Ross Mark, the celebrated former Washington correspondent of the Daily Express at the height of Fleet Street extravagance, has died, aged 80.
Mark was among the first of a generation of Australian journalists who helped shape mid-20th century Fleet Street, and one of the last foreign correspondents to spend his entire career abroad. By his own count, he survived 15 editors (a feat he felt, with some justification, should entitle him to inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records)
and was twice offered the top job.
He refused to return to the Express “black Lubyanka” on Fleet Street, because he had no stomach for the infighting and believed the secret was to remain a star on the fringe of Beaverbrook’s horizon. Later, he shared former Daily Mail and Baltimore Sun journalist Gilbert Lewthwaite’s dictum: “Happiness is measured by the number of miles from head office.”
On a newspaper where competence or even brilliance was no guarantee of success, Mark thrived for more than 30 years on his perceived closeness to Lord Beaverbrook. It made him untouchable.
Mark centred his career on reporting and interpreting US cold war politics and policies, and was one of the most admired and respected of all Express journalists, at a time when the paper had a large and vaunted foreign reporting staff. He had a solid grasp of the trans-Atlantic relationship, with top White House contacts in eight administrations, from Eisenhower to the first President Bush.
But it was his low-key charm and impeccable manners that endeared him to diplomats and politicians. A handsome man, he flirted and flattered his way around the women who guarded the doors to Washington’s power elite.
With strong opinions he did not hide, Mark made a study of British ambassadors during his years in Washington, and rated Lord Harlech as the most effective and Peter Jay as the least.
Ross Folkard Mark was born on 21 April 1926 in Sydney, and was raised on the family dairy farm. He regaled Washington dinner parties with tales of helping his uncle Bill, who felled timber and dragged it from the mountains with a 10-strong bullock team. Mark could recite the names and strengths of every bullock and frequently did so after amazing his hosts with his ability to knock back a prodigious number of Martinis without appearing affected.
He trained on the Sydney Sun before sailing for Fleet Street in 1948 aboard the same boat as Bruce Rothwell, who later became a senior editor at the Daily Mail, founding editor of The Sunday Australian and editor-in-chief of The Australian.
Mark found a job with Reuters and in 1950 was assigned as a combat correspondent to cover the Korean war. In 1952, he moved to the Reuters- Australian Associated Press bureau in New York, and transferred to the Washington office two years later. In 1957 he was hired as Washington correspondent of the Daily Express by then editor Ted Pickering (later Sir Edward), who was impressed by Mark’s agency work.
Almost every career has a point where good fortune tips the scale. It happened for Mark when Beaverbrook’s son, Sir Max, heard the paper had hired an Australian in Washington and invited him to a party in New York. Sir Max had fought alongside Australians in the Second World War, took an instant liking to Mark, and recommended him to Beaverbrook. In 1959, Beaverbrook assigned Mark to Moscow to get a closer look at the other side of the Cold War.
Just before leaving Washington, Mark told Sir Max he had bought a new “Cotswold blue” Jaguar and loved it.
Fitting the Fleet Street decadence of the age, Sir Max authorised Mark to take the car with him and it was shipped to Moscow at Express expense.
Mark covered the U-2 trial of Francis Gary Powers and Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceship circumnavigation of Earth. In 1962 he was made chief Africa correspondent, after Beaverbrook decided the cold war was being fought on that continent. Mark covered fighting in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Again the Express paid for the blue Jag to accompany him, and Mark eventually wrecked it following a road race near Nairobi with Daily Mail correspondent Peter Younghusband.
Mark was reassigned to Washington in 1963 and retired in 1993. He had all the fox-like cunning his profession demanded. He had a strong interest in space flight and covered 42 US space shots from Cape Kennedy.
Mark did two reporting assignments in Vietnam. During one of them, he transferred immediately on landing to a military helicopter, which ferried him to Khe San, in the Central Highlands, the day before the North Vietnamese besieged it. He was a member of the Express foreign reporting team that produced the critically acclaimed book Divided They Stand, an analysis of the 1968 US presidential election.
The last part of his career was strained, after the Express became a tabloid and lost interest in foreign news.
The highly paid writer Jean Rook would regularly show up demanding that he arrange an interview for her with the president’s wife.
“The First Lady of Fleet Street meets the First Lady of America – can’t you see? It’s a natural,” she bellowed down the telephone a day or two before touching down in Washington.
Ross’s marriage to Elizabeth Gardiner, of Cessnock, Australia, ended in divorce in 1997. He is survived by his best friend for nearly 20 years and wife of the last eight years, Washington journalist Charmayne Marsh, four children from his first marriage, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandson.