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Turnovsky, Frederick


Manufacturer, entrepreneur, advocate for the arts, community leader

This biography, written by William Renwick, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Bedrich (later known as Frederick) Turnovsky was born in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, on 28 December 1916, the second of two sons of Max Turnovsky, a manufacturing and retail jeweller, and his wife, Caroline Weiser. The Turnovskys had lived in or near Prague for centuries; the family name comes from Turnov, a small town 50 kilometres from Prague. The family was Jewish but non-religious. Max Turnovsky was bilingual in Czech and German, and, in the manner of the Czech bourgeoisie, Bedrich was sent to German-speaking schools. He, too, grew up bilingual, adding English and French while at school. His parents were not particularly musical but he became passionate about music from the age of seven when he attended his first opera.

Turnovsky was 16 and still a Realgymnasium pupil when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. He threw himself into the struggle against fascism by joining the youth wing of the German-speaking section of the Social Democratic Party, was soon elected to executive positions, and was prominent in the unsuccessful efforts of Czech democrats to persuade leading French and British politicians to stand up to Hitler. Given the tip that he was on a Gestapo list when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, he fled to London. He never saw his parents again; they died in a German concentration camp.

His fiancée, Liselotte Felicitas Wodaková, who had been his sweetheart from high-school days, soon followed him, and they were married at the Register Office, Hampstead, on 27 June 1939; the silver wedding ring cost sixpence at Woolworth’s. They were to have two children. Fred and Lotte, as they were henceforth known by English speakers, arrived in Wellington in January 1940 with little more than the statutory requirement of £200. Although aliens in a strange land, where German-speaking immigrants were held in suspicion, they had well-developed survival instincts.

After some months in casual employment, Turnovsky saw a business opportunity. Watch straps were imported and their supply had been disrupted by the war, so he decided to make them from local leather. Drawing on his experience as a commercial clerk in an export business in Prague, he registered Tatra Leather Goods Company with a paid-up capital of £300. He sold 100,000 watch straps in the first year and never looked back. Tatra (named for the Czech mountains) and associated companies became highly successful manufacturing ventures during Turnovsky’s active involvement. He was thought to be the first resident New Zealander to become a member of Lloyd’s, the exclusive British firm of insurance underwriters.

Bereft of live music, Turnovsky was one of the enthusiasts who established the Wellington Chamber Music Society, the first such association in New Zealand, and he was its chairman from 1950 to 1954. His energy and entrepreneurial flair helped other chamber music societies to spring up quickly throughout the country and the New Zealand Federation of Chamber Music Societies to be created in 1950 to co-ordinate their efforts and ensure a continuing flow of artists, local as well as from overseas. He was vice president of the federation (1950–53) and president (1953–60). His regular overseas business trips, the first of which he made in 1950, enabled him to make personal contact with some of the world’s leading chamber music ensembles and sign them up to tour New Zealand. Opera was his other musical love. In 1953 he was a foundation member of the New Zealand Opera Company, and was chairman of the board from 1959 to 1969. On his initiative, the company successfully broadened its financial base through commercial sponsorship and ventured beyond the small-scale, one-act pieces it had begun with to national tours of full-scale operas.

Inevitably, Turnovsky became deeply involved in the politics and administration of government funding of the arts. He became a foundation member of the Arts Advisory Council in 1960 and deputy chairman of its successor, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, from 1970 to 1973. He was instrumental in getting the government to convene Arts Conference 70, which he chaired. This conference gave the arts, including Maori arts, a higher public profile and an acknowledged but still precarious claim to government expenditure in the national interest. In later years Turnovsky concluded regretfully that arts council funding merely shielded governments from direct exposure to the funding needs of the arts.

By the mid 1960s Tatra was one of the largest makers of soft leather goods in Australasia, and was one of the first 10 New Zealand companies to be awarded a government Export Award in 1966. Turnovsky was beginning to make his mark as a leader of the New Zealand Manufacturers’ Federation. He represented the federation at the National Development Conference (1968–69) and was president (1972–73 and 1979–80). He was appointed to the Manufacturing Development Council, was a member of trade missions to Pacific states (1971) and China (1973), led a delegation of manufacturers to Canberra (1973), and was honorary consul for Mexico (1973–81).

These were the years when New Zealand was coming to terms with Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community. Turnovsky was convinced that New Zealand’s small, vulnerable economy faced a very uncertain future that ought not be left to the free interplay of market forces. Still a social democrat at heart, he believed that governments must set the stage for export-led economic development through financial intervention. He feared that without bold policies of industrial development there would be massive unemployment, an erosion of social security policies, and a bigger gap in living standards between New Zealanders and Australians. He welcomed the strong commitment of the Kirk–Rowling Labour government to industrial development. As chairman of the Development Finance Corporation from 1973 to 1976, he gave weight to social objectives as well as sound business procedures in the corporation’s funding of new business ventures.

Because of his public involvement in music, Turnovsky was appointed to the cultural sub-commission of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO (1962), and was a member of the national commission (1963–88) and its chairman (1974–78). He was a leader or member of New Zealand delegations at many UNESCO regional and international conferences, and a member of UNESCO’s executive board (1978–83). Turnovsky was one of the first to argue that New Zealand should acknowledge its geography and seek a transfer from the Western European electoral grouping to the Asia and Pacific grouping, and it gave him great pleasure when the transfer was finally achieved in 1987.

Imperceptibly over the years, Turnovsky thought of himself less as a displaced Czech and became more comfortable with the idea of himself as a New Zealander. It is clear from his autobiography that the transition was not easy. There had been much that dismayed him about New Zealand on his arrival – such as the lack of cultural activity, pleasing architecture or European foodstuffs, and the drinking habits of New Zealand men – but, characteristically, he set out to make it a more congenial place to live in by making common cause with like-minded men and women. Early success in business gave him time to devote first to the development of music and later to the arts generally, and his services were always in great demand. In later years he was a trustee of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, and a member of the project development board of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. On his retirement from his business interests in 1984 he set up the Turnovsky Endowment Trust to recognise and encourage outstanding achievement in the arts.

For services to the arts, Fred Turnovsky was appointed an OBE in 1965 and was a foundation member of the Order of New Zealand in 1988. The young Czech patriot had become one of the most eminent New Zealanders of his generation. He died on 12 December 1994 in Wellington, survived by Lotte and their son and daughter.

How to cite this page:

William Renwick. 'Turnovsky, Frederick', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5t23/turnovsky-frederick (accessed 18 June 2024)