Woman McPhee, Hilary (1941 - )


Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Editor, Publisher and Writer

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Born in Melbourne in 1941, McPhee's early years were spent in rural Croydon at the foot of the Dandenongs first at Croydon State School, and, as there were no state secondary schools in the area, Tintern CEGGS at Ringwood East . In the mid-fifties when her father was transferred by the ES&A Bank, the family moved to Coleraine then Colac and McPhee attended Hamilton and Colac High Schools. Her mother was a renowned teacher and librarian in rural and later city schools. McPhee was at the University of Melbourne on a Commonwealth Scholarship from 1959-62, enrolled first in a combined English and History Honours degree, eventually majoring in History with an emphasis on Australian prehistory. Her main focus at university was acting and producing plays with the Marlowe Society including a comprehensive joint season with the Sydney University Dramatic Society of the Theatre of the Absurd.

McPhee worked part time as an editorial assistant with Meanjin, then edited by its redoubtable founder, Clem Christesen. This experience gave her a glimpse of a literary world described later in her publishing memoir Other People's Words (Picador, 2001): 'The Meanjin office was a writers' centre of the day, full of cigarette smoke, where bottles of red wine were opened sometimes in the late afternoons and the talk flowed. It was the kind of talk I hadn't been hearing at Melbourne University, passionate talk about writing and criticism, politics and place.' With Jennifer Murphy and others, McPhee then started a small magazine called Theatre and participated in several archaeological expeditions to sites in the Nullabor and Keilor with Hungarian archaeologist Dr Alexander Gallus.

In her final year McPhee married painter Peter Freeman and travelled with him through Iraq and Iran and to Europe for 18 months then later to London where she worked at the British Council assembling book exhibitions for Africa and South East Asia. Her daughter was born in London, then a son soon after they returned to live in Selby in the Dandenongs.

In 1969, McPhee began working in publishing at Penguin Australia where she was the company's first editor of a small list of boomerang-bedecked Australian Penguins. When she and Penguin Managing Director John Michie, left their marriages and started living together, McPhee was 'encouraged' to join McKinsey as their first female writer then consultant on publications. From there, she went as first editor to William Heinemann where she started commissioning titles in Australian cultural history such as Geoffrey Serle's From Deserts the Prophets Come and Keast Burke's images from the Holtermann Collection and fiction from new writers such as Gerald Murnane. At this time McPhee became active in the women's movement, co-authoring Media She with Patricia Edgar, a pictorial essay on how women were represented by the media. McPhee participated in the Women's Electoral Lobby survey of politicians prior to the 1972 elections and, the following year, with Diana Gribble, produced an illustrated magazine, The WEL Papers.

In 1975 Hilary McPhee and Di Gribble went into partnership to form McPhee Gribble Publishers, initially to package books for other publishers and to write and produce a series of children's books, Practical Puffins, for Penguin Australia. These ground breaking handbooks 'for kids who wanted to do things for themselves', contained no warnings or admonitions but depended on everything being tested, photographed, and illustrated by David Lancashire. They were promoted widely on television, unusual then for books, and were an immediate success selling about 3 million copies across twenty titles worldwide throughout UK, USA, Europe and South America. With the royalty income from this enterprise together with a year of writing and producing a radical little children's supplement for the Australian Women's Weekly, commissioned by Ita Buttrose, McPhee Gribble was able to publish its distinctive list of Australian fiction and non-fiction, with early authors being Glen Tomasetti, Barry Hill, Helen Garner, Esther Levy, Kathy Lette, Gabrielle Carey and Tim Winton.

From the outset, the skills and expertise of both women were critical to the success of the enterprise with roles and skills which initially overlapped. As the company grew, its offices moved from Jolimont Lane to 203 Drummond Street, Carlton (where office-based childcare was established to cater for five McPhee Gribble babies) to 66 Cecil Street, Fitzroy. As the list grew and the staff increased, McPhee took responsibility for publishing, editorial and international development and Gribble for, production, sales, distribution and the co-publishing arrangement with Penguin Books Australia. McPhee Gribble spotted and developed new talent, commissioned and published several hundred titles, including a small list of US fiction and works in translation. Its publishing policy was fiercely independent and post-colonial, committed to developing the best Australian writing in most genres while developing overseas markets for Australian authors.

In 1979 with Joyce Nicholson, Anne O'Donovan and Sally Milner, McPhee and Gribble established Sisters Publishing, a mail order feminist book club devoted to publishing poetry and fiction 'for women, by women and about women', which also distributed titles from overseas feminist presses such as Virago and the Women's Press. The book club attracted a large and loyal readership but the 'after hours' workload involved was unsustainable and the business wound up after five years.

Both Gribble and McPhee served on a large number of government, university, arts and industry boards and committees. McPhee was appointed to the Universities Council of CTEC in 1983 by the then Minister for Education, Hon Susan Ryan. Di Gribble at this time was appointed to the board of Austrade and to the Australia Council.

McPhee Gribble Publishers was planning to capitalise on its international reputation and seeking to finance an alternative distribution network when the financial downturn of late 1987 hit. By 1990 the company's name, publishing assets and goodwill had been sold to Penguin, with McPhee on a two year contract, and a small staff to continue the publishing under the McPhee Gribble imprint within Penguin, titles such as Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, Drusilla Modjeska's Poppy, Geoffrey Bardon's Papunya Tula, Art of the Western Desert, Kaz Cooke's A Modern Girls Guide to Everything, Rodney Hall's Captivity Captive, Helen Garner's Cosmo Cosmolino.

Diana Gribble went on to establish Text Media and Text Publishing with Eric Beecher and McPhee, having served out her contract, moved to MacMillan Publishing where she was in charge of the Picador imprint until 1994, with a wide-ranging list including Tim Winton's The Riders and Helen Garner's The First Stone. In 1994, she was invited by Prime Minister Paul Keating to become the first female Chair of the Australia Council and agreed to implement its first complete overhaul since the Council's inception. An overall and initially wildly controversial dismantling of its cumbersome committee-based funding structure was completed by the end of her term, welcomed by the arts community and by the incoming government.

Hilary McPhee has continued to be a highly influential and active leader of Australia's literary community, notable both for encouraging Australian writing and writers and being an astute critic of the literary and cultural landscape. As the inaugural Vice Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Melbourne from 1997 to 2004, she contributed to a number of university and arts based committees including the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne University Press, the Ian Potter Art Gallery and initiated a Writers Centre for Scholars at Melbourne University. During this time she wrote a regular op-ed column for the Age and a memoir of a life in Australian publishing, Other Peoples' Words. She has been a member of many judging panels, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award the Victorian Premiers Award and the Melbourne Prize. In 2003 McPhee was active on the original committee to save the Abbotsford Convent from developers. The online political journal New Matilda, of which she was a director, was founded that year and, McPhee for some months, was acting editor. She received an honorary doctorate of letters from Monash University in 1998 and an AO for services to literature in 2003.

In 2006 McPhee lived and worked in the Middle East and Italy, writing, interviewing and working on philanthropic initiatives relating to the needs of young people. Since returning to Australia in 2010, she has edited a collection of best new Australian writing, Wordlines and annotated the diaries of filmmaker Tim Burstall, Memoir of a Young Bastard. She is now working on Other People's Houses, a memoir of her life outside publishing.

Additional sources: Hilary McPhee on Auslit.

Archival Resources

The University of Melbourne Archives

  • McPhee Gribble Pty Ltd, 1975 - 1990, 1999.0048; The University of Melbourne Archives. Details
  • Sisters Publishing Ltd, 1978 - 1987, 1999.0016; The University of Melbourne Archives. Details

Published Resources


  • McPhee, Hilary, Other People's Words, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, New South Wales, 2001. Details

Edited Books

  • McPhee, Hilary (ed.), Wordlines: Contemporary Australian Writing, Five Mile Press, Scoresby, Victoria, 2010. Details
  • McPhee, Hilary (ed.), Memoir of a Young Bastard: The Diaries of Tim Burstall, Standish, Ann, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Victoria, 2012. Details

Journal Articles

  • McPhee, Hilary, 'Survival Struggles', Meanjin, vol. 63, no. 1, 2004. Details

Newspaper Articles

  • 'Lunch with Maxine McKew: Hilary McPhee', Bulletin, vol. 119, no. 62, 24 April 2001, p. 40. Details
  • Bogle, Deborah, 'Passionate Publisher takes top arts post', The Australian, 22 February 1994, p. 1. Details

Online Resources

See also