Book Review: Tim Bonyhady's Good Living Street

An art historian and environmental lawyer uses art as the key to unlock over a century of his affluent family’s history

TVR Books | Kate Abnett | Vienna 1900

Lena, Hermine, Käthe and Gretl Gallia, taken in late 1917 or early 1918 (Photo: Pantheon Books)

Vienna in Australia: Art and Memory

Visiting his grandmother and great-aunt’s flat in Sydney as a child, Tim Bonyhady found the looming black furniture and wall-to-wall paintings "claustrophobic". It was only decades later, when he began to write his family history, that he realised the massive pieces crammed into the small apartment had been designed for a home four times its size. The towering black boxes were in fact elegant, bespoke cabinets, custom made for his family by renowned Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann. And the painting of the dark haired woman? An original oil portrait of his grandmother Hermine Gallia, by Secession artist Gustav Klimt.

In Good Living Street, Tim Bonyhady uses the story of his wealthy Jewish family as a spyglass through which he offers a close-up view of turn-of-the-last-century Vienna’s culture, art, and daily life, as its Habsburg identity faded and a new, modernist order emerged.

His great-grandparents, Hermine and Moriz Gallia, were among the most important art patrons in early 20th century Vienna. Their apartment on Wohllebengasse ("Good Living Street") was the canvas for their lavish world of aesthetics, of grandiose Viennese architecture designed to amaze guests at dinners and private balls. When one male visitor arrived with a walking stick, the Gallias were concerned, assuming he was injured. He was not – but with so much marble about, he quipped, "I brought the stick in case I needed to touch wood."

In 348 well-crafted pages, Bonyhady leads his reader in a graceful waltz through the worlds of culture, business, and art, as they interweave in Vienna’s glittering "first society", then through years fraught with terror as Fascism engulfed Vienna, to their hurried emigration to Sydney, where the author grew up in the 1960s. His family’s story moves through three generations of Gallias women, narrated through the personal diaries of his engaging grandmother Gretl, and illuminated by meticulous research. Through Gretl’s youthful eyes, Vienna is a joy to behold, a whirl of dresses and flowers, as she learns to waltz and tango, taking her skills to balls, each more "outstandingly beautiful" than the one before.

The accompanying photography is magical. One shot, taken in 1908, shows Gretl dressed for her first ball, posing in front of a wistful screen landscape of a lake and sultry skies, luminous in her pale silk gown. She describes another ball as "like a dream", revealing an instinctive disbelief in her world of luxury that is sadly prophetic. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the Gallias’ privileged world – including the fleeting friendships filling their dance floors and dinner tables – dissolved; a rough awakening indeed.

In 1938, Gretl, now grown up, fled with her sister Kathe and daughter Anne to Australia, where they never felt welcome, but were at least safe. Bonyhady gives a startlingly moving account of the plight of Vienna’s Jewish refugees, tragic tales of living locked indoors during months of waiting for a visa, and then being forced from their homes and escaping with little more than their lives. Eclipsed in history by the devastating conclusion of the Holocaust, the story of how Jewish people’s lives were stolen away even before the final solution began, is made startlingly real in Good Living Street – with the rich context of culture and connection that Viennese society had granted and then denied them.

"The genocide of Europe’s Jews is often written about as if those who escaped knew nothing of what happened during the war," Bonyhady writes. "It was not so."

As Vienna burned on the other side of the globe, Gretl, Kathe and Anne received one heart-wrenching letter after another, detailing the fates of those left behind.

Bonyhady’s research, especially on events during World War II, is breathtaking. While lacking the lyrical narrative style of Edmund de Waal’s recent family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, Bonyhady’s clean, concise prose weaves together countless sources, from personal diaries to official documents, and captures over a century of history in evocative, illuminating detail.

Subtitled "A Portrait of a Patron Family in Vienna", Good Living Street is much more. Masterfully spun around the journey of the Gallias family and their treasures – the most extensive collection of art and design to be saved from Nazi Austria – the book is a sparkling chronicle of war, women’s emancipation, religion, high society and art.

Equally appealing, Good Living Street is written with genuine modesty; the author has a wonderful knack for creating whole worlds, packed with splendid detail, but still easy to digest and explore. It is only when you close the final cover that you realise just how much the book has quietly taught you. In describing his family’s fate with such humility, Bonyhady is careful to remind the reader of the shared tragedy in so many Central European families.

He also wrote it for his mother, Anne: "The last thing Anne wanted was for me to write about her," he writes in the introduction. "I wanted to put a value on her life that she did not."

His mother and grandmother are never made out to be heroes, and the diaries they kept in Vienna depict dreadfully spoilt girls with the most pampered of lives. However, when knocked off their pedestal and into the tumult of the Second World War – against all odds – they built self-sufficient lives on the other side of the world.

Anne died in 2003, and thus Good Living Street’s only flaw is perhaps its timing, which didn’t allow her to read this tribute to the courage and resilience of the Gallia family.

Good Living Street:

Portrait of a Patron Family, Vienna 1900

by Tim Bonyhady

Pantheon (Nov. 2011)

pp. 400           

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