THEO’S OTHER SIDE
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.