Pieter-Dirk Uys: My most formative experiences
Who is Pieter-Dirk Uys when he’s not wearing heels and false eyelashes? In this extract from his new memoir he offers a glimpse into his life as he reflects on two events that shaped him: his mother’s suicide and meeting Sophia Loren
‘ IKEEP two letters with me, always. The first one was typed in Berlin in 1935 on an official swastika letterhead. It’s addressed to my mother, Frau Helga Bassel, and states in dense, official German that she may no longer play her piano anywhere in Germany because she’s a Jew. My mother ignored that letter. She played her piano wherever she liked, even performing music by a banned Jewish composer. Playing works by Mendelssohn in 1936 made her friends very nervous, even those who weren’t Jewish.
Franz Michels, her fiancé – a professor of geology at the University of Berlin – also wasn’t Jewish. Two years earlier he’d sent Ma’s parents to South Africa.
What could be further away from Nazi Germany than Cape Town?
“Helga, I can’t protect you anymore. Take your piano and go and visit them. This thing will blow over soon.” This thing being the noise of Adolf Hitler.
So Helga Bassel took her Blüthner piano to the southern tip of Africa. Her first concert booking in Cape Town was at the City Hall, playing a Mozart two-piano concerto with the orchestra. The other pianist was an Afrikaner named Hannes Uys. So I must thank two people for my existence: Amadeus and Adolf.
The second letter is a carbon copy of the one Ma wrote and posted to Franz in 1948. They’d lost touch during the war. Her letter describes where she is, no longer Helga Bassel but Mrs Hannes Uys.
“I’m sitting here in De Waal Park. It’s a beautiful, sunny day in Cape Town. Table Mountain is looming over me like a huge wall. My little blond boy, Pieter, is three years old and playing in the grass with the dachshund Fritz. I’m sitting on a bench that has a sign on it that says: Whites Only/Slegs Blankes. How did I get here from a place that said, No Jews/ Juden Raus?”
I never knew that woman. She committed suicide before I had the courage to ask.
The note she left consisted of 15 words scribbled in pencil: “Hannes, Pieter, Tessa, I love you. I don’t want to be a burden. Forgive me.”
Today it has a name: bipolar [disorder]. Today there’s medication. Today people talk about it; it’s part of life. But on that day, 26 May 1969, it was the end of a life.
My sister, Tessa, and I knew that Ma was taking pills. She called them “vita-
mins”. We didn’t know she’d been on medication for years to fight depression. Her doctor prescribed better, stronger pills, but he was away playing golf, and when his junior assistant gave her the pills he forgot to tell her they’d first take her right down, before they helped her back up.
It was a Monday morning, and she was to drive to the SABC studios in Sea Point to record a recital of Scarlatti, Liszt and Schumann for a radio broadcast.
Before she left our home in Homestead Way, Pinelands, she sat at her piano to go through a few pieces in preparation. Nothing happened. Her fingers simply wouldn’t work.
She didn’t know it was the pills. She drove to Sea Point but then carried on to Hout Bay, up the curvy road to the top of Chapman’s Peak where the view is stunning from the cliffs and where we often paused to take photographs.
Ma stopped the car and got out, took off her coat, folded it and left it on the backseat. She opened her handbag and took out her small notebook, tore out a page and with a pencil wrote 15 words, folded it and left it on the front seat.
I flew back with Tessa from the UK [where he was attending the London Film School]. We’d been told by phone to come home urgently. Ma was in an accident but she was fine. But when I saw both aunts waiting for us at arrivals I realised something terrible was waiting for us. Then in the kiosk in the hall I saw the headlines: HELGA BASSEL SUICIDE – MAN DIES.
One of the young men from the Mountain Club who went down the cliff on ropes to retrieve the body of the woman who’d jumped had fallen to his death.
You never recover. Sometimes you don’t want to recover, in case you’ll forget her smile, her giggle, her love. There’s an empty frame in the centre of my memory where her face used to be. Her music is still with me, almost every day: Mozart, Schumann, Scarlatti, Liszt, Brahms.
But there was no music at her funeral. In the crematorium of the Maitland Cemetery the chapel was packed with friends, the people who’d come to have dinner with us, who made music with us, who laughed with us, who loved us, sitting there with us in this terrible silence, thinking: what’s happened?
Someone asked the undertakers if there was any classical music – “Helga Bassel was a wonderful pianist, a great musician. Help her with some music, please.”
They went searching and found a cassette of organ music by Friedrich Handel. The tape was stretched. What came out was a warped, distorted wail.
Ma would’ve got uncontrollable giggles. Her little squeak always set all of us off. Benches in churches were known to shake. And, dear God, we needed that so badly at that moment. But Ma was no longer there to help us.
That drawn-out noise was the most terrible sound I’ve ever heard; and for such a thing to happen at her funeral. I ran into the cemetery. I stood among other people’s tombstones in the howling southeaster.
The one person I could talk to was gone. But I had an address far away. So I wrote a letter: “My mother jumped off Chapman’s Peak and is dead. I don’t know what to do.”
A few days later, by express mail, a letter came in reply. “You must help your father and your sister. You cannot cry now; you will cry one day but not now. Now you must be brave. Be brave! I love you, Sophia.”
HOW did I come to know Sophia Loren? It all started with Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. Of course, everything in those days seemed to start with Verwoerd. At school and in church they insinuated that he wasn’t just the architect of apartheid. He wasn’t just our prime minister. Dr Hendrik Verwoerd was a gift from God. So I had a picture of my hero on the wall of my room.
Most of my friends at school had Verwoerd’s picture on their walls. They added cuttings of Springbok rugby players; I didn’t go that far. I found the picture of a beautiful Italian actress in the weekly Stage and Cinema magazine. She went up on my wall next to the prime minister. Within days Oom Hendrik fell off the wall. He stayed off permanently, while Sophia has remained on my wall ever since. I think she saved my life.
I’m seventy-something and she’s eighty-something, but once upon a time I was 16 and she was 27. I’d just finished
‘You will cry one day but not now. Be brave! I love you, Sophia’
(From previous page) matric and Ma gave me the best present to celebrate my freedom: a return ticket to the northern hemisphere. “Here, Pietie, go and see where I come from.”
After visiting London I travelled on to Germany, France and finally Italy. To Rome. Because She lived there. I had a black-and-white picture cut out from Oggi magazine of a young beautiful Sophia Loren leaning out of her apartment window, waving at the camera. In the background was an ornate lamppost and a Roman ruin.
Rome is full of ornate lampposts and ruins. For the next three days, armed with that picture, I went around Rome looking for the right lamppost and right ruin. I found them in the shadow of the Victor Emmanuel Monument. I stood under the window of Sophia’s apartment.
Then I wrote a letter: “Dear Sophia Loren, Mrs Ponti. I’m in your beautiful city of Rome and love it. And I love you and your work. I have all your pictures in my scrapbooks and on the wall of my room at home. Much love from Pieter Uys, U-Y-S pronounced A-C-E (in case she thought it was a spelling mistake).”
As there was no security barrier in those days, I simply went up to the first floor and knocked on the door. A woman opened: “No, Mrs Ponti is filming in France, but I will see that she gets it.”
I ciao’d and she ciao’d, and I left on a cloud. My letter for Sophia was delivered, so I had finished my adventure in Ma’s hemisphere and I could get back on the boat to Cape Town.
When I got back, waiting for me was a letter with an Italian stamp. On the back, written in her own hand: “From Sophia Loren”! This great film star had bothered to write a personal letter to a little poepgat from Pinelands, South Africa.
I wrote back to her at once and she wrote back to me. I answered her and she answered me. That’s how our pen friendship developed, until one day she sent a letter that changed my life: “You will cry one day, but not now . . . Be brave.”
I eventually met her in 1975, in Paris. I knew Sophia lived on Avenue George V on the fourth floor of a luxury apartment block because it said so in my scrapbook. I took presents for her and her two boys.
“Dear Sophia Loren, I am here in Paris staying at the Hotel de la Paix on the Left Bank and want to drop these presents for you with love, much love and always love, from Pieter from Pinelands.”
In the foyer stood the concierge in his uniform and cap, unsmiling. I stumbled in, arms full of gifts and tried my rehearsed French.
“Bonjour, mon General. Pour Madame Ponti?” “Non.” “Oui!” “Non.” I reverted back to my mother tongue. “Ag nonsens, man! Ek weet sy woon hier, want dis in my scrapbook. Hier is die presente. Neem hul op na die vierde vloer, asseblief en dankie. Okay?” (“Nonsense, man! I know she lives here because it says so in my scrapbook. Here are the presents. Take them to the fourth floor, please and thank you. Okay?”) And he said: “Oui!” So I left the presents in his capable hands and went back to my cheap hotel, which I was dreading. The woman behind the reception desk was like a KGB agent in a James Bond film.
As I approached the hotel I saw her on the sidewalk. She looked towards me, saw me and waved. She was smiling! “Monsieur Arse? Monsieur Arse! Sophia Loren! She phone for you in my hotel! Sophia say she love you!”
I was to go to her apartment for a drink at 6pm. And I was ready by 2pm.
I was ushered into the lounge by her secretary, a room so familiar because I had pictures of everything in my scrapbooks – the Francis Bacon painting to the right, the thing she got from the Vatican to the left, her Oscar on a plinth, all the Bambi Awards she had from Germany in a row.
Even the black dress she wore that evening with the ed rose across the front was in a picture on the wall of my room right next to where I opened my eyes in the morning. When she walked into the lounge wearing that dress, it was as if the
picture had floated off my wall. “Hello, Pieter!” We sat on the carpet and sorted out the heap of South African stamps I’d brought for her two boys. They were in their pyjamas, excitedly pointing out the buck, lions and elephants on the stamps.
Sophia picked up one of the longer stamps. “Edoardo? Chipi? Look: an elephant’s tooth.”
“No, Sophia,” I said, “you have it upside down. That is the Afrikaanse Taalmonument [Afrikaans Language Monument].”
IWAS always fascinated by the chameleon-like talents of theatre performers who use their voice, expressions and a disguise to disappear into a character. The make-up we applied when I was still in drama school came in the form of cigar-shaped, numbered sticks of grease paint, coloured to highlight, to shade, to blend and to contrast.
I remember copying Laurence Olivier’s character Mahdi from the 1966 film Khartoum, with darkened skin, eyelashed glare and white headdress. Then Marlene Dietrich’s tour to Cape Town brought the drooping lashes and the carefully structured red-gash mouth. I did characters with false noses, short hair, long hair, beards, scars and rashes. And then, just because I could, I slanted the eyes and ripened the lips to pout in the mirror at what was now my Cape Town version of the Italian woman on my wall – Sophia Loren.
Evita Bezuidenhout came about after the editor of the Sunday Express gave me a weekly column in the ’70s to reflect the madness of the Information Scandal [a political saga involving the department of information, which was allegedly misappropriating state funds for secret projects] that was breaking news every day, then without the immediacy of social media or tweet tornadoes.
I created an Afrikaans tannie, who would be at “white monopoly capital” parties in Pretoria and condemn her beloved National Party with gushing enthusiasm. Today she can still hold the attention of an audience comfortably for three hours on the issues of yesterday, today and tomorrow, because she has nearly four decades of fake news and misinformation to choose from.
Nelson Mandela always enjoyed her. If there were one good reason for her existence, it would be that she made him laugh. I’d be summoned to fundraisers and dinners for my 15 minutes of fame, standing in her heels to entertain the latest gods on the Olympus of power: among them, Oprah, Bill Clinton and the queen of the Netherlands.
One night there was a moment when Evita and Madiba were standing together on the red carpet. Through clenched teeth I whispered: “President Mandela? Every time you see me, I’m dressed as Evita Bezuidenhout!”
He chuckled through his smile. “Don’t worry, Pieter, I know you’re inside.”
WHEN filmmaker Willem Oelofsen suggested making a documentary about me [2016’s Nobody’s Died Laughing] he asked who he could interview. We made a list of my nearest and dearest. That Sunday afternoon at 4pm the phone rang and my answering machine kicked in: “Leave a message.” “Hello, Pieter, I know you’re there. This is Sophia . . .” I picked up at once. I told her someone wants to make a documentary film. She gave a chuckle. “I want to be in your movie.” “Really?” “Of course,” she said. “I’m your best friend!” And so she is. We flew to Geneva, Switzerland, a crew of three. The afternoon before we filmed I went to her apartment and we hugged again after many years. For over an hour we sat and compared lives, loves and memories; her grandchildren and my cats. The next morning she arrived at the hotel where the interview was to take place. Or should I say, film goddess Sophia Loren stepped out of the limo. Our crew will never forget the moment she entered the suite, introduced herself and allowed them to get on with their jobs. Lights. Sound. Camera. Action. As I watched I remembered cutting out that picture from the Stage and Cinema in 1958.
Pieter-Dirk Uys with Sophia Loren in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2015. He’s been friends with the Italian screen siren for decades.
TOP: As a young boy Pieter showed a talent for singing, which his mother, Helga, nurtured. ABOVE: Looking very sweet and angelic aged around 12.
Pieter with his parents, Helga and Hannes, and sister, Tessa, on Chapman’s Peak. In 1969 Helga committed suicide at this scenic spot in Cape Town.
Evita with Nelson Mandela at an ANC rally in Cape Town before the 1994 election. Madiba was a huge fan of Pieter’s legendary alter ego.
LEFT: Pieter regards Sophia as his best friend. Even though they don’t get to see each other as much as they’d like they often chat over the phone. BELOW: For his 21st birthday in 1966 he decorated the back patio of his parent’s home in Cape Town with magazine covers featuring Sophia so she could be part of proceedings. “I sent her the pictures,” he says. “She said it made her laugh.”
THIS IS AN EDITED EXTRACT FROM THE ECHO OF A NOISE, A MEMOIR OF THEN AND NOW, BY PIETER-DIRK UYS, TAFELBERG, R280 (RECOMMENDED RETAIL PRICE).