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Theeman, Frank William (1913–1989)

by G. N. Hawker

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

Frank William Theeman (1913-1989), businessman and land developer, was born on 28 May 1913 in Vienna, son of Jewish parents Arthur Thiemann (d.1936), bank officer, and his wife Frieda, née Donreich, and was named Franz Wilhelm. Franz worked in the family’s textile-manufacturing business until 1938, when the Nazis seized it. On 31 July that year at the Döbling Synagogue, Vienna, he married Gisela Spiegel, a milliner’s assistant. In November he and his mother were interned. Released after ten days on condition that he leave Austria, he travelled with his wife to Shanghai, China, and awaited permission to enter Australia. In April 1939 they arrived in Sydney and were naturalised in 1944, after which they changed the spelling of their surname to Theeman. His mother died in 1945 in Mauthausen camp.

On the voyage, by his own account, Theeman had met an Australian businessman and racehorse owner, Timothy O’Sullivan, who lent him £1000 with which he established a hosiery business, Osti Pty Ltd, in Sydney; the name is formed from the phonetic beginning of O’Sullivan’s and Theeman’s surnames. Starting with six sewing machines sent from Vienna, Theeman built the business into one of the three largest of its kind in Australia. It was the first Australian manufacturer to produce and treat nylon fabric and turn it into clothing. He donated an award for ‘Bri-nylon’ lingerie, comprising a gold medal in the shape of a star set with a single diamond. In 1970 he sold his family’s interests in Osti Holdings Ltd to Dunlop Australia Ltd, for $3.5 million but remained as chairman and managing director.

Theeman had developed close political connections with the Liberal Party of Australia and saw opportunities in the Liberal ascension to power in New South Wales in 1965, when planning restrictions were eased to open residential areas to commercial development. He formed a family-controlled company, Victoria Point Pty Ltd, to focus on property development. Between March 1970 and June 1971 Theeman spent $7 million ($1.6 million of his own money) buying properties in Victoria and Brougham streets, Kings Cross, emphasising his vision of Victoria Street as a ‘beautiful tree lined street close to the city which needed rehabilitation’. Three 45-storey towers and a 15-storey office block were originally planned, requiring the demolition of all existing buildings in the area. Opposition from residents, who formed an action group, was strong. The State branch of the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation imposed green bans. Some tenants were evicted amid allegations of force and intimidation while others refused to leave; squatters entered the vacant buildings. The delays cost Theeman dearly: by 1975 he was paying $16,800 a week in interest charges on borrowed money. The green bans were largely lifted in April-May 1975 and the city, State and Federal governments agreed to the development of the Woolloomooloo basin in June.

Juanita Nielsen, owner of the local newspaper Now and a leading opponent of the development, continued to protest. She was last seen on 4 July 1975 and was presumed dead. Her body was not found. In 1994 the Commonwealth Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, which investigated the affairs of James McCartney Anderson—a notorious Sydney figure—noted that Theeman had paid a substantial sum to Anderson, shortly before Nielsen’s disappearance. Theeman had said that the money was to set up one of his sons in business. In the New South Wales Legislative Assembly the Independent member John Hatton hinted at an answer believed by many when he said that ‘Mrs Nielsen was last seen alive in a club owned by Abe Saffron and run by Jim Anderson, a friend of the developer of Victoria Street, Mr Frank Theeman’. A contrary view was expressed by Padraic P. McGuinness, a journalist and sometime resident of Victoria Street, who argued that there was no reason, other than the payment to Anderson, ‘to suspect Theeman of culpability, except in encouraging Anderson and his friends in their threats and violence against the protesters’. Theeman had protested his innocence over Nielsen’s disappearance. The first stage of the Victoria Street complex was completed in 1978. He claimed in 1983 at the inquest into Nielsen’s death that the project had realised a healthy profit.

Short, early balding and a toupee wearer, Theeman was invariably expensively dressed; a vain man, he had a reputation for vigorous sexuality. He was a keen bridge player, who spent heavily in recruiting the best professionals to his tournament teams. In 1983 he was a member of the Australian bridge team. Survived by his wife and their three daughters and two sons, he died on 24 January 1989 at Darlinghurst and was buried in the Jewish section of Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Hickie, The Prince and the Premier (1985)
  • Parliamentary Joint Ctte on the National Crime Authority, National Crime Authority and James McCartney Anderson (1994)
  • S. Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora, 2nd edn (1997)
  • P. Rees, Killing Juanita (2004)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, NSW), 11 May 1994, p 2295, 13 May 1994, p 2811
  • Architecture Australia, vol 65, no 3, 1976, p 36
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Mar 2004, p 13.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. N. Hawker, 'Theeman, Frank William (1913–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/theeman-frank-william-15666/text26862, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 October 2019.

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

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