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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Magnus, Walter (1903–1954)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Walter Magnus (1903-1954), restaurateur, was born on 26 June 1903 at Dortmund, Westphalia, Germany, eldest of three children of Sigmund Magnus, cigar manufacturer, and his wife Sophie, née Edelstein. Sigmund died in 1909 and Sophie remarried. On poor terms with his stepfather, Walter spent four years at a Jewish rabbinical school where he acquired fluency in Hebrew, though he was never too particular about observing his religion. He was a keen amateur boxer, and enjoyed cycling, tennis and soccer. After completing an apprenticeship to a dentist, he practised at Dortmund and in Berlin. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Magnus travelled to Switzerland, Italy and France before setting up as a dentist at Barcelona, Spain. There, he claimed, he once treated (Sir) Winston Churchill. On 10 October 1934 at Barcelona he married German-born Hedwig Lisser Zinner. In 1936, driven out by the civil war, they went in turn to Czechoslovakia, Holland and England. With Walter's sister and Hedy's brother they reached Sydney in the Orford on 8 April 1937.

Refused registration to practise his profession, Magnus sold his dental equipment and bought the Claremont Café at Kings Cross. He relished cooking and specialized in continental food. Featuring murals painted by Elaine Haxton, the Claremont attracted artists, actors and Bohemians, among them Peter Finch, Brian Penton, (Sir) Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend. In World War II Magnus, who was declared medically unfit for service, supported the Stage Door Canteen. With Harry Jayton (formerly Hans Jacobson) he formed a company, La Palette Pty Ltd; they opened La Palette, Double Bay (1940), and in 1941 took over the catering for the Journalists' Club. In 1943, as Universal Caterers Pty Ltd, they established Le Coq d'Or, Ash Street, near Martin Place and George Street. The cafés came under surveillance as the war brought foreign patrons, in addition to American and British servicemen, including Prince Philip (later Duke of Edinburgh) who became an acquaintance. Magnus was naturalized on 7 December 1945.

In 1946 the partners opened the Savarin, a fashionable city restaurant in George Street, which boasted a kosher licence, a band and a gipsy violinist. Magnus commissioned (Sir) William Dobell to paint his portrait ('Chez Walter', now in the National Gallery of Australia) and to decorate the Savarin with a mural, 'Carnival'. Other enterprises included the Elite Caterers and Almora House Pty Ltd, Mosman, for private parties. Magnus made radio broadcasts, wrote newspaper articles about food, advised Gordon Edgell & Sons Ltd and other processing firms, and for some years ran the Australian Wine Producers' Association's restaurant at the Showground.

The gregarious Magnus collected Australian paintings, loved classical music and enjoyed horse-riding; he also dressed impeccably—often in a morning-suit—and wore a monocle. Five ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, he had become heroically corpulent by the 1950s—his 24½ stone (156 kg) globular frame topped by 'a happy, smiling moon of a face'. He spoke several languages, English with a thick German accent. The partnership with Jayton came to an end. In 1951 Hedy divorced Walter and took over the businesses. Magnus opened The Pier restaurant at Rose Bay. A wine connoisseur, beer quaffer and cigarette smoker who indulged all his pleasures, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 5 February 1954 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was buried with Jewish rites in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His two sons survived him. A distinctive 'New Australian', Magnus had helped to broaden Sydney's culture and improve its cuisine.

Select Bibliography

  • S. D. Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora (Syd, 1988)
  • Hotel and Cafe News, 1 Sept 1949, Nov 1952
  • People (Sydney), 25 Apr 1951, p 22
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Nov 1994
  • B. Lewis, The Jewish Connections to Kashruth in New South Wales Since World War Two (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1995)
  • H. Magnus, dossier C123/0, item 10398 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Magnus, Walter (1903–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 November 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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