Last October, the Erebus Motorsport V8 team won the Bathurst 1000, the top motorsports race in Australia. And so Erebus owner, Betty Saunders-Kilmenko, the first woman to own a motorsports team in Australia, became the first woman to get her hands on the fabled trophy also. But no-nonsense Betty is most certainly not the type to let it go to her head.
“People say that I’m the first woman to win, but I was the first woman to own a team, so of course I’m going to be the first,” she says. Still, it’s a satisfying culmination of a 20-year passion. “I just hope it’s opened doors for other women,” says Betty. “For them to not have to fight like I did. It’s a tough industry, and you need to develop balls of steel, which I have — metaphorically, of course.”
Should Betty ever pen a memoir (she says she will. Probably), the story of her extraordinary life is sure to shift some serious units. Not that she needs the money. Betty’s the co-heiress to a billion-dollar empire yet had to hire a private investigator to discover how she came to be born.
Betty’s mother, Anne Neil, was a former Miss West Australia, who fell on hard times and turned to drugs and prostitution. She’d already given up three children when arrested one fateful night in the late 1950s and taken to Sydney’s Kings Cross police station where the arresting officer “found his way into the cell” and Betty “was conceived”. Less than two months later, Betty was dumped on the floor of an orphanage. Her mother was to die of an overdose.
Hungarian Jew John Saunders arrived in Australia with his new wife Eta in 1950, both having survived the Holocaust, Saunders in a concentration camp, his wife-to-be by hiding in sewers — ungodly conditions that stole her ability to conceive. Nine years later the pair entered an orphanage with their hearts set on adopting a dark-haired Mediterranean boy who looked like John, but instead fell for a blue-eyed, blonde-haired bundle of joy: the baby, of course, was Betty.
She considers the late Saunders her father, and says that discovering as an eight-year-old that she was adopted was no big deal. “I found out during an argument,” says Betty. “I said to my dad, ‘Am I adopted?’ and he said, ‘Yes’, and I said, ‘Oh, well that explains a lot’, and that was that.”
The year after adopting Betty, Saunders, along with business partner Frank Lowry (it was Lowry’s son, Peter, who would reveal to Betty that she was adopted), also a Holocaust survivor, listed their company, the Westfield Group, on the Australian stock exchange and it developed into the world’s biggest shopping mall company. But even while helming what was to become a billion-dollar empire, Saunders instilled a strong working ethic in Betty. I ask Betty about her other childhood memories.
“My mother [Eta] died when I was 10, so I have few memories of her,” she says. “There are snippets. She had cancer for the last five years of her life, and for years afterwards, my father buried himself in his work and I barely saw him. The he got remarried and had another child when I was 19.” In the early 1970s, Saunders bought land in Queenstown. “Some of my favourite memories are of being in New Zealand,” says Betty. “It was like I had two lives. Plus, my father could relax, chop wood and be himself when we there. It was lovely.”
In 1981, Betty married Herman, a Jewish man 10 years her senior. It was a partnership she felt pressured into entering, and, in 1986, they parted ways, having had “two beautiful children”. A few years later, aged 30, Betty met Daniel, 11 years her junior. Betty’s dad did not approve and threatened to cut her out of his life if she pursued the relationship. Her and Daniel “eloped to Vegas and got married”. Twenty-eight years later they’re still going strong, but it took several years to rebuild her relationship with her father — something she now describes as “a hiccup”.
“My father came to realise how good Daniel was for me, and eventually I came back to work for him,” she says. “In the meantime, I learnt to how to wash and iron. That there are no fairies that do the housework.”
Are you a romantic at heart?
“I would like to be, but I don’t have the time. Or the patience.”
You were prepared to give up so much for Daniel.
“I knew I was where I needed to be, and I didn’t even think about the sacrifices. I just thought that I love this man and I want to be with him. It’s not about money. To find someone that you can share your whole life with, be friends with, and laugh together, that’s rarer than the biggest diamond. When you find that, you must hold on to it, no matter what.”
Do people come into our lives for a reason?
“People have come into my life for a reason. But I’ve also had people that I should never have met. I’ve seen both sides. You should be a little bit wiser by the end of every day. I don’t think I would change anything because I really like where I am now and I think if you change one thing it has a ripple effect.”
Betty has three sons, all carving out successful careers in movies and business, and four grandkids aged three months to seven years. “Being a grandmother takes up more time that I thought,” she laughs. “Not that I’m complaining.” Aged 47, Betty got the first of her now impressive collection of tattoos. Out of respect for her father, she waited until he passed away as “he associated tattoos with the concentration camps”.
Her family’s Jewish heritage lingered heavy on Betty’s youth, but she no longer associates with one religion. “I don’t need a middleman to get to God,” she says. “God and I are fine. I was apparently born a Catholic, was raised Jewish and attended a Church of England school. My youngest son’s godfather is Muslim. I have Buddhist prayer wheels in my house. I celebrate a bit of everything, and have faith that it will take me on the right road. There is a power out there, and I believe in destiny. Each person has a right to find their own way to their God, I do believe.”
I ask Betty if there’s anything she’s afraid of and for the first time there is a massive a pause of uncertainty before she answers. “Not apart from the obvious, being afraid for my children, of wanting to know they’re okay,” she says. “But then, any parent has that fear. Outside of that, I’m not really a person that runs on fear.” She thinks some more then, with a chuckle, says, “Cattle grids.” Betty loves horror movies and, as a child saw one where an arm came up from beneath a cattle grid and grabbed a character by the leg. “So, I would always refuse to walk over them, until one day I forced myself to stand over one for about an hour,” Betty says. “My heart was pounding, but then it settled down and I was fine.”
Then, after another thoughtful pause: “You know, I just do what I do. It takes a lot longer to get over things, but I’ll just carry on doing them. Until I can’t.”