Belle’s of Bondi

By Elisabeth Wynhausen


Gitta and Fred Gold in Belle’s Lingerie and Frock Salon. Photo courtesy of the family

Belle’s Lingerie and Frock Salon was a fixture on Hall Street, Bondi, for so long it was possible ever afterwards to close one’s eyes and picture it as it had been.

Boxes were stacked up on the shelves behind the glass counter that ran from the front of the shop to the tiny fitting room at the back. There were boxes of bras and nighties, petticoats, stockings, step-ins and suspenders, all arranged by size, from the floor almost to the ceiling, leaving just enough space at the top of the shelves for a few promotional posters from the manufacturers’ reps. Petticoats and nighties would be nicely pinned out in the window on the right, with a pants suit in pride of place in the other window. If they paused to take in the familiar sight, people going past nodded and waved, returning the smiles of the diminutive figure by the counter.

Everyone in the neighbourhood knew Gitta Gold, who bought the shop in 1955, keeping the name Belle’s Lingerie and Frock Salon because she and her husband, Fred, didn’t have the money to change the sign. The sign stayed and so did Gitta, who kept Belle’s going another forty-one years. But she never knew who would walk in next. One day, a Saturday she remembers as if it were yesterday, she looked up to see Sonia McMahon, the wife of former prime minister Billy McMahon, walking into the shop, carrying a basket with a small dog in it.

“She bought a very nice animal print twinset from me. Two ladies in the shop looked after her little dog while she tried it on,” Gitta recalled when we talked about it not long ago. Her daughter Mimi Teeger had arranged for us to meet at the Montefiore Home in Randwick, where Gitta lives these days. Still elegant at the age of 85, she was all in white – she always wears white, said Mimi; as soon as everyone had gone into the dining room and only the three of us were left on the terrace of the retirement home, Gitta lit a cigarette. Mimi raised her eyebrows. Gitta looked unrepentant.

“I was caught here smoking,” she said. Her late husband used to say ‘that’s the 11th commandment – don’t get caught’.

The couple met in Sydney after the second world war. Fred had survived a Russian labour camp in Siberia. Gitta, as a teenager, had survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “That’s where I was liberated,” she said, dismissing the subject to talk instead about the many happy years at her shop in Hall Street.

She spoke in a soft voice with a slight accent. “I bought it from a Mr Goldstein,” she said, remembering that she and her husband had had just enough money to buy the shop and a little extra stock. The same thing was happening up and down the street. Other refugees from Central Europe were doing as the Golds had done, working long hours in a factory until they had saved enough for the key money to take over the lease of the shop. Fred was there, too, at first, looking a little out of place, standing by the till, dressed in a suit and tie. “But as it was mostly lingerie and corsetry, the ladies didn’t really want a man in there, so he started driving a cab. Later on my sister joined me.”

Belle’s was on the block of Hall St nearest the beach, two doors from Bates Milk Bar, on the corner of Campbell Parade. The Hakoah Club, the hub of Jewish social life, started out nearby before re-opening in a big building further along Hall Street. “The Hakoah being there, I was in a terrific spot. They came in and said ‘where is the Hakoah?’ So I had people from New Zealand and America who came to the shop.”

Celebrities found their way to Belle’s , too. The popular opera singer June Bronhill came in one day and asked Gitta if she had something suitable for “a little old lady”. With equal delight Gitta recalled customers from every walk of life, including the men who bought themselves bras and suspender belts and baby doll pyjamas. “There was one. I had to call him Marlene.” She gave a little laugh. “I pretended I knew everything. He said he needed a couple of pairs of shoes. So I said ‘I’ll go to Max’s across the road and bring you the shoes.’ ”

Gitta would go to great lengths to get what her customers wanted. “Mum gave a really personal service, ” added Mimi, remembering her father and her aunt visiting the clothing manufacturers in Bondi Junction and Surrey Hills to pick things up. “They’d ring a customer and say ‘I’ve got this for you, you’ll love it.’ Customers would take half-a-dozen dresses home to ask their husbands which they liked best.”

Naturally the customers changed as succeeding waves of immigration changed Bondi. The influx of Russian Jews in the 1970s brought with it some customers willing to stand haggling over the price of a dress or a skirt. Gitta often caved in

She wasn’t much of a businesswoman, she said. At the end of the day, she would roll up the notes in the till and take them home for Fred to count. But she loved the buying and selling and the contact with her customers.

People bought less but liked to linger over the transaction in those days, when buying a new outfit was something of an occasion in itself. And if they felt a need to talk, Gitta was ready to listen. “I was a very good listener. I gave them a cup of coffee, I gave them a cigarette, an icecream from the corner, and they talked. And they went out relieved.”

It made her feel so useful, Gitta confessed. She wouldn’t have wanted to miss as much as a day of her forty-one years at Belle’s. The shop closed about twelve years ago. And most days Gitta Gold still wishes she was there.

Gitta Gold, still elegant at 85.

Gitta Gold, still elegant at 85.

Give us this day our daily amaranth and quinoa

by Elisabeth Wynhausen

Just after six am, four hours after he arrived to get the ovens going, baker Gus Morrison, a tall man with a slow, shy smile and a flour-dusted apron, stood at a pine benchtop weighing and shaping the traditional l‘ancienne dough that had been sitting in a tub all night. It was the morning rush at Organic Republic, my favourite bakery in Bondi.

By the time the baguettes and rolls had come out of the ovens to be stacked on trays, the heady scent of wheat berry filled the air and the queue on the other side of the counter had spilled out onto the pavement.

Organic Republic, a bakery-cafe straddling the corner of Warners and Glenayr Avenues, North Bondi, bakes bread, buns and scones so ambrosial that tasting them makes you feel better than you felt a moment before. The news has got around. By now bread from Organic Republic gets first billing on some restaurant menus and the bakery many believe to be the best in Sydney gets through two tonnes of flour each week.

Its artisanal breads include a gluten-free wholemeal, an unbleached white, a white sourdough, diverse multigrains, a whole rye sourdough and amaranth and quinoa; having long since worked my way through this list, I went to meet the man who dreamed it all up, a former industrialist from New Zealand, who crossed the Tasman and restarted his life, after a messy divorce.

“I’ve been here since 2004,” Murray Begg told me. “I kind of retired in my early 40s.” By then he had built up a big business that manufactured high-end footwear and leather goods, with a factory in Christchurch and stores dotted around New Zealand. These days instead, he often manages to look as if he’s on holiday, leaning against the Prussian-blue walls of Organic Republic , or sitting chatting with one or other of his many acquaintances, his long legs folded under a café table.

Murray Begg behind the scenes at Organic Republic

But ask him the secret of producing breads so full-flavoured other breads pale beside them and Murray, a genial eccentric with a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper moustache, sounds like a man on a mission.

Convinced that the quality of the product depends not merely on the ingredients, but on the attitudes of the people making it, he has constructed his bakery with the idea of making the work more satisfying for his employees. They’re expected to develop their skills and use their judgement rather than being treated like extensions of the equipment they handle . The happier they are at work, he insists, the better the bread, not to mention the spelt scones and orange almond cupcakes.

Organic Republic is his second bakery. When he quit corporate life he took himself off to live in Golden Bay, a coastal town on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island he likens to Byron Bay. There he opened his first bakery and started playing around with traditional recipes while learning the craft of baking first-hand.

I happen to think that supplying people with superlative bread is not merely a necessary calling but a noble one. Different as it may be from manufacturing shoes made to last, both businesses were strongly influenced by ethical and environmental considerations Murray relates to values he inherited from his parents.

His father, from a family that had emigrated from Scotland, was a man ahead of his time with a belief in social justice he passed on to his children. Murray and his sisters were also raised with the idea they could do anything – as long as they worked hard, planned well and learned from their mistakes.

The confidence this solid grounding gave Murray would bring its own sense of obligation, to employees and customers alike. “You want to produce for your customers the very best product you can, while conforming to those ethics that matter most.”

Managing a supply chain in accordance with those ethics sets up competing demands. Products as organic as the air itself may be compromised by more food miles than a packet of airline pretzels. Murray does the best he can in an imperfect world.

He finds local growers of fruit and vegetables. He buys his stoneground organic flours from the Wholegrain Milling Company, a family-owned business in Gunnedah, in the heart of the wheatbelt in NSW, and then, being a perfectionist, somehow produces flavours so complex and intriguing that savouring a slice of Organic Republic’s amaranth and quinoa makes you wonder if you’ve ever really tasted bread before.

New Year’s Eve with men in masks and the-then Mr Dogg

by Elisabeth Wynhausen

Knife Party, New Year’s Eve, Bondi Beach. Photo courtesy of Shorething

Fair warning: this post has enough swear words in it to make your hair curl.

I don’t look like the sort of person likely to spend New Year’s Eve having my eardrums drilled by the band Knife Party’s electronic pounding, but as that’s what I was doing, a mere twenty-four days ago, I held a notebook in front of me like a shield. It was probably unnecessary. Everyone else at Shorething, the New Year’s Eve spectacular at Bondi Beach, was dancing. They were there to have the time of their lives. I was there to report on the action.

I had waded into the seething centre of a crowd of ten thousand sweating, sculpted bodies to look around when a bare-chested boy with a beatific grin pirouetted like Rudolf Nureyev to plant a kiss on my cheek. I put it down to the eccies. I was relieved he didn’t start stroking me as if I was a puppy, which happened another time I was around people who’d been gobbling ecstasy.

That was at a time electronic dance music was fractionally more melodious than it is now. It has to be said a symphony of jack hammers would have been fractionally more melodious than Knife Party’s hit “Internet Friends”, the song being blasted over the loudspeakers at that moment.

Intent on writing down the refrain “You blocked me on Facebook and now you’re going to die” I looked up to find my improbable presence had become a diversion.

Several young men had turned their backs to the stage to dance in front of me. Others had naturally turned to watch. The dazzling laser show lit up the Bondi sky, but little of the stage could be seen from the centre of the crowd. That left people making their own fun, as we used to say in the olden days before the lyrics of songs were dubbed by DJs prancing about the stage in masks, though so few of us could see them.

It was my second New Year’s Eve in a row at Shorething, thanks to the promoter Brandon Saul, an amiable rumpled character, who also puts on Sydney’s Vivid Live festival. I had first gone to talk to him about the event at Bondi Beach the year before because there was controversy about it. Snoop Dogg was the star of that show. He has since renamed himself Snoop Lion but he was still Snoop Dogg then.

Snoop Dogg at Bondi, courtesy of Shorething

Not all the locals had welcomed Mr Dogg, as one called him. They seemed to think that an entertainer who had boasted of making a living as a pimp and gone in and out of jail presented an image that did not add shine to Bondi’s lustre. Brandon Saul told me – and anyone else who would listen – that Snoop’s gangsta rapper image was part of his act. With that in mind, I went to see the-then Mr Dogg.

I was closer to the action on stage that night, pressed against the security rail above the mosh pit, hour after flaming hour. A glinting SUV finally dropped Snoop and his entourage off on the sand behind the stage, but it took another half hour of interminable mounting excitement before he made it to the stage. He wore sunnies and black trackies with a white stripe. On the hand that kept straying towards his crotch (but never quite getting there) was a silvery rock the size of Gibraltar.

It took me a moment to realise that you couldn’t pick his voice out of the wall of sound – all you could really hear was the one word repeated over and over. Mothafucka, boom, motherfucka boom boom.

Up behind him him were video images of the sort of graffiti you saw on the New York subway before they got the anti-graffiti covering. I lived in New York in the 1980s when you also saw black kids – buskers – rapping on street corners. I guess they enunciated the word mothafucka as well. It seems old hat, I said to the young woman standing next to me at the barrier. “It is old hat,” she said firmly.

It was like seeing a facsimile of the original, blurred in some parts and heightened in others, as if the lack of authenticity had been half-concealed by making it more outrageous. The dancers, big strong girls with big strong thighs, were shaking their booty so hard you worried they would be hurt. They were earning their living by arching themselves almost double, going through the motions as the scrawny rapper sang “I want to fuck you” and the audience sang along.

It was a novel experience. I had never before heard twelve thousand people singing “I want to fuck you, fuck you”. I wasn’t shocked by the language – I throw expletives around more than most people. What shocked me was the sudden realisation that all but the rawest innocents knew the show was cynical and empty, and didn’t mind. What they were celebrating was Snoop Dogg’s celebrity, not his music. I dare say that wasn’t news to anyone but myself.

But that wasn’t all I learned the first time my senior’s card and me went to Shorething. I was in the prime position to see the stage, as I said. I hadn’t realised that unless I allowed myself to be carried out over their heads by the St John’s Ambulance people or the security guards, I was trapped until the concert ended.

I never went anywhere near the stage this time. I liked the idea I could escape, but there was no reason to. The people crowded together in their thousands to dance on the grass behind the beach were so mellow they said sorry if they bumped into you by mistake. Their good humour was astonishing. The eccies helped, of course. So did the long lines at the bars. People probably sobered up again as they made their way from one end to the other. And they seemed determined to find things to celebrate.

“You get a dollar if you’ve kept the glass when you go back to the bar, and I’ve got seven!” a young woman in shorts and high heels told me happily, counting them again to be sure, as her friends loudly counted down the last few seconds to midnight, mobile phones on the ready. Before the new year was a minute old, they were on their phones, talking about it.

Snoop Dogg live at Bondi, courtesy of Shorething

Mr Bondi

by Elisabeth Wynhausen

Bill Symonds last week Photo:Pat Fiske

I had heard all about Mr Bondi long before we sat down to talk. People aware I was writing about Bondi said if there was one man I must meet it was him. When someone used his given name at last, I realised that Mr Bondi and I had been acquainted all along. Then again, Bill Symonds OAM is acquainted with half the people around Bondi. He has been part of the place so long no-one can remember it without him.

I first met Bill one election day handing out how-to-vote leaflets with such enthusiasm even people more likely to self-combust than vote Labor smiled and took a leaflet. I suppose he was in his early seventies then, with strong features set in a sun-burned face that wouldn’t change much from one decade to the next. Until he was well into his eighties, Bill was to be found every election at the entrance to Bondi Beach Public School, a short walk from where he was born, in a street in South Bondi already squared away with tin-roofed cottages and tile-roofed bungalows.

Bill and Curly were born in the hospital then in Rickard Avenue, Bondi

Trams had run down Bondi Road to the south end of the beach since the previous century, depositing families large enough to field a cricket team, the men carrying clinking picnic baskets weighed down by the family china, as they crossed the road to the beach. The terminus was at the very spot where Bill and his identical twin, Curly, ducked over the road as they ran down to the beach, trying to keep their feet in the air so the boiling hot tar didn’t stick. They would have been three or four years old.

Looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths
Barefoot, hungry and as happy as could be.

“Curly and I, we spent most of our time down the beach,’’ Bill told me one day. “We couldn’t swim. How the hell we didn’t drown’s got me beaten. I don’t know if you know, but everybody calls me ‘Yooka’. What we used to do, we used to go down the rocks and see the fishermen, and we were that tiny we’d say ‘you got any yooks, Mister?’ because we couldn’t say hook.’’

Rather than waiting for the next election,  I had met Bill at his home, in an apartment block  on one of the streets stretched along of the headland beyond the northern end of Bondi Beach.  The flat has felt a little empty since his beloved wife, Joan, died late last year, but Bill still sits, as he liked to do, looking out over the beach to the shimmer of light on the sea, sometimes seeing himself and Curly as children again, sometimes pausing over another image from a lifetime ago.

He would never forget the sight, as people in their hundreds, then thousands, streamed down Bondi Road on foot. It was the 1930s. The newspapers reported that in the midst of the Great Depression, with one in three people unemployed and many destitute, a hundred thousand people would sometimes spend the day at Bondi Beach, which cost them nothing. They’d walk from Rose Bay and Paddington,” said Bill, shaking his head at the recollection. The privation of those years was like a shadow memory colouring everything that happened to him in years to come. His experiences made him the instinctive progressive he remains to this day.

I had asked him about his life and he began at the beginning. “My dad was Jewish and married out. The family never forgave him so he finished up, he was a drunk. He drank himself to death,” he said, matter-of-factly. “He was thirty-three. He left six kids. The eldest was nine, the youngest was eighteen months.”

Bill doesn’t remember going hungry though there were days all there was to eat was  bread and dripping. His mother urged the children to get a good education but Curly and Bill couldn’t be bothered with it and left technical school at the age of fifteen to go to work for John McGrath Motors in Paddington. Bill became a spray painter, Curly a mechanic. And Curly, too, would be awarded the Order of Australia in later life.

When Bill walked up the street on the way home from work he’d see the same faces he had seen all his life. But he’d also see people whose very presence flagged the war to come. The first wave of  immigrants to imprint themselves on Bondi were the Jews who fled from Germany in the nineteen-thirties and washed up here. They walked to the synagogue in Bondi wearing overcoats, even in summer. Bill would picture those white-faced refugees in their dark overcoats long afterwards if asked how Bondi had changed and progressed. At the time, of course, he was intent on the momentous events in his own life.

“Pearl Harbour was bombed on the 7th of December, 1941. I enlisted two days later. I was nineteen.” Curly was already serving king and country, the one way to get an operation he needed. “We finished up together, anyway, down the South Coast.” Their unit was about to be posted to Malaya when Singapore fell. “I was very lucky in the army,” Bill said. Calling it luck could be a sign of the indomitable spirit people would still notice as handed out his leaflets, years later.

Bill in uniform in George Street, Sydney, 1942

Their unit was doing exercises at the steelworks at Port Kembla when Bill came under friendly fire. He and Curly had climbed to the top of a water tower. One of the soldiers blasting away from below hadn’t checked his weapon. With his elbow shot to pieces and a big hole in his back, Bill looked like a goner by the time he had been brought down and taken to the nearest aid station. “The doctor rolled me over and said to the other blokes, ‘this bloke will be dead before the day’s out. Don’t worry about taking him to the army hospital, take him straight to Wollongong.’ That was lucky, too.”

Seriously injured steelworkers were regularly carted off to Wollongong Hospital. “I’m laying in bed, blood everywhere.The matron walked up, looked at me and said,  ‘oh I’ll fix him’. She got a great big piece of cotton wool, covered it in sulfa , pushed it in me back and got a big bandage and wrapped it around me, to stop the bleeding and stop infection, so that saved me life . They pushed me arm back into place and got sticking plaster and held it in position.’’ He was soon sent to Darwin where  Curly had been posted. The bullet in the elbow had left his arm damaged – as it would be for life. “They just put me down as B class and told me I’d be all right.”

He was married by the time the war ended. That marriage didn’t take but it was for life, the second time around. He and Joan spent more than fifty good years together, raising four daughters and a son while giving so much of themselves to the clubs and committees that underpin a community they came to embody the spirit of the place. The former Labor mayor John Wakefield, no slouch himself, once said Bill and Joan Symonds were his local heroes for all they did for the people of Bondi.

Bill isn’t a reflective man. But if he happens to mull over all he has seen and done in his long life the distant past may rise up like something that happened yesterday. He looks past buildings where flats change hands for more money than people used to earn in a lifetime, remembering there were only a few weatherboard houses along the ridge when he and Curly first ran up and down the beach, barefooted and ragged, hungry and as happy as could be.

At the south end of Bondi Beach in the ’30s
Bill and Curly just before they turned 90 in August 2012

I live in a flat on the edge of the cliffs at Bondi with the sea out the front and all of life a few steps from my door. The place is in a constant state of flux and ferment. One month celebrities are being filmed on our door step. The next month you could shoot a cannon down Campbell Parade without hitting more than two or three paparazzi. It makes me feel I need to tell you all about it before every last trace of the Bondi that existed when I bought my flat in 1985 is gone.

Things keep vanishing into thin air, like the old petrol bowsers over the road from the beach, which evaporated after the Russian gangsters who ran the petrol station were locked up for drug dealing. Then the forecourt where the bowsers had stood also disappeared. James Packer had come down the hill from Bellevue Hill to build himself a three-level apartment with a two-level fish tank on the very spot where the Russians had hidden their heroin in wheel rims.

But more of that another day. I just wanted to say that in, I’ll be reporting on the life around me as it goes on splendidly reinventing itself, and the life in days gone by,  before the people who remember it are gone, too. So here goes.

Read on… Elisabeth Wynhausen

Bondi and the Bondi Brand