Australian Biography

Victor Smorgon - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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Coming to Australia as a young boy, and then growing up as a Jewish boy in Carlton, you were just about ready, as your career began to take off and your business started to work for you, to start getting interested in girls. Did you find that there were plenty of girls to be interested in, in the community in Carlton at that time?

Yes, I did. And there was particularly two girls. I was probably about seventeen, sixteen. They were twelve, fourteen. And we ... My Russian friend that went back to Russia, he's the one that introduced me to them. And we became great friends and there was a Jewish club in Carlton called Monash Hall. And every Sunday we would be meeting there, a whole group of us, of friends in there. Each one had their own group of friends, and each one had different corners. Every Sunday met at exactly the same spot. And that's where we dances and that's where we had our discussions and our life around Sundays was surrounded round that particular place. And that's where ... But then we used to also visit those girls quite often and see them during the week. And with some of them you fall in love with, and some of them reject you. So I had both. And then Loti came on the scene, to the same club. Well I knew who she was, and I came up and asked her for a dance. That's when romance started. And then the next thing I asked her out. I said, 'Do you want to go in a sedan or a single seater car?' She said, 'A sedan'. A single seater was the truck, my meat truck. That was my sense of humour. But luckily she picked up the sedan, which I had bought together with my father at the time. We bought it jointly. I was using it on Sundays. I was using it on Saturdays, and he was using on Sundays, on the weekend. So the romance started from then on. But then later, my stepmother, that I keep on talking about, Vera ... We often had parties at home and she said, 'That girl is in love with you. If you're serious do something about it, and if you're not serious leave her alone, because it's not nice. You shouldn't', so I said, 'Well I'm not ready for marriage yet'. So I said to Loti [that] I'll stop asking her out for about six months or eight months. And then I came back again, invited her again. Then we started going out together. Six months after we got engaged and then got married. Got married in a very ... in a Jewish cafe with about fifteen people present. For a Jewish wedding it was a very low key wedding. And we have lived very happily ever since.

What made you decide that you were ready for marriage after all?

Well, you know, you get a feeling inside: enough is enough running around. And it's time to settle down. And a businessman, he wants to be settled down anyway, because it's time to settle down. You don't want to ... You want to get more serious and more involved, and in both in business and in personal life. And steady up on the going out every night 'til two or three o'clock. Because very often, we used to, being a wholesale butcher, you have to get up at three o'clock in the morning. And then you'd take a girl, somebody out for ... to the pictures, and fall asleep, because I couldn't stand up to it. Had to get up two hours after. Very often we used to go to a party or a ball, and in those days you had tails, you know, with a white tails like the orchestra leaders have today. And go straight to work from the party that we went to. And then, so you decide to start to settle down. So that's when I decided to go back to Loti.

So you got married so that you wouldn't have to stay up so late.

That's right. Not quite like that, but near enough.

What was it about Loti that drew you to her?

It was some unexplainable connection that you just like one another. I was surprised that she liked me. I wasn't surprised I liked her. I always liked her, since her age of eight, when I first saw her when she was a little girl. And I saw her very often. Her mother died very early. Her mother came about ... she and her mother came about two years after her father came. And then about twelve months after, she was having a child. She was pregnant having a child at the Melbourne Women's Hospital, and she was a bleeder. And she died, not from any sickness, just from loss of blood. And so the child was stillborn. And so Loti became an orphan, and her father became a bachelor. And he had no way to feed her, and in Europe as you know, midday is the main meal. And she used to go to Faraday Street State School, to which I went to before. And she then used to go to Cohen's Cafe, which is now a very famous Italian cafe in Drummond Street, just round the corner where we both lived. And the owner there was a friend of Loti's father and he was the one that gave us the wedding ceremony ... place. We got married at this Melbourne synagogue. And she was completely ... had no say whatsoever about her wedding dress, [no] say in it. She hated it. But she wasn't ... she's not strong enough to tell people, 'That's not what I want, I want this', and so she didn't care really. The same thing happened to my daughter later. She left it all to Loti to prepare her wedding, prepare everything. She ... All she wanted was to get married.

Why do you think your marriage has been so successful for so long?

I think it's a question of give and take. I take, she gives, or vice versa. And just personalities, I think, is the most important part.

What is it about your personalities that make you ...

Well, she likes me, I don't know, but I know what I like about her. I like her because I'm loud and I'm wild. I was wild. And she was quiet and without saying so she'd quietened me down. In her presence I'd be quieted down because I didn't want to embarrass her, so I'd control myself. I'd control the way I speak, the way I behave, all that because I know she doesn't like it. So you do for her because you love the person, because you want to please the person. So it gradually becomes a habit. And then you ... And also we travelled a lot together because of the business I was involved in. And it was a question of ... and I insisted, well I didn't insist actually, but the first time I went was on my own, and when I came back, I said to her that ... we had three children by then ... and that if I go on my own ... I see I have to travel a lot because of the business we're in. My vision was to build up all these businesses, and you learn so much when you go overseas and see other businesses, and talk to other people. So I said to her that, 'If I have to travel then I want you to come with me. Don't expect me to be faithful, because I won't be'. So she said, 'Who's arguing with you? We're all coming'. So ever since then we would travel always together, every trip. And so she used to go through the day to the galleries. I used to go off in the business, then we would meet and have dinner together and go to theatre or pictures or sleep or whatever, and so it was a very pleasant life for both of us. She wasn't bored because she was doing her own thing. She was ... as I said it was very pleasant. You didn't come home to a woman that was very displeased with herself because she had nothing to do all day and her husband's away on work. In our case she worked as hard as I did in her own things that she was interested in. And she'd find every gallery, both commercial and public galleries, wherever we went. And then she also read a lot. And she read a lot about art and read a lot about ... and she had a memory about what she reads. I don't have a memory. So ... but she's not the type of person that passes it on. I said, 'Explain it to me what is it. Explain me in a few words, because', I said, 'I want a discussion about it', but she can't, she can't do that. She's shy. She's not confident of herself. And I'm the exact opposite. And then she was a wonderful companion for me in business in the sense that when you're always invited for dinner by people you do business with, or we invite them, and she's very ... people like her and whoever sits next to [her], she listens. She doesn't actually talk, but she listens and not a lot of people like listening rather than talking. So ... but then later on she started developing her art interests and art friends. I started going with her friends for dinner. And I loved it. I loved it much more than the people I worked with, because they were much more fun, all the artistic people. So I got involved in that over many years with her. So a lot of our interests were similar.

Given that you are or have been represented as the sort of classic Jewish patriarch, it seems like a very equal sort of marriage. Is that true? Do you feel that there's a lot of equality?

Well, first of all I don't think I'm a patriarch, and I don't think that I'm so important. But people say, I don't know why, but obviously people think there's something there, whatever it is. But Loti has the same reputation. Except I talk about it, she doesn't. And in the art world, people immediately assume that I'm the one that's the art person. I tell them I'm not, my wife is. I support what she does. I love what she does, but she's the one, the important one in the arts, not I. I'm a follower, I'm her follower, I'm her support. I give her support, but I don't know very much about art. Only a bit that I learnt through Loti. So I was too busy with other things to be involved with anything else. And ... but once you get used to it, and come into somebody's house - usually on those trips somebody invites you home - and there's no paintings. And I felt very strange there's no paintings around the walls, because I got used to having paintings around the place everywhere, wherever we lived. And it was ... at times it was very strange for me. I don't understand very much about it, yet I miss it. Why do I miss it? Obviously because you ... you get ... your culture changes slightly and you like what's being done, what my wife does, or what she likes. So you adopt the same attitude, you have the same need after a while. I think that's another way of expressing it, because I do like art but I don't ... I can't say that I understand it. Some paintings I love around here. Some paintings don't mean very much to me. I like bright colours. She likes subdued colours, as you see here. The brightest one, probably that one there, [is by] an American artist, but generally, as you see round the house it's all subdued colours. They're not very bright. The brightest one I picked out, and I mean bright in the sense that they are colourful.

You said that you enjoyed the company of artists and artistic people more than businessmen. You've met some quite famous artists in the course ...

I've also met famous businesspeople. But I have, through Loti. And I enjoy their company tremendously. They are so much more interesting for me because it's a new subject for me. And they talk about things that ... I listen to them, I don't do much talking because I don't know much about the subject. And I don't like to pretend that I know. So I tell them I don't know much about it, but I tell them that my wife does, and through her I understand a little bit about it. And I know what the particular artist was, particularly when we went to see Chagall in the Victorian National Gallery [and I] wanted to buy a Chagall, and so I went together with ... Loti and I were in Europe and the director at the time was ...

It doesn't matter.

Doesn't matter. And his wife is an artist. So we invited them over to south of France and made arrangements through him to see Chagall, because you can't just go and see Chagall. And we walked in by appointment into his house in the south of France, and it was just beautiful. And he spoke both Russian and Yiddish, so we could converse with him. He didn't speak English, his wife spoke English. And then - he was a charming fellow, just like his paintings. And we just got on immediately on a friendly basis. Then he excused himself to go upstairs. His wife said, 'There's a film being shown about him, one of the documentary films. He loved to watch it'. And she said ... I asked her, 'Whenever there's a show opening, how does he feel'. And she says, 'He gets very nervous before the show'. 'But he's famous, he's so well known'. She said, 'That doesn't matter, he still feels that something might go wrong'. And he travelled a lot. And his whole history started off in Russia, but he's recognised as a French artist. He's also recognised as a Jewish artist, or Israeli - not Israeli really - but Jewish. But he did a lot of work in Israel. His windows, for instance, in the hospital there are beautiful. The paintings in his own house were just huge, outstanding. You don't really see them like that. Usually that smaller size. But then we ... the person I was with asked her to show some of the paintings that we wanted to get for the gallery and one particular painting that was offered. But he didn't like it. And Loti didn't particularly like it. But they had the whole, oh probably as high as this ceiling, and probably much wider and much longer, on rollers of storeroom, which is fireproof and locked up and all the paintings are hung on the frames. And she kept on calling out, 'Come and ask her how much does that one cost'. She says, 'We don't sell directly to the customers, we only sell through two galleries. And we sell them by the inch, every square inch, depending how many square inches a painting there is'.

You buy Chagall's by the inch?

You buy Chagall by the inch. You buy all artists by the inch.

It's very understandable that you would get on very well with Chagall, given your background. Andy Warhol ...

Oh, he was fun. Well he was not really fun, he was ... A friend of ours suggested that - he's a dealer. Most of the European art that you see here we bought through him and he suggested that I should be painted by Andy Warhol. So I said, 'No, Loti should be painted'. So we made arrangements to paint Loti. And he painted two. And so I said, 'I want both of them'. He could afford it because he did them in numbers. Some of them are eight of the same person, that he painted. So it was ... but he was a very silent, very strange man. He was a man of very few words. You can't have a conversation with him. But we saw quite a lot of him because of living in New York. We used to bump into him everywhere. He used to come to our place occasionally. We lived in the Pierre Hotel, we had an apartment there. And it was a very cultural, interesting life, as well as business life. So I had both sides of it. Possibly that's what makes a marriage too, work.

Do you think that there is something creative about business?

I think business is much more creative than anything else in the world. You have a look at businesses. Each one of them is different. Same as paintings are different. Every businessman creates something new, something innovative, something. You take any of the Australian companies, or any other companies in the world. The companies usually buy from the people - families that break down or break up. And then they take over the businesses and then they improve them, and they add to that. And they make, put two or three together. They ... how do we reach the world of science today, it's all through businesspeople. If there's no market, there'd be no advance in anything, including culture like paintings. Somebody's got to buy it. Somebody has to make the money to buy it. And so you need ... but apart from that, every business has its own ... contributes something, some new innovation somewhere in every field. You take the technology of mining today. It's completely different to what ever it was before.

For you personally, do you think it's been more important for you to have intelligence, brains, intellectual ability, or creativity?

Definitely creativity. The brains come ... The brains is common sense. A businessman, all he needs is the ambition to make it, and common sense. They're the two ingredients that are necessary: ambition, because without ambition you don't get anywhere anyway. And to complete your ambition, not just have a dream and think and talk about a dream but not creating the dream. You don't always succeed, but you succeed eighty percent of the time of the dream that you have. I had that dream that I just talked about, about the pallet, and I've got to keep on ringing up the office all the time, 'What is happening? When are we going to get that part? When is it going to be ready? I want to see that product'. Then I'm planning to go to America to introduce that product to people that need it. And they need it badly, because hygiene today is becoming a most important word in the business world, particularly in the food industry. And so I'm involved in that. So I want to prove that we are the best in the world, that we have ... nobody can produce a pallet like ours. And so it's all patented by ourselves, all designed by ourselves. We're not talking about ourselves - other people as well, not only me. It's ... I have a Russian engineer, who is very clever. But he's only clever if I push him, if I push his brain up a bit. And we have so much space between here and here [POINTS TO FRONT AND BACK OF HEAD] that's not used and I say to him, 'It can be done'. But people who have certain knowledge in certain industries, or education in a certain field, they're narrow-minded. They think in those terms of what they learnt at school. I didn't go to school, I had very little education, so for me everything's possible. I've no restrictions on my mind that it can't be done. Everything can be done. As long as the person wants to do it. They said this latest idea, this pallet I got involved in, it's [not] going to happen. Well, part of it has happened and we've made ...

I'm going to get you to talk about that later. While we're on the subject of creativity, when you talk about creativity in business, people understand about creativity in the visual arts. Could you be more specific about how your creativity has worked for you in business. Is it about dreaming that you're talking about?

It's a ... you have an idea. To create that idea is in your mind in the first place. You start talking to other people, who might or might not understand you, but you start talking about it. They contribute something to it. Say, 'Why don't you do it this way? Why don't you do it that way'. So you start thinking, yes, that might be the way to go. But you have that aim of reaching that point over that. And you fight that 'til you reach that point. It's climbing the stairs if you like. It just ... what you said the other day about me climbing the stairs, same thing. I'm very determined to get to the top. And that's how business people work, creative business people. And there are other business people, who are just machines. They just do what they're told and they're very good at it, and they do the same thing over and over and over again. And their nature allows them to do that. But they're not creative. They're just running a business. That's not what I'm about. I'm about creating businesses and have been all my life. And again, I'm saying not by myself, but always with other people. Using other people's abilities. A painter uses his own knowledge, or his own imagination, his own paint, but he still has to buy the paint from somebody. He has to buy a brush from somebody. So somebody helps somewhere. Somebody has to prepare the canvas for him. Some people do it themselves. But whatever field you're in, there's always some help on the side. It's not ... There's no person in the world that can do it by himself. Even the famous Einstein, the famous professor, he had help. He had students around him who'd say, 'Why don't you do it this way, why don't you do it that way?' or 'You're going the right way or the wrong way' because once you start discussing these things, ideas get born continuously. It's a rolling thing, it's a continuous thing. It's not just idea. The idea becomes split up into many points and gradually come together like a birth. The cells get together until you reach that point that you aim for.

In relation to the community, and in your personal life dealing with the community, you're very famous, and unusually so in the Australian context, for philanthropy. What's the philosophy behind your giving?

Well, I think it's very simple. There's no mysteries about it. There's no ... Everybody can do it. It's a need to do it by most people that [think] I have started from nothing and I want to share with whatever country they settled in. In our case, we settled in Australia and we want ... we felt that we have to pay back our debt, to Victoria particularly, and Australia generally. How do you help that, how do you do that? You can't give just a person some money, because that's ... you can give it to ten, fifty, a hundred people, five hundred people, a thousand people but you can't give it to the community. And the only way you can do it to the community is to be generous with larger sums to hospitals, particularly. Because in hospital, whether you're black, white, Jewish, Irish, whatever you are, whatever religion you are, whatever colour you are, whatever language you speak, we all ... once we get to hospital, they put a gown on you and you're all the same, you're all equal. Equal is everybody, doesn't matter how rich you are or poor you are, you are a number over there. And you're treated exactly the same way, whoever you are. So therefore you're looking after a lot of people. They get use out of your generosity if you like, [if you] call it generosity.

When you decide to give to hospitals, how do you decide which hospital?

Well, you don't have to do much. Every hospital appeals to you to give them something. So it's not very hard, you don't have to choose. We chose in the first place to concentrate on cancer, because we felt that cancer is the most important thing in the human, in death, in tragedies, and in young people and old people. The ... so we always wanted to help them. When we started off with Macallum's, Peter Macallum's institute or whatever, the cancer institute, when they were in William Street. And at that time we decided to give them a million pounds. And we spoke to the committee. And committee said, 'Yes, yes', they'll accept it. But now they moved. For two years now they've been moved. And we kept on saying that we're ready to give it to you once you start working on it. We want a piece of paper, because you just don't give, you have to arrange it to be done properly. The government was criticising us, the Labor Government was criticising us, 'Smorgons gave a million but they didn't pay'. We're ready to pay but the hospital wasn't ready to accept, because the management was wrong. Eventually the management was right. But meanwhile we decided that we have to give it away, it's getting embarrassing because we promise something and then we're not delivering. So one of my nephews knew a dentist or an eye specialist. He says, 'Why don't you give it to the Eye and Ear Hospital?' We said, 'Okay. We'll give it to the Eye and Ear Hospital'. By that time with the added interest that we were ... because we didn't give it away at the time ... that we earned money on it, interest in the bank. So we added interest from the bank and gave them 1.6 million instead of a million and they built a whole new wing in Victoria Street, Victoria Road. And that was our first big donation to a hospital and after that there was many others. Almost every hospital in Victoria has benefited by our ... both family in the first place, and Loti and I separately. Supported many hospitals and of course, many arts institutions.

Yes, you give generously to the arts too, don't you?

Yes. For the same reason. Because it's in a different way, but it's the same reason. Help the people that are interested in art. And also you're dealing with hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people. Everybody who goes to the gallery gets the benefit of seeing the art. And we specifically bought that art that we gave away to, in Sydney, to the ...

Museum of Contemporary Art.

Museum of Contemporary Art, because Victoria wasn't ... there was nobody to talk to. The Government here wasn't very interested. We were involved with ACCA, which is a small little place, and Loti supported that and has got her name on it, and now it's being destroyed, being moved from there to somewhere else. But it's very small, it should have been much bigger. But then we gave to the ... we felt that we had to give something to Australia as well as to Victoria. So we approached the National Gallery and we started talking to them, [that] we want to do something, to what's his name, the director ...

That was Betty Churcher.

No, before him, before her.

Anyway, it doesn't matter

He's very well known.

James Mollison.

James Mollison, correct. And [with] James Mollison [we] had a very wonderful connection with him, communication with him. And then when they started an appeal to build up the gallery - actually Whitlam held the meeting in the first place. Invited many people. And I told him straight away, 'You can have a million'. And they took it. And then we also gave them several works from America that I organised to buy for the ... Larry River's painting is there, which is given by us. And so ... but particularly getting back to the collection of about 160 paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art ... was specifically bought for that purpose. It wasn't bought to hang on our walls. This is what ... Everything you see here is something Loti loves personally. And she wants that. And that's hers. It's a mixture. It's not a collection really because usually collections go on a narrow roads in one particular section of the art. This here - you see all kinds of art. And they were pleased, and the Victorians were very upset about it because we gave to Sydney. And we said, 'Sydney's Australia, isn't it?' They admitted it's Australia, and they promised the other art galleries anyway to pass it around Australia and the world, wherever it was showing. But it helps the artist as well as the public to understand more about art and to like it and to watch it. And like I told you about myself, when people get used to it, they start taking an interest in it, and then they start liking it.

Owning art has its hazards though, doesn't it, in that other people want it. And you had a famous robbery. Could you tell me about that.

Yes. That particular robbery was very sentimental. When we were young and couldn't afford anything, Loti had cuttings out of the paper, out of the magazines and she'd hang that. And I said to her one day, 'I'm going to buy you ...' Her favourite painter's Renoir. I said, 'One day, when we can afford it, I'm going to buy you a Renoir'. So the day came that I could afford to buy a Renoir, and we bought it and we hung it in the house in Holyrood Street, Toorak. For some reason somebody obviously wanted it, because they broke through the house, they took out a whole glass about the size of this door here, right in front of the passage. And we were away in America. And our daughters rang up and said, 'Somebody's broken into the house'. They asked Loti whether she put that painting away or not, because that painting was missing. It was called Coco. That's one of the sons of Renoir. And the ... Loti didn't remember whether she put it away or not. Anyway we came back and I said to the girls, 'That can't be, nothing is broken. How did they get in? And there's only one painting missing. It's not as if they took half a dozen paintings'. It wasn't an ordinary robbery, it was just that particular painting. And then one of my daughters came into the house to have a look. Maybe Loti put it away somewhere else, and she felt a draught and she then looked around and there's no glass here. A whole pane of glass. So they removed the whole pane of the glass, and we found it later. When we came home we found it around the garden. The thieves put it away around the garden. It was a planned robbery. And sometime later, about ... Meanwhile the police ... I went to the police and told them and gave them the picture and there was a lot of publicity about it at the time. And then about six or eight months after I got a call from a Dutch person from ... [TAPE RUNS OUT]

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