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.
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’.
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.