Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Myer, Dame Marjorie Merlyn (1900–1982)

by Stella M. Barber

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Dame Margery Merlyn Baillieu Myer (1900-1982), philanthropist and fund-raiser, was born on 8 January 1900 at Queenscliff, Victoria, third of four children of George Francis Baillieu, hotel proprietor, and his wife Agnes, née Sheehan, both born at Queenscliff. Merlyn’s father died in 1905 and six years later her mother took the family to live in Melbourne. Merlyn enjoyed her schooldays at Cromarty School for Girls, Elsternwick. She met Sidney Myer in 1916; her mother had approached him to help her with her fund-raising activities and he soon became a family friend. In 1918 she entered the arts faculty at the University of Melbourne but found that ‘falling in love with M was very detrimental to my academic career’. On her twentieth birthday she and Sidney, who was 38 and divorced, were married with Baptist forms at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, United States of America.

The couple spent most of the following decade moving between homes in California and Melbourne. Merlyn is credited with persuading Sidney not to sell his Melbourne store in order to start afresh in San Francisco. In mid-1929 the Myers and their four young children returned to Melbourne to live permanently at their Toorak home, Cranlana. Sidney died suddenly in 1934. Merlyn then forged a new role for herself; once a ‘lady of leisure’, she now engaged herself fully in philanthropic work and in support for the Myer Emporium.

In 1936, following the instructions in her late husband’s will, Myer and her fellow trustees established the Sidney Myer Charitable Trust (later Fund). A trustee of the fund for forty-six years, she recommended the financing of many arts and cultural projects, including construction of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl that was opened in 1959. She served on the executive committee of the music bowl trust for more than twenty years and also became a director of the Myer Foundation, established in 1959.

Known as Mrs Sidney Baillieu Myer, she was a member (1934-76) of the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s board of management. She was a member of many committees, including the nurses’ disciplinary sub-committee and the patient welfare committee, admired for both her business sense and her empathy with patients and staff. Vice-president of the RMH central council of auxiliaries, she helped to raise funds, often through functions held at Cranlana. During her lifetime she made substantial donations to the hospital. In 1954 she was made an honorary life governor.

Myer was a member of the national council of the Australian Red Cross Society in 1937-47. An office-bearer of the Victorian division from 1939, she served as vice-chairman (1940-45). She played a key role in the successful ARCS annual ‘Roll Call’ fund-raising appeals and membership drives. In World War II she worked with the American Red Cross Society, making her home available to American servicemen. She also promoted Junior Red Cross. In 1948 she was appointed OBE for her service to Red Cross. She was chairman (1958) of the Cancer Campaign women’s group, known as the Committee of One Hundred. A dinner dance held at Cranlana on 2 May that year to launch the campaign raised £10 178. In a little over six months the committee raised £102 831. Myer also supported the work of the Victorian division of the National Heart Foundation of Australia.

A life governor of the Victorian branch of the Royal Life Saving Society, the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria, the Burwood Boys’ Home and the Southern Peninsula Hospital, Rosebud, Myer was patron of many organisations, including the Hawthorn City Band, Victorian Ladies’ Bowling Association, Australian Women’s Liberal Club, International Social Service and Australia-Britain Society. She regularly attended services at St John’s Anglican Church, Toorak; she gave to many of its fund-raising appeals and to those of St John’s at Sorrento, where she had a holiday house. Her philanthropy was far-reaching and she often made gifts, few of which were publicised, on her birthday. In 1960 she was promoted to DBE.

Myer maintained a close association with the family retail business, attending anniversaries, dinners, fashion parades and charity events, as well as every new store opening. To assist the social activities of Myer Emporium employees, in 1938 she established the Mrs Sidney Myer Silver Jubilee Trust Fund, which operated until at least 1971. In February 1980 she gave a luncheon party in the Myer Mural Hall for seven hundred people, representing an estimated 24 500 years’ service with the emporium. She liked to describe herself as the ‘mother of the store’ and once remarked, ‘it’s this store that has kept me going; that has become the love of my life’.

Charming, dignified, generous and always stylishly dressed, Myer was one of Melbourne’s ‘grand ladies’. She travelled extensively and made 144 trips overseas between 1919 and 1981. In 1942 she had bought a property, Booroola, at Avenel, where she raised sheep and cattle. A member of the Tail-Waggers Club, she supported animal welfare causes. She enjoyed attending race meetings and in 1973 the Dame Merlyn Myer Transition Handicap, the first race for women jockeys on an Australian metropolitan racecourse, was run at Eagle Farm, Brisbane.

Survived by her two sons and two daughters, Dame Merlyn died on 3 September 1982 in Royal Melbourne Hospital and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. Her estate was valued at $7.4 million. She bequeathed John Hamilton Mortimer’s oil painting featuring Captain James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and others (c.1771)—the earliest portrait of Cook in existence—to the National Library of Australia. In 1990 the Merlyn Theatre, the largest of three theatres in the Malthouse Theatre complex in Melbourne, was named after her. In 2000 her four granddaughters funded the Merlyn Myer Leadership awards, which recognise Year 11 secondary school students with leadership potential. The family holds a portrait of Dame Merlyn, painted by (Sir) William Dargie in 1944.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Barber, Sidney Myer: A Life, A Legacy (2005)
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Feb 1968, p 13, 6 Sept 1982, p 6
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 10 June 1971, p 47
  • private information.

Citation details

Stella M. Barber, 'Myer, Dame Marjorie Merlyn (1900–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/myer-dame-marjorie-merlyn-14832/text26227, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 April 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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