Kym Bonython, AC, DFC, AFC, 1920-2011
Kym Bonython, the scion of one of South Australia's pre-eminent families who in his early years was tagged a larrikin and playboy but along the way set his mark as a prominent Australian in several fields, has died at his home in North Adelaide. He was 90.
Bonython's early daredevil days included several scrapes with death as a World War II pilot and later, on his way to winning both national hydroplane and speedway championships in the late 1950s. He was even gored by a bull in his days as a studmaster and dairy farmer on a property at Mount Pleasant near Adelaide.
He survived to use his passion for jazz and art to introduce Australians to the greatest names in both artistic fields through concerts and at his galleries in Adelaide and Sydney.
As a jazz promoter, Bonython attracted many of the biggest names to Australia, from Duke Ellington (twice), Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and Ray Charles to rock'n'roller Chuck Berry. He even had a hand in bringing the Beatles to Australia. And he discovered perhaps our most popular artist, Kevin ''Pro'' Hart and launched Brett Whiteley to a wider Australian audience, while also promoting Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Barry Humphries, among others.
Bonython suffered a massive triple blow in 1983, when the Ash Wednesday fires burnt to the ground his ancestral house - the mansion Eurilla, near Mount Lofty, that was bought by his father in 1917. Lost was his valuable collection of 5000 jazz records (many signed by the artists), a large collection of works by the cream of Australian artists, including Boyd, Nolan, John Olsen, Lloyd Rees, Whiteley and Bryan Westwood, as well as his library, collectable furniture, wartime photographs and movie film from the 1930s.
His wider involvement with the arts ranged from serving as chairman of the South Australian 150th jubilee festivities in the 1980s, as well as an international film festival. From 1978 to '82, he was governor of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts; from 1978, he was a member of Adelaide City Council; and he was the first chairman of the Film Fund. He was also a member of the Australian Council for the Arts and played leading roles with Musica Viva and major broadcaster Austereo.
At one stage, he claimed to be the oldest radio DJ in the world - his jazz program, Tempo of the Times, ran for 39 years (interrupted only by World War II) after he started it at radio 5CL in Adelaide in 1937 at the age of 17. The program went national and only ended in a round of budget cuts by the national broadcaster.
Ironically, the radio program finished on the last night of a Bonython-backed tour by flautist Herbie Mann and he signalled it would be his last as a promoter.
''The last eight tours I've backed have been [financial] losers and I've finally got the message,'' he lamented. By the time he quit in 1976, he'd had 11 losers in a row. The only times he made a profit was with the first Ellington tour and with Berry; his children talked him into bringing out the American rock'n'roller, whom he described as ''a pain to deal with''.
Bonython, who was of Cornish stock, was born in Adelaide to Constance (nee Warren) and Sir John Lavington Bonython, who was twice mayor of Adelaide - from 1911 to 1913 and from 1927 to 1929. His grandfather, Sir Langdon Bonython, who joined The Adelaide Advertiser as a copy boy in 1864 aged 16, was sole owner of the newspaper by the time he was 45. He was a member of the first federal parliament.
Bonython's love of jazz began as a schoolboy at prestigious St Peter's College, when he bought his first record, Duke Ellington's Hot and Bothered. Such was his infatuation that at 16, when his parents were away, he sold his school clothes to buy a drum kit, learnt to play and formed a band.
After he left school, Bonython worked for six months with an accountancy firm before joining the RAAF at the age of 19. He did his basic flying training at Mascot in Sydney and in mid-1940, he was posted to No.2 Squadron at Laverton, near Melbourne, flying Lockheed Hudson reconnaissance bombers.
He moved with the squadron to Koepang airfield in Timor just before the arrival of the Japanese, carting most of his collection of jazz records with him. After his aircraft was destroyed on the ground by Japanese bombers, he walked 112 kilometres through the jungle with his crew and a commandeered pony laden with his gramophone and records.
During the trek, his crew was alarmed when Bonython played his records after they camped for the night, fearing the music would attract Japanese patrols.
Later, he flew photo reconnaissance flights from north Australian airfields over Japanese-held islands in twin-engined Mosquito aircraft.
He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross as well as the Air Force Cross for his wartime service. He also had the distinction of dropping the first Australian-made aerial torpedo at the Defence Department's proving ground at Pittwater, north of Sydney.
After the war, Bonython bred cattle and ran dairy cows, raced a dirt-track car bearing the name "This Ain't No Bull", took to speedboats and was almost killed in 1954 - he suffered multiple fractures and a broken leg - when his boat, Bullo Bee, was struck by the wash of a spectator boat and disintegrated. He spent 14 months in hospital but went on to be crowned Australian speedboat champion in 1956-57.
Bonython had also started racing motorbikes in 1953 and after he recovered, bought the Rowley Park Speedway in Adelaide and was crowned Australian speedway champion in 1956 and 1958.
The flamboyant Bonython could never be painted as a conservative, despite his privileged background. As chairman of South Australia's 150th anniversary committee, he rode to meetings on his powerful motorbike wearing a bright crash helmet bearing his name and emblazoned with a woman in ''an extraordinary state of undress''. And his 40th birthday was marked by ''an enormously proportioned'' woman known as Big Pretzel leaping from an equally enormous cake.
He was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1987 and drew attention to his high-achieving siblings: ''It is a great honour to be the third of my father's sons to be recognised in this way.'' (Warren Bonython was recognised for his wildlife research and conservation while half-brother, John, was awarded his for services to the media and industry.)
Bonython published six major books on modern Australian painting, as well an autobiography, aptly titled Ladies' Legs & Lemonade (1979).
He is survived by his second wife, Julianne, whom he married in October 1957, children Robyn, Chris, Tim, Michael and Nicole, 15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.