1932 - 1973 | NSW, New York | Foreign correspondent & rock journalist
Lillian Roxon was a migrant girl who sold her first story to a magazine when she was 14. She moved to New York in 1959 and became the most influential rock journalist in the world. Working for the Sydney Morning Herald as Australia's first female foreign correspondent in the US, Roxon documented the upheavals in youth and feminist cultures that changed America in the 1960s and early 70s. She became the first mainstream journalist to treat rock music reporting seriously and in 1969 wrote the first encyclopedia of rock, described by the New York Times as “the most complete book on rock music and rock culture ever written”. Half a century later, it was still regarded as a classic work.
At a New York press conference in 1966 for Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, the questions were deferential and dull. Out of the blue came one from a small, blond woman that galvanized the event: “Mr Epstein, are you a millionaire?” To Danny Fields, an American editor and later a rock manager, Lillian Roxon’s question was the only one that mattered: “She recognised that rock was about to become big business, and to transform almost every aspect of popular culture.”
This capacity to divine social changes before many even knew they were happening marked Roxon’s dazzling life in journalism. She honed her skills in Sydney, the other city where she remains a legend. In 1957, at 24, she joined Weekend, a racy tabloid that Sir Frank Packer had launched under the unlikely editorship of Donald Horne.
A trailblazer in popular journalism, Weekend’s in-house rule was to “write the poster heading first, and then the story”. An intellectual, whose book The Lucky Country became a classic, Horne was also an astute newspaperman. When Roxon applied for a job, he hired her on the spot “because I liked the way she talked”.
Horne found Roxon “ambitious, dedicated and determined to succeed”. Her conversational skills had also made Roxon an earlier natural fit for the group of Libertarians known as the Sydney Push. Judy Smith, one of her Push friends, recalled how some “serious Libertarians” frowned on Roxon’s transition to the world of Weekend: “But she took journalism very seriously. She was prolific. She put words on a page the way a painter paints a picture. They went straight there with a quick, verbal brilliance, and nothing was ever changed.”
Roxon was born in Savona, a port city near the town of Alassio on the Italian Riviera, where her father, Izydor Ropschitz, was a doctor. He and Lillian’s mother, Rosa, were Polish. Anti-Semitism drove them first from Poland, then from Italy. The family sailed for Australia in 1940 and settled in Brisbane, where Lillian went to school. She moved to Sydney at 17, and took an Arts degree at Sydney University. Her intelligence, beauty and exotic background seemed to have given Roxon a confidence and a sense of adventure in socially conservative 1950s Australia.
Roxon left for New York in 1959, and stopped in Hawaii on the way to interview for Weekend Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager, “a sort of chubby man with eyes like bright marbles and a misleadingly paternal smile”.
She landed her first job in New York with the Sydney Daily Mirror, an evening tabloid that Rupert Murdoch bought the following year. Its bureau chief was Zell Rabin, a former Sydney boyfriend of Roxon’s, and another brilliant, charismatic young journalist from a Jewish émigré family.
Roxon joined the New York bureau of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1963, and remained a contributor to the Herald and other Fairfax papers until her death eight years later. The rock scene that began unfolding from the mid-60s grabbed her attention, “because I could see how overwhelming a force it was going to be”. Roxon became an influential figure at The Scene and Max’s Kansas City, two clubs where singers, managers and a new breed of rock writers gathered. Loraine Alterman, a leading American rock writer, later described Roxon as the “Dorothy Parker of Max’s Kansas City”.
From that role sprang Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, a 613-page hardcover book published by Grosset and Dunlap of New York in 1969, with more than 500 entries from Acid Rock to the Yardbirds, 1202 rock stars and 22,000 song titles. Its success propelled Roxon as an authority and columnist for American papers. With a weekly column in the Sunday News, she became New York’s first female rock writer in a mainstream newspaper. She wrote for Crawdaddy, Fusion and Creem, critical magazines that grew from the rock industry. Steven Gaines, an authority on pop culture, later called Roxon the “mother of rock and roll journalism”.
Danny Goldberg, a former rock writer who became president and chief executive of Mercury Records, believes Roxon’s influence also stemmed from newspaper journalism’s then dominant role, just before electronic media started eroding it. “She had this sense of herself as being larger than just a writer, but as an arbiter of taste, and she did it with flair and intensity,” Goldberg told me. “She had an elevated notion of rock and roll as culture, a notion that was ahead of its time. And I don’t think there’s been anyone quite like Lillian in newspaper journalism since then.”
Roxon formed two formidable friendships in this scene. Danny Fields, struck by her mettle at Brian Epstein’s press conference, became a confidant and fellow New York counterculture oracle. So did Linda Eastman, a young rock scene photographer whose talents Roxon thought should be supported in a business dominated by men. That friendship was shattered when Linda married the Beatle Paul McCartney in 1969, and abruptly vanished from most of her New York writer friends’ lives (although Linda’s friendship with Fields survived).
Roxon’s friendship with her fellow Australian Germaine Greer was equally turbulent. Before Greer was famous, Roxon introduced her to the Max’s Kansas City world. Their relationship became something of a rivalry. Greer still listed Roxon the first of four women to whom she dedicated The Female Eunuch, her 1970 book that remains a feminist bible. Roxon developed her own feminist platform in New York. After the Rock Encyclopedia’s success, Mademoiselle, a Conde Nast magazine, commissioned Roxon to write a popular monthly column, “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Sex”, from 1972.
Her punishing workload took a toll on Roxon’s health. She developed asthma and gained weight from the mainly cortisone drugs she was prescribed. She died in her East 21st Street apartment in August 1973, aged 41. Rolling Stone magazine’s tribute ran to a full page.
Helen Reddy, the Australian singer who became a lasting friend, farewelled Roxon with a letter in Woman’s Day in Australia: “Your peers were the most witty and intelligent of their generation. You saw a new art form arise and sailed at its masthead. New York City has lost one of its legends, and I don’t want to walk into Max’s Kansas City without seeing you holding court or having you clutch my hand and say ‘Darling, you must meet a fabulous person’.”
Robert Milliken is a former journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald and the National Times, a correspondent for the Economist and the author of three books.
Lillian Roxon, Margaret Jones and Don Riseborough. Courtesy of Fairfax
Mother of Rock: the Lillian Roxon Story, Robert Milliken, Black Inc Books, 2002, 2010.