‘Fearless’ Gerri’s love of words and family
GERRI HARTIGAN (Nee Sutton)
Geraldine Sutton was born on March 9, 1947, to Barbara, an artist, and Ian Sutton, a Sydney
newspaper production manager from Lane Cove, Sydney, who worked at John Fairfax Sons before moving to Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited where he played a key role in launching The Australian newspaper in 1964.
Young Geraldine’s love of the written word became evident while still at primary school when she was plucked from Lane Cove Public School and enrolled, in Year 5, at Artarmon Opportunity School, a selective school which encouraged multi-arts and creativity in intelligent children.
Her high school years would see the young Gerri, as she became known, move to Hunters Hill High where, at about age 16, she won a radio competition for an unrecorded achievement — her prize, dinner with Australian radio star John Laws.
Younger brother Peter Sutton, who like both Gerri and an older sister Lyndal, also found success in journalism, can recall Laws turning up at the Sutton family home in Lane Cove in a chauffeur driven car to collect an excited Gerri and whisk her away to dinner.
Although she excelled at English studies at school, Gerri’s Hunters Hill teachers discouraged her from pursuing a writing career, advising she undertake secretarial work … something more practical.
She took this advice in 1966 when she applied for and started in a secretarial role at Murdoch’s thriving Sydney afternoon newspaper, The Daily Mirror, then edited by legendary and cantankerous crime, scandal and celebrity loving Zell Rabin, who nurtured the careers of reporters, including Gerald Stone and Laurie Oakes. Rabin was also a proponent of the idea of having more women in his newsroom.
Gerri saw in her new role as secretary of the Social department, which oversaw the production of the fashion and social sections of the newspaper, one thing: A means to an end. In those days a secretarial or administrative role was the only way for a young woman to chance her hand at a newspaper cadetship. The path into journalism was clearer for young men who could apply to be copy boys. No such opportunity existed for girls or women.
Just months after joining the News Ltd secretarial pool Gerri sat the cadetship exam, topped it, and landed a three-year cadetship on afternoon newspaper The Daily Mirror.
The forthright and fearless Sutton was soon on her way as a court and general news reporter. In the decade that followed she would prove herself a meticulous and tough reporter, a wonderful wordsmith and a formidable opponent.
Quickly earning the respect of her peers and, with her stunning blonde looks capturing the eye of every male reporter in the newsroom, Gerri’s visits to the “stones” of the compositor floor set a new tradition at News Ltd. When the petite and immaculately groomed Gerri opened the door to collect the page proofs for the editors, a “no swearing” password was whispered down the line of male compositors until she departed.
After receiving her grading as a journalist, Gerri soon was tasked with writing news features and interviewing some of the world’s most charismatic identities, among them touring Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The one-on-one interview in 1970 produced excerpts published around the world.
One memorable news feature saw her assigned to conduct an investigation on wayward youths.
For the story she was paired with newly employed Mirror reporter John Hartigan, a future CEO of the company, but then an unknown who Gerri took firmly under her wing.
The assignment led to romance and on September 2, 1972, marriage. The union would last more than three decades and produce one adored daughter, Jessica, in 1978.
In 1979 Gerri would depart News Ltd and move into television at the Ten Network where she
worked as a researcher/producer on the founding Simon Townsend’s Wonder World and afterwards on the short-lived daytime talk show, The Steve Raymond Show.
When her husband was offered a posting to the UK and the London Sun in 1980, the family
relocated to London. A subsequent move to New York in 1981 would see Gerri installed in News Ltd’s New York bureau where she covered breaking US news for Murdoch’s British and Australian titles.
Returning to Australia in 1982, the family settled in Brisbane where John was appointed editor of Brisbane’s Sunday Sun. After launching a radio column and a memorable Truth to Tell column for the Sun, Gerri would pay a heavy price for her husband’s success when she was informed the company had a policy preventing husbands and wives working together.
She left and went to work for Kerry Packer’s Woman’s Day magazine.
In 1985 the Hartigans returned to Sydney and Gerri once more to her old stomping ground at The Daily Mirror. Here she would turn her hand — and legendary acerbic wit — to a new passion, writing television reviews. She loved this as much as she did great Australian drama.
When The Daily Mirror merged with News Ltd’s The Daily Telegraph in 1990, becoming The
Telegraph Mirror, she took a redundancy, leaving behind her a generation of young reporters to whom she had been a kind and nurturing mentor.
In 1992, Gerri joined the founding team at magazine Who Weekly as the title’s television critic — a role that would last until her retirement in 2005 when she left journalism to spend more time with her daughter and her prize-worthy rose garden in Roseville.
Lover of a good party, a fine glass of champagne, and three servings of dessert, Gerri celebrated a personal milestone six months ago with the arrival of her first adored grandchild, Isabel Hartigan Rose Reilly; her new-found role as “Glamma” was her most treasured assignment.
Gerri passed away peacefully, with daughter Jessica at her side, following a long illness on Sunday, September 30.
On Friday Who’s managing editor Jeff Collerton recalled: “Gerri was a very warm and funny lady and fearless reviewer who delivered word-perfect copy. She was an editor’s dream — and sometimes a bit of a nightmare too, apt to resign on the spot if the editing process didn’t meet her approval. She’d be back the next week with not a word mentioned, as if absolutely nothing had happened. In the meantime, you’d learnt to treat her words as preciously as she did.”