christian, with or without a rainbow sash, because it always seemed to me a contradiction in terms”.
“I reluctantly concluded that St Paul was right about homosexual sex,” he noted.
But Pearson was himself a contradiction in terms; a sort of Down-Under incarnation of a Woodrow Wyatt or Malcolm Muggeridge, he was a theatrical cultural touchstone whose Labor sympathies were eventually jettisoned in favour of rampant conservatism.
Nonetheless, at the end his inner sanctum included figures prominent in both the federal Liberal Party and the South Australian ALP. But, like the reluctant antihero of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it was the church to which he returned, inevitably and enthusiastically.
That was his legacy.
That, and his $300,000 estate.
Jack Snelling, who last month shocked state politics when he quit his frontbench portfolios and flagged his parliamentary exit, said Pearson had a genius for friendship – a “gift”.
Writing in The Spectator after Pearson’s death, he recalled meeting The Australian newspaper columnist around 1997, when he was a newly-elected backbench Labor MP.
“We struck up a firm friendship based on our mutual interest in politics and religion,” Snelling wrote.
Pearson was clearly a formative influence on the young MP, who was already regarded as a conservative firebrand within Labor’s Catholic Right. Indeed, it seems possible Snelling would not have held the Arts portfolio – one of the three, along with Health and Health Industries, that he gave up last month – without Pearson’s counsel.
“Under his tutelage, my interests broadened to include music, the arts and literature,” Snelling wrote after his friend’s death.
The Labor MP believes it was as much a “gift for friendship” as his elegant but strident prose “that led Tony Abbott to describe him as ‘the glue that held conservative Australia together’”.
“His greatest pleasure was derived from introducing people and seeing new friendships bloom in their own right,” Snelling wrote.
“He wanted to share his friends, not hoard or jealously guard them.”
He was also an aesthete, for whom – according to Snelling – “beauty was important”.
“His two homes were full of precious books, art and antiques collected over a lifetime… the basics of life were routinely neglected so that he could purchase something beautiful he’d found,” he wrote.
“Even in recent years when things were tough, he could never part with any of these items.”
Aptly then, it was in death that he combined his passions – his treasure trove of keepsakes and his genius for friendship.
And it was Snelling that became the beneficiary of both.
In a 2014 article in The Australian – the paper for which Pearson wrote until his death – it was reported that his “marvellous and eccentric antique collection will go under the hammer in Melbourne… with expectations it will raise more than $150,000”.
Among the exotica were “rare leather-bound and first-edition colonial volumes and travel books, Persian carpets and a Spanish carved lime wood and ivory Madonna and child from the 17th century”.
“The executor of Pearson’s will, SA Health Minister Jack Snelling, has declined to reveal who the beneficiaries are,” the article stated.
But InDaily can now reveal that Snelling himself was a prime beneficiary of Pearson’s estate – and under aptly unusual circumstances.
Pearson took the reins of The Adelaide Review in 1984, as the monthly publication took its first wobbly baby steps – and quickly nourished it to precocious adolescence.
It became a local institution in its Hindley Street digs, as its pages became a sounding board for Pearson’s inner circle.
One such friend was SA museum anthropology curator Philip Jones.
“We had a long-term friendship, mainly through The Adelaide Review,” Jones recalls now, noting the pair shared a contrarian worldview on many matters.
They went on to infamously debunk the “secret women’s business” claim that was used to block the construction of the Hindmarsh Island bridge.
“He was a brilliant conversationalist, and I suppose our relationship was forged on that – an oppositional approach to a number of cultural matters,” Jones says.
“We sort of shared some perspectives in those days… you have to remember when I met him he was editing Labor Forum. He’d come from the Left – and indeed the extreme Left, actually, when he was at Flinders [University] – and he ended up on the extreme Right.
“And I left his circle, I suppose you could say, as he began that move to the Right.”
Jones was initially reluctant to reflect on Pearson – and the matter of his will – but he concedes the episode “takes us back not only to the previous century, but almost to another phase of SA history”.
“Christopher had such a wide circle of friends in this period – they were mainly independent-thinking people, they weren’t necessarily from the Left and weren’t necessarily from the Right; it was across the spectrum,” he says.
“But what happened at the end of that decade, the ’90s, is that he suddenly hardened his political views, and became much, much more conservative… and that’s the side that the general public, the ‘Guardian readers’, I suppose, would now know.”
Jones says he did not see much of Pearson “from I suppose about ’99 on, really”.
But before that, their friendship was important enough to the eccentric editor that he used to openly muse about leaving his worldly goods to the museum curator when he died.
“It was a weird situation,” Jones tells InDaily.
“I was aware that he was a single man, he didn’t have any dependents or close relatives, apart from his mother… and he used to say in a way that I would take as being almost jocular that he would leave his assets to me, although he didn’t use that term.
“I kind of thought, ‘Oh well, that’s not going to happen’. People wouldn’t say those things while they’re in good health, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it.”
Jones notes he was “also aware” that Pearson, with his gregarious lifestyle, “wasn’t the most solvent person”.
“He had considerable debts and as far as I could see they were increasing, rather than decreasing [so] it wasn’t something I spent any time bothering about.”
But Pearson bothered with it.
In May 1996, he prepared a typewritten and formally executed will. Unbeknownst to Jones, he was named as the sole executor and trustee, and was himself set to inherit almost half the estate; the other half would go to Pearson’s mother, Sidney Suzanne Dutton, known as Sue.
There was a caveat.
If either Jones or Sue predeceased him, their share of his inheritance would pass to the survivor.
And – according to a never-before-published 2014 probate court judgment by now-retired Supreme Court Justice Tom Gray – if they both died before Pearson, the entire estate would fall to a third party.
That third party was Pearson’s friend, and then-fledgling federal MP, Anthony John (Tony) Abbott.
Abbott wrote in a 2014 reflection in Quadrant that Pearson had first sought him out in 1993, after reading an essay he had written for the same publication.
The meeting of minds occurred under Pearson’s favoured auspices: over a long lunch.
“We dined at Rigoni’s, an institution where Christopher appeared to be a permanent fixture, his table expanding or contracting according to the number of his acquaintances who happened to be passing by,” Abbott wrote.
“In life, he once wrote, ‘only fools fail to take their pleasures seriously’.”
Abbott went on to be regular contributor to The Adelaide Review, a proving ground for many of Pearson’s inner circle, which then included the likes of Jones and writer and medico Peter Goldsworthy.
“A bond of friendship had been formed that would enrich my life for the next 20 years,” Abbott reflected.
“It was an unusual coupling in many ways — arty versus hearty… Christopher was the aesthete; I was the athlete; he was a reformed Maoist and I was a lifelong conservative.
“Yet he had made it his mission to take me under his wing.”
Pearson’s protection, it seems, extended to a desire to provide for his friend after his death.
Beyond being the beneficiary of Pearson’s estate in the event that both Jones and Sidney predeceased him, Abbott was also to receive in any case “a specific disposition of [Pearson’s] shares in The Adelaide Review Pty Ltd and his units in The Adelaide Review Unit Trust”.
The expected cash value of the bequest is unclear.
But it seemed, from a man with a gift for friendship, a gift for his true friends.
According to Jones, Pearson’s friendship with Abbott was symptomatic of his political shift.
“He [began] pushing Tony Abbott’s barrow for him – that wasn’t really the Pearson I knew,” he reflects.
“I knew the earlier version, who was scintillating in his conversation and unafraid of conventional wisdom – and that was a good thing.”
But there was a twist.
He had provided for me out of friendship
Eight years later, on May 13, 2008, a young solicitor with law firm Johnston Withers named Mark Jappe was summoned to Pearson’s home “to take instructions for a new will”.
According to Gray’s subsequent judgment: “This was the first occasion on which Mr Jappe had taken any instructions from the deceased.”
The instructions were jotted down by hand, but Jappe later told the court that Pearson appeared “lucid”, and he was “satisfied of his testamentary capacity”.
Pearson told Jappe that “the terms of his then-current will did not represent his testamentary intentions”.
His mother had already died and, by Jones’ telling, their bond of friendship had weakened. Moreover, Pearson had become godfather to a friend’s child, who had Down Syndrome.
It was a responsibility he undertook earnestly.
In late middle age, Jones recalls, “I think Christopher suddenly became a bit paternal”.
Snelling’s posthumous Spectator tribute noted that “it was always interesting to see Christopher with the young”.
“While generally speaking, he was of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ school, he enjoyed engaging with those young people in whom he detected a spark of intelligence,” wrote the MP – himself a father of six.
“Much of his time was taken with mentoring young prodigies, the most notable being the celebrated pianist and author Anna Goldsworthy.”
In an obituary she wrote for The Monthly, Goldsworthy painted a wickedly endearing picture of Pearson as something of a naughty uncle.
She had known him since childhood. Her father, GP and novelist Peter Goldsworthy, had written for Pearson at the Review – as Anna would do later as a young adult – and “every Christmas morning we visited him as a family, an act of kindness he later confessed to be as excruciating for him as it was for us”.
It was an era of ’80s excess, where in a pre-State Bank Adelaide “the early launch parties in Hindley Street soon gave way to a Gatsbyish fabulousness”.
“Grange Jetty, roped off for private fireworks; the heritage-listed Carclew House with the then-new Australian String Quartet; or – my favourite – the historic Carrick Hill, with a hot-air balloon tethered out the back, like a large captive animal,” she recalled.
But Christopher “was not especially interested in children”.
“It was only later that I became a project,” she wrote.
She traced the beginning of their friendship – “if that was what it was” – to an evening phone conversation wherein an inebriated Christopher called for Peter but, on being told he was not home, instead spent hours conversing with his teenage daughter, convincing her loftily not to bother with the party she was due to attend.
“You’d be better staying home and reading Dostoevsky, than going to a party and performing a blow job on some wastrel,” he chastised her.
“Over the course of this phone call he urged me to read more Evelyn Waugh, proffered recipes for the perfect summer cocktail, and divulged former bedroom practices I had imagined were mythical,” she recounted.
“It was conversation as conspiracy, thrilling and illicit as any high-school tryst.
“And if I now see the pathos of such a phone call, I also recognise it as the first of the conversations that followed, and as one of the first times an adult addressed me as an adult.”
It seemed something of a turning point for Pearson, too, who late in life wrote that “it came as something of a surprise to me, but a pleasant one, to discover in my 40s that avuncular relations with adolescent girls were possible”.
Whether, then, it was through avuncular affection or a sense of duty to a church friend, Pearson “wished to make some provision” for his godson after his death.
Yet it was a vague provision – the money was left not in a trust, but to the godson’s older brother, who could then “use his discretion as to how to apply the assets”.
Jappe told Pearson that the handwritten document would take effect as his will should he die before signing a formalised typewritten version, and would thus revoke the terms of his former 1996 will. Pearson agreed.
He signed the handwritten document, with Jappe as his only witness.
The preface on the document read: “I, Christopher Pearson, revoke all previous wills. This is my last will.”
He appointed Snelling and his godson’s brother as his executors, and left “my entire estate equally” to the two men.
Jappe took the document with him when he left.
Pearson’s friendship with Snelling flourished in the late-’90s; it appeared a happy confluence of his personal journey, embracing both political conservatism and Catholicism.
“Christopher had found this new circle of people, who were the Catholic Right in Adelaide,” recalls Jones.
“Those were the people that he spent time with, and they were a different set.”
Of his latter-era conversion to Catholicism – and effective renunciation of his homosexuality – Pearson once wrote: “I became a member of a minority, as marginalised and persecuted as the first generation of out-and-proud gays.
“In fact, it was a lot like reliving the ’70s: I also got the distinct impression that a number of acquaintances in the hierarchy had been more cordially disposed towards me in my unregenerate middle age,” he reflected.
“Perhaps they wondered whether it was really necessary for me to make what pastoral care jargon calls ‘lifestyle sacrifices’.”
Aptly, in his defence Pearson cited another reformed-Laborite-turned-Tory, writing: “All I can do is quote another of Muggeridge’s paradoxes: ‘One of old age’s pleasures is giving things up.’”
I am grateful for the decency of gay friends, such as the late Christopher Pearson, who have deepened my understanding of the human condition
Snelling did not wish to make public comment for this article. Through a spokesman, he told InDaily: “Mr Pearson’s death was sudden and he left an informal will naming [me] and another party as co-executors.”
“The informal will was formalised by the probate court a number of years ago.”
Snelling, the spokesman said, “considers this to be a very private matter and will not be making any further comment”.
In the weeks after Pearson revised his will, Jappe mailed him a typewritten draft of the new document. But, according to Justice Gray’s judgment, Pearson “did not reply to this correspondence and there is no indication as to what he did with the typewritten draft will”.
He did, however, settle his bill with Johnston Withers, perhaps assuming the matter was finalised.
After his death in 2013, “the persons named as executors and trustees in the handwritten document [Snelling and his co-beneficiary] applied to have that document admitted to probate as the will of the deceased”.
The court was told the estate was worth around $300,000 at the time of the application.
Christopher was always convinced that Tony Abbott was going to become Prime Minister
Snelling later told the court that Pearson had already sold his interests in The Adelaide Review and the Adelaide Review Unit Trust, “with the result that the bequest to Anthony John Abbott in the 1996 will was adeemed”.
However, Pearson’s mother had already died, so if the 1996 will was admitted, “Jones would therefore be appointed as executor and trustee of the deceased’s estate and would be entitled to the whole of the estate”.
“It was a surprise to me when I was contacted by Snelling directly,” Jones says now.
“Then it became rather weird, because I didn’t know [that I was named in the original will]. All I was aware of is that Christopher had said that would be the case, and never said it wasn’t… and I hadn’t taken much notice anyway, so it was all academic.”
According to Jones, Snelling sought a meeting, and “essentially the way he put it to me was that I was the beneficiary of a signed will”.
“Snelling said they’d been through Christopher’s material, and in a cupboard they found another will, which was a hand-written scribble, as far as I could tell. But it was signed by Christopher [and] it turned out that a lawyer had actually been around to his house for the purposes of finalising that will.”
Jones was nonplussed.
“I seemed to me that this is the last thing I needed, [but] I actually took [legal] advice,” he says.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to know where I stand with this’.”
He formed the view that “if I wanted to, I could push it [and] I was probably the official beneficiary”.
“However, I knew that Christopher had, as I expected all those years ago, realigned his circle – and I wasn’t in the circle anymore.
“He hadn’t told me I wasn’t the beneficiary any longer, [but] I thought, ‘Well, essentially I’m foregoing what could be quite an amount [of money], so I’ll see if maybe we can come to some arrangement’.”
The Court was told that a compromise had been reached between the applicants.
Jones agreed to be paid $50,000; in return, he provided an affidavit of consent to Snelling’s application that the 2008 hand-written note was indeed Pearson’s official will and testament.
“I had known the deceased for many years and was a close friend of his,” says Jack Snelling.
His statement, tendered to court and exhumed from registry archives at InDaily’s request, details his case to be made executor and beneficiary of Pearson’s estate, along with the godson’s brother.
“I verily believe the deceased did not make any other will, nor did he revoke [this] will,” Snelling avows.
“My belief is based on conversations with the deceased about his will, the last of which took place during the last year of [his] life.
“He told me he had revoked a former will, which had provided for [Jones], and made a new will.”
The new will, said Snelling, “provided for his estate to be divided equally between myself and [his godson’s brother]”.
“He had provided for me out of friendship.”
Snelling tabled figures suggesting Pearson’s assets – including his Hurtle Square home, “household effects” and holiday house at Delamere where, it’s said, Abbott would work on his books – then totalled more than $1 million. However, most of it still belonged to the bank, along with an equity release liability and various credit card debts and bills.
After the debts were settled, the properties sold and Jones’ payment was deducted, it’s likely Snelling walked away with around $125,000.
Justice Gray found that he was “satisfied that the deceased intended for the informal document to operate as his last will and not merely to act as a stopgap will”.
The handwritten document was to be admitted to probate as the last will of Christopher Pearson.
Christopher had a kind of fascination with the rites and protocols of the funerary business
It’s not clear why Abbott was written out of Pearson’s will, although it appears it was not as a result of any ill-feeling, or a cooling of the friendship, as appeared the case with Jones.
“From the time I met him until becoming Opposition Leader,” Abbott later wrote, “I gave very few scripted speeches that did not benefit from Christopher’s attention to detail.”
The journalist went on the edit the MP’s three published books, although he did not live to see him become Prime Minister – just three months after his death.
According to a tweet on the day by Labor veteran Michael Atkinson, Abbott delivered Pearson a eulogy, at the the Victory Hotel at Sellicks Hill, “as we wended our way back from his burial at St James, Delamere”.
“Who knows?” Jones muses on the mystery now.
“Christopher was always convinced that Tony Abbott was going to become Prime Minister, so maybe had thought he didn’t need it?” he laughs.
“I think maybe he saw Tony as obviously [financially] robust, and not needing [the money].”
There was a passing suggestion in the probate court proceedings that Pearson nonetheless made financial provision for Abbott after his death.
Court transcripts record an exchange between Justice Gray and Jappe, discussing the dispersal of Pearson’s self-funded superannuation account.
They spoke of an Australian Government Employees Superannuation Trust fund, totalling more than $40,000, which was to be transferred to “Tony”.
Gray asks Jappe to whom “the Tony there is referring”?
“Tony Abbott, I expect,” the lawyer replies.
“He’s now dealing with his superannuation, which would be outside his will… it looks like a nomination to Tony Abbott, but I’m not certain.”
The member for Warringah did not respond to numerous inquiries from InDaily to his office – until this week.
Responding to a question about the superannuation funds, a spokesman said Abbott was “not aware of the court case, he was not aware of being a beneficiary and he certainly hasn’t received any money from Mr Pearson’s estate”.
But they remained close. Abbott even invoked his late friend in a recent article outlining his case against gay marriage.
“Thankfully, censoriousness towards gay people has long gone,” he wrote in a much-debated August opinion piece in The Australian.
“I admire the courage of those who battled discrimination (and worse) to establish the equal rights and dignity of all people regardless of race, gender, religion or sexuality.
“I am grateful for the decency of gay friends (such as the late Christopher Pearson) who have deepened my understanding of the human condition.”
Pearson himself, incidentally, was similarly opposed to same-sex marriage, writing in The Australian in 2011: “That marriage is a specifically heterosexual institution has been a tenet of all the main religions and every legal system of any consequence before the present day.”
“The onus of persuading people to support a fundamental change to the character of so sturdy an institution is considerable,” he wrote.
“Normlessness hasn’t yet become entrenched enough in suburban Australia.”
For someone so sociable, he was also very lonely, in many ways
In documents retrieved by the Supreme Court probate registry, Pearson left instructions for his funeral, expressing “the wish that I be buried according to the Tridentine Rite, in the family plot in the Augustine churchyard”.
“I [further] express the wish I be buried in a Minyan coffin,” he concluded.
“Christopher had a kind of fascination, I think, with the rites and protocols of the funerary business,” Jones recalls.
“He had an incredibly over-the-top High Catholic funeral that kept us all occupied for two or three hours, and then ended up with a farewell [gathering] 80 kilometres away… so that was a whole day out of our lives. But we felt we owed it to Christopher – everyone did – because he was just such a character.
“But part of his character – and I observed it over the years – was a fascination with the rituals attached to passing out of this life. And for him the will was part of that – the dispersal of his worldly goods, you might say…”
As to why those worldly goods went to someone plucked from his social circle – someone Pearson had known for less than two decades when he died – that remains a mystery.
One who knew him – but declined to be named – emphasised that in his later years his Catholicism became the most important thing in his life.
Another close friend of Pearson’s who had drifted away from him in his latter years was one-time Liberal advisor-turned lobbyist Ian Smith, who told InDaily: “For someone so sociable, he was also very lonely, in many ways.”
In 2014, Abbott – then Prime Minister – penned an introduction to A Better Class of Sunset, the collected works of Christopher Pearson.
“Intimacy,” he wrote, “was Christopher’s natural and permanent disposition.
“In his later years, Christopher became more reluctant to disturb the status quo and more respectful of tradition. He became devoted to liturgy and ritual, finding in the observance of the Latin Mass a new path on his quest for the sublime.”
Pearson had, according to Abbott, “a strong sense of his own mortality”, but was “seldom inclined to be maudlin on the subject of death… seeing it in its true spiritual context as a rite of passage and a reminder of the duty to do one’s best on earth”.
“In retrospect, it may have been as his father remarked on the day of his funeral: that he had achieved all he set out to do,” wrote Abbott.
And in so doing, his gift of friendship was worth more than money.
“To know Christopher well was to have a grandstand seat at the clash of mighty emotions as well as to have the benefit of a fine mind and a good heart,” Abbott wrote.
“He helped me to understand that it was better to make friends than enemies; and that unavoidable enmities were best aroused consciously rather than by accident.”
Local News Matters
Media diversity is under threat in Australia – nowhere more so than in South Australia. The state needs more than one voice to guide it forward and you can help with a donation of any size to InDaily. Your contribution goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. Please click below to help InDaily continue to uncover the facts.