Whenever four of us former Eastern Express staff get together every year or so for the past 25yrs, we always toast the inimitable Bill Ranken “who’ll outlive all of us!” we predicted. He was such a ball of positive and energy with an endless work ethic directed towards socialising. We’d worked with him 1990-94 when he reinvented himself as a Society Spy social writer as a “youthful” 60-year-old.
His forte was the relentless drive to go out, and everything was devoted to that aim. All we knew at the time was that he lived in a little studio flat, and used to jog every morning to keep trim. He was fitter than all of us and we were in our early 30s! He knew all the socialites by their first names, and was very discreet. I’d have to try and interpret his laughter to my questions to get any gossip.
We trained him in the gig: he had a photographer and wrote names in his notebook. Early on, he often lost his notebooks but soon realised the importance of getting all the names, or we wouldn’t use the photos. His opening sentences were always a bright splash of hyperbole: “There were more stars than in the galaxy …”
I subbed and laid out his social spreads for 4.5 years until the paper folded, and it was always a joy when he visited the office. He couldn’t really write, but he persevered in this profession anyway, knowing that taking photos and mingling were his strong points.
He was always gracious and never a snob. I was in my “punk” phase at the time, holding a “Flatmate from Hell” flatwarming party in Bondi and, of course, Bill said: “I’ll be there!” He came along on a Saturday night in his trademark suit and bow tie, his daily free rose from Carla Florist, Double Bay, in his lapel, and was his usual buoyant self, working the room.
As he got older, our admiration only increased, as it would be harder to fit into those young social circles and we knew he’d alienated some people with his shenanigans. But he was still up at the crack of dawn every day, jogging away, as tanned as ever, and out on the town every night: he just loved people, and helped out at the Wayside Chapel. He was an inspiring story of accepting who he was, his limitations, but still giving life everything he had, every day til he dropped.
Last time I bumped into him was on Oxford St, outside the Beauchamp Hotel, where he was bending down to tie his shoelace, then checking in a mirror to see he was looking polished. I said hi and he was as friendly as ever.
Now that he’s passed (into another ball of positive energy somewhere, I believe), we see his tragic back-story and it makes his humble choices even more amazing. He was worth $30million when he died, tied up in family land, which, though he was the eldest son, he encouraged other family members to take on. He would mention how he lost his eye and during the recuperation time he realised he wasn’t suited to the farming life.
More tragedies: his younger brother who took over the property died, and then his sister’s husband who took over was killed too. A year after this last death, Bill arrived at the Eastern Express, while going back and forth to help on the property as much as he could. He had a big heart. You can read elsewhere how he’d been a consort to Princess Margaret and a playboy in his younger years: but later, when he had no money to show, he still went out diligently, as he loved people and loved Sydney.
Fittingly, his last published words: “I’ve had a wonderful time. To the socialites of the eastern suburbs, I insist they all keep hosting fabulous parties.”
This song sums up Bill for me: formal, a bit nerdy, wholesome in his own way, ever-cheerful and sunny, add a dollop of old fashioned kindness. Oh, Darling, and Anything Goes!
And Music To Watch Girls By
One Thing – Bill stuck to the one thing he loved, socialising.
Vale Bill Ranken: the link,
Just in case these links ever disappear, have kept the copies here:
Bill was known for the last 10 years or so as a photographer and a must addition to any smart party or red carpet launch but his life was one of great variety in many different occupations.Brought up on the family estate near Goulburn, Ranken lost interest in working on the property when a tractor accident cost him the sight in one eye.Whispers first encountered Bill over 30 years ago when he arrived at a Mayfair art gallery on the arm of the late Princess Margaret causing gossip as perhaps her latest flame with his tall elegant looks.
“Landed gentry from Australia” was legendary Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster‘s description when asked who Margaret’s date was.
Chatting with Bill at the launch- an exhibition of artists Gilbert & George’s huge canvas depicting bodily functions he leaned over to the Princess and quipped: “for God’s sake don’t look too closely Margaret, it will put you off the champagne“.Commenting that we were soon leaving for Sydney to live, Bill retrieved a business card from his wallet- he always carried a variety from his different jobs -and a phone call 6 months later started a long friendship of nightly telephone “debriefings” as we called them, to chat and laugh about everyone and everything that had happened during our day.Ranken was often far grander than those he photographed. As co-owner with his sister Jean of two of the most desired country properties in the state, he was a millionaire many times over but few seem to know. With houses on both properties at Gunning and Goulburn, Bill lived an almost monkish style life usually bedding down in the working men’s quarters in a barn. When not planting trees or retrieving lost sheep he loved to check on his favourite animals, ducks, which he had installed in the various lakes.In Sydney he lived in an Elizabeth Bay apartment and breakfasted at one of the local cafes sipping Green Tea which he swore kept him youthful.A man of great contrasts he had an innate ability to talk to anyone and everyone no matter their status and make each feel important. He would laugh that he sat next to former Prime MinisterMalcolm Fraser at the snobby Tudor House prep school.
“God Malcolm was boring when he was young” Bill would say and Fraser would return the compliment saying to Bill “you give our class a bad name” referring to Bill’s admitted snobbishness But he was anything but.
In the morning he may have a quick chat with a Kings Cross stripper, hooker or a nightclub bouncer on their way home after a night’s work. In the afternoon he could be chatting to Barry Humphries at a Double Bay cafe while later that evening he might be dining with Princess Mary of Denmark.Meeting a new young artist, actor, singer perhaps a budding caterer Bill was always happy to delve into his extensive list of contacts and help in anyway he could. With a natural kindness and expecting nothing in return, there are numerous now famous names who pay tribute to Bill’s ability to point them in the right direction after a chance meeting. Always alert to meeting an interesting new person on the circuit he could also be cynical at times : “if Jesus Christ came through the Heads I’d want to know who his PR agent is” he once said.At a social functions it was no surprise to hear Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Packer or the latest Prime Minster say : “Hi Bill, I need to talk to you about some rural matters” on which he had an encyclopedic knowledge.For Bill life was never meant to be boring and each day brought an incident to be laughed at and crafted into an amusing anecdote. Even his 6am run from Kings Cross to Double Bay (right up until the last 6 months) brought a tale to tell. He recounted that he was once taking a breather in Rushcutters Bay Park when 2 large policeman emerged from the bushes dragging a naked, wild looking man.
“There’s my pal Bill Ranken” cried the man who Bill swore he did not recognise. As the nude felon was bundled into a Paddy Wagon he yelled “Bill, please call my solicitor Sir Laurence Street!”When the Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared off the Victorian coast in choppy seas in 1967 Bill was disappointed that he had turned down an invitation to accompany the swimming party: “I would have liked to have seen that Chinese sub” said Bill.Whispers worked with Bill on many different projects, an airline magazine, Penthouse Magazine after owner Bob Guccione who had flown into town to launch the local edition spotted Bill at the launch party and told the editor: “hire that man immediately as our social correspondent”, plus a variety of newspapers.
At one stage he put his rural upbringing to good use as the Rural Consultant for the late real estate agent Andrew Gibbons where he advised on properties for identities likeLady Susan Renouf and Lord McAlpine. He nearly got caught in an embarrassing episode when Gibbons asked him to bid during the auction of a harbour side mansion which was knocked down to Ranken for $5M while he wasn’t paying attention. He quickly exited out a side gate pursued by the property media.Whispers produced some of the first real estate videos for Gibbons with Bill fronting the camera. When the visiting British film director Michael Winner expressed interest in purchasing a local property and watched one with Bill extolling the virtues of a Moss Vale estate Winner said “oh bugger the house, I want that man in my next film”.On another occasion he was flown first class to Tonga by the late King George Tupou V who asked Bill to advise on his flock of sheep. Arriving at the airport he was met by the King’s limo, a London taxi and driven to a bungalow to be shown just 6 forlorn looking ewes in a small paddock. “Shoot the lot” was Bill’s advice.Taking up photography gave him a reason to be at a party. Bill loved parties even though he rarely drank. He could tell you anecdotes from parties from the 1950s onwards and it gave him a good reason to chat to a pretty girl. Often after asking her name he would exclaim “I took your mother out“. Sometimes it was true but in later years that became “I think I took your grandmother out“. He dreaded there may come a time when he might be saying he took their great grandmother out.A few months ago Bill complained of a back pain and uncharacteristic weakness. Diagnosed first as a virus it was eventually found to be liver cancer.. Always practical he said : “I just want go to one of those rest homes where they’ll fill me full or morphine until I shuffle off “.
For a while he was cared for by newspaper executive Cristan King in his Bowral home but the cancer got the better of him and Bill died last Thursday. He leaves behind his beloved sister Jean and nephew Matthew and will be missed by many people as another bright light in Sydney is dimmed.
For quarter of a century Bill was, to Sydney, an antipodean version of famous New York street photographer Bill Cunningham though, unfortunately for Ranken, acerbic Sydneysiders afforded him almost none of the romanticism and reverence for which New Yorkers are renowned.
It didn’t bother Bill, who died on June 4 at age 85, much the same way he lived, an enigma to all but a handful of relatives and a circle of dear friends.
His death, at a Southern Highlands private home where he was being cared for by friends in his last days, came just four months after he set down, for the last time, his humble Canon instamatic camera and signed off from the pages of eastern suburbs community publication Latte Life where he was working as a much-cherished social photographer.
With a rosebud in his lapel and a black patch pulled over his left eye — black for formal occasions, white for day — Bill was one of Sydney’s social fixtures: As predictable as Ros Packer’s “Walker”, Jeanne Pratt’s Lego bob, Alan Jones’s pastel twin sets and Skye Leckie’s micro-mini skirts.
Before an advanced cancer diagnosis immobilised him in January, Bill, a lifelong bachelor, lived, as he had done since the 1980s, in a not-so-terribly-chic studio apartment in fashionable Elizabeth Bay.
The prestigious address hinted at a taste for fine things and sound investment. His chivalrous and gracious demeanour suggested a private school education. But ever in need of a haircut, there was something about William Arthur Ranken, part ladies man — part vagabond, that didn’t quite add up.
One only had to observe him greeting the Horderns and Hugheses, the Whites and Fairfaxes, the Lloyd-Joneses and Waterhouses, by their first names and see them respond in kind to realise Bill had a backstory.
But despite the plush address, Bill never appeared a man of means.
During years of weekly Thursday afternoon tea catch-ups at a fashionable cafe in Sussex Street at which this then novice social writer mined him for a guide to Sydney’s society tribes, I never imagined he would have the means to pick up the tab, though he offered, pulling out a battered wallet that only ever looked to contain a washed-out $5 bill.
During those afternoon chats, he talked of having been a proud third generation sheep farmer from Marulan near Goulburn with a country home he visited infrequently, of numerous attentive girlfriends whom he saw rather more frequently (including what seemed an unlikely mother-daughter love triangle), and of the series of tragic accidents that ultimately saw him turn his back on his pastoral duties for a carefree life in the city.
He knew Sydney’s old families intimately and laughed heartily as he recalled his many great escapes. A private detective later told me he had been hired twice in the 1960s and 70s by jealous husbands to break Bill’s legs. Bill loved these stories best. “Oh darling,” he would say, when pressed to name names. “One never kisses and tells.” He would then laugh so heartily I feared his false teeth would loose themselves and land in my lap.
As the tea dates, progressed, the stories took on a more sombre tone.
Born in 1930, Bill was a high-spirited lad who was educated at private boys school Tudor House in Moss Vale where he shared a desk with a young Malcolm Fraser, who became a lifelong friend. Bill would joke of Fraser: “God, Malcolm was boring when he was young …” to which Fraser would jokingly reply: “You give our class a bad name.”
He had his first taste of tragedy at age nine when his father, Arthur, died.
Caretakers stepped in to manage the family’s historic 4000-hectare merino sheep and cattle farm, Lockyersleigh, until young Bill completed his education. By the early 1950s, Bill, by then a gifted farmer, sheep expert and a keen jackaroo, had taken over the property and was pressing on with plans to invest and upgrade and increase the livestock — a project which set the Ranken Group agricultural company up for the wool boom that followed.
In 1953, a freak accident on the farm involving a tractor resulted in Bill losing an eye.
The injury was a devastating blow. Bill soon took leave of the property, abandoning dreams to become a grazier.
He headed to London and threw his energies into the party season. It made a lasting impression on him and he partied in his own inimitable fashion for the rest of his life.
He too made an impression, on Princess Margaret, and became, for a time, her escort.
Sydney photographer Jon Lindsay, a friend for 30 years, recalls first encountering Bill in the company of the princess at a Mayfair art gallery. Society scribe Nigel Dempster wrote him up as “landed gentry from Australia” and speculated about the nature of the couple’s relationship.
As it happened, that first party season in London made a lasting impression on Bill.
After returning and settling in Sydney, he went on to become a playboy of note and befriended another playboy, Australian prime minister Harold Holt, and became one of his regular swimming companions — though not on the day of his death.
Eventually his love for the land was revived and he returned to it to work and play. Recognising Lockyersleigh’s potential as a party venue in the 1960s and 70s, Bill had part of the property transformed into a Le Mans style racecourse for a party which allowed Bill to show off his talents behind the wheel of his new sports car, a British racing green Jaguar XJS.
He happily handed the reins of the property back to his brother-in-law, Irish horse breeder Tony Onions, a man Bill met and some might say groomed for the role and for only sister Jean’s hand, but before the happy couple could settle in, bushfire wiped out three-quarters of the property.
The couple relocated to Ireland leaving the property in the care of a manager and Bill’s only other sibling, younger brother Andrew, newly returned from agricultural college. Tragically Andrew died suddenly at age 34 prompting Tony and Jean’s hasty return.
Under Onions, Lockyersleigh flourished both as a sheep station and a horse stud.
Then in 1989, Onions was killed in an accident on a level crossing on the property when his car was struck by a train.
Dutifully Bill returned once more to the property to support his sister, now a mother.
For Bill though, the back-to-back tragedies fixed his resolve to once more return to his Breakfast at Tiffany’s existence in the city — and occasionally take a commission from the King of Tonga to grade his sheep, all six of them.
Soon after, he styled himself as celebrity photographer, a role that must have seemed as carefree a departure from the hardships of rural life as possible.
He lived a meagre existence at the end, however in recent months it has been revealed that Bill was far richer than most of the people he photographed.
His personal wealth, tied up in two properties, Lockyersleigh and Lerrida in Gunning and jointly owned with his surviving sister Jean, has been put at around $30 million.
Bill was farewelled on Wednesday at a crematorium in Goulburn.
He was played out to his favourite song, I’ve been to a Marvellous Party, his camera prominently on his casket and, I’m reliably told, a fresh rose tucked into his lapel.
In love with Sydney and the people of Sydney to the very end, he sent a final cheerio in a March edition of Latte Life “I’ve had a wonderful time. To the socialites of the eastern suburbs, I insist they all keep hosting fabulous parties.”
For the past four decades, Bill Ranken was as much a part of Sydney’s social scene as any of the socialites who would pout and preen for his lens.
On Wednesday, his family bid him a final farewell, as Bill was laid to rest in the beloved country he grew up in the Southern Tablelands near his extended family’s vast pastoral holdings after a short battle with cancer and just a few months after he officially went into retirement at the age of 85.
A walking encyclopedia on the social history of the city, PS has many fond memories of Bill, who was the best person to sit with at a society wedding or funeral.
The conversation would go something like this: “Oh, that’s Johnny Walton, heir to the Walton fortune, a great chap, he would have the most marvellous parties, like the time we all ended up drinking champagne out of Sonia McMahon’s shoe in the back of Lady Mary Fairfax’s Rolls-Royce and poor old Bubbles Fisher couldn’t get a sip.”
Always the gentleman and immaculately turned out with his trademark lapel flower, it was his eyepatch he was best known for, the result of a farming accident on the family property, Lockyersleigh, which would make him re-evaluate life and quit working on the farm in favour of roaming the globe in search of the best party.
In 1980, he returned from the bright lights of London and mingling with royalty, including his party pal, Princess Margaret, and moved into a humble flat in Potts Point, where he remained for the next 34 years.
Never married and with no children, Ranken’s family life revolved around his sister and nephew, Matthew Onions, who told PS his uncle had refused treatment for cancer, resigning himself that “his time had come, he wanted to go out on his own terms”.
Sadly, much of Ranken’s vast photographic archive of Sydney society parties has been lost, though in his final months he did start putting his memories down in a series of audio recordings. No doubt there is a book in there somewhere, too.