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Hilary McPhee
, 2015

by Jacqueline Mitelman

inkjet print (sheet: 56.1 cm x 52.2 cm, image: 42.0 cm x 38.2 cm)

Hilary McPhee AO (b. 1941), writer and editor, completed an arts degree at the University of Melbourne in the early 1960s. Having worked part-time at Meanjin, then edited by its founder Clem Christesen, she started a small magazine, Theatre. Marriage to painter Peter Freeman took her to the Middle East and London, where she worked at the British Council. Returning to Melbourne, mother of two children, she began working in publishing at Penguin; she worked at McKinsey as their first female writer, then as a consultant; and later at William Heinemann, where she commissioned books about Australian history.

With Patricia Edgar, she wrote a pictorial essay, Media She, which is a key document of second-wave Australian feminism. In 1973, having become associated with the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) she collaborated on an illustrated magazine, the WEL Papers, with Diana Gribble. In 1975 the pair became founding directors of McPhee Gribble Publishers. The success of one of their early ventures, the Practical Puffins series for Penguin Australia, financed the publication of books by new authors including Helen Garner, Kathy Lette and Tim Winton.

Incorporating a pioneering childcare room, the McPhee Gribble headquarters moved from Carlton to Fitzroy and expanded its staff; the founders divided the responsibilities, with McPhee in charge of content and Gribble, production and distribution. With a commitment to independence, postcolonial direction and the ‘best Australian writing’, McPhee Gribble published several hundred titles. In 1979 the women co-founded Sisters Publishing, a mail order feminist book club which lasted for five years.

With the economic downturn at the end of the 1980s McPhee Gribble was sold to Penguin, where it continued under its own imprint, producing Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, and Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino, amongst others. At the completion of her contract with Penguin McPhee moved to MacMillan, where she directed the Picador imprint until 1994; its titles included Winton’s The Riders and Garner’s The First Stone.

Headhunted by Paul Keating, she oversaw the controversial reformation of the Australia Council from 1994 to 1997. (At the time, she was married to Keating’s speechwriter, Don Watson.) Her Other People’s Words (2001) documents her life in publishing. She was a founding director and briefly editor of online political newsletter New Matilda, founded in 2003. From 2006 to 2010 she lived and worked between the Middle East and Italy. Her selection of recent Australian writing, Wordlines, was published in 2010, and her annotated edition of film-maker Tim Burstall’s 1950s diaries, Memoirs of a Young Bastard, was published by Melbourne University Press in 2012. She has an honorary doctorate from Monash University and was the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne, of which she remains a senior fellow.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased with funds provided by Wayne Williams 2015
Accession number: 2015.129