THE HOUSE THAT THEO BUILT
(Welcoming New Friends)
Theo’s masterful use of colors characterized the murals. In all three panels, the world of the gods was painted in bright, light tones, especially in blue and white. The world of men, on the other hand, was two-dimensional, dominated by gold-orange, red, and brown shades.
Theo spent weeks painting the murals, putting his soul into his work. When they were completed, I helped him sadly pack them for shipping which was no easy task. I thought Yattlie was going to break down in tears when they were crated and gone. We had to calm her down. She hated not only to see the murals go, she hated to see any of Theo’s paintings go. “How else can an artist survive unless he sells his work?” Theo explained to her over and over, but still, each time someone came to the house to buy a painting she acted the same. There were times it became downright embarrassing when a customer backed out from a sale at a time when Theo especially needed the money.
Yattlie had her own logic on the subject of Theo selling his paintings.
“Okay then,” she said meaningfully, “me go Bangkok sleep with rich American tourist, and come home with money and buy paintings. Same, same you. You take money for painting. You sell you self”
“Fine, ” Theo said, maybe pointing to a new sarong she was wearing, “no sell. How we make money?”
“Like Thai people,” I remember her saying to Theo. “We go fishing. Sell fish. We cut coconuts.”
Yattlie was serious and Theo loved her for it. In her belief it was no different from a woman selling her body than Theo selling a painting that he put his heart into.
Theo felt much the same as Yattlie. He too hated parting with his paintings. I remember him once saying he wished he had money for then he could buy all his paintings back. It might have been possible for him to buy them at those prices, but not today.
Painting was Theo’s vocation but his avocation extended far beyond that. He was interested in many things that included dance, music and cooking. He and Yattlie traveled more than once to Bangkok see a ballet, and when he painted in his studio he listened to good music and could tell Shostakovich from Borodin. But it was his cooking where Theo excelled.
With his cooking, you can say he was a gourmet, with an amazing knowledge of herbs. A meal at Theo’s was another memorable experience. When I visited him we started lunch at noon and at dusk we were still dining, and getting ready for the evening meal. I enjoyed going to the market with Theo to do the shopping. Many times I drove back to the house trying to balance two squealing, suckling pigs on my lap.
- Photo caption on page 226 of the book: Theo showing me our snacks for dinner, baby frogs on a skewer.
Theo supervised the preparation of all the dishes himself It might be a special raw fish, a recipe that he learned in the Marquesas called poisson cru, raw fish marinated with lime juice and soaked in coconut milk. Then there was lawar that Theo mastered in Bali. It consisted of boiled young jackfruit, long beans, young papaya, and raw coconut, finely chopped, to which was added cooked minced pork. It took Theo’s good hand to mix the ingredients with perfect proportions of fried sliced garlic, sliced shallots, and at least fourteen different spices. Theo was very strict with the fourteen different spices. And it had to be fourteen, not one less nor one more. And there were sausages from Chiang Mai and a special roast duck, and tiny sweet potatoes, hearts of palm in oil, red cabbage and a salad of six greens.
And in the background when we dined, there were the soft tones of gamelan music off in the distance.
One such get-together I never wanted to miss was Theo’s birthday party every March 30th. Theo would remind me long in advance not to forget it. It was a time not to be forgotten.
The villagers loved Theo’s birthday parties. They had an excuse to celebrate, although Thais never needed such an excuse. Before activities started, they sent to the house their musical and dancing groups. They even provided a display of sword fighting which resulted in real cuts and real bruises. Celebrations would start with five monks coming to pray early in the morning. Theo would stage a big lunch for the villagers, and in the late afternoon the guests would begin to arrive. Bartenders, shopkeepers, people from the diplomatic corps from a dozen countries, artists, writers and many from the royal family including Prince Sandith and his brother Prince Kharsi and their wives. The processions from the village to his house, less than a mile, often took two hours. Singing and dancing and shuffling along, with plenty of bottles of local drink passed around.
The party would go on all night long. The next morning everyone went to the temple where there were more dances and music, and drummers who came from all the temples. “Overwhelming numbers of people came to Theo’s birthday parties.” Vince Fisher, another long-time friend of Theo’s, remembered. “You could find just about anyone there.” Whenever I arrived at Theo’s house there would be no telling who that “everyone” might be. One time I arrived to find that the movie director Roman Polanski was Theo’s houseguest. Prince Sandith’s wife Christine had met him at a party in Paris-just after his wife Sharon Tate had been murdered –and invited him to Bangkok. Once in Bangkok Sandith took him up to Chiang Mai where he met Theo. He and Theo hit it off from the start. Every year thereafter the director would come for a holiday to spend with Theo. There would be big meals, drinking and women.
- Photo caption on page 228 of the book: Roman Polanski was a frequent visitor to Theo’s place in Chiang Mai.
Polanski was laid back, a slight figure in a floppy beige sweater, jeans and sneakers. In spite of the horrible ordeal he had gone through, he outwardly appeared carefree without a worry, but I wondered if this was only a front. It was near impossible not to reflect on the problems and tragedies that had beset his life. He grew up in the Polish ghetto of Krakow and narrowly escaped the Nazi roundup of Jews in that city. When the Germans sealed off the Jewish ghetto in 1940, his father shouted to him to run which fortunately he did and made good his escape. His mother died in Auschwitz, and young Polanski had a tough time of it in the squalor and brutality of postwar Poland. He took up the study of filmmaking. His first full-length feature film after graduation, “Knife in the Water,” won awards and, most important, his ticket to the West.
He eventually made it to America, and having his ambition fulfilled he began directing movies, The film that brought him fame and world attention was “Rosemary’s Baby,” the story of the young couple who moved into a new apartment, only to be surrounded by peculiar neighbors and occurrences.
After he settled in America, more horrors followed: While he was on a film shoot in London, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and her friends were brutally slain by the followers of Charles Manson. Tate had been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance in “Valley of the Dolls”. She also appeared regularly in fashion magazines as a model and cover girl. Polanski went into shock at the news.
Polanski’s time of troubles were not over just yet. After the death of his wife, his life took a sinister turn. As one reporter said, ”After his wife had been killed by the Charles Manson ‘family’ a few years earlier, he entered into a decade long downward spiral of drugs and debauchery and generally ill-advised behavior. It was not a great time in his career or his personal life.”
While on a photographic shoot at Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood home, he was accused of sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old model.
Maintaining the girl was sexually experienced and had consented, Polanski spent forty-two days in prison undergoing psychiatric tests. Awaiting trial he entered into a plea deal in which he pleaded to a reduced charge. When he learned that the judge had turned sour on the bargain deal, he absconded and became a fugitive of the law from the United States government. The affair was to plague him the rest of his adult life.
Polanski felt very much at home in Chiang Mai, although Yattlie looked with disdain every time he came. His arrival heralded more parties and good times. Yattlie recalled that Theo and Polanski got along fine until Polanski tried to teach Theo how to eat. I could understand Theo’s anger recalling that night when he knocked a glass from my hand after I had mixed brandy and Benedictine, and called the drink B&B. I had made the mistake of saying it was what the good people of Europe drank. “That was why I left Europe,” he reminded me.
Rolf von Bueren was certain to come up from Bangkok when Polanski was there. Rolf was an old friend of Theo’s. Rolf with his family ran a business that sold high-end jewelry and decorations. Originally from Germany, Rolf moved into his Thai traditional house the Soi 23 Sukhumvit in the early 1970s. He lives here with Helen, his half-Thai and half-Scottish wife.
One night, Prince Sandith, Vince Fisher, Rolf, Theo and Polanski went out for a night on the town. They had a blast. Years later the people of Chiang Mai still talk about it. Yattlie was upset for weeks to come. She couldn’t go into town without someone mentioning it to her. Yattlie was not one who easily embarrassed but this time she was. Theo loved to entertain friends and visitors to his house in Chiang Mai. “We had some grand times there,” recalls Patrick Gavin, better known by everyone as Shrimp. He was a marvelous photographer and a longtime resident of Thailand. He had mastered the Thai language so well that he could keep the Thais in stitches with jokes in their own tongue. He could act out a Charlie Chaplin skit better than Charlie Chaplin could.