- Read the Good Weekend feature Behind the veil
Kerry Stokes' achievements have evoked many strong feelings in the business world and the public, but none are as poignant as those of his only grandchild, who does not recall ever having met him.
"I am very disappointed in him, and a little bit disgusted that he can publish things about his other children and leave out his other wife and children and his granddaughter. I don't really have any sympathy for him," says Tara, the four-times-married billionaire's granddaughter by his eldest son, Russell.
Tara and Russell belong to the "forgotten" first Stokes family, who live in the shadow of Stokes' acknowledged heirs and proteges, his sons Ryan and Bryant. The depth of alienation between Stokes and the children of his first wife Dorothy is revealed in a new biography, Kerry Stokes: Self-Made Man, by Margaret Simons.
While researching her book since 2010, Simons says she was often asked by Stokes' friends and associates if she had "got to the bottom" of the story of Stokes' first family, who had been gradually excised from self-propagated versions of his life in the years since he left Dorothy in 1970.
"People know there's a first family there, but it's not often spoken about," Simons says. "That family is a key aspect of Stokes' character and something he's tried to keep private."
The dark story of what happened to that family is a key theme of Simons' book, the first in-depth biography of the Seven Group chief. Simons depicts a man whose achievements in business and philanthropy have run alongside a series of sequential relationships, in his business and his personal life, in which he has cut those closest to him and moved on, a reflection of what Simons calls the "essential rootlessness" of a man who grew up in dire poverty in Melbourne before making his first millions in the 1960s real-estate boom in Perth.
It was Dorothy Ebert, a Perth girl whom Stokes married in 1960, who drew him to Western Australia. Stokes left Dorothy for his receptionist, Denise Bryant, with whom he had two sons. The children he already had with Dorothy – Russell and Raelene – found themselves excluded from his life. Both endured troubled adolescences and early adulthoods, with episodes of drug abuse, self-harm, homelessness and mental illness.
Both would end up following Stokes to Sydney when he moved east amid the expansion of his media interests in the 1980s, but although Stokes provided material support, he mainly kept them at arm's length, delegating executives to deal with them. At one point he offered to buy Raelene a house, but she replied, "I don't want your money. I want you."
While Stokes' wealth has grown exponentially during the Western Australian mining boom through his WesTrac equipment business, his first family remains estranged and embittered.
Russell, who changed his name because, he said, "I just thought I am not part of them", is studying at university. Raelene has a sexual counselling practice. Tara, still a teenager, is studying and hopes to become a police officer.
"It is hard to imagine the pain this situation must have given Stokes," writes Simons, "the darkness that pursued him, even as he took his place as one of Australia's leading citizens."
Stokes did not co-operate with Simons' biography. A rival book, being written by journalist Andrew Rule with Stokes' participation, is expected next year.