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SCHLESINGER, Izidore Williem

Born: 1871 09 15
Died: 1949 03 01

Business magnate and property mogul

I. W. Schlesinger landed in South Africa from New York in 1894, aged 23, and moved to the Rand, then fast emerging as the centre of South African economic activity. He was soon to become what Eric Rosenthal has called 'perhaps the greatest South African entrepreneur since Cecil Rhodes' (Rosenthal, 1972:99).

He began his career taking orders for American manufacturers and then switching to insurance; soon he was acknowledged 'as one of the greatest sales­men of all time'. By 1902 he had founded African Realty Trust and by 1904 African Life Assurance, which in the first year of its existence established a world record for the sale of insurance policies.

In 1913 he founded the African Theatres Trust, the forerunner of African Consolidated Theatres (which became the controller of the major cinema houses and the film industry in South Africa), and in 1925 African Caterers Limited for the purchase of 'bioscope tea-rooms' - in reality this was the forerunner of the Schlesinger hotel empire. It was said of Schlesinger that if you talked insurance, you were also talking city centre properties, hotels, cinemas and luxury apart­ments.

In 1908 Schlesinger moved into the Carlton Hotel as a permanent resident. The fifth-floor suite facing Eloff Street remained his residence for much of his life until he moved to Killarney. Arthur Barlow recalled his meetings with Schlesinger in the mid-1930s over whisky and soda in his study at Whitehall Court (Barlow, 1952: 279). It was there that the sale of the Sunday Express to the mining groups was concluded. Finally, in 1925 Schlesinger's holding company, African Caterers, secured a 51 percent majority interest in Carlton Hotels Limited. In this stroke Schlesinger captured the citadel of the Carlton, the caravanserai of royalty and the travelling rich when visiting the Rand gold-fields.

Such are the bare bones of a career that transformed the culture of Johannes­burg in the era between the two world wars.

Schlesinger became the engine for Americanisation and modernisation in Johannesburg - and ... in the 1920s and 1930s the two terms were largely interchangeable. He was a man, people were fond of remarking, who 'made things hum'. He was at his office at daybreak in order, as he said, to 'make the world go round '.

In 1904, for his African Life Assurance Society he 'imported every require­ment, from the brass plates on the front door to the stationery, from the United States' (Rosenthal 1972:99). He introduced American systems for selling insurance and marketing land, and promoted American ideas and American artefacts as the carriers of modern ideas. Arthur Barlow recalled that he would come back from his visits to New York 'cock-a-hoop with new-fangled schemes' (Barlow, 1952:99).

By the same token he rejected Edwardian sensibilities as epitomised by the Carlton Hotel. Though the building was only twenty years old, he regarded it as 'already going out of date'. He undertook full-scale renovations, redecoration and modernisation of the old-fashioned, outmoded hotel, and added on three storeys. He built a broadcasting building and the great cinemas on Commissioner Street, commissioning (indirectly) William TIMLIN to create the amazing interior of the Colosseum and Rene Shapshak to execute modern street sculpture on Broadcast House. And he planned to make Killarney the Hollywood of South Africa. This resulted in one 'epic' film, Die Voortrekkers, which reinforced the conventional white version of history, and the African Mirror, the weekly film news magazine which during the war years became the unofficial voice of the Smuts government. Schlesinger represented the counter-culture of Americanisation set against the Edwardian and post-Edwardian sensibilities and sheer fuddy-duddiness of the anglophile establishment. With disdain for the stuffed-shirt exclusivity and covert anti-semitism of the old established clubs, he offered his new Transvaal Automobile Club in Killarney. And in Killarney, too, he established an entrepre­neurial apartment estate as an alternative to the mining ascendancy's Parktown.

He saw architecture as a branch of advertising (like Gordon Selfridge on Oxford Street in 1908 or Pope Julius in Rome in 1500). So he promoted an alter­native to the post-Edwardian architecture of the Baker School, adopting instead the latest stylisms and technology of Art Deco New York. All the unwritten assumptions - the parochialism and elitism, the reticence - of Anglo-South Africa came to be challenged by the brashness and drive of American populism. And Schlesinger was its local emissary.

Even the well-established hotel industry was shaken up. He renovated the Carlton Hotel and built the Polana at Lourenço Marques, the Edward on the Marine Parade in Durban, and the Riviera on the Vaal at Vereeniging - hotels which were bywords in their day for service and luxury. Characteristically, the renovations and extensions carried out at the Carlton were ready just in time for the Empire Exhibition held in 1936 to celebrate Johannesburg's new wave of prosperity.

At a time when Johannesburg was packed with visitors from all over the Empire and from all parts of colonial Africa, Schlesinger, with his unquestioned sense of timing, arranged gala events of his own. The first was the opening on 7 September 1936 of the new Empire Theatre on Commissioner Street, its foyer illuminated with gold light. Mrs Schlesinger was there with her husband 're­ceiving congratulations on all sides'. The second event was the opening night of the Riviera Hotel on the Vaal River - 'the most modern hotel in the Transvaal', the Pictorial (October 1936) called it - the vestibule itself 'the last word in modernness'.

[Adapted as web-based text from Chipkin, 1993:103-104 'Schlesinger know-how'.]

See also Wikipedia

Entries on Artefacts related to Schlesinger

Real Estate

Though African Realty Trust, until 1904, the Trust developed new neighborhoods in Port Elizabeth (Mount Pleasant) and Johannesburg (Orange Grove, Houghton, and Killarney) where salary-earners were given the opportunity to mortgage homes, a first in South Africa. At the end of 1904, he founded his first insurance company, the African Life Assurance Society, with the £20,000 he had earned from the development of the suburb of Parkhurst.


Alhambra Theatre (1929)
Broadcast House (1935)
Capitol Theatre (1931)
Empire Theatre (1935)
Building for 'the Schlesinger Sunday Newspaper' (1938)
Schlesinger Organisation Building (1967)


Percy Rogers COOKE (1880-1958)


Books citing SCHLESINGER

Chipkin, Clive M. 1993. Johannesburg Style - Architecture & Society 1880s - 1960s. Cape Town: David Phillip. pp 103-104

Rosenthal, Eric (Compiler). 1972. Meet me at the Carlton : the story of Johannesburg's old Carlton Hotel. Cape Town: Howard B Timmins. pp 99

Shorten, John R; Johannesburg City Council. 1970. The Johannesburg saga. Johannesburg: John R Shorten. pp 120, 273, 342, 344-346, 363, 365