1947-1996 | VIC | Reporter, Foreign correspondent
Haupt was the 1991 Australian Journalist of the Year for outstanding coverage of Soviet affairs. His colleague Peter Smark said Haupt was perhaps Australia's finest journalistic stylist and should be named Journalist of the Decade. He wrote about politics, economics and the human condition with flair and humour. Haupt was the first Australian newspaper correspondent based in Moscow after the end of the Cold War, informing Australians about one of the great turning points of history. His obituary in The Age said Haupt was at his best at the computer and the dining table, at both of which his generosity, wit and insight were prized.
On a mid-winter morning in 1948, a woman parked a pram outside a small house at the A1 gold mining settlement, between Gaffney’s Creek and Woods Point in mountain country south-east of Eildon. As she returned, clutching her baby, a gust of wind propelled the empty pram down the road, over the edge of a cutting, and left it hanging on a bush. Had it happened a few moments later, the infant Robert Haupt would have gone over with it.
Years later, Haupt related this story, often told to him by his mother, in a memoir. Perhaps the incident was an omen, for he was to spend much of the rest of his crowded life joyously, passionately close to the edge.
One of Australia’s most prodigiously talented, and loved, journalists, Robert Haupt was born in Brighton, Melbourne, in 1947. He moved, with his mother, to tiny A1 the following year, and remained there for seven years, before being transported to Tasmania.
Later, he was to graduate as Dux of Melbourne’s Boronia High School – an achievement he celebrated, according to his old friend, the late Peter Smark, by throwing a firecracker that started a small fire. This indiscretion earned him six of the best from the headmaster. The lesson went unheeded: tossing (metaphorical) firecrackers was to remain one of Robert’s favourite hobbies. He was, as Smark put it, at once scholar and larrikin.
After graduating from Melbourne University, he lurched into journalism at what was then The Sun News-Pictorial, before being posted to the paper’s Canberra bureau. Then he transferred to the Australian Financial Review (having, part-time, completed an economics degree at the Australian National University).
But Canberra was always going to be too small for Haupt. Having had a taste of America on a Fullbright Scholarship in 1974, he was appointed the AFR’s man in Washington. There, apart from writing about the US with insight and humour, he became known to colleagues as “the dancing Digger” – a title confirmed after his farewell lunch at the end of his US stint. It ended at 2.00 am, but only after Haupt had danced, yet again, on the National Press Club bar.
Back in Australia, Haupt devoted the next decade – between many fine, convivial and funny lunches – to new professional opportunities. He became, variously, associate editor of the National Times, editor of the Times on Sunday and of the similarly short-lived The Age Monthly Review, and assistant editor of The Age. He also ventured into television, as a political commentator and sometimes anchorman for Channel Nine’s Sunday program.
And, of course, he kept writing – stylishly, seriously, and irreverently. He also became fond of French champagne. This led to a celebrated exchange between him and Peter Smark, then Senior Assistant Editor of The Age. With Management sternly demanding savings in editorial expenses, Smark sent Haupt (then based in Sydney) a tactful memo. “I understand Great Western is a very fine champagne,” it read. Months later, Smark was posted to London; Haupt, now Assistant Editor, promptly sent him a memo: “Peter, I understand Asti is a very fine spumante”.
Indeed, Haupt might today be remembered mainly as a brilliant, entertaining dilettante had it not been for the way in which he rose to the most demanding, and fulfilling, challenge of his life – a stint of more than five years, 1990 to 1996, as Moscow correspondent of, first, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and, then, of the AFR. He set out to make sense of the political andeconomic upheaval that followed the collapse of the Soviet empire.
In a sense, he “went native” – spurning an officially approved expatriate compound, he moved into a dilapidated pre-revolutionary Moscow apartment. More important, he fell in love with Russia, its resilient people, its history, its language, its culture, its variety. His copy was so lively, so informed, that, just a year after he moved to Moscow, he was named the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year.
The late Michel Davie, former editor of The Age, later recalled visiting Haupt in Moscow: “…looking like a missing Marx Brother with his big nose and bushy hair, he seemed like a force of nature, packed with energy… he met you with arms outstretched, showing off his growing grasp of the Russian language – it wasn’t long before he could cover a trial… without an interpreter.”
Davie found that post-collapse Russia suited Haupt down to the ground. “Anything was possible; everything was dirt cheap”. This meant he could afford to employ bright young Russian assistants, paying them in hard currency – a housekeeper-cook, a secretary-interpreter, a language teacher, a driver and a fixer. They became his devoted friends.
Yet Haupt realised, wrote Davie, that the real story lay not in Moscow, but outside where the Kremlin’s edicts now had little force; “So he travelled, using unreliable trains, cars, boats and ramshackle aircraft … (attending) workers’ meetings in Minsk and joining queues of peasants from collectives.”
These explorations culminated, in 1995, in an amazing adventure: a chaotic, 3700-kilometre riverboat voyage down Russia’s mightiest waterway, the Volga, from its source to the Caspian Sea. The fine book he wrote after that journey, Last Boat to Astrakhan, was less a travelogue than a distillation of his shrewd observations about the forces of change he witnessed.
Sadly, he did not live to see his book in print. He died, aged 48, in a New York restaurant on September 4, 1996, after delivering his completed manuscript to an American publisher. The publisher, deprived of an author to help promote it, decided against going ahead but the book was later published in Australia by Random House.
Haupt was survived by his wife, Joy, and daughters, Linda and Rachel.
Finally, a personal experience. In 1982 I was in Buenos Aires reporting the conflict over what the British call the Falkland Islands. When a British submarine sank the aged Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, with the loss of more than 300 lives, I filed an emotional, angry opinion piece to The Age, criticising the Thatcher government (the Belgrano was at the time well outside the naval exclusion zone unilaterally declared by Britain.
I received a message from Haupt, acting Editor that night. He told me, first, that the sensible thing to do with my piece was to put it on the spike and, second, that he was putting it on the front page instead. Haupt was like that.
Peter Cole-Adams is a former European correspondent, Associate Editor and Washington correspondent of The Age.
Last boat to Astrakhan, Robert Haupt. Random House, Australia, 1998.
How grey was my valley, Robert Haupt. Reprint published by The Age 6 September 1966.
Robert Haupt articles in Prospect Magazine.