Cover photo from “Private in public: a life after the fray”

Private in public: a life after the fray


A rare look into the private world of Australia’s most publicly maligned people. SASHA NAOD spent the weekend at John Marsden’s Sydney home for this special profile.

We’d arranged to meet at the station. I called him as the train approached ­ we were still on. I waited at the platform, nervously. I’d read a lot about John Marsden, the Sydney lawyer and politico – the infamous John Marsden. I’d seen him on television, people had told me stories about him, but what was he really like? To find out, I had flown from Melbourne to Sydney to spend a weekend with the man at the centre of Australia¹s most famous and expensive defamation lawsuit. What was I getting into?

A car approached, its lights flashed at me. It was him. He didn’t get out, or park. I threw my stuff in the back seat and we were off.

A couple of years ago, this could have been evidence in a courtroom but today it’s innocent enough. In the driver’s seat, Marsden looks older, slightly thinner and certainly more drawn out than the robust and feisty character I’m used to seeing on TV and in the press. At 60, he’s also tired. A self-confessed workaholic, Marsden still gets up at 3am each morning to pick up the papers on his way to work.

“My publisher says I should’t be doing this,” he says, referring to this interview for DNA. Marsden has signed a book deal to tell his story, a last hurrah with the working title I Am What I Am. His publisher fears that a pre-emptive magazine feature might impact on its release, sometime around March next year.

“But I’d made a promise to you,” he adds earnestly, “and I didn’t want to break it.”

Before we go any further, Marsden admits that he has something to tell me. “I have to explain my complex living situation,” he says. He tells me about Glenn and Dan, the two guys who are currently living with him and his slightly inept but strapping young butler in the Sydney suburb of Campbelltown.

He’s known Glenn since New Year’s Eve 2000. The pair met while watching the Sydney Harbour fireworks. Marsden fell madly in love. Glenn doesn’t reciprocate Marsden’s feelings but when I ask him later, he says he loves Marsden’s “bizarre mind” and his company. So he’s been staying over for the past 18 months.

Dan is a more recent addition to Marsden’s life. From completely different walks of life, bisexual Dan is the first to admit that he and Marsden “don’t have much in common”. Dan says his life has been “all over the shop”. He says that Marsden has “given me a chance in life”. The two have carved out a strange but symbiotic relationship based on understanding and shared experience.

As we drive back to Marsden’s house, he speaks with passion and knowledge about his local area, its inhabitants and its early days as a dairy-farming district. “There are only two great cities in this world,” he is fond of saying, “Rome and Campbelltown.”

When we finally arrive, I’m surprised at how inauspicious Marsden’s home is. All terracotta hues and creeping vines, it resembles a Tuscan villa circa 1970. Marsden has been living here since the early ’70s and little, it would seem, has changed in that time. This house has sheltered the likes Ivan Milat, the infamous NSW backpacker murderer and one of Marsden’s clients. At other times it has entertained Sydney’s power elite, media and sports people, politicians and office-bearers.

Backpacker murder: Ivat Milat was one of Marsden's most famous clients.
Backpacker murderer: Ivat Milat was one of Marsden’s most famous clients.

On the inside, it’s a shambles. Marsden’s work and life floats in a sea of papers that spread over a long dining table. Every inch of every wall is covered in the memorabilia of his life. Along with the Brett Whitely originals and Archibald portraits in which he is the subject, there are the usual photos of friends, lovers and relatives. There are photos of Marsden with this and that Prime Minister, signed letters and autographs from people of note and, of all things, an autographed publicity shot of George Michael from his I Want Your Sex days.

I meet Glenn, the quizzical object of Marsden’s desires, and the burly Dan, who is parked in front of the telly watching footy. Marsden jokes around with the boys. He speaks with excitement about an upcoming skiing holiday. Self-effacing all the way, he jiggles his ample paunch as he pretends to dodge business moguls on the slopes.

“I’m gonna do really well this year,” he says hopefully. This is Marsden the performer, the showy extrovert who delights in being the centre of attention. Glenn is getting dinner ready and Dan is absorbed in the TV. They mostly ignore him ­ they¹ve seen it all before.

Marsden’s house smells suburban and homely. The accumulation of years of spag bol and barbies have seeped into the walls and are now infused in the air. Make no mistake, this is the house that Marsden built, in the town that Marsden helped build, or at the very least, put on the map. But today, he doesn¹t own any of it.

“Everything’s mortgaged,” he says. “Even the art collection. This experience has cost me everything I have in life.”

He tells me that two of his oldest clients (with him for 32 years, in fact), dairy farmers “who’d never met a poof before” have taken out a mortgage on his paintings to help him make ends meet. It’s part of a tragic ending to what Marsden calls “an eight year nightmare,” the most expensive court case in our country’s history, which has left John Marsden with an $8.3 million legal bill and a life to put back together.

John Robert Marsden was born and bred in Campbelltown, New South Wales. With his hotelier parents, he lived in the heart of the town for most of his childhood before being sent to a local boarding school. Feeling ‘different’ early on, he soon discovered he was gay, but despite the cultural climate of the 1950s, he was determined to make the best of his life and do his parents proud. After graduating with a law degree from Sydney University in 1968, Marsden opened a small practice in his home town and boldly called it Marsden’s:­ The Attorneys.

Slowly building the business up, he soon became one of Campbelltown’s most prominent and respected citizens and businessmen ­ no mean feat for a openly homosexual man in Sydney’s outer west. He joined boards, councils and committees, and fiercely defended his town and its residents, effecting decisions that have since seen Campbelltown become a strong and populous community.
With his business acumen and growing influence, it was only a matter of time before Marsden would notch up a host of high-profile gigs including NSW Law Society President, Police Board Member and President of the Council of Civil Liberties. Marsden, it seemed, was indomitable.

Marsden’s outspoken character had landed him in trouble before, but this was the schoolyard on a grand scale.

Then came 1994. Labor MP Deirdre Grusovin made damning allegations against him in the NSW Legislative Assembly. Using parliamentary privilege and a statutory declaration by the convicted paedophile, Colin Fisk, Grusovin alleged that Marsden himself was a paedophile and that he had engaged in sex with underage boys, had supplied one of them with drugs, and that he had used prostitutes.

While he immediately denied the allegations, Marsden did acknowledge that he was a promiscuous homosexual. It didn’t help. Marsden’s outspoken character had landed him in trouble before, but this was the schoolyard on a grand scale. With all the commotion, it was too hard for any self-respecting current affairs producer to resist telling the tale. So in 1995, Channel Seven picked up the ball ran a juicy story on the allegations: witnesses, hearsay and all. Marsden was outraged. He followed swiftly with a libel action and in the process became Australia’s own, and unlikely, Oscar Wilde.

As details emerged, the similarities between Marsden’s case and Wilde’s turn-of-the-century trial were staggering, surreal even. For example, it was exactly 100 years ago that Wilde, like Marsden, was fighting to save his reputation in history’s most famous defamation trial. Wilde’s case was long and drawn out, and heard numerous and explicit details of his private life. And although far removed from the tea and sensibility of London in 1900, the modern day metropolis of Sydney was similarly gorging ­ and often choking ­ on explicit details of Marsden’s sex life.

But most significantly, like Wilde, Marsden began by defending his reputation only to find, for all intents and purposes, that he himself was on trial.

It was, in no uncertain terms, a spectacle. Over a period of two years ­ or 214 days to be precise ­ the Marsden defamation case saw a procession of 113 witnesses and racked up millions of dollars in court costs. Some of the evidence presented was up to, and over, 25 years old. Among the witnesses were former NSW Premier John Fahey, radio personality Philip Adams, Olympics Minister Michael Knight and lawyer Rod McGeoch. The often salacious court proceedings took members of the gallery on a tour of Sydney’s seedy underbelly: places like The Wall and the infamous Costello’s nightclub.

Even Marsden’s own home. As one newspaper article reported, it was a tale of “whips, donkeys and paintings of naked men.” After final submissions were heard, it took over a year for Justice David Levine to pour over in excess of 12,000 pages of evidence, and to produce his two-volume verdict.
In a small office filled with the accumulated media clutter from the case, mostly videos and news clippings, Marsden shows me Justice Levine’s heavy volumes. As you’d expect, he knows the minutiae of his case. He’s combed the verdict, he says, “over a dozen times.” He’s answered the same questions so many times that when I ask him for the basics, he sounds rehearsed. During a small tour of the house, he takes me into a bedroom, which is now Glenn’s. Marsden says, “this is the room where a couple of the witnesses said I had sex with them. They said it had no windows but I think you can clearly see that is does.”

Embattled but not embittered: Marsden soldiers on amid the onslaught.

During my stay, he draws my attention to several other locations that witnesses referred to in evidence, only to slam them down again with his own version. There is a certain comic appeal to Marsden. After only a short amount of time with him, I begin to imagine him as a kind of gay Big Kev, bark as well as bite: a showman verging on caricature.

On Sunday morning, for example, he takes me to his local Catholic church, where he says he goes most Sundays. He mumbles but mostly manages the hymns and even slips some money into the collection sock. As we stand and sit through the rituals of the service, he whispers, “Thank God we’re getting all this exercise because I’m fucken freezing.” The media has called him everything from “eccentric and outrageous” to “flamboyant and exuberantly gay.” He says politicians “are all wankers” and describes the trial, which took eight years of his life, as “a cunt.” It’s moments like these that make it hard for me to take him seriously. Which is not to take away from his case and its numerous serious after effects.

“You never see the end of it. It always comes up every day in your face. It will always effect me, always effect my business,” he says, citing his many Mr and Mrs Average clients who have slipped away in the face of the trial and its detail. A month ago, a man came into Marsden’s office with his girlfriend to make a claim. “I explained to him that he didn’t have the basis to make a claim, that he wouldn’t succeed, and he got very cranky and stood up and started screaming, ‘you’re nothing but a fucking arse-licking paedophile.'”

“You never see the end of it. It always comes up every day in your face. It will always effect me, always effect my business.”

Another time, as he was bidding farewell to some guests at an official dinner, someone yelled out, “How many little boys have you fucked today, Marsden?” The very week that we meet, Marsden is once again the butt of jokes when the noted children’s author of the same name releases a book, unfortunately titled The Boy You Brought Home.

“It’s that type of thing that happens constantly,” he says, the vulnerability in his voice suddenly palpable. Although no longer hanging by his psychological fingernails, and no longer taking many of the medicines he was prescribed during the trial, he still uses stabilisers and, occasionally, sleeping pills. There was a time, though, when his lawyers thought he was “so off the air” that they wouldn¹t allow him to take the stand. “They thought I would lose it.” Marsden says suicide was an option every single day, and even now, it’s difficult for him to move on.

“I suppose that it’s not a natural life any longer. You’re very careful, who you are seen with, where you go. I’m very close to my nieces and nephews. In the old days they’d jump on my bed in the mornings ­ that doesn’t happen any more.”

Marsden is understandably angry at the many people who, he says, were instrumental in his downfall: Grusovin, Channel 7, and Peter Ryan, the former NSW Police Chief Commissioner. Ryan instigated what Marsden says was a “biased and homophobic” investigation when he launched the 1995 Wood Royal Commission into police protection and paedophilia. In fact, much of the tabloid fanfare surrounding his case, says Marsden, was motivated by homophobia and a misunderstanding of gay life.

Indeed, if Marsden were heterosexual there would have been no case to answer if he had allegedly had sex with a 16- or 17-year-old female.

“At the end of the day, it really was an attack on a gay man,” says Marsden. Although he has been incredibly candid from the word go, he is, at times, very considered in his responses. This may have something to do with his being stung by a Sydney Morning Herald journalist a few years back. One evening, the pair were driving past Sydney’s infamous Wall in Darlinghurst, when Marsden looked out the window and quipped about the standard of trade on offer. Needless to say, it made it into the press the next day, and then to the courtroom shortly after.

Also frustrating for Marsden was having his trial heard in a straight courtroom by a straight and notoriously conservative legal fraternity, none of whom had any understanding of gay life. For example, when Marsden testified that his preference was, in fact, for rough trade not underage boys, the courtroom interpreted ‘trade’ to mean a commercial transaction.

Then there’s some of the key witnesses, many of whom were convicted criminals. “If I were a straight man, the admission of evidence from known felons with jail terms would just never have been permitted. The case would simply not have gone ahead.”

He’s not ashamed to admit that his first contact with homosexuality was in a public toilet and that “that went on for years.”

“There was no Mardi Gras, there was no counselling service. There were only beats. So, not unlike any gay man of my generation, I would meet someone at a beat, I would bring them home, I would have a couple of drinks with them, a couple of joints. I would then go to bed with them with a bottle of amyl nitrate and have sex. Gee, I must have been the only person in the world who did this.”

Certainly not, but Channel 7’s lawyers tried to present this admission as some sort of sinister John Marsden modus operandi.

But it is a dangerously fine line, I suggest, when you’re talking about the age of someone you pick up anonymously at a beat. Marsden offers this careful reply: “I don’t knowingly know that I’ve had sex with anyone underage. I’ve been to saunas, and again I don’t ask them their names. I have no doubt that I’ve never bought anyone home who’s underage. But if you raise the issue of gay saunas, [the answer is] I don’t think so.”

Marsden’s sexual career has been long and troubled. In 1967, he was arrested in a toilet for public indecency after making advances on an undercover cop. On 60 Minutes, he told Richard Carlton that he underwent electric shock therapy to try and “straighten” out his homosexuality, and today, he unreservedly admits that if he could “flick a switch” it would definitely point to hetero. The problem, he says, is with society at large.

“Sex, sexuality and your private life doesn¹t have to be done under the sheets. I mean, what¹s so horrid about someone ­ gay or straight ­ who enjoys a wild sex life?”

He sympathises with Justice Michael Kirby who, earlier this year, suffered underage-sex allegations at the hands of national Liberal MP Bill Heffernan. Marsden is friendly with Michael Kirby and, he says, respects him very much, “but I feel angry that people came to his defence a lot more powerfully than they came to mine”.

In a curious twist, the young Bill Heffernan was a classmate of Marsden’s at school. “He slept two beds away,” he recalls, then, unable to resist the joke, continues, “I never jumped him though.”

“There will always be people who believe it. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

Part of the unfortunate outcome of a defamation trial is that the person at its centre is forever tainted with the allegations, whether they win in court or not. “There will always be people who believe it. Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he says ruefully. Indeed, there are many in the gay community now who believe that Marsden is guilty, and that he used his high-powered connections to get acquitted.
“I was devastated by what I think was a lack of support from the gay community. That’s probably one of the most hurtful things.” Marsden is at lengths to point out his contributions to the gay community: his bailing out of the Sydney Star Observer when it was in financial trouble, his backing of the counselling service, and his marching in the first Mardi Gras parades. Nevertheless, he concludes, “I don’t think the gay community would march down George Street for my funeral.”

He cites the Wood Royal Commission as the main reason that the gay community “veered away” from him. Marsden likened it to a modern day witch-hunt, which, he says, had him firmly in its sights. “It has a lot to answer for.

“The gay community went through a bad time during the Royal Commission ­ it just went troppo. There were 27 murders as a result of it, people left the country, a supreme court judge committed suicide. So the [gay community] became very fearful of all these allegations of paedophilia, or being connected to anyone who was seen as a pederast.” In the minds of mainstream society, homosexuality and paedophilia are connected. But there were other factors working against Marsden, which he is more than aware of.

“I’d obtained a position of power and influence that openly gay men shouldn’t, and I truly believe that because of this, there were elements in the government and police force who wanted to get rid of me.

“In my book,” he says, “I’m going to say every last thing I can about these people.” I Am What I Am is intended to be Marsden’s swan song. He hopes it will close the matter, so that he can try to “go back to what it was like years ago.” However, given Marsden’s controversial history, it’s more than likely that the book’s release will only stir the pot once more.

When it comes time for me to leave, John’s looking both exhausted and relieved. As much as he relishes the opportunity to have his say and play the showman, I sense that he’s looking forward to being the private John Marsden again ­ a man that even those close to him probably haven’t seen for a long time.

This article originally appeared in DNA Magazine.