This Day in Jewish History, 1989

Auckland Weeps as Topless Mayor Dies

Son of a maestro of makeovers himself, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, who adored New Zealand's tolerance, married four times and was elected to lead Auckland rather more.

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On August 14, 1989, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, a six-time mayor of Auckland City, New Zealand, died, at age 88. A man of diminutive physique but an oversize personality, the English-born Robinson tried to prepare his adopted home for the 21st century - and become a legend while doing so.

The man had originally been born Mayer Dove Robinson, but the order and spelling of his proper names got changed somewhere between Britain and New Zealand. In any case his constituents mainly knew him as “Robbie”. His birth took place on June 15, 1901, in Sheffield, England.

His father, Moss Robinson, had been born in Russia as Rabbinowicz; his mother, the former Ida Brown, was the daughter of a rabbi who ended his days in Jerusalem. Ida was pious and observant, while Moss was an irreverent free thinker. Mayer Dove was the sixth of the couple’s seven children, and he often remarked that his mother had told him she would have preferred to abort his pregnancy.

Moss made a living – barely – selling costume jewelry door-to-door, while describing himself as a master jeweler. He also devised a scheme by which he would purchase a set of new furniture on the installment plan, sell it to a neighbor before paying the loan off, and leave town with the cash. As a result, the family moved frequently, and their son was regularly starting new schools, in each of which he claimed to have been subject to anti-Semitic abuse.

Freedom from anti-Semitism

For Dove Myer, life began anew when the family followed its eldest daughter, Hilda, and her husband, to New Zealand.

According to John Edgar, author of “Urban Legend,” a 2010 biography of Robinson, “His one-eyed belief, many years later when he became mayor, that his adopted home was the finest city in the world can be traced to these formative years at an impressionable age, when he had discovered a place of salvation. More than just the climate and the physical beauty, it was the freedom from anti-Semitism and bullying.”

The family settled in Auckland’s Devenport section, where Dove Myer briefly attended school before quitting to begin working. His first job was selling women’s underwear door-to-door for his brother-in-law; that was followed by a series of similar jobs, eventually traveling the country as a salesman.

Four wives and motorcycles

In 1924, Robinson married the first of his four wives, and soon began selling motorcycles, new and used. From that he went on to own a child’s clothing manufacturer, which made him a wealthy man.

Only then did he become involved in politics.

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Unglamorous as it may sound, Dove-Myer Robinson made his name by successfully fighting a government plan in the mid-1950s to dump the metropolitan area’s sewage into the Waitemata Harbor. Instead, he convinced the decision makers to introduce a state-of-the-art series of oxidation ponds to clean and recycle the sewage.

Robinson’s early awareness of environmental issues made a difference in this city whose greatest asset may be its natural beauty. Unfortunately, as mayor, he failed in attempts to push through a plan for a municipal rapid-rail network, a failure still lamented today by Aucklanders.

After proving his dedication and vision with the sewerage project, Robinson ran for a first three-year term as mayor in 1959. He won, and won re-election in 1962. According to John Edgar, writing in the New Zealand Dictionary of National Biography, “his working-class origins, his many marriages, his flamboyance" -– he sometimes walked topless from his home to city hall – "and his Jewishness” helped earn powerful Robinson political enemies.

But he was missed after his 1965 defeat, and when he was returned to office three years later, he stayed until 1980.

Robinson went home reluctantly, and tried his luck three more times before he finally gave up. He was now divorced from his fourth wife, had minimal relationships with his six children, and suffered, in Edgar’s phrase, from “limelight deprivation syndrome.” 

He lived out his years in a retirement community, and is remembered today with a bronze statue in Aotea Square, which he created, in which he is depicted with his fist in the air, looking something between triumphant and admonishing.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen