The search to understand Louise Adler produces two lists.

The search to understand Louise Adler produces two lists. The first is composed of her supporters and admirers, who highly rate her intelligence, enthusiasm and vision. It's a group of people who are happy to stand up and be counted in the name of Adler.

The second list is slightly more problematic. They are the critics of Adler, and while many acknowledge her capabilities, their issues are with the way she works, her style, if you like. This list is largely in the shadows, for as is the nature of these things, few are prepared to put their names to their appraisals.

It is also fair to say that the second list has grown since the events of last August and September, when the Adler-led board at Methodist Ladies College oversaw the departure of much-loved principal Rosa Storelli. This was a very Melbourne stoush that shook the inner eastern suburbs establishment, which loved Storelli and trusted the education of their daughters to her.

Adler already had a profile: head of Melbourne University Publishing, deputy chancellor at Monash, former Age arts editor, Radio National host, Victorian College of the Arts deputy director, Q&A panellist. And, of course, married to Max Gillies, theatrical icon. But the MLC ructions propelled her visibility to new levels, although it is the kind of profile she would clearly prefer not to have.

Yet well before the whole messy MLC business, the two Adler lists already existed. Perhaps that is inevitable given she has ranged across so many important cultural institutions, where - to use management speak - she has often been a change agent.

Maxine McKew, the journalist turned Labor politician, is in the

pro-Adler camp. Adler published McKew's Tales from the Political Trenches, her account of Labor in power.

They got to know each other properly in 2007, when Adler signed McKew. In both journalism and politics, she has seen the good and the bad of individuals and their styles.

So why does Louise Adler have her enemies?

"If you are going to be effective and a force, not everybody's going to like you," says McKew. "That can often be the price of making a difference.

"I know a few leaders in their field who are the exceptions to that, who seem to be able to get on with everyone. But I have to say, my experience tends to be those who are effective and make a difference can tend to have polarising aspects to them."

Which makes Louise Adler a very interesting subject. The MLC fracas is a part of that story but far from the whole picture, for there is much more to Adler than that.

After some convincing, Adler agrees to talk. The venue is The European, in Spring Street opposite Parliament House, the Carlton-based MUP's "CBD office", she jokes. Indeed, at the tables of this narrow, wood-panelled piece of the old world in Melbourne, Adler has done many deals, persuaded many authors that MUP should be their publisher. As she says, she did not invent the publisher's lunch. But she is obviously very good at it.

We talk for a while before she agrees the recorder can be turned on. I impress on her that this is not a piece of journalistic character assassination, but rather an attempt to find out who she really is. Given the brutality of the MLC affair, her caution is understandable.

So who is Louise Adler? It's not a mystery, she insists. "Nice girl from a nice family," she says. "Seriously."

Adler was born into 1950s Melbourne, the second child of the very close family of Jacques and Ruth.

As a seven-year-old, Ruth fled Nazi Germany with her parents in 1939. As a teenager, her father was a member of the Resistance in Paris. Ruth and Jacques met and settled in postwar Melbourne. "They don't view themselves as Holocaust survivors," says Adler. " My father's father was deported and died in Birkenau. But neither of my parents viewed themselves as victims."

The book thing began for Adler during her childhood. Diagnosed with asthma, she would spend the middle term of every year in bed, essentially invalided. "I didn't mind because I just liked reading," she says. "I was rather a shy child. So I was very happy. I read a lot of Enid Blyton."

She devoured Blyton's "domestic realism" books such as The Famous Five, and the Naughtiest Girl series. Her grandmother would routinely visit after picking up half a dozen novels for her.

This was her reading fare until she was about 10. Things changed when she started saying, "Oh goody, lashings of potato!" at the family dinner table.

"My very gentle father, an urbane Parisian Jew not known to take his potatoes in 'lashings', said, 'I think that will be that, then,' " she recalls. A bookshelf of Enid Blyton was consigned to the bin and a lifetime of reading adult novels was kick-started with the likes of Mila 18, by Leon Uris, about the Warsaw uprising.

Despite her illness, Adler recalls a very happy childhood. There was a sense of moral elevation; rather than pop music, it was Saturday night at the Town Hall listening to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with what was called the "schnitzel crowd".

Weekends also included Hashomer Hatzair, a progressive Jewish youth movement, and Sunday school for Yiddish lessons. Her family were cultural, not religious Jews. "I would call myself a devout Jewish atheist." (In 2007, Adler would confront the pro-Israel lobby, and was rounded upon for publishing Antony Loewenstein's My Israel Question. "Her response in a nutshell," says Loewenstein, "was, I guess, 'Bugger off. This is my role as a publisher.' ")

Like many other bookish teenagers, she had a rich imaginative life: she, improbably, imagined herself as Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary.

She went to Elwood Primary, and then to the Elsternwick campus of MLC. In the middle of the MLC wars, this became a point of difference for some, because Adler didn't go to the main Kew campus. Adler, they huffed, wasn't really a fully fledged old girl. "If it matters so much to you ... you asked me to take on the role of chair, I didn't solicit the invitation," she says. "Parochial. That's very Melbourne. Very Kew, really."

Adler then went to Mt Scopus College for her final three years. It is hard to imagine Adler, one of the country's strongest feminist voices, was always the self-described "nice girl". Surely, there must have been a flame of rebellion?

Eventually, she acknowledges this other side. Her father still wonders why she walked around in her matric year with a copy of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch under her arm. She also declined to attend the debutantes' ball.

And yes, there was that anti-Vietnam moratorium she went to with her brother when she was 15. As the chanting grew louder, things got tense and the police horses moved in. "There was an engagement between nice little well-mannered Louise and a policeman - a small contretemps," says Adler. "At which point I was thrown to the ground, pulled by my Mary Travers-like locks along the ground.

"But what I can remember, as only a narcissistic 15-year-old would, is that I looked down, while he was pulling me by my hair which was painful, [and] I thought, 'Oh my god, my fly's undone, I am so embarrassed.' "

She ended up in the Russell Street lock-up, and believes her father left her there longer than needed to teach her a lesson, "that if I thought that this was political action, then I was deluded".

Barrister and later Supreme Court judge George Hampel defended her, and someone suggested she wear white gloves. She got a good-behaviour bond. "There's your exclusive," says Adler.

After matric (year 12), Adler left the country to study in Israel, then at the University of Reading, followed by Columbia, where she worked as an assistant to Palestinian academic Edward Said.

Adler's extended education overseas gave her a tremendous breadth of experience. But this absence from Australia, which coincided with the Whitlam years, is important. While Adler is from Melbourne, she is not completely of it. She was also from a first-generation immigrant family, with no historical or family ties to Melbourne. "So I don't feel deeply connected to this place in ways that people who went to school here, kept those school friends, went to university, married, and stayed in this place feel," she says.

As for deep ties to this city, "I'm sorry that I don't have them, but I don't have them."

She arrived back in Melbourne in 1980 to a literature tutorship at the University of Melbourne. She did Dickens for second and third-year students, and The Heroines' Voice: her passion was feminist literary theory and the great women writers of the 19th century.

She married Gillies, had a son and a daughter. Gillies, she says, has been an "absolute encourager" and intellectual companion. But the English department at Melbourne was not for her.

Book industry luminary Mark Rubbo convinced her to edit the Australian Book Review. She didn't know anything about editing magazines, and wasn't steeped in Australian literature. Yet it worked out, as it did when Sandy Grant of Reed Books believed she would make a great publisher.

Then came the first of what would be two contentious jobs. The first was at The Age, where she was hired by then editor Alan Kohler as the arts and entertainment editor. "I thought books, newspapers, they're sort of similar objects. And they turn out not to be."

Adler was given the brief to revitalise the arts pages, and Kohler (now MUP chairman) says she succeeded in her brief. She formed deep friendships at The Age but also faced hostility, partly because she was not a journalist. Some Age colleagues ended up firmly on the second list.

Len Radic, theatre critic for The Age for 20 years, came into conflict with Adler over a speech she gave in Perth. Radic said he heard from a colleague, who was in the audience, that she had said some "inflammatory" things about him.

Radic says he was seriously considering taking legal action, but decided against it. Radic says that to her credit, Adler later apologised.

But Radic, who left the paper during Adler's reign, has not forgiven her. "I was invited to appear in a session on theatre criticism at the VCA," says Radic. "They were surprised when I replied that I would never ever appear on a public platform with Louise Adler, and I never have."

Adler does not respond to the specifics of Radic's account. She notes that he was replaced by two reviewers and a range of freelance contributors.

After The Age, she went to the ABC and hosted the radio show Arts Today, where it was a case of turning on the mike and being wished good luck. She loved it.

Then came her time as a deputy director at the Victorian College of the Arts. Like The Age, her tenure was contentious. She was charged with implementing a blueprint created by British educator Sir Ken Robinson, the basic thrust of which was to encourage collaboration between the six different schools. It was collision of the old and new just waiting to happen.

"Certain sections of the staff were wildly opposed to it," recalls Adler. "I think they were opposed to it not for sound pedagogical reasons, but for the interests of the discipline. I think we needed to come to some accommodation."

Again, there are those from the second list with long memories of that era. "Louise is a one-off, high-octane performing personality," says one observer. Cram that combination into an institution such as the VCA, and the tensions erupt.

Adler says she is not a "change agent" for the sake of it, although maybe people think it. "People have come to me for those jobs, not me going to them."

If there is the perfect job designed for Louise Adler, it is that of publisher-in-chief of Melbourne University Publishing, where she has become a leading figure in Australian publishing. For the past decade, Adler has presided over a transformation of MUP from low-key university publisher to one that gets noticed. She describes MUP as a scholarly/serious non-fiction publisher, a "boutique" operation that punches above its weight.

Most notable has been the impressive list of political books it has published, across the spectrum, from The Latham Diaries to Tony Abbott's 2009 political manifesto Battlelines.

Yet there are the critics: MUP shouldn't be in the business of populist books, competing with commercial publishers who don't get university funding. "What have the Mark Latham diaries got to do with the University of Melbourne?" says one. "He didn't even go there."

Adler has heard the criticism. "I think that plenty of people would wish that MUP would go back to publishing academic monographs solely, right?" she says. "Well, I can't help that. We feel that we want to bring the academy into the public sphere, and the public sphere into the academy. That's what we see as our mandate. I resent the static, but I don't mind what one's critical about, but the criticism seems to come from sexism, and a little bit of rivalrousness."

Women who do things, she says, are characterised as divisive and feisty. This, she sees, stems from a "bit of latent sexism".

Adler was appointed just before vice-chancellor Glyn Davis arrived at the university, but the pair seem well suited in terms of philosophy and approach.

Davis says the university asks MUP to publish works of merit that contribute to scholarship and national debate, and MUP "does an outstanding job against that brief".

As for its political list, Davis says the decision was made by MUP alone. "But it is a brilliant choice given the MUP mission, and has given the list a distinct voice in Australian publishing."

Davis is clearly a fan of Adler, who he says is known everywhere for her tenacity and determination. "When asked how to negotiate with Louise, my advice is always 'save time - give in now'."

Yet despite this, these have been difficult times for MUP, which along with other publishers has seen sales fall as the digital revolution, online sales and a high Australian dollar shake the industry to its foundations. In 2011, MUP recorded a loss of $2.1 million. This year, the publisher will report that it is back in the black.

But it has taken some dramatic action. The number of books published has been reduced, and there has been considerable behind-the-scenes activity, with the university coming to the aid of its publisher with a multimillion-dollar injection of funds.

It has, then, been quite a year for Louise Adler. The MUP ship has been righted, and MLC is looking for a new principal. Yet the latter will take some time to fade.

A few weeks ago, Adler was in her local fruit shop when an older woman approached her. Adler went to shake her hand, but it was clear the woman was reluctant to reciprocate. "You and the board have destroyed the reputation of MLC," the woman, an MLC old girl, told her.

Adler says she tried to explain her position, within the bounds of the confidentiality surrounding the agreement with the former principal. But her confronter was not interested.

Adler was upset by the encounter. "Of course I was. I know it's unfair." She wants people to know the board operated with the "highest level of integrity".

"You have to know that in your heart. Of course I've thought deeply about the whole process, I've thought about what might have been done differently. And I've come to the conclusion that every endeavour was made to resolve this in a constructive fashion."

All of which would make an intriguing chapter in a book on Adler's life, which would have a ready market in those who make up the two lists.

Maxine McKew has been encouraging Adler to write her own story. "You can't tell these stories!" protests Adler. "I would be sued from here to kingdom come. Never!"

And Adler, the publisher, knows that's the only kind of book that would sell. "There are some interesting stories to be told," she says. "But there is the important matter of keeping faith with one's authors. If you're going to write a bland book about how wonderful life has been and all the riveting and flawless characters you've worked with, best not to bother."

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