Theo Meier-CH31

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Most people got along with Theo providing they did not try to read meaning into his life. One could never ask him why he reacted in a certain way. One could never question him about such matters. Never ask him why he hadn’t gone home again. His self-styled philosophy was simple enough-he came East, found a life for himself and had made the best of it ever since, without regrets. He had succeeded as a painter. Celebrities and people in the know made tracks to his door. His paintings and sketches hang in private collections and art galleries around the world. His murals adorn a hospital, hotels and many government buildings in America and on the Continent. He had what any aspiring artist would like to have. Theo led a life that gave him freedom of choice, and he was one of the few men I knew living in Asia who was completely at ease in his environment. He did not have the guilty compunction that he should be somewhere else, nor did he have that regretful feeling that one day he must return home and dose the ledger, as many foreigners do who live for a long time in distant lands. Theo had not “gone native” as many white men do, nor he did alienate the people where he lived. He never cut himself off from the world. He was very much part of both worlds, East and West.

Theo had enjoyed every minute of his life.

  • Photo caption on page 292 of the book: Prince Sandith seen here at his home in Chiang Mai with two of his collection of Theo Meier’s oil paintings. Prince Sandith and Theo were lasting friends.

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Theo Meier-CH30

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When the news of Theo’s death reached me, I was far off sailing my schooner in the South Pacific. From a phone call in Pago Pago in Samoa, I learned he had died in a hospital in Switzerland where he had gone for that one last treatment with the hope that he might beat his illness. I had been aware that Theo was ill and I was expecting the worse, but his death still came as a shock. There are some things in life you prepare for but when they happen you are still not prepared. When I reached Singapore and secured my schooner I took a flight to Bangkok and then boarded a train to Chiang Mai. I wanted to relive the past and fill my mind with all kinds of happy thoughts. I remembered how excited I always was to arrive in Chiang Mai and take the baht bus to Theo’s house. We would have lunch and then while away much of the afternoon, sitting in his grand house, drinking Mekong-and-soda with fresh limes-there had to be plenty of fresh lime-talking about the “good old days” in the islands. Maybe if Theo had started a new painting, he’d talk about that. He would usually excuse himself and take a nap while I would read or doze in the front room surrounded by dangling tiny bells that tinkled with the slightest breeze. Hanging from the eaves and beams were carvings from Bali-winged frogs, garudas, old Chinese coins on silk banners.

And then as evening fell, pretty little servant girls moved about as silently as shadows lighting a myriad of candles. There might even be the sound of a flute coming from the garden somewhere below. Dinner would be a prolonged affair with interesting talk and wonderful food. When I was with Theo at his house in Chiang Mai I could feel the soul of Asia right down to every pore in my body.

But those days were gone.

When I arrived at Theo’s house this time it was one hundred days after his death, and according to the Buddhist custom, everyone had gathered to pay their last respects. I got out of the taxi, entered the gate to his compound and there tacked on the door was a message:


Many had gathered by the time I arrived, both Europeans and Thais, all friends of his, from diplomats to tuktuk drivers. Standing on top of the stairs leading up to the house was Yattlie, now Theo’s widow. She motioned for me to join her. She saw my anguish and took hold of my hand as she led me past people sitting on chairs and on the floor. Hanging on the walls were Theo’s paintings, many I hadn’t seen before. It was all so strange, like the action on a movie screen had frozen and I was the only moving thing. Faces looked up at me, unsmiling. Yattlie pushed open the door to the studio and stepped aside to let me enter. The room was a private sanctuary. Prince Sandith was there.

I was aware of a double bed in the very center of the room. Gone was Theo’s workbench and easel. More of his paintings hung on the walls. What caught my attention was a framed photograph of Theo, taken many years ago. It was in the middle of the bed, propped up by a worn Balinese sarong rolled into a kind of ball. Yattlie said something. Her English was not good. I didn’t react, and this time when she spoke she pointed to the sarong. “There is Theo,” she repeated. She pulled the sarong partly open revealing a wooden box. Theo’s ashes were inside.

I couldn’t hold back the flood of tears. I wanted to flee from that very room but I couldn’t. I wanted to call out to Theo, but no words came, only more tears. No more pictures to paint, no more tales to tell. All the beauty he had found, all the joy he had known, all were gone. A hand touched me on the shoulder. Prince Sandith stood there. “He is gone,” he whispered, “and with him has gone something from our lives that can never be replaced.”

He was so right.

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Theo Meier-CH29

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Patrick Gavin went to see Theo a few days before he died. “I wanted to see him. I knew he didn’t have long. I could see he was in pain but he covered it up. We sat for a few hours on the verandah. It was very sad. I guess Theo could see how I felt and it ended up with him trying to cheer me up. That was Theo.”

After gaining his composure, Patrick continued: “He was working on a painting, chrysanthemums, vivid colors, and I could see the suffering in his eyes. It was all so strange. Here was the beautiful house he had built and he knew he wouldn’t have it for long. It was all I could do to hold back the tears. I looked at him and then at the Ping River beyond. The river would be there, like it always had been, but not Theo. I wanted to cry out, to say something, but no words could come.

Theo stopped painting and turned to me. ‘My eyes are going, I can’t screw anymore, I can’t drink anymore, and I have to watch what I eat. What’s the use?’

“He thought for a moment and then said, ‘But I can still paint.’ That he could-paint. That was the last painting he ever did. I left his house and this time I walked back into town. I wanted to think, and cry to myself. God, I loved that guy. And soon he would be gone.”

Theo firmly believed he could beat his cancer that started in his groin and spread to his lower spine. Yattlie didn’t tell him that the doctors explained that the disease had metastasized. But even she hoped for the best. In one final stand, and with trust in his European doctors, she and Theo flew to Basel. He checked into the hospital. A week later, with Yattlie holding his hand, Theo Meier died.

  • Photo caption on page 286 of the book: Patrick Gavin’s photo of Theo, perhaps the last one of him ever taken.

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Theo Meier-CH28

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Theo Meier wanted everything from life that life could offer. He loved life and found pleasures in most everything, food, drink, making love, painting. When he became ill, he refused to accept it. When he did go to see the Chinese doctor in Chiang Mai, and learned he had cancer, he told no one. When he began to suffer greatly from pain, he still kept it to himself The Chinese doctor gave him herb medicine and assured him he would be all right. But the pain persisted. The doctors then give him pain pills but he refused to take them for he wanted to keep his mind alive.

When Theo knew his end was near he began to feel pangs of remorse, but not as one might imagine. He had led a full live. He had no regrets about that, and if he had to do it all over again, he would have done the same. But as he lay on his cot on the verandah, looking out over then Ping River, he worried about Yattlie. He was over seventy now; he was fifty-six years old when he had taken Yattlie to live with him. She was sixteen, and he was forty years her senior. He had been warned by everyone not to marry her. Some insisted that he could have done better. But he found in Yattlie the very things he admired in a woman. Mainly, she was not pretentious. He saw the good in her that others failed to see. She had stuck with him. She remained at his side when he had no home, no bankroll and as a painter had no prospects of a bright future. Yet, when friends and family criticized her, she stood by her man; she cheered him on when he needed it; she encouraged him when his painting wasn’t going well. She took over the running of the house giving him time to paint.

Theo had spared Yattlie by not telling her that he was ill. “Everyone knew but me,” she said when she learned much later about the state of his health. “When I did ask the doctor he wouldn’t tell me.” Yattlie did not know the extent of his illness until she and Theo went on a trip to Normandy.

Theo had the idea that if he traveled he might forget his pain. He planned a trip in which he would take Yattlie to Normandy on the French coast and retrace his steps that he took in his youth. It had been his first endeavor at adventure when he had boarded a fishing boat en route to Finland. He didn’t last long. When he became violently seasick the fishermen put him off on the coast. That was such a long time ago; it would be different now. It did not have to be an old smelly fishing boat like before. He had a friend who had a motorboat in Normandy and his friend offered to take Theo and Yattlie on a cruise up the coast. Theo liked the idea and accepted.

“Theo knew he was sick but still he wouldn’t tell me,” Yattlie said. “But I felt that something was wrong. He had been acting strangely for a long time. I didn’t know it at the time, he managed to keep it to himself, but he was suffering with cancer, prostate cancer, and the cancer had spread.”

Theo wrote in his journal that he wanted to show Yattlie the place where he had traveled when he was so young. The voyage started off on a happy note. Everyone was excited.

They were hardly out of sight of land when Theo’s friend turned the wheel over to him. Theo was beaming with pride. Then catastrophe struck.

“None of us noticed the rocks ahead,” Yattlie said. They struck the rocks with a terrific jolt throwing Theo to the deck. No damage had been done to the vessel to cause her to sink but Theo was in bad shape. He had lost control of both of his legs. He was in terrible pain and could not stand.

A passing boat came to their aid and they managed to get Theo ashore and to a hospital as quickly as they could. He was then air evacuated back to Switzerland. Yattlie had not known the severity of the cancer. No one did. “It had spread throughout his body,” she said. At the hospital in Switzerland Theo immediately went on cobalt treatment. It helped somewhat but they were uncertain of the final results. The cancer went into remission and they permitted Theo to return to Thailand.

Once back at his Thai house in Chiang Mai, Theo began to spend more time sitting idly on the verandah staring out at the river below. He liked it especially late in the afternoon and early evening when the light began to fade and he could no longer paint. He took the time to think, to reflect upon his past. With the sun hanging low across the river, it was a bewitching hour. It was at this time that the women came down to the water’s edge to bathe, carrying on their hips their young toddlers. They all bathed in silence and it was then that a sense of penetrating sadness would fall upon Theo. He thought about poor Yattlie, What was to become of her?

Theo was seeing pictures across the river but it was his thoughts that prevailed.

He was pleased with what life had brought him, but yet he was not completely satisfied. Perhaps puzzled was the word. He wondered had he not, as a young man, read the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his “noble savage” idea what might have become of him. Or what might have become of him had he not read Pierre Lori’s The Marriage of Loti nor seen filmmaker Victor van Plessey’s “Island of Demons.” Would he have been content had he stayed in Basel and married Helga? Would he have become a baker like her father, or a business machine salesman and taken over his father’s business. The farmer who has never left the farm cannot ponder another life that he has never experienced. Had he not known the difference might he be contended with Helga and half a dozen kids? Theo’s thoughts wandered. They turned once again to Yattlie.

True, in the beginning of their relationship, Theo did not love Yattlie. Circumstances had simply brought them together. Then when they moved to Chiang Mai and the subject of marriage was brought up, Yattlie did not want to get married. She finally conceded at the insistence of her mother and father. But once they were married and life moved on they both grew attached to one another, and the attachment turned into love. Theo continued looking at the river, but like a blind man it was in thought only. How unfair it had been to Yattlie, that he had forced himself upon her. His taking up with her, really, had been a selfish desire on his part? Yes, Yattlie did have a comfortable life with him. She lived in a grand house, had servants to attend to her every whim, she never hungered, they traveled, and Theo bought her anything she wanted. He had taught her life, he reasoned, but then was it not life as he knew it and not as she would have lived it without him. In doing so, in teaching her his ways, he had sapped her youth. He was old enough to be her father; no, to be her grandfather. He dwelled on the thought. He had deprived her of her youthful womanhood. Could she have been happy living on a farm up country, planting rice along with a young, robust and carefree husband? He remembered how opposed Prince Sandith was to his marrying her. Yet poor Yattlie had never complained. She accepted Theo for what he was.

But now what was to become of Yattlie? Theo’s heart was heavy, a heavy burden in which he suffered the pangs of distress. But then, as luck would have it, he then heard that visiting in Chiang Mai was a Balian from Bali. Maybe he had an answer. After all, Balians were Bali’s cure-alls. Sorcerers of sort, they can do about anything and that includes interpret dreams, cure sickness, go into trances, and solve love matters. Without telling anyone, Theo went to seek the advice of the Balian living in Chiang Mai. The advice he gave to Theo was straight forward. He advised Theo to let Yattlie have a lover.

One thought led to another. The Balian might be right. Yattlie was still young, he reasoned. Why deprive her of her youth? Was he not to blame? Did he not think that this might happen at one time? Running through her veins still flowed the emotions, the spirited blood of a woman of passion. Yes, that was it. She was still young. Yattlie had always been a compassionate person. She was in her mid-thirties and she still had strong desires. He wanted her to be happy and then he asked himself what did it matter if she did take a lover. It might be risky but it depended upon her: could she separate the emotional part of such a relationship from the physical act. If the two of them, Yattlie and her lover, could handle it, it might work out. The idea was a bit distasteful to his thinking but he had to think of Yattlie.

The next time he and Yattlie sat at dinner together, he suggested to her, ever so casually, that she should find a lover. She laughed, said it was silly of him even to mention it, and Theo felt relieved. He was only testing himself. Try as he did he could not bear the thought of Yattlie taking someone else to bed,

But the thought began to linger in Yattlie’s mind. Theo planted it there. If he didn’t mind her taking a lover, why not? After all, she was Asian and her concept of love was not the same as they harbored in Europe and America. All Asian men, married men included, have lovers. Asian women were no different. A few weeks later she mentioned to Theo that a young German she met in town had taken an interest her. A few days later she went to dinner with him. She then invited him to the house

“You can have a boyfriend, a lover,” Theo said when she told him she had found someone, “but please don’t ever leave me alone.”

What had once seemed like a magnanimous idea on Theo’s part now turned to sadness and remorse. The very thought of Yattlie sleeping with another cast a pall, a kind of dark cloud, over him. That Yattlie had actually accepted to take a lover cut deep into his psyche. But now it was too late, The German became her lover. The next man was a young English man and I heard she moved him into the house. How Theo felt, I’m afraid we shall never know.

Among Theo’s papers and letters that I found after his death was a note, hand written that he had scribbled to Yattlie. It read: “Please come to me and hold me for a while before you go to sleep.” I could only imagine the torment and pain that he suffered. Was his past catching up with him?

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Theo Meier-CH27

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Theo wasn’t the easiest person in the world to get along with. He had many idiosyncrasies that were hard for some people to fathom. I doubt if anyone could ever really understand the complete Theo Meier, although I thought I did after having known him for ten years. Then one night when we were drinking, and the best of friends, he came up to me and knocked a glass of brandy from my hand, and began shouting, “Not in my house. Not in my house you won’t.” He was like an angered bull.

Shortly before, Theo and Yattlie had moved into their new house in Chiang Mai. They were quite pleased with their new place and they invited me up from Bangkok one weekend to see it. They chose a time when there was a festival in a village nearby. It was a colorful celebration, one you do not see unless you know the villages and people who live there, and after it ended with the dancers and drummers and half of the village escorting us back to Theo’s and we all sang and danced along the dusty road. We had a very late dinner that night on the verandah, and when Yattlie and the servants retired, Theo and I sat up talking and drinking until three in the morning. I was getting too sleepy to enjoy any more drinks and suggested we turn in.

“A nightcap,” Theo said and sat up, alert. “One more Mekong and soda.”

“Thanks, Theo, but I have really had enough,” I replied.

”Ah,” he sighed. “Maybe something else. Whisky,” he said and pointed to a cabinet. “There’s whisky in there. I never touch that foreign stuff. People bring it as gifts.”

The cabinet contained enough alcohol to make any home bar complete-rum, brandy, scotch, sherry, rye, vodka and gin-some of it was expensive, such as a twelve year old Chivas Regal. Then I noticed a bottle of Benedictine.

“Just one,” I agreed and took out the brandy. Theo smiled approvingly. I carefully poured a peg of brandy into a tumbler, reached for the Benedictine and added an equal amount to make an after dinner drink.

“What are you doing?” Theo shrieked, in a tone so loud that it startled me.

“It’s okay, Theo,” I replied. ‘I’m mixing a B&B.” “You are ruining good cognac,” he cried.

“No, Theo,” I insisted. “It’s a drink they all take in Europe now. Even in the best restaurants.”

At that instant Theo charged across the room and knocked the glass out of my hand. It shattered against a teak railing. I fully expected his wife to come running into the room to see what the disturbance was. Theo continued his harangue. “I left Europe because, because this”-he waved his arms-“I left because you were expected to do what proper people do. Proper! What is proper? If you say you like to drink good cognac mixed with rubbish, then I say okay. But not to say you drink because that is what is proper in Europe.” The rage soon passed and Theo calmed down. A moment later he quietly asked, “What would you like?”

“Not B&B,” I said and he laughed and we were friends again.

I have seen Theo lose his temper many times before, but it was usually over other matters. He could become annoyed when we were in a restaurant paying top prices and the service was bad, but he never became aroused with bad service if we dined in a food stall. Once he lost his cool when a reporter misquoted him, and another time he became absolutely furious over an incident he remembered that happened twenty years or so before.

Previously, I mentioned when at a party he walked across the room, and for no apparent reason, punched the photographer in the face. Although Theo never talked about it, he never lost his distrust for the Japanese. I became aware of his disposition once when we were in Bangkok and got into an elevator on the ground floor, headed to the top floor, but when we reached the first floor Theo wanted off. Two Japanese businessmen had gotten on the elevator. Theo was hesitant to express his thoughts. “They might be carrying briefcases,” he said, “but the briefcases are no more than replacements for their sabers.”

And then there was Gerd Barkowsky, the German painter he had first met on Bali. He had a never-ending feud with Gerd that no one could understand.

Gerd left Europe in 1947 and, perhaps not surprisingly, had never been back. The reason I surmised was that he was born in Germany and lived out the ‘Hitler-zeit‘, In his early years he saw service as a Panzer-grenadier on the Eastern Front. Interned at the end of the war by Russian occupying forces, he had to struggle to live.

He did have a happy childhood and spent a lifetime thereafter seeking what had been taken away from him.

He liked to tell about starting young as a painter and selling his first water colors as a schoolboy in Baltic resort-towns. In his youth he read widely and was influenced by Jack London who instilled in him the desire to travel. At the end of the war, at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, he took up his studies again, at the same time earning enough to save for the day when he would be able to travel.

He first set foot in the East in 1952 in Bombay. After a year in India he crossed to Singapore, which treated him well – exhibitions and commissions-and then he went down through Indonesia to Bali where he met Theo. In 1956, he paid his first visit to Thailand, and there he stayed.

  • Photo caption on page 276 of the book: Theo painted this self-portrait while sitting on a fan-back chair with Yattlie standing next to him.

In Bangkok, he met a young woman called Pai. Her family were farming people in the north with Shan connections. She took him to Chiang Mai, which he loved from the start. In 1958, in a simple civil ceremony, Pai and Gerd were married and settled permanently in Chiang Mai.

Theo’s arguments with Gerd were over Gerd’s commercialism. His aim was to cater to the visitor. Theo thought that his charcoal drawings were too perfectly drafted, and a little too mechanical. They were created without imagination. Theo liked his oils and he believed he had merit, but while oils bring in big money, they’re not something one can turn out in a couple of days. Cheap charcoal drawings of the hill tribe people did sell. “You lost it,” Theo shouted at him. “You lost it.”

“I didn’t lose it,” Gerd returned fire. “I am alive today and I am not looking for riches when I am dead and gone.”

Theo couldn’t argue the point. Perhaps what angered Theo the most was his awareness that Gerd Barkowsky was right. Gerd was contented doing what he was doing. He wanted nothing else in life. Could it be that Theo was looking for immortality? Gerd was not.

No, at times Theo was not easy to get along with. There were incidents when he didn’t want to see Rolf von Bueren and even his good friend Prince Sandith.

Probably what none of us realized was that Theo was not well. His health was failing him and he was finding it harder and harder to paint. He was not one to fold up his easel and quit. As long as there was a breath of air in his body he wanted to paint. He refused to tell anyone that he was ill, his wife Yattlie and even his best friend Prince Sandith.

Theo Meier suffered silently.

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Theo Meier-CH26C

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Post-war Bali

In 1952, a painter claiming to be of Catalan descent, but born in Manila, was Antonio Maria Blanco. He appeared in Bali seeking Theo’s help. Mario, as everyone called him, had attended the Fine Arts Academy in New York and lived in various places in the United States before settling in Bali.

Mario became noted for his dramatic flair and flamboyant style. He always wore a tam, like French painters wore, and a long silk scarf that dangled from around his neck. He likened himself to Salvador Dali but, as Theo said, he was no Dali. But we must give him credit where credit is due. He was awarded the La Cofradia del Arras of Spain. Mario’s fault was that he concentrated on painting nude women, women painted in the exotic motif that would appeal to tourists. His Balinese women didn’t have the local motif.

I will relate here an incident that happened when I went to visit Blanco one afternoon. I made an appointment and Willy Mettler asked if he could tag along and take photos. I had no objection to that. When we neared Blanca’s walled compound, Willy noted a high hill that rose up behind the place. He thought it might make a good picture from above, looking down on the compound. He scampered off to climb the hill and I went around to the front entrance. I waited a bit to give Willy time to climb the hill and rang the bell. I did the interview, and met Blanca’s wife and their lovely daughter. I must say I was impressed. Here was a lifestyle led by a man any budding artist would envy. He had everything.

When the interview was over, and we bid our goodbyes, Willy and I started walking back towards town, and were no more than a hundred meters away, when Willy bursts out in laughter. Between bursts, he told how he had climbed the hill, and when he looked down, the compound was a scene of tranquility. Being afternoon, servants were laying about napping, and Blanco was sitting in a lounge chair, without a shirt on, drinking wine. About that time I rang the bell. Willy began laughing again, only louder now that we were father away. It was hard to stop but he finally had his say. He told how, with the sound of the bell, the compound suddenly burst forth with activity. “It was unbelievable,” Willy chuckled.

“A stage performance opened up, like one I had seen put on by students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.” The servants, all women and nude from the waist above, grabbed jugs, supposedly filled with water and put them on their heads and began walking as thought they were coming from a well far off to the kitchen Blanco quickly had a girl take away the wine while he donned a painted-smeared smock and quickly took a seat in front of his easel. This is what I saw when I entered, Blanco behind his easel, a cigarette in a long carved holder in one hand and a paint brush in the other. The painting on the easel was one he had quickly switched. It was his famous nude I had seen in print many times. I didn’t think much about it at the time. How impressed I was, and now, with Willy’s tale, I too began laughing. Fortunately the painters of Bali didn’t take Blanco seriously.

  • Photo caption on page 268 of the book: Antonio Blanco was noted for his paintings of Balinese girls in exotic poses, as we see in this painting.

The Dutch painter, Arie Smit, who was born in 1916, came to live in Ubud, in 1956. Theo did not get to know Arie well as he left Bali to live in Thailand the following year, but he did get to know Arie on his return visits to the island. Theo was sympathetic to Arie’s cause. Arie had arrived in Indonesia in 1938 on a military contract. He had been assigned to the Topographical Service as a lithographer. Following the Japanese invasion of 1942 he was taken as a prisoner of war to forced labor camps in Singapore, Thailand and Burma. After the Dutch finally acknowledged Indonesia’s sovereignty in 1949, he stayed and became an Indonesian citizen in 1951. He taught graphics at the lnstitut Teknologi in Bandung, Java, before finally moving to Bali at the invitation of Bonnet and James Pandy. He then became a full-time painter and developed an understanding about Balinese community, rural life. Coastal areas and the hills inspired him, as did the painting of young boys.

When President Sukarno, who had been a friend of the artists, suddenly insisted that all Dutch, whether artists or not, leave Bali, Han Snel and Arie Smit were ordered to leave the island immediately. Theo, who had a close relationship with Sukarno, became very disturbed by Sukarno’s sudden change of heart and went to Jakarta on behalf of the two men to see if he could talk to Sukarno. He was granted an audience with the president.

Sukarno told Theo this was political and that he and other artists should not get mixed up in politics. He advised Theo to return with Arie and Han to Bali and take up where they left off. Arie and Han did return, but Theo decided then and there that he would leave Bali. Sukarno gave him permission to leave Bali to visit his home in Switzerland.

Artists and painters continued to come to Bali in the post war years. Some made names for themselves, often with dubious reputations. Donald Stuart Leslie Friend was one. Born in Sydney and educated at the Royal Art Academy in Sydney and the Westminster School in London, his first introduction to Southeast Asia was as a war artist in Malaysia. He completed two illustrated books during his stay and after returning to Sydney he decided to go to Bali, where he lived and worked from 1966 to 1980.

Theo was never a joiner; he belonged to no group, no school. When asked why he never joined Bali’s Pita Maha School of art and artists’ association, he replied to one critic that was why he left Switzerland, to get away from schools. Theo was a die-hard loner. Theo did admit, however, the Pita Maha had something in its favor.

Pita Maha was created by Walter Spies and Rudolph Bonnet and two princes of the royal family, Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati and his brother Cokorda Gede Raka Sukawati, with the aim to provide guidance, maintain standards and guarantee the artists’ livelihoods. Theo did not gain favor with other painters when he refused to become part of the association. He wanted to remain independent. As circumstances would have it, Theo was glad that he didn’t join. When Bonnet began teaching the young Balinese painters in Ubud, they, instead of developing their own style, were copying his style of painting. Hundreds of Bonnet’s appeared in all the art shops and commercial museums.

The Japanese invaded Bali in February 1942 and Pita Maha came to an end. During the Japanese Occupation, Bonnet was interned by the Japanese and after the war he returned but efforts to revive the association failed.

Theo disliked when his solitude was disrupted and he couldn’t paint. He hated it mostly when a friend brought a friend for him to meet. When that happened he would go to his studio and lock the door. Sometimes he was reluctantly forced to meet the newcomer as it happened one time with Prince Sandith. A very well-known French sculptor came to visit Prince Sandith in Chiang Mai and Prince Sandith took him to meet Theo, which greatly annoyed Theo.

“It was true, Theo never got along with other painters,” Prince Sandith admitted. “Never at all, but this was different at least I thought so. Theo and the sculptor got along for about an hour. Then they began trying to outdo one another.”

The sculptor told Theo he was a professor at the Beaux Arts in Paris. Theo definitely had no time for those who claimed to have studied at the Beaux Arts.

“I never studied anyplace. I barely have a primary school education,” Theo said.

“But my beginning was humble too,” the sculptor said. “The truth is,” Theo replied, “I never even went to school.”

“I was very poor and had nothing at all.” the sculptor retorted

Theo said, “I was even poorer.”

“I lost my parents when I was very young.”

“I never even knew my father.”

At the end they became friends and had a good laugh. But that was rare. In such cases Theo would walk out of the room and lock himself in his studio.

Theo never was good at burying his friends. He hated to hear that so-and-so had passed away. He never went to funerals nor did he want one. He wanted to be cremated and not buried in the cold ground. When news about Willy Mettler’s death reached him he was upset for days afterward. Most distressing to him was the way Willy died. The report was that Willy had been killed in Cambodia while on an assignment. He had been captured by Khmer Rouge and executed. Theo figured that Willy’s aggressiveness must have done him in. I can see him now,” Theo said, “standing there, defying his executioners, saying he was Swiss and they dared not harm him. They pulled triggers and laughed.”

Theo also became very upset when he learned that Rubic had been carrying Willy’s child and upon hearing the news about Willy’s death had a miscarriage. She returned to Bali and a few years later married a German chef who worked at one of the major hotels in Hong Kong.

So ended another era.

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Theo Meier-CH26B

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Pre-War Bali

One pre-war painter who gave Theo a helping hand when Theo first arrived was Le Mayeur. Theo often revealed that he greatly appreciated Le Mayeur’s help but he didn’t agree with Le Mayeur’s style of self-promotion. Some say that Theo was a bit jealous but that was not the case at all. Theo turned down many commissions because the clients wanted to dictate how they wanted their portraits painted. Theo felt that Le Mayeur painted for profit more than for the love of painting and creation. It was understandable when Le Mayeur went to Singapore for exhibitions of his works that he took his wife Ni Pollak with him to dance and bring attention to him as an artist. Le Mayeur was also instrumental in getting the editors of National Geographic to come to Bali in 1935 and to do an expose for the magazine on him and his paintings. The ten-page spread was the very first time an article appeared in the magazine in full color.

Then another pre-war painter that Theo befriended and liked very much was Willem Gerard Hofker who came with his wife Maria to Bali in 1938. Hofker was a fine painter whose styles ranged from realism through expressionism to abstraction. Hofker was especially fond of painting the Balinese people and their traditions and produced some outstanding, sensitive portrayals of Balinese women in all their beauty.

The Hofkers made a great show and socialized with many painters including Spies, Strasser, Le Mayeur and Bonnet. In 1940 the couple moved to Ubud. At the outset of war, Hofker and Bonnet were forced to join the Dutch army in Surabaya. When the Japanese invaded, and being Dutch, Hofker was imprisoned by the Japanese in 1942 and held until 1944, barely kept alive. He and his wife were both interned but in separate prison camps. All of Hofker’s paintings and sketches were confiscated. When the war ended and reluctant to join the Indonesian nationalists, Hofker and his wife returned home to Holland where they remained until they died. Theo never saw them again but he missed them and thought of them often.

Roland Strasser, born in Vienna, was envied by many of Bali’s foreign painters including Theo. He was greatly influenced during his childhood by his father, the noted painter and sculptor, Arthur Strasser. Roland attended the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts between 1911 and 1915, specializing in drawing, painting and sculpture. He also studied in Germany the same time Theo was there but they didn’t know one another.

Strasser took a trip to Indonesia in the late 1920s, traveling through Siam, Java, New Guinea, China, India, Mongolia, Tibet and Japan. And like Theo, when Europe fell under the threat of Nazi Germany and the freedom of art was curtailed, he left his homeland and headed to Bali in 1934 to live and paint. He did not go to Ubud or Sanur as other foreign painters did but instead set up his studio in the cold mountainous area of Kintamani just above Lake Batur. He miraculously managed to escape detection by the Japanese throughout the war. He left Bali in 1944 and died in Santa Monica, California, in 1974. Several of his works were placed in President Sukarno’s collection.

  • Photo caption on page 262 of the book: Willem Hofker’s self-portrait. He was a good friend of Theo, a man and his wife who enjoyed Theo’s cooking.

Not all foreign painters on Bali were European. A friend of Theo’s was Lee Man Fong. Born in China in 1913, he moved to Singapore in 1917 and in 1932 migrated to Java. He came to Bali in 1940 where Theo first met him. Unfortunately their friendship was short lived for the following year Fong was interned by the Japanese until the end of the war. He suffered greatly from the Japanese. Theo worked with him later when Fong, noted for his talent, was acknowledged by President Sukarno to whom he became an art advisor. From 1961 to 1966 he served as court painter at the presidential palace. In 1964, together with Lim Wasim, he compiled the famous five-volume edition of the Sukarno Collection.

Fong was awarded Indonesian citizenship but, in 1967 when Sukarno fell from grace, he was known to be close to Sukarno and alleged to have communist inclinations. This resulted in his decision to move to Singapore in 1970. Theo visited with him in Singapore when he passed through the city.

Theo also admired Balinese artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, for he was little influenced by foreign art and artists. He was a multi-talented man, noted for his outstanding creative skills in depicting the Hindu epics and Balinese folktales which to Theo was a boon for his painting of the three murals of the Hindu classic on curing illnesses.

The post war saw a rise in foreign artists, many who came to seek Theo’s advice and assistance. Han Snel, Arie Smit and Antonio Blanco, are included.

Theo got along with them all, especially with Han Snel. Like it was with Theo, Han’s life was bathed in rumors. One rumor was that he fought the Japanese while he was in the Dutch army, but when the war ended they say he refused to fight the Indonesians in their war for independence from the Dutch. They say he deserted and became a hunted man. Bali was his hideout and he learned to paint only as a cover up. It was also said that Theo took Han under his wing and taught him everything he knew about art. And there was the question about his wife Siti. They said Han had actually kidnapped her and run off with her into the hills, with her family after him in hot pursuit, ready to kill him. Han had to pay off the family.

“Rumors, all rumors,” Han once told me “There’s nothing mysterious about my life. I wanted to paint, and I came to Bali. I married a Balinese girl and we have three grown daughters and a couple grandchildren. What else is there to tell?”

Han did admit he went to Indonesia against his will, as a conscript soldier. But he didn’t desert. He was discharged. Theo helped him get started with his painting, although Han was not new to painting. He had attended a commercial art school in Holland for two years. He desperately wanted to go to the Academy and study art, but with a war spreading across Europe that was impossible. “So you see,” he said, “I didn’t become an artist simply because I wanted to remain on Bali. I was always interested in painting, as long as I can remember.” What Theo did help Han do was to elope.

Han was on Bali painting for ten years when he met a young, pretty girl named Siti. And the truth was, and not a rumor, he did kidnap her, with Theo and his wife’s help. It was a Balinese custom.

The custom of elopement is called ngrorod. It’s an accepted practice on Bali. On a specific date declared auspicious by a Hindu priest, the bride is forcibly abducted by her suitor to the house of his friend, generally a long distance from her village. The parents are then informed of the event, and they feign horror.

When Han and Siti decided they wanted to marry, they went to see Theo and his wife. They agreed to help them, after much persuasion on the part of Siti, but Theo informed Han that he must tell no one. Theo then arranged everything. He found a taxi driver, reluctant at first, that would take them to Theo’s house in Iseh in East Bali.

Theo liked to tell the story of what transpired. At Iseh, two headmen came up to the taxi and wanted to look at Siti. One asked her if she was willing to marry this foreigner. Siti was very shy and for a long time didn’t say a thing. The man looked at Han and then at her again. “Do you want to marry him?” he repeated. This time she said she did. The headman then turned to Han and asked, “Do you think she is old enough?” Han agreed with a nod.

  • Photo caption on page 265 of the book: Han and his wife Siti. I took this photo of the couple many years after they had married, after Han kidnapped his young bride.

The marriage ceremony was performed, with the traditional filing of her teeth, and for five days Han and Siti stayed at Theo’s house in the hills in Iseh. Finally Siti’s mother discovered where they were hiding out and came running. She was furious. Han hadn’t realized but his kidnapping had been real and not merely a staged act as custom dictated. Siti’s mother had her daughter betrothed to a medical student in Jakarta and they were to marry when he graduated. There was little her mother could do now and the young married couple returned to Ubud. It took Siti’s mother a few years before she got over her anger, but she eventually did when she realized that Han would remain forever on Bali.

Theo and Han had been a great help to those who came to Bali for both business and pleasure. Hans went overboard to help those who asked. He arranged feasts, dances and theatrical performances, staged cremations, made introductions, found locations for filming, had been advisor and guide, and assisted writers, photographers and musicians. In 1969, he helped Hans Hoefer to get backing for what was to become the APA Guides. The timing was right. The only true guide at the time was Covarrubias’ Island of Bali. Han helped Hans Hoefer to convince Siegfried Beil, the German manager of the Bali Beach Hotel at Sanur that he should commission Hans to produce a full-length guidebook rather than a brochure that he originally wanted. A business deal was made and the Guide to Bali became a reality.

Bali Beach Hotel was the forerunner of all posh hotels that were to come. When it was built, with Japanese reparation money, not many people agreed with its construction, including Theo. To him and many others it was an eyesore, rising up a dozen stories overlooking Sanur Beach. On Bali there is a law that a building could not be higher than two-thirds of a coconut tree, which is about twenty yards. Bali Beach Hotel was built before the height restriction was announced.

Still, the hotel was the talk of the island and the place to meet and entertain friends. For the local Balinese it was a marvel. Elevators ran to the top floor and lights turned on and off at a flick of a switch. And imagine water, hot and cold, coming from taps in all the rooms. In time, Han became a well-known and admired painter. He followed much in the pattern of Miguel Covarrubias with elongated Balinese figures, mostly women. He created marvelous woodblocks and later in life turned to painting abstracts.

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Theo Meier-CH26A

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Ernest Hemingway wrote a book titled The Moveable Feast in which he said: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Bali is much the same, a moveable feast. It was certainly that way for Theo Meier. Bali was forever with him wherever he went.

Once the turmoil and the killings came to an end in Indonesia, Theo began yearly return trips to what they called “his” spiritual home. Yattlie quickly caught on to his zest for travelling and joined him wherever he went. But traveling with Theo, attempting to keep up with him, was not always easy. Yattlie remembers going to Bali her first time with Theo. Theo took her to the village where his second wife lived, to introduce Yattlie to her and to his daughter. But as they were approaching the house Theo warned her not to drink anything they offered to her. Yattlie thought he was referring to the sanitation. “No, it’s not that.” Theo said when she questioned him further. “The drink could well be poisoned.” Yattlie had a hard time after that relaxing in Bali, especially when she realized Theo was serious.

Most often Theo returned to Bali with his friends, Rolf von Bueren and his wife Helen, Prince Sandith, Roman Polanski and at another time with Paul Getty and his wife. They usually went to Iseh in East Bali. Theo was never bothered by the changes that Bali was experiencing. The island had climbed for Europeans and Australians to the number one tourist destination in Asia. Discos and bars galore opened and nude bathing on the beach at Kuda by foreign women became fashionable. Drugs were readily available and were commonplace among the onslaught of the new comers-back packers. But Theo witnessed none of this. He bypassed Kuda Beach and the tourist spots and went straight to Iseh and stayed in Walter Spies’ old house. Eastern Bali was much the same as it always was and there was hardly a tourist to be seen. When Theo was asked what he thought about the changes on Bali, he would reply: “What changes? I didn’t see any.”

In 1969 just before he began construction on his new house in Chiang Mai, Theo took as his guest Sir Paul Getty and his wife Talitha Getty on a visit to Bali. Paul was the son of]. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world at the time. Talitha Getty was of Dutch extraction, born in Java in October 1940 at the outbreak of the war. She spent her early years, along with her mother, in a Japanese prison camp. Her father was interned in a separate camp and he and her mother went their own ways after the war. Pol, as everyone called her, moved to Britain with her mother. She lived much of her adult life in Britain and, in later years, was closely associated with the Moroccan city of Marrakech.

After marrying Paul in 1966 she became part of “Swinging” London’s fashionable scene, becoming friends with, among others, singers Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, and his girlfriend Marianne Faithful. Another to come under Pol’s spell was the dancer Rudolf Nureyev whom she met at a party in 1965. Theo was amused when he heard the story. “Everyone knew Nureyev was gay,” Theo said, “but after I met Pol, I could see the attraction.’ She was, indeed, strikingly beautiful. Perhaps it was love at first sight for Nureyev. He told several friends that he wished to marry her. And it may have happened had he been able to attend a dinner party given by Claus von Bulow, at which he and Pol were to have been seated next to each other. But Nureyev couldn’t make it and Bulow invited Paul Getty to take his place which led to Paul and Pol’s marriage a year later in 1966.

Talitha wanted very much to visit Indonesia with Theo as she was excited to show Bali to her husband. Theo admitted later there was very little he could show them. With their insane use of drugs they could have been anywhere. As it so happened, only a year and a half after their visit to Bali with Theo, Talitha died of a heroin overdose at her home in London on July 14, 1971. She was thirty years old.

Aside from his many Balinese artist friends whom he enjoyed spending time with, Theo did take pleasure in meeting with his foreign artist pals like Han Snel and Antonio Blanco. He did tell me, though, that he did miss many of the old time painters who had passed away or else moved on. Theo felt that he was fortunate to have lived both the pre-war and post-war years on Bali.

Theo often reflected on the art scene that had existed in Bali before the war years. They were exciting years in which everyone believed life would go on as it always had. Live for today for tomorrow will be no different was their motto.

In spite of the many foreign painters who took up residence on the island, their painting styles differed greatly, Walter Spies painted in dreams, much in the style of Rousseau, His partner Rudolph Bonnet centered on real life images without much imitation needed. Le Mayeur aimed for what the public wanted and did scenes of scanty dressed Balinese women frolicking in lotus-filled gardens and on the beach. Le Mayeur painted during the day and at night entertained affluent travellers, providing them with huge Balinese feasts, dance performances and the opportunity to buy his paintings as a memento of their visit.

Another pre-war friend from Bali that Theo missed very much was Miguel Covarrubias and his wife Rosa. Miguel was a painter and caricaturist, ethnologist and art historian among other interests. A man of many talents, in 1924 at the age of 19, Miguel moved to New York City where he designed sets and costumes for the theater, including La Revue Negre starring Josephine Baker in the show that made her a smash in Paris. In New York he met Rosa Rolando. The two fell in love and traveled together to Mexico, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean in the mid to late 1920s. During a trip to Mexico, the famous photographer Edward Weston taught Rosa photography. Rosa was also introduced to Miguel’s family and friends including the noted Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She became a close and lasting friend of Rivera’s wife.

Miguel’s artwork and celebrity caricatures had been featured in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines. His first book of caricatures The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans was an immediate success.

Miguel and Rosa married in 1930 and they took an extended honeymoon to Bali where they immersed themselves in the local culture, language and customs. Miguel and Rosa returned to Bali in 1933 and remained until 1940 when the threat of war fell over the Pacific.

Theo liked Miguel and Rosa very much but he was not alone. Everyone in pre-war Bali loved the young, enthusiastic couple. Miguel began to work on a book titled Island of Bali. Rosa’s photography became part of the book. Published in 1937 Island of Bali was the first major written work about Bali, its customs and people and became a classic in Asian literature. The book contributed to the 1930s Bali craze in New York.

Theo was terribly disappointed that there was little chance of Miguel and Rosa’s returning to Bali. Miguel’s paintings and illustration work brought him international recognition including gallery shows in Europe, Mexico and the United States as well as many awards.

  • Photo caption on page 258 of the book: Everyone on Bali loved Miguel Covarrubias and his wife Rosa. Miguel wrote a book, Island of Bali that became a classic and is used today by scholars. He was also a gifted painter, as we can see here from his Bali Girl.

As for Theo’s style of painting, he considered himself an interpreter of Balinese scenes, dance and the women of Bali. We can see this in the large murals he painted depicting his interpretation of Balinese illness. I once entered his studio when he was placing a cow in the background of his canvas. Turning to me he said, “Look I put a horse’s hoof on the cow.” He laughed in his gargantuan voice and added, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?” He was telling me not asking me.

In our moments of reverie, sitting on his verandah, Theo often voiced his opinion of the other pre-war artists on Bali. He did have great respect for Walter Spies, that was certain, and he treated him accordingly, however, he disagreed privately with Spies’ habits and lifestyle. Still, he came to Spies’ defense when the Dutch government clamped down on homosexuals and immorality on Bali and arrested and jailed Spies. Theo, feeling sorry for Spies, wanted to help but there was nothing neither he nor anyone else could do in his defense, try as they did. The Dutch were hard masters. Theo paid Dutchman Rudolph Bonnet-Walter Spies’ sometimes partner-much the same respect as he did for Spies. Bonnet had been invited to live in Ubud in 1929 by Cokorda Gede Raka Sukawati, a ruling prince with influence. Theo felt deep sorrow for Bonnet when he learned the Japanese took Bonnet prisoner and shipped him to prison in Sulawesi. He spent the rest of the war in internment camps in different places ending up in Makassar. He returned to Bali after the war but was forced to leave in 1957, the same year Theo left, after fallout with President Sukarno. Sukarno had turned Bali into the window of Indonesian arts and had a palace built for himself in Tampaksing. Bonnet had known Sukarno well for the president had visited him often in his studio and had a close contact with him dating back to Bonnet’s exhibition in Jakarta in 1951. But when Sukarno ordered some of Bonnet’s paintings to be taken to his palace, Bonnet refused to let them go. He was expelled and wasn’t able to return until fifteen years later. Bonnet, burdened with age and illness, returned to Holland where he passed away in 1978. His remains were shipped back to Bali and he was cremated in 1979, which, up to that time, was one of the greatest cremations ever performed on the island. According to tradition, Bonnet’s soul, while accompanied by his friend Tjokorda Gede Agung, was released to the realm of the gods. Theo went to Bali to witness the ceremony.

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Theo Meier-CH25

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West of Mai Sai along the Shan States that border Thailand and Burma, beyond trim rice fields, loom the densely wooded mountains of Ampur, and here dwell several mountain hill tribes-Ahka, Mushur, Daeng Yao and Lishaw. The Ahka are the most prominent and number about 30,000. They build their houses on sides and tops of mountains. Gates to their villages form an important part of their tradition. Called Taw-Nah-Lok-Kaw or Gate of Spirits, they are part of their animistic customs. On both sides of the gates of every village are roughly carved images of men and women. At any time of the day one can see young maidens pass through the gates with gourds upon their heads after fetching water from streams three hundred yards below.

Theo loved visiting the hill tribe villages. He traveled there every chance he had, sometimes remaining weeks on end. He learned the language quickly, which brought him close to the people. His favorite was the Ahka. He often said the young Ahka ladies looked sexy. He liked the idea that young girls before they marry had to learn the intricacies of sex taught to them by their elders. “Why do you think Yattlie never lets me travel there alone,” he joked.

The Ahka are closely related to the Hani of China’s Yunnan province. They are also known derogatorily in Thai as the Gaw. What Theo liked about them was that they were the dominant cultural influence in the area, more so than the Karen and other tribes. The Ahka shared the ancient universal belief that goddesses spin the universe and nature is not distinguished from humankind. The Ahka way, a lifestyle involving religious, combines animism, ancestor worship and shamanism, all of which captured Theo’s fantasy. Theo, who picked up much of the language, joined in with them in their chants. When they passed around the opium pipe, he took a drag with the rest of the men. The Ahka way emphasized rituals in everyday life, and these Theo came to master to the delight of the people. Every Ahka male could recount his genealogy back over fifty generations to the first Ahka. Theo found the Ahka good subject matter for his painting. He couldn’t paint them fast enough.

  • Photo caption on page 248 of the book: Even the simple little village girl had a charm all her own.

Over the years, Theo was witness to the changing times of the hill tribes. Traditionally, they were migratory people, leaving land as it became depleted of natural resources. But the depletion of the forests had forced hill tribe people to abandon their traditional agricultural methods. Theo sympathized with them and listened to their woes, but there was nothing he could do to help them.

Theo invited me on several occasions to join him and Yattlie for a sojourn to an Ahka village that he favored. After one trip, I could understand his love for the Ahka.

Theo made preparations for the trip like he was preparing for a major expedition. Everything had to be exact. We had to load an ice chest into his Jeep-an open World War II vehicle with canvas top-with beer and food for a picnic on the way there, and gifts for the hill tribe people that included tinned bully beef and a couple of sacks of rice among other things.

Theo had a particular place where he liked to stop for a picnic en route. It was a partially hidden waterfall. The falls were cool and inviting. The ground was covered by a splendid profusion of plants, leaves, and velvet grass, which wholly took possession of the place. For Theo it was a reminder of Pierre Lori’s pool at Fautera Falls on Tahiti where Loti bathed with his love, Rarahu. Theo liked to tell the story of the statue of Pierre Loti that stands at Fautera Falls. It wasn’t until years later that the sculptor of the statue couldn’t find an image of Loti so he sculpted his own imagine instead. No one knew the difference. Theo’s picnic area was much the same, a beautiful waterfall in a deeply wooden glen. Here was all peace and joy. When Theo tried to persuade Yattlie to swim in the pool beneath the waterfall, I wondered if his thoughts might not have gone back to Tahiti. I was convinced I was right when he wanted to paint Yattlie in the nude by the falls. She refused, naturally. We could have lingered at the falls the entire day but we had to move on.

When we neared the village and the road petered out, we had to continue on the last few miles by foot. Lugging the ice chest and boxes of gifts was most tiresome. The Ahka knew we were coming, and they were there to greet us-with a sedan chair. The chair, carried by two men, was not for Yattlie or me. It was for Theo who ceremoniously climbed in, waving his arms and shouting in his melodic voice in their native tongue. It was done with great sport. The bearers and those who followed cheered Theo jubilantly. Finally, we arrived at the gate and entered the village, panting and out of breath. It was all we could do to keep up with the sedan chair bearing Theo.

Theo was their hero to the thunder of welcoming applause and cheers as we passed through the gate. Women and kids, and even dogs and perhaps a goat or two, kicked up dust as they all came running to greet him. Theo disembarked and made the rounds of shaking hands with everyone. Fresh coconuts with the tops cut off were presented to each of us to drink. The drink was surprisingly cool and refreshing. Wet cloths were then handed out to wipe our arms and faces.

From the houses, suspended high above ground on wooden piles, the aged and elders stared down at us. Thatched roofs extended far out almost touching the ground. We were ushered into one large house where we apparently were to spend the night. Our bags were brought up.

Sitting on the plank steps of our home for the night, I was able to study the people. Women as well as men smoked tobacco in bamboo pipes. Both men and women chewed betel nut. Their mouths and teeth were stained red from the continuous use of betel nut, and the ground where they had spit was not a pretty sight. Women wore black blouses and skirts; the skirts were short, a few inches above the knees. They wore leggings, as I was told, to protect against tall grass and thorns when working in the fields. Later when I questioned Theo about the short skirts he explained that the women don’t wear under garments. “When they squat,” Theo laughed, “they do little to protect their modesty.”

Women, not the men, did the farming, cut the firewood and carried water from the creek below. The men hunted.

The village had a number of merry-go-rounds and swings which I thought were for kids, but as the day wore into evening I could see it was the adults who made use of them.

  • Photo caption on page 251 of the book: Theo loved the Ahka hill tribes, especially the young ladies when they dressed up for their ceremonies.

The evening turned chilly and women lit fires from dried palm fronds in the center of the street, not so much to provide warmth but for smoke to keep mosquitoes at bay.

At last here was peace. In an Ahka village such as this one civilization falls away. The sun, rapidly sinking beyond the horizon, became half concealed behind the clusters of forest trees. The conflict of light made the mountains stand out sharply and strangely in black against the violet glow of the sky. The mountains, with mist hanging below, appeared like ancient dragons in a haunted forest. The night became profound. How good it was to be alive! It was no wonder to me now that Theo had found that he could live simply with these people, unlike Tahiti where the old way of life was lost. The Ahka were what he searched for in Polynesia but never found. I could see now why Theo liked to visit the hill tribes as often as he could.

The night that followed was filled with dancing and chanting. Wooden bowls filled to the brim with fermented rice wine appeared and barbecued dog cooked over a spit was handed out. As evening closed in upon us, the same young maidens who had carried gourds of water upon their heads that day, sat and sang and waited for their suitors to come with string music instruments to accompany them. Before long, after a lot of giggling and banter, couples paired off and disappeared into the thickets.

We slept-what little we could get-on mats on split bamboo floors and listened in the night to the strange and bewitching sounds of the forest. It was eerie and at times frightening, not knowing what to suspect, a charging tiger or a marauding elephant on the rampage. At the first light of dawn the crowing of roosters prohibited further sleep. The men had set out with crossbows to hunt for birds, wild chickens, squirrels, gibbons and monkeys, in hope of game for our evening meal. I was pleased now that we had brought tinned bully beef.

Theo was up before the hunters, and you could see him in the fog and mist sitting on a tree stump making sketches on his sketchpad. The smoke from his cheroot lingered in the still air above him like a halo. As the mist lifted, villagers gathered around him to watch him draw. No one ever questioned him, wanted to know what he was doing, nor looked over his shoulder. To them it was perhaps odd that he would paint a scene that was always there. Nothing to them ever changed, the forest, the mountains, their dress, even the style of their buildings, so why try to capture the scenes on canvas?

We were a tired lot when we returned to Chiang Mai and to the comforts of Theo’s wonderful house. The evening, after a light meal, would be capped with Mekong-and-sodas, with lots of lime.

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Theo Meier-CH24

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Theo always hankered to go back to Tahiti for a visit. He never stopped dreaming. Maybe that is what makes an artist, dreams. It certainly was what made Theo. He often talked about it with Sandith and they both planned a trip. Maybe it was only talk but the thought did excite them. They really got all fired up when I began building and outfitting a 71-foot schooner on the Chao Phraya River down river from Bangkok. When Theo heard about the schooner it took him no time to get caught up in the romance of sailing the South Seas again. He envisioned himself and Prince Sandith sailing with me aboard Schooner Third Sea to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia.

Theo was serious, so much so, that he took an active interest in the schooner. He did the woodcarvings for the main saloon, two ten-foot long works of art to serve as drip boards beneath the windows. They turned out to be a monumental task. He and his assistants labored for weeks on the work. It was not only the teak carvings for the saloon but he also did carvings for the main hatch and trim for the trail boards on the bow.

The schooner was moored in Bob Stevens’ Colorado Eastern boatyard in a small klong down river on the Chao Phraya where I was having it outfitted. Transporting the carvings, especially the ten-foot long pieces, was no simple matter.

First, I had to fit un-carved teak boards into place, boards that Theo had selected, and then remove them and take them to Theo’s workshop in Chiang Mai, traveling by train and then by bus. Theo sketched out patterns on the boards and then set to work with his assistants carving out the designs. I have to admit, when finished, they were beautiful.

Next, when the carvings were completed I carried them back to Bangkok by train and then put them aboard a bus for the final trip down river to the boatyard. There was no problem on the train. I arrived in Bangkok early in the morning and found the bus at the station nearly empty. I placed the carvings, which Theo had wrapped in cardboard, in the isle on the floor.

  • Photo caption on page 240 of the book: Schooner Third Sea at anchor. Theo wanted to sail aboard the schooner and revisit Tahiti and the Marquesas, but his age was working against him. That, however, he would never admit.

But by the time I reached my destination down river, the bus was jam-packed, with those passengers in the isle standing on the carvings. It was pandemonium retrieving them. How I ever got them out of the bus and back to the schooner still baffles me.

Back aboard ship, carpenters installed the finished products in their proper places. They greatly enhanced the beauty of the schooner. Theo’s carvings aboard Third Sea became a showpiece for all who came aboard.

Theo also did a painting of a nude Thai girl to hang in the galley aboard the schooner. It hung there for years bringing attention to anyone who saw it.

  • Photo caption on page 241 of the book: Theo painted this oil to hang aboard Schooner Third Sea.

Eventually I did sail the schooner to Tahiti and the Marquesas but, unfortunately, Theo and Sandith were not aboard. Age was catching up with them. Nevertheless, it was their dream, and as Joseph Conrad said-“Take away a man’s dream and there is nothing left.” I was most proud when people wanted to come aboard in Honolulu and Tahiti to have a look at the carvings. In time the carvings were more valuable than the schooner itself

Theo made good copy for my writing. Readers liked to read about this crazy European artist living in Chiang Mai. He was a character who led a life envied by many. Readers enjoyed hearing about life in old Tahiti, living with cannibals in the New Hebrides, walking across China with an easel strapped to his back and, of course, about his many years on Bali and later his living in northern Thailand. I wrote a number of articles about him for my column in Bangkok World and Bangkok Post, and he became a chapter in my book Asian Portraits. Soon other writers and journalists were making tracks to Chiang Mai to do stories about Theo, and his fame began to spread.

Roy Howard, Sales Director of Thai Airways International and editor of Sawasdee, the airline’s inflight magazine, went to Chiang Mai to interview Theo and he ended up spending several days with him. Theo’s story became the cover piece of the magazine and reached thousands of readers. It was Roy Howard who, in fact, encouraged me to write this biography of Theo.

  • Photo caption on page 242 of the book: Theo drew this charcoal line drawing to hang aboard Third Sea but it was too large and I moved it to hang on the wall of my ranch in California.

Theo liked the coverage, that was certain, but I must say he never let notoriety get the best of him. He remained Theo Meier always. He loved his house, for example, but at the same time he gave praise to Jim Thompson for his unique construction concept, and when Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared without a trace while visiting friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, Theo was visually upset. He was keen to know what happened to Thompson and he had his own idea about his disappearance. I had gone down to Cameron Highlands on assignment for the Bangkok World a few days after Thompson vanished, and when I returned Theo was anxious to know what I had uncovered, which wasn’t much. But speculation was running high. Everyone, from soothsayers to mystics, and to the man on the street, had their own ideas and opinions, all speculation mind you, which they freely expounded upon to the press and other media.

  • Photo caption on page 242 of the book: Roy Howard, right, with Theo in Chiang Mai. Roy published a feature magazine piece on Theo in Thai Airways in-flight magazine, Sawasdee. Roy felt strongly that the Theo Meier story should be told, and a part of history preserved, and he encouraged me to write this biography of Theo. It took twenty years to get it started.

What made the Jim Thompson story intriguing was that Thompson was a former U.S. military intelligence officer who once worked for the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. That should tell us something. He had disappeared while going for a walk on Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967. Thompson came to the Cameron Highlands with Connie Mangskau on Friday, March 24, 1967. Connie was the lady for whom Thompson had built his second Thai house in Bangkok. The two stayed at “Moonlight” bungalow owned by Dr. Ling, a Singaporean-Chinese chemist and Mrs. Helen Ling, his American-born wife. On Easter Sunday, March 26, they attended the morning services at All Souls’ Church. Later that day, while everyone took a nap, Thompson went for a walk but failed to return. And the mystery began.

Theo theorized that although Thompson claimed to have abandoned intelligence activities, he was still working under unofficial cover for the CIA. His closest friend, and former OSS comrade, was Brigadier-General Edwin Black who was in charge of United States Forces operating in Laos and Thailand. General Black, in fact, had hired Thompson to work for the OSS. Theo held that Thompson needed a cover if he was still an undercover agent, and the Thai silk business was it.

To add to the mystery about which Theo had his theories, Thompson was also a major collector of Southeast Asian art, which at the time was not well-known internationally. He built a superb collection of Buddhist and secular art not only from Thailand but also from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, frequently travelling to those countries on buying trips. But collecting valuable and often priceless art objects brought him enemies as well.

No one ever discovered the truth, or else let the truth be known, and the mystery goes on and on.

  • Photo caption on page 246 of the book: Jim Thompson, known as the Thai Silk King, disappeared without trace while visiting the Cameron Highlands with long-time friend Connie Mangskau.

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