Richard Guilliat, “Max Newton: a muckraker makes good — From Cambridge to pornography to Wall Street, Maxwell Newton can only be described as a survivor,” Times on Sunday, 31 January 1988, p. 36.
Cancer, law suits, bankruptcy, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce … Maxwell Newton has fought so many wars that you expect to find him winding down at 58, battle-scarred and ready for retirement in sunny Florida.
Well, Newton does live in Florida these days, at Boca Raton on the coast just north of Miami to be exact. But the man who opens the door of New York’s Sheraton Hotel is anything but retiring. He looks quite a dandy, dressed in grey woollen suit pants, his full head of hair turning a distinguished white at the temples, silver cowboy collar tips decorating his short, a gold chain around his neck, and what looks suspiciously like a mink coat draped across the bed.
It is only when Newton opens his mouth to say hello that the façade of sophistication is temporarily shattered, first by the mangled brown teeth which constitute his dental landscape, then by his high-pitched and unabashedly Strine voice. When he bursts into laughter, it’s a sound akin to an asthmatic gulping for air, and you glimpse the larrikin behind the expensive threads.
Only 10 years ago Maxwell Newton was the proprietor of one of Melbourne’s more notorious hard-core sex businesses, but in a career switch that is nothing short of miraculous he is now one of the most widely followed financial writers in the United States, an internationally syndicated newspaper columnist, author, and editor-in-chief of his own MaxNews financial network.
On this day, Newton is just back from a meeting at a leading New York investment bank and his portable computer is set up in the room, ready to pump out his financial wisdom to a worldwide chain of subscribers. Newton also writes a daily column for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post and edits Fed Fortnightly, an ailing business magazine he bought a year ago.
Why such a venture at this stage of his life?
“Well, hopefully, it will be something that is worth quite a bit of money,” he replies simply. In America, Newton has finally found career stability, and he intends to make the most of it. He gets up at 6am these days and writes his first column before breakfast.
“I’ve been in and around the publishing business all my life and I’ve had a few successes and some pretty spectacular failures,” he muses.
“Mainly due to defects in my own personality. That’s one reason why I think Rupert is so successful. He has a very stable personality. And I don’t.”
Candour is a hallmark of Newton’s personality, which is why his disaster-prone career — which included beating prostate cancer and alcoholism, fighting defamation suits and being declared personally bankrupt in 1976 — is so well documented. An outstanding economics student at Cambridge, he became a political speech writer in the late 1950s, then managing editor of The Australian Financial Review from 1960-64 and founding editor of The Australian in 1964.
He was a classic muckraker and as publisher of his own political newsletter in the 1960s, he freely admitted paying Public Service sources for their leaks. This resulted in a campaign of government harassment against him, which included police raids on his home.
But Newton’s bold journalism masked a fragile personality. Even after giving up drinking in 1960 he could be self-destructive, as exemplified by his departure from The Australian after only a year. “I started the Oz for Rupert in 1964 but we … well, we fell out,” he recalls. “He sacked me. He did me a big favour doing that. He sacked me because really I was an impossible bugger, wasn’t a keen player at all.”
Newton’s battles with politicians, particularly the Country Party leader John McEwen, added to his fame but worsened his instability. The police raids got to him, and he started the Sunday Observer newspaper in Melbourne around the same time he started taking tranquilisers. By then he was drinking again and his marriage was falling apart. He talks about 1975 with a grim laugh: that was the year his mother and one of his children died and the Sunday Observer went broke.
Typically, Newton recounted the whole messy saga in Clyde Packer’s 1985 book, No Return Ticket, right through his career as proprietor of a massage parlour and pornographic business with his wife, Olivia. He described the years from 1968 to 1978 as a personal catastrophe.
Newton turned his back on Australia after Rupert Murdoch contacted him in 1979. The two men had been estranged for many years, and in fact only two years previously Newton had described Murdoch in typically black fashion as capricious, superficial and contemptuous of serious journalism.
But Newton discovered during a series of dinners in 1979 that Murdoch shared his own free-market ideas and political conservatism and when Murdoch invited him to New York, Newton jumped at the chance. Before he knew it, Max Newton was the New York Post’s chief business columnist.
Newton threw himself into learning about American business and within a couple of years the unthinkable was happening: the New York Post was actually being bought on Wall Street. Newton’s free-market philosophy found an immediate following and his 1982 book on the Federal Reserve Board also was successful.
Australian brokers in New York can still recall Newton’s enthusiasm for his status back then. He would leave the New York Post building in the evening, climb into the back of the Ford Supervan he had bought, and with Olivia at the wheel, sit at a table and bash out another “Maxwell Newton global currencies report” or some such thing as the van barrelled down Route I-95 to his home in Connecticut.
Professor Carl Brunner of Rochester University, an early fan who still reads his columns, says Newton “is one of a small group of journalists who have a good understanding of what he talks about” and as with his muckraking days, a secret of Newton’s American success was his sources.
“I helped him a fair bit on his book about the Federal Reserve and we became good friends,” said Professor David Meiselman of West Virginia University. “He had a refreshing irreverence and for people who don’t find any special wisdom in the kind of grey characters who inhabit bureaucracy and banking, that gives you an extra spark. I suppose that’s one reason he had many sources.”
“I remember Leif Olsen, who at the time was the chief economist of Citibank telling me he thought Max was the best economic journalist in the country.”
Newton moved to Florida in 1986 and he now writes 10 columns a week for The Australian, The Times in London, and the South China Morning Post, although he spends 80 per cent of his time as a privately syndicated adviser on bonds and central banking.
He was one of the few writers who consistently warned about the stockmarket last year, but is not one who blames the market crash on Wall Street’s greed or moral decay.
“Naw, I don’t think so. Throughout the history of money there have been speculative manias. If there’s enough money, speculative manias become self-fulfilling in a way,” he said.
“There was, still is, and always will be on Wall Street, gross personal extravagance and display. Apartments owned by successful Wall Street people are bizarre in their display of wealth. The habits of some of the wives of these guys … it’s gross extravagance!” He waves his had. “Ah, good luck to them; it’s what they work for.”
Despite the crash and the trade deficit, Newton is still a supporter of President Reagan. “Most politicians I’ve known throughout my life almost without exception have been crooks. They’ve been liars, they’ve been cheats, they’ve been cowards,” he said.
“But Reagan is not a coward. He’s not a cheat. He’s not the brightest guy in the world but he had a vision for America. The President rebuilt the military defences of the United States, he presided over a long period of economic expansion, and it was a big party. It wasn’t a particularly drunk or uproarious party except in its latter phases, but, er,” Newton lets out his gulping laugh, “there’s gunna be a bit of a hangover.”
He has a less kind view of Australia. He feels that the severity of the Australian stockmarket crash shows that a boom and bust mentality still pervades Australian business. And when the subject of Bob Hawke comes up, his contempt is as strong as ever.
“I don’t trust Hawke. No way would I go back to Australia while Hawke is in power. Hawke is a very dirty player, throughout his life he’s been like that. I knew him as a schoolboy (the both attended Perth Modern), I knew him after he joined the union movement. He is not a person I admire.”
“The way I see Australia developing is very, very differently from the concepts that used to apply when Bob Menzies was Prime Minister. I see Australia sort of as a corporate State, where you have a small number of immensely rich and powerful entrepreneurs, a government that’s got its finger in every pie and a union movement that is joined in the process.”
“My hunch is that the ordinary Australian person has been forgotten in the system and the Australian financial system and government system is becoming dangerously centralised. I don’t like it at all. I fear what’s happening.”
“I mean, the deals that I knew about that Hawke and Keating do with individual businessmen, really, some of them are more reminiscent of the Philippines than they are of the old Menzies-style of operating.”
As for the details of these deals, Max Newton is, for once, being discreet. “I don’t think I’d better go into that,” he chuckles. “I might save it for a subsequent occasion.”
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