University and widower in court battle over best-selling author’s estate

Two wills, one estate - who gets the money?
Loading the player...

It is arguably one of the most memorable scenes in Australian literature, when the cunning widow Mary Carson reveals to handsome priest Father Ralph de Bricassart that she has secretly crafted a second will that forever changes the lives and fortunes of those living on the Outback cattle station, Drogheda.

The Machiavellian masterstroke was one of many page-turning twists in the plot of Colleen McCullough’s novel The Thorn Birds, the biggest-selling book in Australian history.

The characters of the sweeping family saga, which sold a staggering 33 million copies worldwide, were inspired by Colleen’s own life. The itinerant workers followed the nomadic Outback existence of her parents and the tragic drowning of a precious son mirrored the demise of Colleen’s much-loved brother, Carl.

Now, two years after her death, an intriguing chapter is being written in the life of Colleen McCullough and it reads as if straight from the pages of her most famous and dramatic story.

In a case of life imitating art, it’s been revealed that like her protagonist Mary Carson, Colleen also left another will, shunning her husband of 30 years, Ric Robinson, and giving her multi-million dollar estate to an American university.

And it’s now the subject of a bitter court battle, which has all the makings of a best-seller.

“Col knew exactly what she was doing all the time,” says her long-time publisher at HarperCollins and friend, Shona Martyn.

“In her final years, although her body was letting her down, her mind was as sharp as ever and she continued to write until the end. As much as she’d hate having her personal life raked over the coals, she’d have known something like this would become public – I think she’s having the last laugh.”

The battle for the 77-year-old’s fortune began shortly after her death from a series of strokes in January 2015, when it was revealed there was more than one will in her name.

The first, signed in July 2014, bequeathed her estate, which includes land on Norfolk Island where she made her home, priceless art works and the royalties from her 25 books, to the University of Oklahoma.

The second will is a copy of the first will, revoking the July 2014 version and leaving everything to Ric – already the beneficiary of property in their joint names, including a sprawling Norfolk Island mansion.

The case, battled out behind closed doors, hinges upon a report from a forensic expert who put both wills under the microscope to validate the authenticity of the handwriting.

The results, which were due to be delivered to the NSW Supreme Court in August [2017], will determine if this becomes a very public, very bitter hearing.

“The only valid will is the will that benefits my client, Ric Robinson. We dispute all other claims,” says Ric’s Norfolk Island lawyer John Brown.

“When the evidence comes before the court, people will make up their own minds.”

Respected Sydney literary agent Selwa Anthony, executor of Colleen’s estate, argues that is not the case and her wishes were well known.

“I loved Col dearly. We were friends for 40 years and I believe in my heart the will she signed in [July] 2014 was the correct one. It was widely known that she wanted to make a large bequest to the university, to create a space or library or a scholarship in her name. She communicated this to me, to the university and to many others, and I will honour what I believe is right.”

Colleen McCullough – Col as those closest to her called her – was the undisputed queen of Australian publishing. Her first manuscript Tim was published by Harper & Row in 1974 and became an instant best-seller. Her second novel, The Thorn Birds, proved it wasn’t a fluke.

The paperback rights for The Thorn Birds sold at auction for US$1.9 million, a world record at the time, and the book went on to smash every publishing record ever set. It has remained in continuous print since it was first published.

“She was so significant. She was one of the biggest figures in the literary world and an absolute trailblazer for women and Australian writers,” says Shona Martyn.

“She wasn’t just huge in Australia – she was one of the first to really make it on the world stage.”

Colleen’s path to literary fame and fortune was an unconventional one because she made her name in science before turning to writing. The diligent schoolgirl planned to become a doctor, but instead studied neurophysiology at the University of Sydney.

Colleen impressed her lecturers so much, she was sent to the UK, then the US to further her work, where was offered a place at Yale University, to take up a role expanding the university’s research lab.

Described as a polymath, she taught neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and neurological electronics, and called the US home for 14 years before eventually returning to Australia.

Her academic achievements were widely lauded, but at the time, female scientists were paid about half what their male colleagues were. So Colleen, who had proudly declared she wanted to be a “lifelong, dedicated spinster” and who was conscious about her financial security during old age, decided confidently that she would write a best-seller. And she did.

By 1980, Tim was a box-office hit movie starring Mel Gibson, The Thorn Birds became a TV miniseries in 1983 and Colleen was a household name. She retreated to a new home on Norfolk Island, where she met painter Ric Robinson, who she had commissioned to freshen up her walls.

She was smitten with the strapping Norfolk Islander, who is 13 years her junior and a descendant of Bounty mutineers. “He was six foot three and drop-dead gorgeous!” she enthused.

They married in 1984 and built their dream home, a sweeping white weatherboard mansion, Out Yenna (Out Yonder in Norfolk). “It’s big,” she boasted, “but so am I!”

The home is open to the public and fans of the author wander through the fern-lined conservatory where she would host wild dinner parties, the purple ‘‘scriptorium”, as she called her office, and the grand foyer with towering gold columns and bold Florence Broadhurst wallpaper.

“Col did nothing by halves,” says Selwa Anthony, who isn’t a beneficiary of the will and will receive no personal benefit.

The pair became friends just after The Thorn Birds was released and Colleen came to do a book signing at Graham’s bookstore in Sydney, where Selwa then worked.

“I was so excited when I read it, I said, ‘I’ll take 500 copies’ – the sales rep nearly fell over. We’d sold half by the time she came in to sign the books. She had the biggest laugh, threw the biggest dinner parties and had the biggest heart; she was so generous,” says Selwa.

“When my mother died, knowing she loved red roses, Col rang every florist she could find and ordered every rose she could get her hands on to decorate the church. There wasn’t a red rose left in all of Sydney.”

News of the second will shocked the University of Oklahoma, which believed Colleen’s estate had been bequeathed to it. Guy Patton, President of the University of Oklahoma Foundation, said it wanted to become involved in the judicial process.

“It is absolutely our belief that we are beneficiaries of Colleen’s estate. Colleen spoke often of her affection for her relationship with the university.”

In fact, Colleen had given to science before. A portion of the royalties from her 1998 book, Roden Cutler, V.C., were donated to the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute for the Neurosciences.

It was her series, Masters of Rome, which captured the University of Oklahoma’s attention. The seven volumes, described as a “huge, rich and incredibly detailed” account of the final days of the Roman Empire, are still used in schools as reference books, even though they’re technically fiction.

Colleen was awarded a Doctor of Letters from Macquarie University for her work and invited to join the founding board of the political science department at the University of Oklahoma, where she became friends with Henry Kissinger, George Bush Snr and Newt Gingrich.

For many years, she regularly flew to the US to attend university board meetings, thriving in the world of the political and academic glitterati, but her first love was writing.

She wrote prolifically using an old-fashioned typewriter, never a computer, until macular degeneration cruelly robbed her of her sight, after which she began using voice recognition technology and dictating her work.

Colleen’s final book, Bittersweet, was published in 2014 and she was three-quarters of the way through a new manuscript when she died.

“She was a perfectionist,” says Shona Martyn, “and although sick towards the end, she never lost the desire to write and was writing until she died. It was exciting when the signature box [she famously delivered manuscripts in maroon boxes with her name embossed in gold] landed on my desk.

“Col was old school, she had class and presence. When she came into the office, everyone stopped in their tracks. She was so well-loved and such a big figure in publishing. There’ll never be another Colleen McCullough – she was one of a kind, a true character, and no one will ever take her place.”

Renowned editor and publisher Linda Funnell, who worked with Colleen for 15 years, describes the author’s arrival in the office as an “event”, with staff craning over their desks to catch a glimpse of her.

One morning Linda came into work to find Colleen waiting. She had decided to deliver a manuscript in person.

“I arrived to find her and Selwa [Anthony] in my office,” she says.

“Col wore a leopard print wrap and I closed the office door so she could smoke. The office allowed a bit of wriggle room on the no-smoking rules after 6pm when most people had left. However, this was Colleen McCullough and you weren’t going to say no to her at nine o’clock in the morning, were you? Not when she was delivering her manuscript!

“She was a demanding, straight-talking, generous, hilarious woman.”

With the battle over her will now set to become a public drama, maybe the lady herself has had the last laugh, plotting a must-watch final chapter that will ensure the author is making headlines all over again.

“The whole thing is very sad,” says Linda, noting that Colleen, in her essay, Life Without the Boring Bits, acknowledged that her early years were thinly disguised in The Thorn Birds.

“But I don’t think we can see history repeating,” says Linda, smiling. “No priests involved as far as I know!”

Words: Sue Smethurst

Related stories