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Julie Szego reviews Frank Lowy A Second Life by Jill Margo, HarperCollins 2015

Julie Szego
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Published: 1 November 2015

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The first thing that strikes the reader about Jill Margo’s follow-up biography of Frank Lowy—shopping centre magnate, messiah of Australian soccer, philanthropic powerhouse and Holocaust survivor —is its sheer size. She devotes nearly 500 pages to documenting one fruitful and tumultuous decade in the life of Lowy, who writer Tom Keneally describes as “a refugee who has shaken life’s tree.” Still, the book’s volume, which places it in the same league as the complete biographies of various prime ministers, many of whom Lowy rubbed shoulders with at one point or another, provokes a question. How much of Frank Lowy, A Second Life unearths the inner man behind the towering persona?

Wisely, Margo starts with a 50 page summary of her first Lowy biography, Pushing the Limits. She introduces us to the young Frank, who helped his family survive in wartime Hungary by “foraging for food and intelligence” in the streets, developing “a heightened aptitude for observation and listening.” Meanwhile, the fascists from the ruling Arrow Cross Party hunted the city’s Jews, one of their signature atrocities was “to tie three Jews together, shoot one and then watch as the dead weight unbalanced the trio and caused them to topple into the icy water” of the Danube. Lowy’s aptitude for intelligence distinguished him again during Israel’s War of Independence, where he served in a reconnaissance unit and later trained in Morse code. In Australia, we’re led at a cracking pace through his extraordinary trajectory that began with his first job, in a “dank and depressing” toolmaking factory and ended with his Westfield shopping centre empire a global force.

Margo’s narrative begins in earnest with the 73 year-old Lowy poised to take a series of life-altering decisions “for passionate matters of the heart.” He has loose ends to tie, circles to close. Throughout his adult life Lowy has carried in his wallet a photograph of his father, Hugo. A day after the Nazi invasion of Hungary in March 1944, Hugo had gone to the Budapest train station to obtain tickets for the family to flee to the countryside. He was arrested, interned in a camp and the family never saw him again. The photograph was a reminder that for all Lowy’s “skill and power in worldly matters, there was one thing he could not achieve. It was to stand at his father’s grave and grieve.” Yet Lowy has an innate unwillingness to bow to the seemingly impossible. And he has serious money.

Inevitably, there’s occasion for voyeurism in this granular depiction of someone stratospherically rich — the “uninterrupted view” of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge from “HQ,” Frank and wife Shirley’s Point Piper home, the luxury yachts berthed in Europe’s most romantic ports, the whirlwind of lunches and dinners with influential people in influential capitals. We’re told how for Lowy’s 60th birthday, he had hosted an all-star party, with a full orchestra and fireworks over the water. For his 80th, a quiet, more reflective Lowy assembled his clan on two boats in north Queensland and “ created their own world,” his family pooling their funds to buy him a painting by Monet of his garden at Giverny.

There are several such moments, verging on unintended humour, as we peep into a rarified world.

More illuminating, and thought-provoking, is the way Lowy uses the power his wealth commands. In hospital for cancer surgery, he brings with him private nursing staff. After son Steven is diagnosed with a rare eye disease, Lowy marshals leading medical experts and researchers from around the world and spends more than $50 million in pursuit of a cure. The investment also provides impetus for related diabetes research. But, not for the first time we’re left contemplating the blurry intersection between Lowy’s self-interest and the broader public interest.

Sometimes the two interests dovetail beautifully: Lowy enriches the nation by establishing his eponymous foreign policy think-tank, and by making “wogball” part of Australia’s social fabric. The impulse for both endeavours — to which Margo devotes some epic chapters — sprang from the unresolved trauma of Lowy’s past. The Lowy Institute is partly a response to Lowy’s realisation that by the time he was 14 he had been affected by the foreign policies of five countries. And Lowy’s passion for soccer, which he transformed from an insolvent shambles riven by ethnic tribalism into a mainstream sport, wells in his boyhood memories of attending soccer matches with his father: 
“Holding hands, father and son would walk through paddocks to the makeshift field with its rickety stand,” writes Margo, in one of innumerable vivid passages. Even Lowy’s decision to expand into shopping centres in the UK was partly driven by his wartime memories of huddling around a radio listening to the BBC broadcasts — from then on he associated the British with freedom and humanity, and longed to “find a place among them.”

Each of these landmark projects in Lowy’s “second life” appear under thematic headings: Personal Matters, Football Matters and Westfield Matters. This is a sound decision on Margo’s part as each section is richly and vastly narrated, though it does necessitate some repetition and rehashing to give the reader a grasp on the chronology. It also enables us to see in Lowy’s trajectory the bigger picture of Australia trying to find its place in the world, engaging with Asia — his repositioning Australian soccer within the Asian family was lauded for deepening the nation’s cultural, political and economic ties with the region — and expanding its successful businesses overseas.

We witness the latter through Margo’s typically detailed, sometimes hair-raising, account of how Lowy and his sons grew Westfield into one of the world’s largest retail property companies, with shopping malls across the US and in the UK. She held my interest through the numerous high-stakes bidding wars and 11th-hour deals, and even through Westfield’s regular corporate makeovers, its entities restructured, merged or split as circumstances and prudence demanded. And while I waded into “soccer matters” with all the dread and ignorance of a sports agnostic, I found myself riveted by the colour and intrigue of Australia’s humiliating, and now notorious, loss to Qatar in the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Margo is a superb guide, never letting go the reader’s hand — with characteristic aplomb, she describes the elite world of soccer officials who travel like diplomats and wear “a discretely elegant uniform,” that enables them “ to identify each other across a crowded room.”

The fallout from Qatar’s allegedly tainted win and from the wider FIFA corruption scandal continue to reverberate, with Lowy, as chair of the Football Federation of Australia, forced to deny claims that bribes were paid as part of Australia’s failed World Cup bid. Irritatingly for Lowy, scandals have a way of embroiling him at regular intervals. His name was linked to allegations of corruption against Ehud Olmert arising from the privatisation of Israel’s Bank Leumi. (No charges were laid against Olmert over these allegations.) In 2008, US Senators alleged the Lowy family concealed US$68 million from tax authorities in Liechtenstein. A vigorous investigation by the Senate and Internal Revenue Service followed, but no action ensued. The same allegations led to a dispute with the Australian Taxation Office — it was settled by mediation. When Lowy engaged the politically well-connected Lord Michael Levy to help with Westfield’s expansion into the UK, a “cash for access” scandal was born.

In each instance Margo plays it straight and professional: meticulously airing the various allegations before generously representing the Lowys’ perspective. Time and again, Lowy paints himself as a victim of circumstance or misunderstanding, of a carping or sensationalist press, of naivety at home or innocence abroad. Again, the cumulative effect of these episodes is one of wry bemusement.

At times Margo takes her lens so wide that Lowy himself, despite seeding all this astonishing achievement and unrelenting drama, almost recedes from view. Where is he? And how does it feel to be in the company of this “older Frank”, widely — if anonymously — described as “an alloy of warm understanding and steel that can freeze to the touch.”

Mostly, Lowy springs to life in vignettes. The time he got so exasperated during a protracted commercial negotiation he lifted a heavy crystal ashtray above his head and brought it crashing down on a coffee table, sending his opponents scurrying. Or his explosive arguments with his sons during business meetings — encounters that typically end in kisses and bear hugs. Or the outlandish chutzpah that saw him negotiating for a shopping centre near London’s Olympic site while living on his boat moored at Canary Wharf, “in full view of all the lawyers and bankers who work there.” I was especially moved to read of his close relationship with his American-based granddaughter, Jacqui, who enlisted in the Israeli army — the two would breakfast together, and discuss serious affairs, one soldier to another.

We grasp Lowy’s capacity to see the big picture, while also poring over ledgers “line by line.” As he tells his sons, “there’s more to business than numbers.” We sense a man still working the metaphorical street for intelligence, still listening as if his life depended on it. “Although he speaks English with an accent,” observes prominent Israeli Itamar Rabinovich of Lowy, “his language is not an immigrant’s English.”
But our most intimate glimpse of Lowy is as an 11 year-old, with the Nazis closing in on European Jewry. It is Yom Kippur. The young Lowy attends synagogue with his father, Hugo. The trembling father draws his boy under his white prayer shawl, as the rabbi chants, “who shall live and who shall die.”

It is to this scene that the more reflective and self-critical — if not exactly self-conscious — older Lowy keeps returning. Intriguingly, Lowy began dabbling in psychoanalysis after his oldest son, David, was experiencing marriage trouble and temporarily separated from his wife. Lowy found these events “emotionally catastrophic” and turned to a trusted adviser who talked about “patterns imprinted from the past, about the power of the unconscious and the way it influences behaviour.”
I suspect one challenge in penning a biography of someone so powerful is finding candid voices to shed light on his character — Lowy himself expresses frustration at people’s inclination to “defer” to him. This may partly explain why the man who showed early promise in cracking codes remains an enigma even to himself, thus devoting his second life to confronting the emotional scars wrought by the first.

A possible structural flaw in this book is that its emotional core lives in the first quarter, with Lowy grappling to find closure on his Holocaust trauma. The older Frank tackles this problem as he does most others — with massive resources and single-minded determination. So we see him re-enact his postwar journey in a British warship from interment camp in Cyprus to the port of Haifa — this time, travelling on his yacht, the Ilona. As his friend Aliza, the wife of Ehud Olmert, observes “this was a man with something extravagant about him, who was searching for symbols.”

Above all, he was desperate for a symbolic burial for his father. For Lowy to wholly reconcile with his past he needed to know where and how his father Hugo perished.
Through a remarkable chance encounter, Lowy finally learned. Hugo was beaten to death on arrival at Birkenau after refusing to relinquish to the SS a parcel that contained his prayer shawl and tefillin. Now Lowy could trace the place of his father’s death to somewhere near a ramp leading to the gas chambers that had been constructed for the express purpose of receiving the Hungarian Jews. He decided a memorial was needed at the site. To this end, he enlisted Holocaust historians and others in an exhaustive search for an authentic transport wagon. The wagon was found, duly restored and dedicated in an emotional ceremony, at which Lowy placed his own prayer bag in the wagon to replace the one ripped from his father. The wagon bears a brass plaque explaining its significance in commemorating the mass murder of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews during the spring and summer of 1944; a small plaque at the back acknowledges it had been conserved by the family of Hugo Lowy who had died in the transports.

Yet again we find ourselves navigating the shadows between Lowy’s “extravagant” search for symbols and the symbols of collective Jewish memory.

Fittingly, Margo ends her epic with one last, perhaps clarifying, vignette. This year the anniversary of Hugo’s death coincided with the birth of Lowy’s third great-grandchild. As twilight gathered, he lit a memorial candle for his father. “Blended with the tragic loss of his passing was the scent of the little being he had just held.” We leave Lowy as he’s contemplating this bittersweet moment, and somehow recognise it as our own.

This +61J article may be republished if acknowledged thus: “This article first appeared on www.thejewishindependent.com.au and is reprinted with permission."

The book can be ordered here

About the author

Julie Szego

Julie Szego is a freelance writer and columnist for The Age/SMH. Her non-fiction book, The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, was shortlisted for the Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for 2015.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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