Page 1: Biography
Builder, patron of the arts
This biography, written by Kate Jordan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
Hungarian-born George Haydn co-founded the successful Auckland construction company Haydn and Rollett. Outgoing and generous, he was also an important figure in the Auckland arts and literary scene in the second half of the twentieth century.
Early life and immigration
Gyorgy (George) Hajdu was born on 4 April 1919 in Budapest, Hungary, into a Jewish family. His mother, Lenke Turk, was a milliner and his father, William Hajdu, an upholsterer. George grew up close to his cousin Andrew Torok, whose father was William Hajdu’s partner in an upholstery business.
Hungarian Jews were subject to anti-Semitic persecution throughout George’s childhood. When Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, William decided George should leave Hungary. He and Andrew chose to emigrate to New Zealand, because Andrew had read that New Zealand had good butter. The cousins were lucky to gain entrance to New Zealand, where immigration policies were restrictive and not always applied consistently. They travelled via France, Canada and the United States, arriving in Auckland on 14 November 1939.
The war years
Auckland, with its little wooden houses and small town centre, was vastly different to Budapest. Although George had thought he knew English, he initially had difficulty understanding New Zealanders. The cousins knew no one in New Zealand and stayed at the YMCA. In later interviews, George recalled that he hated Auckland at first, but liked it once he and Andrew got steady work, made friends, and moved into a boarding house run by an Austrian Jewish couple.
In the 17 months before leaving Budapest, the cousins had attempted to learn cabinetmaking, upholstery and interior design. The training was insufficient, however, and they went through a succession of short-term jobs, sometimes being fired by lunchtime. George later commented that it was easy to get jobs but difficult to keep them. For a short period the cousins owned an unsuccessful log-carting business. George continued to take on carpentry work and eventually gained more skills and held positions longer.
George’s status as an enemy alien limited his movements and activities, and initially prevented him from enlisting in the New Zealand armed forces. In January 1943 he was finally accepted for basic training, but, to his disappointment, was only eligible for home service. Initially assigned to the Ordnance Corps in Trentham Military Camp, he was discharged in October 1943 to work in the Auckland shipyards.
During the war George made many friends who would shape his life. In army camp he met the writer Rex Fairburn, who introduced him to other literary figures such as Frank Sargeson. George also met the Platt cousins: Una, later a renowned art historian, and Barbara, who married the writer Maurice Duggan. Barbara introduced George to the sculptor Molly Morell Macalister, whom he married on 14 August 1945 at the First Church, in Dunedin. They had one son, John, in 1949.
After the war, fed up with people mispronouncing ‘Hajdu’, he changed his surname to Haydn after the Austrian composer. A music-loving friend suggested the name because George was very European in his mannerisms and habits and an English-sounding surname would not suit him. This proved insightful and accurate: George retained his accent to the end of his life, was known for his love of European food, and joked that he worked to become ‘a charming Continental gentleman’.1
Haydn and Molly formed part of the group of artists and literati who took up residence on the North Shore after the war, when housing there was still cheap prior to the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Molly’s father had purchased a plot of land in Takapuna and contracted Haydn, in partnership with a friend, to build two flats; Haydn and Molly lived in one, and Molly’s sister in the other. In 1948 Haydn’s parents came over from Hungary and lived in the second flat until he built them a house in Belmont. Afterwards, Haydn combined the two flats and built a studio for Molly.
In 1946 Una Platts introduced Haydn to George Rollett, a builder from a farming family in Matamata. Rollett was a quiet contrast to Haydn’s flamboyancy, but they formed a successful construction company, Haydn & Rollett Ltd. For the first seven years, both partners worked on-site during the day and did the bookwork in the evenings and weekends. Many of their early contracts were residential buildings on the North Shore. In 1947 they were accepted into the Auckland branch of the Master Builders Association. Three years later, they built their first joinery factory in Barry’s Point Road.
In 1953 Haydn & Rollett reorganised their business. Haydn looked after the office, doing costings, drawing plans and organising the work, while Rollett managed the building sites. After the construction of their first retail construction project in Queen Street, the company increased its staff and began taking on multiple jobs. Around this time, Haydn & Rollett was involved in the Group Building Scheme, a government initiative to increase the suburban housing stock. They built several homes as Haydn & Rollett and others as the separate company Dwellings (Auckland) Ltd. They also formed the North Shore Group Builders Ltd with several other building companies to get better prices for supplies. Despite its limited success, the North Shore Group Builders stayed together for several years, organising the Becroft Drive ‘Parade of Homes’ exhibition and building the first seven houses of the massive Forrest Hill subdivision.
In the 1960s Haydn & Rollett expanded their commercial work, mostly south of the newly-constructed Harbour Bridge. They established a reputation as quality shop and office fitters, supplying joinery from their own factory. A notable job was the Leo O’Malley menswear store on Karangahape Road.
In the 1970s Haydn served on the Building and Construction Industry Sector Committee of the Metric Advisory Board, which assisted with New Zealand’s transition from imperial to metric measurements. He served for many years on the executive of the Auckland Master Builders Association, and supported the construction industry by insisting Haydn & Rollett always had a full quota of carpentry and joinery apprentices.
An astute businessman, Haydn was also creative and loved design. He had studied part-time at Elam School of Art and dabbled in architecture, drawing up plans for some of the houses Haydn & Rollett built. He supported the Group Architects, a collective of young Auckland architectural students (and later graduates) who designed houses with the ‘rational[e] of simple, visible construction methodologies’, influenced by practices in California, Japan and Australia.2 Haydn described himself as a ‘Group Groupie’ and was very interested in their work.3 Group Architect Allan Wild, reminiscing many years later, commented that Haydn ‘kept a fatherly eye on us’.4
Supporter of the arts
Haydn’s support of art and design extended outside the construction industry, and his social life was filled with artists and writers. He was gregarious and loved parties, conversations and debate, and gatherings often took place at his and Molly’s house, fuelled by good wine and food. He later said their home ‘happened to be in the geographic centre of the North Shore literary and artistic world’.5
Art historian Leonard Bell described Haydn as one of the ‘vital catalysts whose influence is immeasurable’ on the art and literary scene.6 In addition to supporting Molly’s artistic career, he encouraged other friends by purchasing many pieces. In 1962 and 1969, he and Molly travelled extensively in Europe and America and visited Japan, gaining new inspiration.
In 1948 Haydn designed a new cottage for Sargeson, who lived nearby, and organised his firm to build it. Sargeson was very pleased with the result. After Sargeson’s death, the cottage was put into a trust, and Haydn organised and supervised its renovation as part of Haydn & Rollett’s golden jubilee celebrations in 1996. Ever generous, Haydn and Molly also supported Maurice Duggan, who dedicated his book O’Leary’s orchard to them. Later, when Duggan was struggling with alcoholism, Haydn introduced him to a builder he knew in Alcoholics Anonymous.
George also supported musical endeavours. To mark their golden jubilee, Haydn & Rollett sponsored the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s ‘Midwinter Masterpieces’ series and helped refurbish their run-down rehearsal facilities; his generosity was marked by a brass plaque on the wall of ‘The Haydn Room’.
In 1979 Molly became seriously ill with cancer. Haydn, unable to cope with her illness and the business, sold his shares to Trevor Hefford, who had joined the company when Rollett retired. Molly died in October 1979.
Throughout his retirement, Haydn kept in touch with all the Haydn & Rollett managing directors and was involved in the golden jubilee celebrations. He continued to support writers and artists, travel and play tennis (a life-long love). He formed a long-term relationship with Mary Sinclair. Although a troublesome knee prevented him from travelling overseas and – ‘even worse’ – playing tennis after 80, he maintained an active social and family life until a few weeks before his death.7
Early in 2005, Haydn was diagnosed with cancer. He died, aged 86, on 16 September 2005, at his Takapuna home of more than 50 years. He was survived by his partner Mary, son John and three grandchildren. In Bloody marvellous, a collection of essays published in 2006, friends and colleagues acknowledged Haydn’s generosity and support. Author Graeme Lay commented: ‘It was a measure of George the man that at his funeral service the tributes came from people from many walks of life: builders, businessmen, health care workers and literary figures.’8