Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Vale Bill Ranken

One of the leading lights of the Sydney social scene, Bill Ranken has passed away at age 85 after a brief fight with cancer.
Bill was known for the last 10 years or so as a photographer and a must addition to any smart party or red carpet launch but his life was one of great variety in many different occupations.

Brought up on the family estate near Goulburn, Ranken lost interest in working on the property when a tractor accident cost him the sight in one eye.

Whispers first encountered Bill over 30 years ago when he arrived at a Mayfair art gallery on the arm of the late Princess Margaret causing gossip as perhaps her latest flame with his tall elegant looks.
"Landed gentry from Australia" was legendary Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster's description when asked who Margaret's date was.
Chatting with Bill at the launch- an exhibition of artists Gilbert & George's  huge canvas depicting bodily functions he leaned over to the Princess and quipped: "for God's sake don't look too closely Margaret, it will put you off the champagne".

Commenting that we were soon leaving for Sydney to live, Bill retrieved a business card from his wallet- he always carried a variety from his different jobs -and a phone call 6 months later started a long friendship of nightly telephone "debriefings" as we called them, to chat and laugh about everyone and everything that had happened during our day.

Ranken was often far grander than those he photographed. As co-owner with his sister Jean of two of the most desired country properties in the state, he was a millionaire many times over but few seem to know. With houses on both properties at Gunning and Goulburn, Bill lived an almost monkish style life usually bedding down in the working men's quarters in a barn. When not planting trees or retrieving lost sheep he loved to check on his favourite animals, ducks, which he had installed in the various lakes.

In Sydney he lived in an Elizabeth Bay apartment and breakfasted at one of the local cafes sipping Green Tea which he swore kept him youthful.

A man of great contrasts he had an innate ability to talk to anyone and everyone no matter their status and make each feel important. He would laugh that he sat next to former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser at the snobby Tudor House prep school.
"God Malcolm was boring when he was young"  Bill would say and Fraser would return the compliment saying to Bill  "you give our class a bad name" referring to Bill's admitted snobbishness But he was anything but.
In the morning he may have a quick chat with a Kings Cross stripper, hooker or a nightclub bouncer on their way home after a night's work. In the afternoon he could be chatting to Barry Humphries at a Double Bay cafe while later that evening he might be dining with Princess Mary of Denmark.

Meeting a new young artist, actor, singer perhaps a budding caterer Bill was always happy to delve into his extensive list of contacts and help in anyway he could.  With a natural kindness and expecting nothing in return, there are numerous now famous names who pay tribute to Bill's ability to point them in the right direction after a chance meeting. Always alert to meeting an interesting new person on the circuit he could also be cynical at times : "if Jesus Christ came through the Heads I'd want to know who his PR agent is" he once said.

At a social functions it was no surprise to hear Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Packer or the latest Prime Minster say : "Hi Bill, I need to talk to you about some rural matters" on which he had an encyclopedic knowledge. 

For Bill life was never meant to be boring and each day brought an incident to be laughed at and crafted into an amusing anecdote. Even his 6am run from Kings Cross to Double Bay (right up until the last 6 months) brought a tale to tell. He recounted that he was once taking a breather in Rushcutters Bay Park when 2 large policeman emerged from the bushes dragging a naked, wild looking man.
"There's my pal Bill Ranken" cried the man who Bill swore he did not recognise. As the nude felon was bundled into a Paddy Wagon he yelled "Bill,  please call my solicitor Sir Laurence Street!"

When the Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared off the Victorian coast in choppy seas in 1967 Bill was disappointed that he had turned down an invitation to accompany the swimming party: "I would have liked to have seen that Chinese sub" said Bill.

Whispers worked with Bill on many different projects, an airline magazine, Penthouse Magazine after owner Bob Guccione who had flown into town to launch the local edition spotted Bill at the launch party and told the editor: "hire that man immediately as our social correspondent", plus a variety of newspapers.
At one stage he put his rural upbringing to good use as the Rural Consultant for the late real estate agent Andrew Gibbons where he advised on properties for identities like Lady Susan Renouf and Lord McAlpine. He nearly got caught in an embarrassing episode when Gibbons asked him to bid during the auction of a harbour side mansion which was knocked down to Ranken for $5M while he wasn't paying attention. He quickly exited out a side gate pursued by the property media.

Whispers produced some of the first real estate videos for Gibbons with Bill fronting the camera. When the visiting British film director Michael Winner expressed interest in purchasing a local property and watched one with Bill extolling the virtues of a Moss Vale estate Winner said "oh bugger the house, I want that man in my next film".

On another occasion  he was flown first class to Tonga by the late King George Tupou V who asked Bill to advise on his  flock of sheep. Arriving at the airport he was met by the King's limo, a London taxi and driven to a bungalow to be shown just 6 forlorn looking ewes in a small paddock. "Shoot the lot" was Bill's advice.

Taking up photography gave him a reason to be at a party. Bill loved parties even though he rarely drank. He could tell you anecdotes from parties from the 1950s onwards and it gave him a good reason to chat to a pretty girl. Often after asking her name he would exclaim "I took your mother out". Sometimes it was true but in later years that became "I think I took your grandmother out". He dreaded there may come a time when he might be saying he took their great grandmother out.

A few months ago Bill complained of a back pain and uncharacteristic weakness. Diagnosed first as a virus it was eventually found  to be liver cancer.. Always practical he said : "I just want go to one of those rest homes where they'll fill me full or morphine until I shuffle off ".
For a while he was cared for by newspaper executive Cristan King in his Bowral home but the cancer got the better of him and Bill died last Thursday. He leaves behind his beloved sister Jean and nephew Matthew and will be missed by many people as another bright light in Sydney is dimmed.
This was Bill Ranken's favourite song and one he thought summed up his life. From Noel Coward: