High above Manhattan in a penthouse apartment surrounded by terraces, the resident lovebird and canary were quiet. Suddenly, in the early morning light, Anna Murdoch nudged her sleeping husband and asked: “Darling, do you think I’m better off in a money market account or in certificates of deposit?” Rupert Murdoch, who generally invests his money in tangibles like publications (he owns more than 80 of them, including the Times of London and the New York Post), television stations (he just bought six from Metromedia) and movie studios (he owns half of Twentieth Century Fox and claims he has signed an agreement to buy the other half) was, as always, shrewd. “I told her to pay off the mortgage,” he recalls, smiling, “or lend it to me.”
Until recently Rupert, 54, was the family’s sole breadwinner. His wife busied herself with getting a master’s degree in English and mythology and raising their children, Elisabeth, 17, Lachlan, 14, and James, 12. But with the release of In Her Own Image, Murdoch’s first novel, which is out in the U.S. this month, Anna, 41, is now a published author. And Rupert, according to one observer at a London reception for the book, was seen standing about looking a bit like Denis Thatcher. His wife’s novel, after all, reached No. 2 on Australia’s best-seller list, was well received in Britain and has been optioned for a movie.
A lusty tale of two sisters in love with the same man on an Australian sheep farm, Murdoch’s novel is evocative of the landscape and filled with Thorn Birds-like plot machinations. The author is the first to admit that her book might have gotten lost in the fall publishing scramble had it not been for her last name. “I realize that the interest in me as a first novelist is probably greater than for some other first novelists,” says Anna, “and I’m going to use it. If someone is going to exploit me, I’ll do it myself.” Thus, she is heading out on the talk show circuit and keeping a cool blue-green eye on the competition. “I hear Estée Lauder is pushing her book through the beauty counters,” she says. “I wish I had an outlet at Bloomingdale’s, too.”
Sitting in her elegant three-story apartment with its English antiques, Australian art and family photographs, Anna Murdoch is a gentle, unpretentious woman who fights fiercely for what she calls her “normalcy.” This means standing in the rain for buses instead of calling for the limo and limiting those parties and dinners at the right restaurants. “We find a lot of that a waste of time. You can get an inflated sense of your importance or of the people you are meeting,” she explains. “We’ll say no to things and put our feet up and listen to music. It’s important to be at home for the children.”
The Murdoch brood, she insists, are “very unspoiled.” The three are given regular chores like helping with the cooking and stacking the dishwasher on weekends when the resident cook and houseboy are off. Mom doles out weekly pocket money and patrols the Manhattan apartment and Aspen vacation house for signs of waste. “I’ve been known to slit toothpaste tubes,” she admits, “to get the last bit out.”
Some of this “niggardly” behavior, as Rupert cheerfully calls it, stems from her “very modest” roots in a village near Glasgow, Scotland. Her father, Jacob Torv, an Estonian engineer, had emigrated there and married the daughter of a dry cleaner. In 1954, with hopes of a better life, Anna’s father moved the family to Australia and founded a dry-cleaning business in Sydney. Outgoing Anna, the eldest of the four Torv children, desperately wanted to be an actress or a journalist. At 14, while a student at a convent school, she went to work in a department store, selling china and underwear to pay for her acting lessons.
Ever pragmatic, the shopgirl turned to journalism after high school because it seemed more accessible than acting. She took a job at 17 as a clerk at the Sydney Daily Mirror—a Murdoch paper. Promoted to cub reporter, she was sent to interview the boss one day for the in-house newspaper. “I thought she was a very pretty girl,” Rupert says of the encounter. “Her writing skills were not going through my mind.”
The publisher and the rookie reporter soon became a couple and married when Anna was 23 and Rupert 37. Murdoch gradually moved his empire west. First they migrated to London, where he took over the Sunday News of the World in 1969. In 1973 came the invasion of America, with the purchase of the San Antonio Express-News and the founding of the National Star tabloid. “He’s running out of English-speaking countries that interest him,” says Anna with undisguised relief.
New York is where she is happiest, where she decided to get the college education (at Fordham and New York University) she never had and where she realized the dream of publishing a novel. Earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree took nine years. Finishing her novel took four. The old notion of being an actress appears forgotten and, no, the fact that her husband is now in the movie business won’t change that. Nor is she the least bit interested in attending a Hollywood party or succumbing to Beverly Hills. “I’m not looking for a house there. Rupert may be,” says Anna, who isn’t even tempted by a shopping expedition: “I’ve seen some of those stores on Rodeo Drive. Very expensive, aren’t they? I’ve been into Giorgio once, but the others are much too glossy.”
She would rather retreat to her study and work on her second novel. She has already cottoned onto that literary elusiveness for which writers are so well-known. The subject of Novel Two, she says, “is a wonderful secret.” She does allow that it will have more sex than the first: “I don’t sneer at being popular. I’m not an elitist.”
But someday, if she has her way, she will be elitist enough to say no to the interviews and book tours and regain her fragile privacy. “After I have three or four books out, I’ll become reclusive,” she promises. “People will say: ‘Have you read the latest Anna Murdoch?’ That will be rather nice.”