WHEN business titan Sidney Myer set off for a brief morning stroll in the spring of 1934, no-one realised he was about to die.
"The end was so quiet, with no sign of a struggle," a neighbour who witnessed his heart attack in Toorak would tell Sidney's grieving wife Merlyn.
"Such a death could not appear to be a tragedy - it was just slipping away, in a very beautiful, peaceful way."
The unexpectedness of Sidney's passing ruptured Merlyn's life, just as it did to the phenomenally successful Myer department store empire he had started decades earlier with a hand-pushed cart in Bendigo.
Merlyn was an elusive figure and her impact on the business has often been hard to gauge.
That is no longer the case thanks to a new biography by Michael Shmith, journalist and author, who's book on Merlyn's life includes the above account of Sidney's heartbreaking death.
Shmith had extensive access to the Myers and their invaluable historian Dr Stella Barber.
"It turns out Merlyn was far more interesting, and fascinating, and involved than anyone would have thought," Shmith tells the Bendigo Weekly.
The tireless philanthropist quietly shaped The Store (as the Myer family calls it) even as she travelled the world in glamorous style.
And she did it after falling deeply in love, marrying young and losing Sidney far too soon.
Merlyn Baillieu met the man she was destined to marry as a 16-year-old at her St Kilda home.
Sidney had asked her mother - an acquaintance he had donated wool to during a clothing drive for Anzacs stationed on World War One battlefields - to give him some advice about a house in the neighbourhood he was thinking of buying.
Neither Merlyn or the then 38-year-old Sidney appear instantly to have been attracted.
Sidney ended up buying the house and becoming more acquainted with the Baillieu family and a friendship slowly blossomed over the next few years.
Sidney was by this time an incredibly successful businessman in Melbourne, having used his Bendigo years to hone his flair for fashion, bold advertising and innovative ideas for displaying goods.
He was also restless and deeply unhappy, Shmith writes in Merlyn's biography.
"He had been living at the Menzies Hotel [in Melbourne] since his separation from his wife, Nance, in January 1916," he writes, and had fallen into "a deep depression".
Nance and Sidney's marriage had been childless and he now struggled to find life meaning.
As Sidney's first biographer Ambrose Pratt put it, he "hungered for a real home, for the companionship of a loving wife and children to adore and educate".
He found what he was looking for in Merlyn and the couple was married on her 20th birthday, though not without controversy.
"You might say Merlyn married Sidney under a bit of a cloud. Everything was against her," Shmith says.
The age difference was only one problem skeptics raised. Some worried over the immigrant businessman's intentions, and his Jewish and Russian heritage.
"If you look at publications of the time - for example Smith's Weekly - you can see quite rabid examples of what people used to write about Sidney," Shmith says.
"They would refer to him as 'this Jewish infiltrator' and other things that you couldn't and shouldn't say these days."
Merlyn and Sidney's marriage would prove the doubters wrong. It was genuine love, Shmith says.
Merlyn was probably the person who convinced Sidney to return to Australia in 1929 from the United States, he says.
"Who knew they would have so little time before he died?"
"My mother was only 34, and really not experienced in any sort of business, because my father used to run all the family's business and finances," Merlyn's son Ken explained in 1991 as he recounted his own life story for the National Library of Australia,.
"And all of a sudden ... he wasn't there, and she didn't have that prop any more."
Merlyn kept travelling and threw herself into philanthropy in the way Sidney had.
"It was a profession that suited her well, for it involved her kind heart and ready sympathy as well as her energy and determination," biographer Ann Blainey writes in the forward to Shmith's book.
Merlyn also cared very deeply about the family business and its management.
"She certainly was not afraid to speak when required, and to criticise when required," Shmith says.
Merlyn maintained what could be a "testy correspondence" with Sidney's nephew Norman Myer about the management of The Store.
"Merlyn, in her frequent trips overseas as a widow, would write these incredibly lengthy letters to Norman complaining that she hadn't been told about certain things involving Store management," Shmith says.
"She also wrote that she could be of great use because of the knowledge of fashion and business that she had acquired."
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Yet Merlyn had the ill-luck of being a capable businesswoman born a generation too soon.
"If it had happened today, she would have been the chair of the board. She certainly had that knowledge and application," Shmith says.
"But of course, it was a male-dominated time ... So she settled, in the end, for what became a symbolic but immensely important role."
Merlyn became known as the Mother of The Store. She attended every opening and she visited every international office being used to source goods.
"This almost regal-like position gave the business a human face, particularly with its staff. They adored her," Shmith says.
Michael Shmith's Merlyn: The Life of Merlyn Baillieu Myer is available now. This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series entitled WHAT HAPPENED?
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