AUSTRALIA

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

In 1913, perhaps because he had no heirs, Sidney sponsored and 'adopted' two nephews, Samuel and Nahum. Najhum was the son of Sidney's dead brother Jacob Myer. Jacob had died when Nahum was a baby and the child had been raised by his mother and a stepfather who apparently terrorised his stepson. When the news arrived that his uncle offered a chance of escape, fifteen-year-old Nahum was delighted. Sidney, holding dear the Jewish saying, 'He who brings up, not he who begets, is the father', doted on his heirs apparent and gave them all the education and encouragement they needed. Nahum was renamed Norman and began to be groomed for a life in the family business. The boys' uncle promised them a grand future, urging them to make Australia, whatever its drawbacks, their home.

     

Sidney led his nephews by example. His growing prosperity had opened many doors and Sidney was a novel feature of Melbourne's business circles. He diligently entertained business and political leaders. Would-be prime minister Robert Menzies was an occasional visitor. Some years later he would liken Sidney to a warm-hearted fifteen-year-old, noting patronisingly that Sidney's outstanding characteristic was 'simplicity'. At home with Nance, Sidney had little scope for warming-heartedness. To those who had known him in Bendigo he was gregarious and extroverted; in Melbourne he established only a small circle of loyal friends. For the few guests that came to the home of Mr and Mrs Myer, it was difficult to ignore the frequent barbed comments made by Nance to her husband across the dinner table.

Russia, 1897: dynastic founder Sidney Myer, born Simcha Baevski (second from right) seated between
his parents Gina and Israel. He would soon escape Russia and arrive in Melbourne with threepence in his pocket.

The worse the marriage became, the more successful the store. Here Sidney could give rein to an exacting despotism and with energy, brilliance and mercurial temper he dictated every detail of the business. In 1914, a mere three years after his move to Melbourne, a new and more grandiose Myer Emporium opened. It was based on noted emporiums in San  Francisco. The chic epitome of the modern department store, it included a luncheon hall, bargain basement, rooftop garden and the most expensive and the cheapest of a variety of goods from clothes to carpets. The new Myer store was a commercial centrepiece for a city revelling in its new-found modernity and sophistication. Even world War I did little to halt the growth of the business - the trademark Myer cut-price bargains guaranteed the store customers through the wartime austerity. In his first twenty years in Australia Sidney had made a fortune. The doubters of Bendigo never predicted Simcha Baevski would one day employ a driver to chauffeur him to and from the office - now he need never walk the streets again.

He enjoyed the luxuries his money could buy, and could satisfy a weakness for flashy cars and exotic art. He also had some family to share his good fortune. His brother EB was working with him again, and his rather erratic nephew Norman was itching to become a fully fledged member of the business. But Sidney was still shunned by many conventional retailers, who continued to disparage his sales tactics and predicted his undercutting would lead to eventual ruin. By 1918 life was at a low ebb for this 'godless blow-in'; he had few close friends, his marriage had come to a grinding halt and tragically his promising and much loved nephew Samuel was killed in a motorcycle accident. Sidney's dynastic hopes now rested with his other nephew, the twenty-one-year-old Norman. but by the end of the year he engineered another seismic shift in his life.

Sidney Myer's marriage to Merlyn Baillieu in Nevada, January 1920, was grist to
Melbourne's gossip columns. For 20-year-old Merlyn, her sensational marriage was
made possible because her mother Agnes (far left) was Sidney's great supporter. (Myer family)

Extravagant risk-taking was a mark of Sidney Myer's business and also of his personal life; he was falling in love with a woman who should have been beyond reach. Sidney was living alone after separating from Nance when he became smitten with a teenager from a well-connected family: Marjorie Merlyn Baillieu. The Baillieus were a prominent force in Melbourne. Leading light William (Big Bill) Baillieu was a giant in mining, stockbroking and banking. To the older-established Port Phillip pastoral families, the Baillieus were nouveau riche upstarts, but among the more relaxed business class, they were commercial and social leaders. Big Bill Baillieu, the family patriarch, had numerous siblings, fifteen in all, and eighteen-year-old Merlyn was his favourite niece. Sidney had known Merlyn since she was a child. Her mother was one of his wealthy customers and would frequently invite the delightful Sidney and his nephews to spend the afternoon at her spacious St Kilda home. some suspect Agnes, a widow, initially hoped Sidney might become her second husband. Certainly it was Agnes, not here teenage daughter, who first found Sidney appealing. But his eye was on Merlyn and ultimately she became captivated by her blue-eyed suitor.

Sidney was twenty-two years Merlyn's senior and many of her Baillieu relatives disapproved of the budding relationship for that reason alone. For some, any association between their lovely niece and a Russian Jew who dealt in handkerchiefs and undergarments was unthinkable. However, Agnes Baillieu was a no-nonsense sort of woman. She was Sidney's greatest supporter, having warmed to his solicitous nature. The Baillieu family were well connected, but the widow Agnes only possessed a small portion of the family's wealth and did not hold with the elitist values of Melbourne's social set. She knew her daughter had certain charms: she was statuesque, but certainly no beauty. With their prosperity coming from Victoria's land and mineral booms, the Baillieus had emerged as an Anglo-Australian dynasty, which several generations later would continue to rank amongst the country's wealthiest and most influential families. when Agnes weighed up her daughter's options, the handsome Sidney was a good catch. He was considerate and loving - not to mention very wealthy. The fact that he was not only a Jew but also married were, to Agnes, mere obstacles to be overcome. For Sidney, the chance of personal happiness was now at last within reach. he was like a teenager in the first throes of love.

Merlyn Baillieu with her four children: in 1929, after spending almost 10 years in the
United States, Sidney and Merlyn returned permanently to Australia. Their four children Ken (seated, right),
Neilma, Baillieu and baby Marigold would enjoy the many luxuries the family could afford. (Myer family)

The newspaper gossip and innuendo surrounding his union barely concerned Sidney after his intolerable first marriage. But extricating himself from the vengeful Nance would be a trial, almost literally. In stuffy postwar Australia it was all but impossible to divorce. Under Victorian law, divorce, was permitted only in cases wher4e the applicant could prove 'matrimonial wrong-doing' such as cruelty, adultery or desertion. The situation was further complicated for Sidney, for even if he obtained a divorce, it would not be sanctioned under Jewish law. Sidney looked to ways of bypassing the divorce laws. He was aware that the state of Nevada in the United States had some of the most relaxed divorce laws in the world. In Reno, Nevada, you could get a divorce after six months of residency, but the settlement would only be recognised in America. Ignoring protests from family and colleagues, Sidney risked everything by leaving Australia and heading to the United States.

His right-hand man at the Myer emporium, Nee Neil, tried hard to dissuade him from this course. Neil wrote to Sidney urging him to forgo the partnership with Miss Baillieu. A devoted Christian and astute businessman, Lee Neil not only feared the wrath of God but also that of conservative customers outraged by such a liaison. The prospect of having to manage the retail empire with his visionary boss - who was now an American citizen - exiled must have been daunting for the strait-laced lieutenant. Sidney had created a hornets' nest - which he attempted to calm by converting to Christianity. at the very least, this conversion pleased Merlyn and the couple hoped his baptism would pave the way for his eventual acceptance by the Baillieus, a family with strong ties to the Anglican church. Sidney was baptised into the Christian faith by the charismatic minister, the Reverend Brewster Adams. Sidney's eldest son, Kenneth (Ken) Myer, would later remark that Sidney's baptism 'was a matter of convenience ... rather than conviction'. Like so many of Sidney's moves, this conversion was rooted in his assimilationist dreams. He wrote to his loyal nephew Norman, exhorting him to convert as well. Expediency dictated that the Myers should be Christians; from here on, their Jewish heritage was to play no more than a token historical role.

By the mid 1920s Sidney Myer had converted to Christianity and was welcomed into Victoria's business
circles. However, within Melbourne's establishment many continued to regard him as an upstart. (Myer family)

It was not an easy time for either Sidney or his young beloved. The estranged Nance refused to cooperate, even moving to New Zealand to avoid having to contest the divorce in court. Despite her recalcitrance, the matter was finalised under Nevada state law. The gossip columnists in Punch, Table Talk and Truth enjoyed the juicy spectacle and waded with gusto into 'the matrimonial affairs of a leading Melbourne commercial man', regaling their readership with as much detail as they could muster about the shocking liaison between a 'prominent businessman and a young debutante'. The papers were adamant that if the couple married they would be shunned by polite society. Other dangerous scuttlebutt claimed Sidney was only marrying Merlyn n for her name and position. Sidney tried to ignore all the gossip and the dire warnings, although at times he worried that Merlyn's reputation would be permanently sullied if the union went ahead. Despite these misgivings, on 8 January 1920, Merlyn's twentieth birthday, they were married. The ceremony was conducted by Brewster Adams in the Palace, a discreet hotel in San Francisco. The wedding party was tiny; the couple's joy immense. On their wedding day the couple ignored Nance's threat to sue for bigamy if Sidney returned home.

Melbourne lapped up the tantalising details of the Myer marriage. The February edition of Punch reported:

... the much-talked of marriage of a well-known businessman was celebrated last Monday. Rumour runs that the first partner of his joys and sorrows refused to divorce him. at any rate he went off to America to obtain the necessary divorce at the divorce-making town, Reno. about the same time, a Melbourne woman hearing a well-known name and her daughter, also went over to America. After his Reno-made divorce had been granted, he married during the first week in January, the said daughter on her twentieth birthday. she is a pretty girl with a poetic name, is clever and charming. The many Melbourne friends and acquaintances are wondering and arguing about it all. The divorce is not legal outside the USA, therefore when they return here - as they must do for all his business interests are here - can he be prosecuted for bigamy? First wife is reported to be waiting for their return anxiously. Will they be received, if the second marriage is no marriage outside the USA!!!

In march 1920, two months after the wedding, Lee Neil, having reconciled himself to Sidney's foolhardiness, wrote advising the newlyweds to remain in America until the furore had dissipated. Neil warned his boss that if he returned he would be 'courting unenviable notoriety' which would be 'seriously injurious to our business'. It was a sacrifice the couple made happily. Merlyn never complained about the price paid for marrying her Russian divorcee. But as one relative put it, Merlyn was now at the 'bottom of the social table, and no longer at the head'. The couple was to live in the united states for the next nine years. Only when Nance had remarried and Melbourne had new scandals to feast over could Sidney and his bride returned to live permanently in Australia. However, life for Sidney and Merlyn was lavish. They enjoyed their second home in San Francisco and their access to the best that money could buy. For Sidney, this racy metropolis was a welcome relief from the snobbish stuffiness of parochial Melbourne, with its old-world reverence for gentility and class hierarchy. Sidney's Russian-Jewish background didn't concern the business entrepreneurs in the United States; indeed, his ethnicity was positively embraced.

Sidney's deputy Lee Neil ably managed the day-to-day operations of the business and precisely oversaw the translation of his boss's vision into practice. Like all good entrepreneurs and budding dynasts, Sidney Myer was an 'ideas man' and relied on a safe pair of administrative hands to make his vision a reality. Every few months a trepidatious Neil would await Sidney's visit to Melbourne. Like the King on a royal tour, Sidney would arrive brimming with boundless energy and enthusiasm, injecting new life into the store and expecting all his new ideas and strategies to b adopted immediately. During his tour the autocrat was to be found pacing the shop floor, rearranging stock, talking to customers, training staff. However, when this tornado of energy left once more, his loyal chancellor most likely released a sigh of relief, happy to return to the details of his meticulous management. Between king and chancellor the Myer empire continued to flourish. But, as with all ambitious patriarchs, Sidney was always restless for more. And expanding the business demanded a full-scale return to Australia. The trick would be to find a way to go home without any more details of his second marriage being publicly pored over. This was so successfully achieved that until the 1980s public accounts of Sidney's life rarely mentioned his first wife. Nance and his subsequent United States divorce. According to Ken Myer, his father never mentioned his first wife and he only learnt of the marriage after Sidney's death. The years in America were casually explained away as Sidney having business interests and furthering his 'retailing education'. Even today, some older members of the family appear uncomfortable with this history.

Father Christmas: On Christmas Day 1930 Sidney Myer hosted a Christmas lunch for 10,000
unemployed men and their families. The lunch helped secure Sidney's image as a caring civic leader. (Myer family)

It was philanthropy that helped smooth the path back to Melbourne - it would spirit him home as surely as Dorothy's ruby slippers returned her from Oz to Kansas. In 1926 Sidney had been several months in Melbourne and ruing this time a long-running headline story was the financial crisis at the University of Melbourne. Sidney had just taken the step of making Myers a publicly listed company. Motivated by the example of American philanthropists such as Rockefeller and by the ideals of meritocracy, he now decided to give 25,000 fully paid Myer shares to the university valued at the time at 50,000 pounds. No conditions were placed on how the university could use the money. Over the years Sidney had spent liberally on newspaper advertising and now the papers, careful to maintain good relations with their wealthy client, reported his gift in detail. In the Melbourne papers Sidney was profiled as a great, civic-minded business leader, even though he was still living outside the country.

Lee Neil further encouraged his employer's philanthropy. both men agreed it would set an example to other businesses, and as Myers made money from the community, t he company should endeavour to give some back. These acts of social largesse were once again given prominence by the local newspapers. The much noted gifts lent Sidney a new respectability and to him it made good business sense. He felt the more successful his business could be, the more he could return the benefit to the community; and the more closely he bound himself to the community, the more his business would prosper. By 1929 many other businesses were looking shaky. The Great Depression was looming in the united States, and what had been a golden way of life was losing its sheen. The couple decided that now was the time that they and their four children - Kenneth, Neilma, Sidney Baillieu (Bails) and marigold - could and should return to Melbourne. The Myer family made their home, predictably enough, in establishment Toorak, where they were attended to by a staff of nannies, maids, butlers, and a governess. Ken Myer would later joke that it was the family chauffeur, Harry, rather than his parents, who raised the Myer children.

Australia - The Myer Family - Part 3

Australian Aboriginal Sites in Temperate Australia

Australian Aboriginal Anthropology

Australian Aboriginal Music

Australia Postcards and Picture Galleries
 
Australia Home Page
 
 
Pacific Islands Radio
Subscribe!
Please enter your email address for your free Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter!

 

Hosted By Topica

COUNTRIES

LINKS

MYTHOLOGY

RESOURCES

POSTCARDS

RADIO

HOME

MELANESIA

MICRONESIA

POLYNESIA

JANE

TRIBAL ART

TATTOOS

CHATROOM

 
Join
Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter
to get the latest news, information and Web site updates!
Please enter your email address below,
then click the 'Join' button
for your free Newsletter!
topica
 Join newsletter! 
       
     
Google
Search Jane's Oceania Travel Page Search the Internet

 
Oceania Time Zones
Oceania Weather

Back to Jane Resture's Oceania Page

Back to Jane's Oceania Home Page

(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 14th March 2011)
eXTReMe Tracker
eXTReMe Tracker