THE path that had me contributing to the abrupt end of a Holocaust denier’s marriage started normally enough, with a request from a newspaper editor.
It was back in the early 1990s when I was working for a NSW regional newspaper. My boss wandered across with a newspaper clipping in his hand about a former Central Coast woman who’d married New Zealand’s richest man, Sir Frank Renouf, who was also Susan Rossiter/Peacock/Sangster/Renouf’s most recent ex.
“I don’t have a name, but it says she’s a countess from a former marriage to some Russian bloke and she grew up at The Entrance. It’s a long shot but do you think you could find who she is?” said the editor, who liked handing out little challenges.
“Sure,” I replied.
I was born on the Central Coast. My father and his father were born on the Central Coast. I knew what to do when the boss threw out a curly one. Which is why I rang the owner of a fish shop at The Entrance to see what he knew.
People, even ones who go on to become Countess Whatever or Lady Renouf, tend to have eaten good fish and chips in their childhood, particularly if they grow up at The Entrance where the fish shop was handed down through generations.
The fish shop owner, who knew me and my family, laughed when I called.
“Oh you’re talking about little Michele Mainwaring. Yep, my wife showed me the story. She’s gone up in the world, hasn’t she? She said her father was dead but he’s still alive. He still lives here,” he said.
I nearly fell off my chair, but an hour or so later I was sitting in the living room of Arthur Mainwaring’s house at The Entrance having a cup of tea with his second wife, after talking with him on the phone before he headed off to work as a truckie.
He’d seen the weekend article in which his daughter said he was dead. It didn’t particularly surprise or bother him.
“Well, the rich are different,” he said.
I wrote an article about Michele Mainwaring, then 44, her still-living truckie father from The Entrance, and her rather more ordinary background than the title Countess Griaznoff, and her very posh British accent, suggested.
It ran and other media picked up on the oddness of a woman stuffing up whether her father was dead or not. There were also questions about her former husband’s alleged White Russian aristocratic lineage. Suddenly Frank Renouf, then 72, announced the brand new marriage of six weeks was over. I felt a touch guilty.
It wasn’t until 2004 that I spoke with Lady Michele Renouf and admitted my part in the end of her marriage. She wasn’t at all perturbed about the divorce – she got a fancy title out of it – or discovering her father wasn’t the late Arthur Mainwaring after all.
“I was in London, he was in Australia and had cancer, and when I was told he had died, I believed it. He died not long after that,” she said.
As for Frank Renouf, she said: “Certainly Francis was devastated by it because the media depicted me as a liar and a gold-digger. An old gentleman does not like to be depicted as being made a fool of. Francis was always a bit pompous.”
I rang Michele Renouf in 2004 because of her notoriety as a prominent Holocaust denier, who came to public attention in 2001 because of a famous British defamation case brought by author David Irving against American historian Deborah Lipstadt and publisher Penguin.
Irving, who had written multiple books about World War II and Adolf Hitler, and was praised by some of Britain’s most prominent historians – despite arguing the Nazi gas chambers were an “impossibility”, the Holocaust didn’t happen and Hitler was “probably the biggest friend the Jews had in the Third Reich” - sued because he denied being a Holocaust denier.
In her book, Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt said Irving “distorted evidence… manipulated documents and skewed… and misrepresented data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions”.
Irving lost spectacularly and Lipstadt and Penguin won after Judge Charles Gray found Irving deliberately falsified the historic record “motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs”, in both his writing and speaking in countries including Australia.
Irving’s denial of being racist rested on statements to the court including that he employed “several non-white women” as part of his “domestic staff”. They were all “very attractive girls with very nice breasts”, he said.
He was questioned in court about a ditty he sang to his nine-month-old daughter that went: “I am a Baby Aryan/Not Jewish or Sectarian/I have no plans to marry an/Ape or Rastafarian.”
Lady Renouf attended the court every day and sat behind Irving as his most prominent supporter. She argued Irving was the victim of a conspiracy that was denying him free speech.
Still quite beautiful at 72, she remains the poster girl for Holocaust deniers. In 2018 she was questioned by police after telling a German neo-Nazi rally that 6 million Jews weren’t killed by the Nazis during World War II.
In 2004 Lady Renouf and I had been talking for about 20 minutes before she introduced the word “Jews” to the conversation. We had been speaking about her memories of a childhood at The Entrance, attending local schools and how she won a Newcastle beauty contest in 1968.
The “Jews” reference was out of the blue, extremely negative and quite chilling. It is one thing to hear groups of men yelling anti-Jewish obscenities at a neo-Nazi rally, but another altogether to have a beautifully-modulated woman’s voice purring those obscenities down a phone line.
Senator Fraser Anning pulled something of a Renouf this week when he stood up at a Victorian rally organised by far-right activists and told them: “I think this is the start of something bigger. The revolution will eventually start.”
What that “revolution” is or what form it would take he didn’t say. He didn’t have to. The crowd cheered because he endorsed the protesters’ view of themselves as patriots fighting a common foe – in this case people with dark skin described as criminals and gang members, without any attempt to distinguish individuals beyond that. History documents the tragic consequences of that thinking, not that Anning has shown much interest in learning from the past.
And we pay him more than $200,000 a year for this.