MIRKA MORA:

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

cel­e­brat­ing the life of the bo­hemian artist

The ar­rival of the late artist Mirka Mora and her restau­ra­teur hus­band Ge­orges in Mel­bourne in 1951 set the scene for a bo­hemian artis­tic ex­plo­sion. In a stun­ning new book, Mirka &

Ge­orges, writ­ten to com­mem­o­rate Mirka’s 90th birth­day, Les­ley Hard­ing and Ken­drah Mor­gan tell the in­cred­i­ble story of the iconic cou­ple.

Mirka Madeleine Ze­lik was born on a Sun­day in Paris to­wards the end of win­ter, on 18 March 1928. Mirka’s fa­ther, Le­jba ‘Leon’ Ze­lik, was from Lithua­nia, while her mother, Tsipa ‘Suzanne’ Ghel­bein, was Ro­ma­nian. Both had set­tled in Paris after ee­ing their home­lands to es­cape the per­se­cu­tion of Jewish peo­ple dur­ing the First World War.

Mirka was al­ways proud that her hand­some fa­ther’s rst paid oc­cu­pa­tion in his adopted city was as a life model for the sculp­ture school at the Lou­vre.

After war was de­clared on Ger­many by France and Bri­tain on 3 Septem­ber 1939, Leon il­le­gally re­tained a wire­less and the fol­low­ing year the fam­ily were able to lis­ten to Gen­eral de Gaulle’s broad­casts.

The chil­dren over­heard the grownups’ talk of con­cen­tra­tion camps. Mirka’s par­ents hosted un­der­ground gather­ings at their apart­ment.

In 1940 the Ze­liks joined the ex­o­dus from Paris that had be­gun with the ad­vance of the Ger­man army.

Like many Parisians they sought refuge in the coun­try­side; how­ever, they were com­pelled to re­turn to the cap­i­tal when Nazi sol­diers in­vaded the vil­lage. Cir­cum­stances were dire back in oc­cu­pied Paris: ra­tioning was im­posed, a cur­few en­forced, and Jewish peo­ple were banned from cer­tain pro­fes­sions and places.

‘Fa­ther is very ner­vous, mother is very silent,’ Mirka wrote of this time. ‘Fear is heavy in the air.’

On 16 and 17 July 1942, at the or­der of the Nazis, the po­lice or­ches­trated a mass round-up and ar­rest of Jews for erad­i­ca­tion, sick­en­ingly co­de­named

Op­er­a­tion Spring Breeze.

Mirac­u­lously Mirka and her fam­ily es­caped the fate of so many of the peo­ple ar­rested in the round-up. On the day that they were trans­ported from Paris by cat­tle train to Pithiviers − a tran­sit point for those des­tined for Auschwitz and other con­cen­tra­tion camps − Tsipa made a lifeal­ter­ing de­ci­sion. Dur­ing the jour­ney she took out a pen­cil, pa­per and en­ve­lope she had in her bag and told Mirka to call out the names of the sta­tions they passed through, writ­ing each one down in turn. She sealed the list in the en­ve­lope, ad­dressed it to her hus­band with a mes­sage ask­ing who­ever found the note to post it, and told Mirka to push it out through a gap in the tim­ber slats of the wagon. In an ex­tra­or­di­nary act of prov­i­dence some­one found and sent this pre­cious mis­sive, and the list of sta­tions reached Mirka’s fa­ther. He de­duced his fam­ily’s lo­ca­tion and some­how ar­ranged an of cial let­ter stat­ing that Tsipa was a seam­stress for a sports cloth­ing com­pany that now man­u­fac­tured Ger­man uni­forms, mak­ing her in­dis­pens­able to the war ef­fort. This ul­ti­mately led to the re­lease of

Tsipa and the girls; they were among a hand­ful of peo­ple freed. Mirka de­parted the camp with deep pangs of guilt about those they left be­hind, and with her socks and un­der­wear stuffed with mes­sages from other pris­on­ers for their loved ones. The sight of hun­dreds of faces watch­ing them through seem­ingly end­less barbed-wire fenc­ing as their cart rolled past was in­deli­bly etched in her mem­ory.

The Ze­lik fam­ily’s good for­tune con­tin­ued when by chance they en­coun­tered Mon­sieur Fournier, a rail­way worker and mem­ber of the Re­sis­tance, who or­gan­ised false pa­pers and a safe house for them in Venizy, Bourgogne, not far from Paris.

At some point in 1944 Mirka made plans to leave Paris. Tsipa helped her to nd a po­si­tion as a ju­nior su­per­vi­sor in an or­phan­age for

Jewish chil­dren in Brit­tany. It was here, in the sea­side town of Saint-QuayPor­trieux at seven­teen, that Mirka met the charm­ing and con­sid­er­ably more worldly Ge­orges Mora, who was fteen years her se­nior.

Mirka was most cer­tainly in love: ‘I liked Ge­orges’ beau­ti­ful hands,

The chil­dren over­heard the grown-ups’ talk of con­cen­tra­tion camps.

his voice, and the way he wore his gabar­dine rain­coat on his arm as he waited for me at dif­fer­ent ren­dez-vous all over Paris,’ she rem­i­nisced.

In 1947 the young cou­ple be­came engaged. They mar­ried on 13 De­cem­ber. It was a size­able af­fair and an Amer­i­can rabbi from New York of ciated at Ge­orges’ re­quest.

Due to an over­sight in plan­ning no of cial pho­to­graphs were taken on the day, so the few that do ex­ist of the bride and groom in their wed­ding out ts are in fact posed stu­dio shots taken after they re­turned from their honey­moon.

By the end of their rst year of mar­riage Mirka was preg­nant, and the prospect of start­ing a fam­ily in post­war Paris im­pelled the cou­ple to care­fully con­tem­plate where they wanted to raise their chil­dren. When their son Philippe was born on 8 Au­gust 1949, Mirka was fear­ful about how she would feel if he was taken from her, as had hap­pened to thou­sands of other Jewish moth­ers.

How far is Australia?

A conversation with a well-trav­elled ac­quain­tance planted the idea of Australia in their minds as an even safer haven [than New York where they had also con­sid­ered go­ing]. They con­sulted the at­las, un­sure of ex­actly how far away Australia was.

Ge­orges and Mirka tossed a coin to set­tle it – Australia be­ing Mirka’s pref­er­ence. She won the toss and their fate was sealed.

On their nal night in France to­wards the end of win­ter 1951 they went to see Edith Piaf sing for one last time. ‘Ge­orges was sad to leave Paris, I was ready to tackle a new life,’ Mirka re­called.

Their sub­se­quent ar­rival at Essendon Air­port and even­tual dis­em­barka­tion on St Kilda Road, how­ever, were dispir­it­ing. It was July 1951, the mid­dle of win­ter, and they had very lit­tle money. After in­stalling them­selves in a cheap ho­tel, they were shocked to dis­cover that the lo­cal cof­fee con­sisted of boiled milk with cof­fee essence added to it and the few res­tau­rants around closed at 8pm.

Notwith­stand­ing th­ese set­backs, Mirka and Ge­orges were both en­gag­ing and out­go­ing and soon at­tracted friends by fre­quent­ing places such as Quists in Lit­tle Collins Street, the sup­pli­ers of cof­fee to the Euro­pean mi­grant com­mu­nity.

They also man­aged to cre­ate some­thing of a sen­sa­tion among their McKin­non neigh­bours with their un­con­ven­tional ap­proach to sub­ur­ban ex­is­tence. When Mirka painted foot­prints up the walls of the house as a dec­o­ra­tive scheme for a party, the news trav­elled fast and the lo­cals ocked to have a look the fol­low­ing day.

Nor were they im­pressed by the long grass in the front gar­den at num­ber 6. Flum­moxed when told it should be mowed, Mirka en­listed the help of a am­boy­ant friend called Colin Wain­wright, who promptly poured turps on it and set it alight. ‘Voilà! The grass had gone.’

Feel­ing iso­lated in the sub­urbs, Mirka yearned for a stu­dio to paint in, and in which to prac­tise dress­mak­ing to earn a lit­tle money. Wain­wright knew of a suit­able apart­ment in Grosvenor Cham­bers at 9 Collins Street in the cen­tral city. From the

rst in­spec­tion Mirka was hooked. The space had the at­mos­phere of a Parisian stu­dio.

The Mo­ras’ days in the cul­tural desert of Mel­bourne’s sub­ur­bia were over.

Farewell sub­ur­bia

With an in­ner-city ad­dress and prox­im­ity to the tex­tile mer­chants in Flin­ders Lane, Mirka was able to make her dress­mak­ing a go­ing con­cern. In this she was ex­pand­ing on the life and times of 9 Collins Street, when artists and ar­ti­sans were neigh­bours and some of the stu­dios were used as ate­liers for fash­ion.

She would spend her work­ing days cre­at­ing be­spoke gowns and ac­ces­sories, and ev­ery other spare moment draw­ing and paint­ing, rm in her be­lief that her true vo­ca­tion was art.

Such was Mirka and Ge­orges’ hos­pi­tal­ity that in due course in­ti­mates and ac­quain­tances be­gan to make a habit of ar­riv­ing for break­fast: some­times up to twenty peo­ple could be present. Rather than feel­ing be­lea­guered by the in ux, Mirka rel­ished the com­pany, main­tain­ing it re­vealed to her ‘the beat­ing heart of Mel­bourne’.

After one par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful – in­deed, ‘spec­tac­u­lar’– evening at the stu­dio, Mirka came up with the in­spired idea of open­ing a lit­tle cafe in the city. Suit­able premises were lo­cated at 183 Ex­hi­bi­tion Street: a two-storey ter­race with a small kitchen down­stairs.

Mirka was just 25, and her ‘good cook­ing and good looks’ at­tracted an equally am­ple clien­tele. The menu com­prised hearty French bistro dishes.

Though Mirka Café had cer­tainly been a vi­brant ad­di­tion to the city’s culi­nary land­scape, many of the cus­tomers were pen­ni­less artists

Ge­orges and Mirka tossed a coin to set­tle it – Australia be­ing Mirka’s pref­er­ence.

and the Mo­ras ei­ther let them eat gratis or turned a blind eye when their ac­counts were not set­tled.

The gen­eral con­sen­sus was clear: ‘we soon had to say good­bye to la vie de bo­hème in Ex­hi­bi­tion Street and open a real restau­rant’.

The Balzac

An af uent pa­tron from Mirka Café, Alex Co­p­land, pro­vided the open­ing for the next episode in the Mo­ras’ epi­curean jour­ney. Co­p­land, a prop­erty in­vestor, owned his­toric East­bourne House at 62 Welling­ton Parade, East Mel­bourne – now a pri­vate ho­tel. A cafe­te­ria had been op­er­at­ing out of the for­mer sta­bles, and Co­p­land was keen to move on the cur­rent op­er­a­tor.

When the Olympic Games opened in Novem­ber 1956 the huge in ux of tourists caused a ver­i­ta­ble on­slaught at the Mo­ras’ new Balzac restau­rant.

One day Ge­orges re­turned home with a bold an­nounce­ment: he had bought the old To­larno ho­tel in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. Not only would Mirka have her stu­dio, but the cou­ple could ac­com­mo­date their leg­endary par­ties and at­ten­dant house guests.

Mirka painted a prom­i­nent sign with the words FRENCH BISTRO in dis­tinc­tive, art nou­veau-in uenced let­ter­ing for above the ex­te­rior en­trance.

On 27 April 1966, 18 months after To­larno French Bistro opened its doors, the Mora fam­ily nally moved per­ma­nently into the ho­tel.

For Mirka, leav­ing 9 Collins Street, their home of al­most 15 years, was an emo­tional up­heaval.

Vis­it­ing in­ter­na­tional stars in­vari­ably found their way to To­larno. In ad­di­tion to Bob Dy­lan, English model Jean Shrimp­ton turned up – in her no­to­ri­ous, crowd-stop­ping mini-dress.

For 11-year-old Tiriel, the high­light was Mick Jag­ger, brought into

To­larno while he was in Australia lm­ing Ned Kelly in 1969. Ge­orges en­sured that Jag­ger met his youngest son, who was put in charge of the rock star’s huge black bear fur coat.

Open­ings at the gallery were of­ten fol­lowed by ex­trav­a­gant din­ners in the bistro hosted by the ever-bene cent Mo­ras. With Mirka present it was al­most cer­tain that th­ese would be highly en­ter­tain­ing, and in­vari­ably they de­scended into wild all-night par­ties. Their son Wil­liam re­called hid­ing un­der a ta­ble late one evening, as an early teen, to watch the revelry of the in­creas­ingly in­tox­i­cated adults, who were en­cour­aged by Mirka to strip off and dress them­selves in ho­tel sheets that she handed around, fol­lowed a few hours later by sets of room keys. He re­called, ‘Out­ra­geous but fab­u­lous.’

End of the a air

The com­bi­na­tion of Mirka and Charles Black­man at To­larno was danger­ous, as both were nat­u­ral, un­in­hib­ited per­form­ers who spurred each other on. Their ef­fer­ves­cent an­tics in the restau­rant in­cluded cut­ting a hole in the bodice of Mirka’s black dress to ex­pose one nip­ple in or­der to ob­serve the dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions when she gave din­ers their bill.

At To­larno Mirka en­joyed an out­burst of creativ­ity when she found her­self fall­ing in love. The ob­ject of her af­fec­tion was the young art critic G.R. ‘Ross’ Lansell.

The be­gin­ning of their re­la­tion­ship saw each side pro­ceed­ing with cau­tion – per­haps in part be­cause Mirka knew the un­writ­ten rules of a French mar­riage and she still had to come home for din­ner and main­tain the pub­lic per­sona of Madame Mora.

Although over the years she and

Ge­orges had both had their share of af­fairs, this time it seemed dif­fer­ent. Ge­orges also sensed the po­ten­tial se­ri­ous­ness of the un­fold­ing ro­mance and shocked Mirka by for­bid­ding Ross to re­turn to the bistro.

In May 1970 Mirka and Ge­orges’ mar­riage came to an im­passe. Only Mirka’s ver­sion of events ex­ists, ac­cord­ing to which she ar­rived home late one night and saw a beau­ti­ful young woman leav­ing Ge­orges’ room. The next day he re­quested that Mirka move out.

She as­sem­bled all her art­works and left, nd­ing a stu­dio in nearby Welling­ton Street so as to be close to the boys – for Tiriel and Wil­liam would re­main liv­ing at To­larno with their fa­ther. This ar­range­ment dis­tressed Mirka greatly, but she knew that she was in no po­si­tion to sup­port her chil­dren. Wil­liam would man­age the restau­rant for the next four years while Ge­orges’ com­mit­ment be­came in­creas­ingly fo­cused on the gallery.

Their long culi­nary af­fair had ended. AWW

This is an edited ex­tract from Mirka & Ge­orges by Les­ley Hard­ing and Ken­drah Mor­gan, The Miegun­yah Press, RRP $55. Mirka Mora: Pas de Deux – Draw­ings and Dolls opens Oc­to­ber 27 at

Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art.

Mirka with Ge­orges in Paris 1948.

Above: Mirka and her mu­rals at To­larno French Bistro. Bot­tom: Ge­orges at the bistro. Op­po­site, clock­wise: In Pau, Nou­velleAquitaine; Mirka Mora In the Gar­den of Dreams 1975-81; Hold­ing Tiriel, with Wil­liam and Philippe; with Ge­orges at Mirka Café 1954.

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