Abe Saffron had a little mate at ASIO headquarters

Dudley Doherty and his future wife Joan

BOOK REVIEW

Abe Saffron, the king of Sydney’s vice rackets, had a long friendship with Dudley Doherty, a top spy with the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

Doherty used his accountancy skills to draw up a false set of books for Saffron’s racketeering to evade taxation, a criminal offence. They went to brothels together, shared prostitutes and he attended Saffron’s wedding in 1947 at the Great Synagogue in Elizabeth Street followed by a lavish party at Saffron’s private nightclub, the Roosevelt, in Potts Point.

A young Abe Saffron at his first nightclub

By any stretch of the imagination, it was an astonishing liaison: Abe Saffron, the nightclub and brothel owner known as “The Boss of the Cross” and “Mr Sin”, and Dudley Doherty, the high-flying mole-hunter whose job was to weed out communists and socialists from the labour movement.

They met during World War 2 at the 5th Base Ordnance Depot army base at Moorebank in Sydney’s south-west where Corporal Dudley Doherty was serving the war effort while Private Saffron was using the black market, rationing and coupons to serve himself.

By the time he was demobbed, Saffron had made enough money to open his first nightclub, the Roosevelt, serving cheap cocktails and hiring Frank Sinatra to give it “an American feel”.

As his vice empire grew, Abe Saffron became known as the “Mr Big of Australian crime” who had police commissioners, some judges, barristers, solicitors and the NSW Premier Sir Robert Askin in his pocket.

Although Saffron only served jail time for tax evasion – like Al Capone – his name was linked with extortion, arson, prostitution, bribery, narcotics dealing, insurance fraud and murder.

Now Brisbane writer, Sandra Hogan, has written a page-turning thriller telling the true story of Dudley Doherty’s double life as an anti-communist zealot for ASIO while working for his friend Abe Saffron.

Two award-winning writers – Susan Johnson and Matthew Condon – have endorsed her book. “You will never again think of spies in the same way,” wrote Ms Johnson while Condon, who has written extensively on crime in Queensland [Three Crooked Kings trilogy], wrote this commendation: “A story teeming with clandestine assignations, hidden cameras, gangsters, Soviet defectors and informants, all lurking beneath the dreary predictability of suburban life.”

Dudley Doherty was a true ASIO believer. He saw himself as “a warrior against communism” who was keeping the world safe from the communists of Russia and China. His wife Joan, who also became an ASIO agent, was suspicious of “anyone who was not normal”. This led her to spy on people who adopted “alternative life-styles”. She treated them with suspicion and often contempt.

Agincourt in Potts Point: the original ASIO HQ

Abe Saffron had similar views to Doherty. He thought he was a law-abiding, generous, philanthropic citizen whose purpose in life was to help others.

Dudley and Joan Doherty were worshipped by their family, friends and ASIO colleagues while Abe Saffron was a faithful friend to the cream of Sydney “society”. Their powers of self-delusion were remarkable. Most Australians regarded them as “low lifes” who were “lower than a snake’s arse”.

Ms Hogan has told a Cold War story which is terrifying in its truthfulness and accuracy. Learning about Menzies, ASIO and Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia is a refresher course in what the Liberal Party stands for.

With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2021

 

5 comments

  1. Saffron certainly operated with impunity. Perhaps his ASIO connection relates to that.
    I wonder if the murder of Juanita Nielsen is referred to in this book?
    I’ll be buying a copy.

    Thanks for bring this to my attention Alex.

  2. Characteristically forensic analysis by Alex. An exposé of ASIO which raises the question whether to ever rely on spies and their underworld informing mates. In what way is ‘security’ achieved by sleuths? At least we have an intriguing story likely to answer that question.

  3. Spy agencies seem to like to have some friendly criminals on board… Hoovers FBI in the 60s. Crims can do dirty jobs for them.

  4. The most unsettling thing about the book was the failure of the author to even raise the question of whether it was or is appropriate for a government to spy on its citizens. There was a moral blindness to the whole question – it seemed to be taken for granted that such spying was perfectly reasonable. The focus was primarily on the impact on the children of their parents’ activities and how it continued to affect them even as adults.
    The book’s undoubtedly interesting, and accounts of the Petrovs’ sojourn with the family particularly so.

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