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

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‘ 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).

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