Aunty Pearl at the Astra

By Elisabeth Wynhausen

Aunty Pearl at the Astra

Aunty Pearl back at the Astra

Aunty Pearl Martin doesn’t look her age and doesn’t see any reason to reveal it to the world. But what she will say if the question arises is: “I’m the oldest Maori lady in Bondi, love.” Sometimes Aunty Pearl agrees she must be a Maori elder if only because she’s old enough. Other times she’ll remember telling some people who wished her to play the part of a tribal elder: ‘I didn’t come to Australia to be a Maori – I came for the sport for my kids.’

“Which I did, love,” Pearl told me when we talked.

I had arranged to meet her after hearing that she worked as a maid at Bondi’s Hotel Astra in the early nineteen-eighties, which was a bit like being able to meet with a housemaid who worked at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago when Al Capone had a suite there. In short the Astra was then notorious.

Before she got to that part of the story, all in good time, Aunty Pearl recalled a little of her own eventful life. We had met at the small flat in Bondi she shared with her son, who works shifts on a maintenance crew and was asleep in the next room. Pearl spoke softly so as not to wake him, gasping for breath between words, as she explained that she had been an activist in the old days, back home in New Zealand.

“We sat against the government in Auckland for 500 days,” she said, wheezing a little before adding that her two brothers and some cousins had been among the instigators of the drawn-out occupation of traditional Maori land the government was handing over to a developer. The protest would draw attention to injustices against the Maori, but that came several years later: by then, Pearl had left New Zealand behind, landing on these shores a few days before Christmas, 1980, with her husband, four children and two suitcases.

When she said so I glanced around, half-expecting to glimpse what they had brought with them thirty-something years ago. The spotlessly clean living room looked as if nothing had ever been thrown away. Figurines, pictures, old cups, sports trophies and other treasured objects covered every surface. An exercise bike was tucked into a corner, next to shirts on hangers hooked on a shelf.

There were a few chairs and a card table spread with the bits of jewellery Pearl likes to make; clearing away shoeboxes that held more of her jewellery, she lowered herself cautiously into a chair. Her health is not what it was and she gets about these days with the aid of a walking stick but she has the ready laugh of a person full of life. The laughter resounded as she remembered starting work at the Astra in nineteen-eighty-one . She was doing shifts as a cleaner at the Bondi Beach Public School by then, but it was only a casual job; hearing that the Astra was advertising for kitchen staff, she was up there in a flash.

“I went there as a cook. I couldn’t cook for nuts, love,” Pearl confided. “I thought I’ll go and have a look anyway. They said ‘do you know how to cook?’ I said, ‘oh yeah’. Then Mrs Bullivant, the manager, came along. She was a little lady, but very elegant. She dressed beautifully. She came over to me and said ‘did you work in hotels before?’ I said ‘back home I did. I was doing the beds – a housemaid…’ She said ‘you can start up at the house’.
Anyway, I started there.”

The Astra at Bondi Beach.

The Astra at Bondi Beach.

The Hotel Astra on the corner of of Sir Thomas Mitchell Road and Campbell Parade overlooked the southern curve of Bondi Beach. A hotel called the Cliff House had risen on the very spot in eighteen-eighty, when there was a dance hall across the street but so little else that picnickers venturing to the beach let the horses that had been harnessed to their carts graze on the scrubby hill behind the hotel. In the nineteen-twenties, the Cliff House was replaced by the building that became the Astra.

Though grand in its day, towards the end the Astra was as renowned for the rock stars who played there as for the foils of heroin lined up on the window sills of the pub downstairs. Bondi itself was seedy. Dealing was rife and after muttering about it long enough, people from Sir Thomas Mitchell Road got together to write about life in a neighbourhood where the dealing went on even in the vestibules of their buildings.

The Sydney Morning Herald picked it up and the television people descended in droves to scuffle up syringes in nearby gardens. One local found a detective from Waverley waiting at her front gate, she told me not long ago. He asked her to come to the station to make a statement before he added: ‘you know people have ended up with concrete boots for saying what you said’.

Despite the mayhem in the bar of the Astra, the guests upstairs included elderly folk who lived in the hotel. Pearl would remember a distinguished gentleman they all called The Professor and a lady by the name of Mrs Bird with more beautiful hats than a hat shop. The old people had their own lounge. The musicians had a lounge downstairs “That’s where you’d see them snorting and having it, you know,” said Pearl.

The Astra was owned by Cyril Maloney who owned a string of hotels and doubtless didn’t know there were police acting as if they were in his pocket; the licensee Sylvia Bullivant had other things on her mind. So intent on her football team the Astra Knights that she coached the team herself, Mrs Bullivant might be seen rushing up and down the nearest sideline, blowing the whistle on Maori boys who could have picked her up like a toy.

At the Astra, meanwhile, Pearl had rapidly been initiated. “Well darlin’,” she said, “my first OD, I went into a room, there was this bloke, laid out on the floor, you know. The Astra Hotel was five floors. The top floor was a ballroom. I was on the third floor and I goes running down the stairs to the office…” Pearl imitated herself, wailing as if pursued by banshees. “I goes screaming, ‘oooooooh someone’s dead’. I didn’t know what was going on. The office lady says to me, ‘never mind Pearl, don’t worry, Pearl.’

“Then these two people come up with a stretcher and that. He wasn’t dead. He was just OD’d, love. But darling, by the time I left the Astra Hotel, you know what I used to do – kick them under the bed and carry on workin’. ‘Well off you go under there, mate, while I fix up this room’.”

The pub closed down a few years later, after the local council, spurred by residents, approached the Licensing Board and Mr Maloney declared he would turn the building into aged care apartments. Pearl was there to the end, which came in the mid-eighties.

By then the New Zealanders streaming into Bondi since the nineteen-seventies were streaming out again, because rents were rising out of their reach. For a time squatters magisterially calling themseves the Maori Self-Help Housing Group occupied a big derelict building on Gould Street, a block from the beach. Soon they, too, were gone.

Pearl nearly suffered the same fate. The building where she lived last year was being redeveloped: she and her son had to move from a small flat to a smaller one. With everything still in boxes there, Pearl and I met the other day at a café at the Junction, before heading towards Bondi Beach to take a look at the Astra.

Though she lived a short bus ride away, she hadn’t seen it in years. The building looked as she remembered it, she said. It was when she was home again, resting a bit after the outing, she told me later, that she became emotional, thinking about the place in the old days, with Mrs Bird and her hats and Mrs Bullivant, looking after the boys from INXS and Hunters and Collectors. “I’ve still got a t-shirt that belongs to one of them,” she said. There was a silence. I pictured her in her little flat, looking around at all the boxes. “Somewhere,” she said.

Aunty Pearl at a cafe at Bondi Junction.

Aunty Pearl at a cafe for the second time in her long life.

Belle’s of Bondi

By Elisabeth Wynhausen

Gitta-shop

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.

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 backstreetbondi.com, 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