‘Menzies biography mystery’: Robert Menzies and political biography as political intervention

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Abstract

The silhouette of an unpublished biography of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister flashed briefly into public view when journalist Allan Dawes, 69 years old and in failing health, died in Melbourne in 1969. Dawes’s death brought to mind ‘a secret which has mystified politicians and writers for almost 20 years’, the Sydney Sunday Telegraph said, given the commissioning of the ‘distinguished newspaperman, poet and author’ in the early 1950s to write a biography of the then prime minister, Robert Menzies.1 A Sun News-Pictorial report outlined the Scotch College and University of Melbourne–educated Dawes’s career, beginning with the Melbourne Age in 1918, then the Sun and Daily Telegraph in Sydney, and the Argus and Star in Melbourne, before joining the Melbourne Herald during World War II where he was an acclaimed war correspondent.2 Dawes’s book Soldier Superb: The Australian Fights in New Guinea, with drawings by Russell Drysdale and official photographs, was published in 1943.3 After the war he wrote a regular column for the Herald and worked in public relations, while continuing to write more broadly; the Sun News-Pictorial noted that ‘hundreds of his short stories and verse’ were published over his lifetime.4 So Dawes was a seasoned journalist, an accomplished writer and experienced in public relations. A period from 1938 to 1941 working as a journalist in the public service in Canberra under the Lyons and Menzies governments gave him an insider perspective on the business of politics too. Dawes was the experienced, well-rounded author Robert Menzies turned to in 1950 to write a biography that could improve the prime minister’s standing among voters who stubbornly failed to warm to him. Menzies’s move was novel in Australia, which had no tradition of political biography as political intervention, in contrast to the United States where campaign biographies of presidential candidates were routine from the early nineteenth century onwards.5 Despite extensive work, the Menzies biography was never published.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-145
Number of pages25
JournalAustralian Journal of Biography and History
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

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