AUSTRALIA

THE PATRIARCH'S WILL - THE MYER FAMILY

Late in the afternoon on a warm March day, three women sit sipping sugary tea on the front verandah of a rundown cottage in the Melbourne bayside suburb of St Kilda. All in their early twenties, they don't know each other well. What they have in common is heroin - a lethal habit they'd all like to kick.

     

They chat, but this is no polite, light conversation; it cuts straight to the heart of their lives as heroin addicts. One woman says she's lost her husband, who overdosed two months ago, and she has four children to support. Another speaks of her friend who overdosed two weeks ago, aged eighteen. The third woman nurses her sick eight-month old baby, and talks over the top of the other two about how she still wants to be using, the pleasure of being 'out of it' and of only having friends who still use. She has visible track marks on her beautiful alabaster skin. These three women are waiting to see the doctor. All went through heroin detoxification a few days earlier and are finding it hard without a guide to finding the best inpatient heroin rehab.

Sidney Myer - 1878-1934

This detox centre is not funded by any government - it relies on volunteers and donations. It uses naltrexone, a highly controversial drug which blocks the endorphin receptors in the brain, thereby temporary stopping both the high offered by heroin and the craving for it. The people coming into this centre view naltrexone as a potential lifeline. Unfortunately for them, many health professionals and the government don't share this view. This centre, First Step, was set up by a wealthy Melbourne couple after they saw their own teenage daughter detox via naltrezone. Their lives now revolve round helping other heroin users. 

Inside the house the atmosphere is relaxed and homely. First Step treats addiction as an illness, and addicts as patients in need of both allopathic treatment and human kindness. On any given day the centre is bustling - heroin is cheap and opiate use enormous. But First Step is struggling under the weight of its social conscience. Unlike other more conventional detox centres which charge in the thousands for treatment, first step asks only $200. This makes the naltrexone course affordable, but puts the ce4ntre on a financial knife edge. There's only one doctor, who helps subsidise the centre by donating a substantial portion of his wage and by working excessive hours.

Myer's - Melbourne, Australia

There is also one nurse and a varied and a dedicated team of volunteers. First Step is desperate for more cash. In particular, it needs to provide better after-care services. As the women talk on the verandah, several young men wander up the path and stand staring with slight trepidation at the scene before them. People stumble and shamble in and out of the house in an almost constant stream. Some are obviously ill. Inside, all is shabbiness: paint peeling, few furnishings, mattresses sprawling on untidy floors, sheets dishevelled. A window is smashed shards of glass remaining in the frame - one of today's patients hurled himself at it, unaware of what he was doing. The young visitors stand out from this crowd: their clothes are clean, their skin looks healthy, their eyes don't have a desperate gaze. These five young men, mainly university students, are all related and are on a unique family outing. They share the same great-grandparents: Sidney and Merlyn Myer. Their ancestry places them in an unusual position. For three generations the Myer family have been generous philanthropists. Now, as many of the fourth generation reach adulthood, it's hoped they will continue the family tradition. Visiting a detox centre is an odd family excursion, but his is so ordinary family; the Myers are in the business of giving money away and this centre may be a beneficiary of the famous family's so-called 'G4', or Fourth Generation fund. One of the young men is Dashiell (Dash) Gantner, an olive-skinned, curly-haired, perspicacious medical student with a studiously shabby undergrad lifestyle. Dash is ambivalent about the family wealth and feels the responsibility for using it wisely. He leaves his cousins and strolls into the doctor's surgery to observe the consultation between the centre's frenzied middle-aged doctor, Simon Rose, and some of the patients. 

By five o'clock those treated have drifted off. The volunteers and nurse are cleaning up ready for the next day. But the centre won't close for a few more hours - there are still patients to see, although the committed Dr rose says he can now afford some time to chat with the Myers. Dash is joined by his relatives and a group of former heroin users in the doctor's chaotic surgery. The Myers are about to listen to what the people who have been through the treatment have to say; and Simon is hoping for a donation from the g4 fund. The Myer family's net worth is estimated to be at least $500 million - based on their shares in the troubled retail giant Coles Myer Limited alone. This is the core of their dynastic riches. Myer fortune is managed and generated through their private investment company, the Myer Family company. Wealth enhancement is a , if not the, primary family focus. But the Myers justify their collective acquisitiveness by guaranteeing that the greater their resources, the greater the investment they can make in philanthropy. The self-imposed noblesse oblige dictates that a small percentage of the family wealth is channelled into good causes. The family's philanthropic organisation is the Myer foundation - and in 2001 its directors (all Myers) offered the fourth generation $100,000 per annum to assist certain projects. These projects can be social, environmental or cultural - all the directors ask is that the fourth generation show some interest in the projects. The visit to First Step has been arranged by a non-family member, the CEO of the Myer foundation, Charles Lane. A few months earlier the Myer foundation had given several thousand dollars to the detox centre to help provide after-care support for patients. On this warm March evening a young woman with bitten nails and translucent skin describes their after-care as making all the difference for her. She had gone through many heroin detox programs. This one worked because she had people calling to check if she was all right, days after the detox. 'When you're a heroin user,' she explains, 'you think the world hates you. To have someone ring you up, a complete stranger, it puts your faith back in humanity.'

Elna Myer

However, the money the Myer foundation gave to the centre is a drop in the opiate ocean. $5000 is used up in a few weeks. First Step desperately needs more. At the detox clinic, the normally self-assured Charles Lane is anxious. Giving money to the detox centre was a new step for the foundation - a step that might not have pleased some of the conservatives in the family.

The Myer family now consists of more than eighty people and spans an age range from infants to near-octogenarians. There's also a striking diversity of lifestyle. Some are regularly seen sipping champagne at Melbourne's A-list society parties, others are happy to be inconspicuous and build boats in picturesque coastal towns. There are some who, perhaps due to a heightened sense of entitlement, are thought recalcitrant. Luckily the clan also has enough members who wish to seek consensus. Within any family there are disagreements, but wealth and dynastic legacies add further complications. For the Myers, struggling to work together through the often conflicting tasks of business and philanthropy, middle ground can be elusive. In philanthropy, the attempt to find targets on which they can all reach a consensus safely has meant funds frequently travelling a well-trodden charity path to the respectable turf of hospitals, art galleries, museums, theatres and universities. Here in shabby detox-land, the Myer foundation is on shakier ground. Research is divided as to the efficacy of the treatment, and heroin addicts are often portrayed as thieves and useless people. There's divided community sympathy for addicts - and little kudos for those trying to help them. The sun sets over suburban St Kilda. The Myer clan listens wide-eyed to the stories of the former addicts. One well-dressed man in his twenties tells them he can go back to work now, thanks to naltrexone. A woman tells of the importance of having support after detox. Paddy Myer meets a worldly teenager who used to attend his old school, the elite Geelong Grammar - heroin is no respecter of class. At various times during the discussion the receptionist hurries in, needing Simon Rose to sign urgent medical documents; he also receives a call from a Perth doctor to discuss complications in a patient. The frenetic physician needs to see other patients; however, before he dashes off, he must quickly make the point to the young philanthropists that because most heroin addicts have underlying emotional problems, the naltrexone treatment has to be followed up with after-care support.
 

Harold Myer and family

This support costs money. The G4 are impressed by the dynamic doctor and somewhat overwhelmed at the enormity of the problems this centre faces-not merely in staying open, but in giving the addicts the care needed to break their habit. One of the Myer group, Will Shelmerdine, expresses his admiration for Simon Rose and the parents who established the centre. 'I'd always read about it from the paper, from a safe distance, but when you come into an environment like this ... I couldn't believe how incredible, how amazing it is. There are people out here in society really helping a lot of people. His teenage cousin, the self-effacing Paddy Myer, chips in: 'I guess we've been born into money-we had no choice to it. I guess it's up to us to help the people who haven't been so fortunate, and I hope we can do some good.' Paddy's comments reflect the general mood of the group.  

The Myers are rare among wealthy dynastic families. They've put in place a unique structure to encourage their youngest members to act ethically and benevolently in the wider community. The Myers' noblese oblige is a carefully crafted family enterprise, with few ties to social expectation. The story behind this altruism lies in the family's past - in the will left by its dynastic founder. Their philanthropy began with a refugee living on the margins and working on the streets over one hundred years ago: Simcha Baevski-otherwise known as Sidney Myer. 

In August 1899 a tall dark-haired Russian Jew stepped off the European mail steamer Karlsruhe and breathed the cold salty air of the Melbourne docks. Simcha Baevski had been travelling for three months after being smuggled out of Czarist Russia (like his brother before him). In the dying days of the Russian imperial regime, the unpredictable and murderous anti-Jewish pogroms were on the increase. Russia's five million Jews were confined to an area known as the Pale of settlement which stretched from the Baltic to the black Sea. For Russian Jews life was generally harsh and deprived. During Simcha's childhood anti-Semitic violence was a rarity in his isolated home town, Krichev. But by the late 1890s it was on the rise. In the months before his forced departure, arsonists destroyed several Jewish houses and businesses in Krichev. But by the late 1890s it was on the rise. In the months before his forced departure, arsonists destroyed several Jewish houses and businesses in Krichev. The Baevski family worried about their future security. adding to their concerns, Simcha was in hiding from the Russian army. The Czarist regime, seasonally at war either with other nations or with its own civilians, always needed new recruits. Jewish men faced a forcible conscription of twenty-five years in the notoriously ill-equipped and undisciplined army. Young Simcha and his resourceful parents carefully plotted escape from the fearful bleakness.

In early 1899, Simcha's mother Gina Dabrusha Baevski decided now was the time to close her successful drapery business and make good the plans for the family's escape. It was clear her beloved Simcha should join his brother Elcon in Australia. Elcon had spent the last three years in Melbourne working for a brother-in-law, Lasar Slutzkin. Lasar had offered to pay for Simcha's fare to Australia. With relatives and a manufacturing business already established in Australia, it made sense that Simcha should accept the offer. Gina then determined that she and her Talmud scholar husband, Israel Yeheskial Baevski, should flee to Palestine. Gina and Israel were never to see Simcha again. It took Simcha three months to reach his adopted homeland. He wore his one and only suit and clutched a carpetbag 'stuffed with personal linen and oriental curios and a threepenny bit'. He knew no English and had little money. But he was young, ambitious and flamboyant-attributes that in his adopted homeland would stand him in good stead. Simcha stepped off that boat and into this country on the very cusp of a new century - one that would give birth to the consumer economy. The gold-rush years had forged a community that was boisterous and open to fresh ideas. Simcha turned out to be the entrepreneurial showman Victorians wanted. According to family legend, his first transaction on stepping from the boat was to spend his threepence on a beer. He was to assert later that this was the best money he ever spent, because he knew it belonged to him. Perhaps Simcha drank the refreshing beer as he waited for his brother to meet him. Elcon, having the wrong information for the steamer, never arrived to pick up his brother. But finally the Baevski brothers were reunited at Lasar's home.  

The early Myer Family Home

Simcha was quick to find his feet, energentically seeking out ways of making money and fitting into his new surroundings. His name was Anglicised to 'Sidney'. In the same vein his brother now called himself EB (short for Elcon Baevski), and they both adopted the readily pronounceable surname Myer as a tribute to their dead eldest brother, Jacob Myer Baevski. Sidney knew that to succeed in his adopted homeland he would have to master the language and try to assimilate into its culture. Victoria was emerging from an economic depression and there was little sympathy for the plight of penniless refugees. It was commonly felt that Jews were among the least desirable migrants as they were reluctant to adopt Australia's dominant mores and religion,. He spent his evenings conscientiously studying English and reading classic English texts, including Shakespeare. By nature extroverted and theatrical, Sidney would later join an amateur dramatic society. His performance as King Lear was remembered for years - never had the audience heard the king played with such a heavy Russian accent. But the theatre was to be an occasional diversion; employment was the main game. Once established in the relative stability of Australia, far from the conflicts of Russia, the Myer brothers put their minds to the matter of starting their own drapery business. Lasar Slutzkin, despite not wanting his Myer relatives to leave his business, supplied them with 300 pounds wroth of stock and introduced them to two importing firms. The Myer brothers were ready to branch out on their own. But they knew that family would always be the place from which one could build.

Joseph Myers

With the expectation and their new hawking licenses, they travelled around Victoria's thriving commercial centres - Melbourne and then Bendigo and Ballarat. Simcha and EB knew that hawking was the lowest rung on the business and social ladder. It was left to men with foreign accents, usually Afghans and Chinese. In the regional press, hawkers were constantly portrayed as confidence men and all faced discrimination and harassment in a country just about to introduce its white Australia legislation. However, setting up as hawkers was a necessary first step. The brothers at least knew the rag trade. In the Krichev Pale settlement, employment for Jews was severely restricted. Consequently, their mother had meticulously taught her sons the drapery business. Under hr tuition and adding his own retail flair, "Sidney had quadrupled the turnover in the family shop in the year before he left Russia. From he background sprang the brother's confidence. Whether the day was hot and dusty or wet and windy, Sidney traipsed around the bustling town, carrying a heavy wooden box filled with an array of buttons, ribbons, cotton and needles. His days were long and frequently exhausting.

Uncle Will Myers, Johnnie, Arthur, Ora, Ruth, Ralph, Aunt Lille Huggins Myers -
Taken by the Old Myer's Mill Site in Dodge Oregon.

The family enjoys a favourite, although apocryphal, story of Sidney's hawking times. One hot day, they say, a fatigued Sidney staggered into the town of Maldon. The town publican saw him and invited him to have a drink and rest. The publican saw him and invited him to have a drink and rest. The publican poured him a drink and gave Sidney a basin of water for his blistered feet. The hardworking hawker, too tired to wash his own feet, had to be helped by this good Samaritan. The shoes were worn and the socks torn. As his aching feet lay soaking, Sidney fell asleep. The solicitous proprietor gave him a bed for the night and the next day a grateful young man went on his way. As his business grew, Sidney rarely went into Maldon - but didn't forget the publican's kindness. By the time of the Great Depression, years later, Sidney Myer had become on the most successful retailers in the country. In those hard times a stream of down-at-heel jobless men from all over Victoria came knocking for work at the door of the Myer Emporium. As Sidney walked into his store one day, he came face to face with one of the job-hunters. Sidney recognised this penniless character as the Maldon publican, now down and out after the Depression had left his business - and indeed the entire town of Maldon - ruined. Sidney took the fallen publican to his managers and told them that this man was a friend and that he was to have a job with the Myer emporium for as long as he wanted.

However, in the early years of the twentieth century, the glory days of the Myer Emporium were barely imaginable. The brothers dared only climb the rickety retail ladder one rung at a time. In 1900 they opened their first store in Pall Mall, the centre of Bendigo. For these aspiring migrants this thriving regional town was an ideal location. The gold rush was over but the 40,000 residents still enjoyed the wealth generated by the gold mines. For the Myer brothers this meant ample income and people to support their nascent retail business. It was more a cramped depot than a shop, with Sidney delivering purchases to their out-of-town customers on his travels. This little business was delightfully and officially called 'Myer bros., Drapers and Importers; Ladies Underclothing a Specialty. Skirts, Blouses, etc., Made to Order'. It appeared no match for their established competitors Craig & Williamson and Beehive. Myer Bros was minute and the clientelle sparse, but the brothers had two advantages: their goods were generally cheap and they sold ready-made clothes as well as those made to order. Women who had always sewn the family outfits were being offered a time-saving alternative. The Myer brothers' ready-made clothes began to make an impression on all but the well-to-do.   

Rose Myer & Family

The good-looking Sidney was a natural salesman, outgoing and charming. His brother EB preferred to be behind the scenes and was a meticulous administrator. The brothers differed in personality and attitude, but this only became a problem when it came to their faith. Judaism had been the spiritual bedrock of their upbringing. But once in Australia, Sidney enjoyed a life with few religious restrictions. While others sought security within Victoria's tightly knit Russian-Jewish community, Sidney was determined to transcend this enclave. He believed that to succeed in Australia meant keeping his ties to the Jewish faith and community at a minimum. His brother was perturbed by Sidney's transformation. One of the busiest trading days was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. For EB the shop had to be shut, at least until the evening. Sidney, always a religious pragmatist, wanted it open. The differences between the firm believer and the firmly businesslike created a temporary schism. In 1903 EB returned to work with Lasar in Melbourne. Sidney bought out his brother and stayed with the Bendigo shop. The decision almost proved disastrous. Sidney still spoke English haltingly and his style was foreign and too flashy for many straitlaced Victorians. Customers stayed away and Sidney, now bound to the store, was unable to travel around the towns to sell his goods. After a year going solo his shop was almost lost.

According to the Bendigo Advertiser, shoppers preferred to buy from the established and more staid emporiums. Sidney despaired as he tried in vain to keep his small shop open. as he watched his losses mount up he felt forced to sell up and went to the manager of one of the bigger firms who agreed to buy Sidney's stock at less than cost. Just before the sale contract was signed Sidney mused: 'If I am to receive only these low values then why should I not sell my wares at these prices to the people who have support4ed me in the past?' Accordingly he spent all one night in marking his stock at the lower values. Always recognising a bargain, people flocked to his shop and soon the stock became exhausted. Young Myer found he had enough money to purchase more stock, and to his delight the patronage continued. It was the turning point in his life.

Salama Myer

Serendipity had played its part in Sidney's mercantile drama. From misfortune there emerged a technique that became his signature: the sale. This, and other versions of the cut-price deal, became the trademark for all future Myer stores and the foundation of the family's immense fortune. Spurred by his immediate success, Sidney now conjured up gimmick after gimmick. He soon became known for bargains and blitzkrieg advertising. On one occasion he bought 5000 hats and announced he would sell them for a few shillings each as soon as the town Hall clock struck 8 pm. Bendigo's main street was bedlam; women fainted as the throng pushed towards the bargains. The chaos abated only when all the hats were sold. His youngest daughter, now Lady Marigold Southey, claims that when her father set up his business in Melbourne in 1911 he changed the prevailing washing routine. Traditionally Monday was washing day for Melbourne households. However, when the Myer Emporium opened, Monday became its weekly sales day. People would flock to the city to get the bargains. The washing could wait when a sale at Myers was on. Unlike his staid competitors, Sidney's business thrived on high turnover; the bottom line was selling as much as possible. It was Sidney's ostentatious daring that gave Myers a distinctive quality. His sales and mail-order catalogues were new, brash and eye-catching. He also found his customers enjoyed being able to touch the cloth and inspect the quality for themselves rather than wait for a salesperson. They enjoyed the informality of shopping at Myers and now came again and again.

Sidney had a few opponents. a handful of the fashionable wealthy ladies of Bendigo remained unconvinced and stuck to the conventional shops and up and down the tree-lined Pall Mall; rival Bendigo retailers waged bets as to when this upstart with his cutthroat discounts and ubiquitous advertising would fall into bankruptcy. But Sidney Myer wasn't going to give them any such pleasure. In a few short years he became Bendigo's most successful retailer. His ambitions were far from satisfied, however; he set his expansionist sights on marvellous Melbourne. In the early post-Federation years, Victoria was ebullient. Indeed, Melbourne was home to the new federal parliament and had overtaken Sydney as the nation's financial and industrial heartland. In 1911 Sidney made the move from Bendigo to Melbourne. He was thirty-three and in just over ten years he had risen from penniless refugee to wealthy entrepreneur. He opened the Myer emporium in Bourke Street - the commercial heart of Melbourne. The store was an immediate success. Despite this, Sidney couldn't yet bring himself to break all ties with Bendigo and the Pall Mall business would remain open until 1914.

To his new home in Melbourne he brought his cantankerous wife. In 1905 Sidney had married Nance Flegeltaub, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish retailer. The marriage would never be happy. At the time of their 1904 engagement Sidney probably thought it useful to marry the daughter of a successful Ballarat businessman. Nance was eight years her husband's senior. When the couple first met she was thirty-four and her parents were keen to arrange a good marriage for their eldest daughter. She was smart, quick-witted and apparently possessed of some charm, but she lost her sense of humo9ur with Sidney. To her, he had the manners and the education of a peasant; but despite these perceived flaws, she preferred to marry him than be a spinster, forever beholden to her parents. In this loveless union no children were conceived. Sidney later described their marriage as 'wretched and turbulent'. He was to spend most of their eleven years together buried in business-building, preferring the demanding workplace to the chilly atmosphere of home. It was, perhaps, a marriage born of Sidney's apprehension that, despite his growing wealth, he would always be considered the Jewish outsider. His friend and biographer, Ambrose Pratt, believed the marriage was the result of pressure from Sidney's relatives who felt his bachelorhood was in defiance of Jewish custom. In matters of religion he was pragmatic; his abiding passion remained his Baevski family. He had wanted to bring his parents to Australia but they died in 1904, the year his business nearly collapsed. Now, with a successful store in Melbourne, Sidney wanted to be surrounded by family. Relations with EB and Lasar remained strong and Sidney turned his attention to making the Myer emporium a family concern.  

THE PATRIACH'S WILL - THE MYER FAMILY - PART 2

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