I didn’t have to wait a few weeks. The next morning when I was sitting in the garden by the river, a servant came to tell me someone had come to see me. At the time, I didn’t know anyone in Chiang Mai, except Theo, and it wasn’t likely he would come to see me? I went out to the lobby, and to my surprise it was Theo. He was standing there, talking to the owner. He greeted me warmly when he saw me. “I had to come into town, and I thought you might want to come for lunch with Yattlie and me,” he said. “I know this great noodle shop, the best in Thailand.”
Lunch lasted the better part of the afternoon, and it was my first opportunity to witness Theo’s love for food. He was ecstatic. “Here, here,” he shouted in his heavy German accent. He was pointing to a plate of noodles, or what I thought were noodles. They were duck intestines that looked very much like noodles. Theo ordered the intestines and other dishes as well, but, as it were, he just didn’t order them. He stood beside the chef, an old man, and lauded over each serving as it was being cooked. The old man, who didn’t mind Theo standing there, was an ancient white-haired Chinese-Thai grandpa who wore a soiled apron and had a cigarette dangling from his lips. The cigarette had a long ash, half the length of the cigarette, and as the old man swung a wooden ladle in one hand and a long-handled spoon in the other, I watched with bated breath, waiting for the ash to fall at any minute into one of the cooking pots–but I should have known better: it never did. Theo was delighted over the old man’s cooking. No sooner did Theo sit down than he would jump up to check that the old man was preparing the dishes as he wanted them. I was tempted to tell Theo that his duck intestine noodles tasted like fried rubber bands but refrained from doing so, and it was best that I didn’t. Theo talked incisively about food: “I knew a shop in Papeete that served fish soup. Best fish soup you could have. You took raw fish, dropped into boiling soup at your table.”
“You know Papeete?” I asked.
Theo looked at me as though I had said the wrong thing. “What! Tahiti, do I know Papeete?” He shouted, giving out a great boisterous laugh that only Germans can do. “Maybe I know; do you know?”
“Papeete, and Tahiti,” I said. “I spent a good many years there.” “You what? Ya, and what about the Marquesas?” Theo asked.
“You know the Marquesas, yah?”
“Yes, the Marquesas too. Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, where Gauguin is buried. I’ve been there, on a copra boat.”
Like a welder who unites two pieces of steel, Theo and I struck a common bond. Immediately he began asking me about Tahiti and the islands. When had I been there last? Where did I go? How did I get there? We soon discovered, even though he had been there many years before I had, there were people we both knew.
“You mean you met Bob McKitridge in Nuku Hiva; he was still there?” He exclaimed. I told him how the old island trader, nearly blind, was sitting in front of his store in Taiohae when I met him. “And the McCullens from Moorea, what about them?” He asked.
I told Theo that I had heard that Bob McKitridge had died, but the McCullens were still on Moorea, alive and well.
Theo was pleased beyond words. I would tell him something and he would explain it to Yattlie in Thai. He bantered back and forth, in English and then in Thai. Finally, he said, “I have photographs. I have photographs I have taken. You must see them. When are you coming back to Chiang Mai?”
“In a few weeks.”
“In a few weeks,” he responded. “No, too long. You come now. No. Tonight. You come tonight. We make a feast.”
I could hardly refuse.
That night Theo arranged for a baht bus driver to pick me up at the guesthouse. He was waiting when I arrived just after dusk. He was draped in a sarong; his hair wet from a shower. Yattlie was at his side, she too in a sarong, her hair done up in tiny flowers. A table had been set on the verandah, directly under a huge oil painting by Theo that dominated the entire wall. Tiny brass bells hanging from the eaves tinkled with the slightest movement of air, and from a room, most likely his studio, came the scent of oil paintings. Strange, but I hadn’t heard the bells nor detected the scent of paint earlier when I was there the day before.
Candles and wicks burning in bowls of coconut oil added a wonderful scent to the air and cast flickering lights upon the scene, and the sound of flutes someplace in the background lent an atmosphere totally unlike any I had known before. Theo may have been poor, a struggling artist, but he knew how to fill life to its fullest.
A girl servant materialized from nowhere, and to her Theo waved a hand and said, “Mekong.” She vanished without a sound and reappeared as silently as she had left, with two Mekongs. We drank our Mekongs, and had dinner of roasted pig and buffalo meat marinated in fourteen different spices. Dinner was hardly over when Theo jumped up and said for me to follow him. He led me into his studio and turned on the electric lights. A large unfinished oil was resting on his easel and I wanted to study it, but before I could, Theo was calling me and pulling open drawers. He began digging out his photographs. He had them stuffed in envelopes and cardboard boxes, tucked away in drawers and on shelves. He dumped the photographs on the floor. He was as excited as a kid at Christmas.
The photographs were not those snapshot types that people generally keep, the slightly out-of-focus family album stuff of birthday parties, Christmas gatherings, weddings and pet cats and dogs. Theo’s photographs were taken by him, and as the artist he was, they were taken with an eye. for composition and beauty. He was a master at shadows. There were landscapes and portraits, still lifes and nature studies, and women, hundreds of women. There were many black-and-white photographs of people whom Theo painted, or else whom he intended to paint. Whoever they were, they were no doubt long dead. The photographs had their own stories to tell; they told of Theo’s extraordinary life, a reckless, happy youth in Basel and in the islands, wild and savage dancing and drums in the night, cane chairs pulled out on verandahs, tumbling waterfalls and beautiful women.
That night when I climbed into my bed at the guesthouse, I couldn’t forget those photographs. It was almost dawn before I fell asleep.
Little by little I got to know Theo. It took time for he was not one to reveal his innermost feelings all at once. I spent three days with him that first time, and in the months and years to follow I spent long hours and even days in his company. I kept copious notes and taped hours of our conversations, and I snapped endless rolls of film. I met with him and Yattlie when they came to Bangkok, traveled with them to the remote hill tribe villages of the north and one year joined them in Bali. In Chiang Mai whenever there was a village feast or a religious celebration, Theo would invite me. “You must come. It’s something special.” Everything to Theo was something special. Living to him was special. When Theo became more affluent and built a grand classical Thai house, I stayed there as his guest rather than at the Chiang Mai Guest House. We had some splendid dinners at his house.
Once Theo asked if I would come to Chiang Mai to proof read a translation of a biography for a German book publisher that wanted to publish a book on Theo’s paintings. My Schooner Third Sea was at the time in Samoa and I had invited my nephew Robert Stedman to join me in Bangkok to help buy supplies for the voyage from Pago Pago to Honolulu. Robert had taken off for a few months before starting college and I wanted to give him all the exposure he could get. Time was precious but I figured this was a good chance for Robert to meet someone who was truly interesting and at the same time give Theo a helping hand. I cabled Theo and he said to bring Robert. Robert and I took the night train to Chiang Mai.
Theo and Robert got along great. Robert knew his grammar and turned to with enthusiasm to Theo’s manuscript. I was surprised when he questioned Theo about certain passages, for I feared that Theo might explode, but he didn’t. They worked out the pages together.
Every evening at the dinner table, and after Yattlie had retired, Robert’s eyes would turn large as saucers as Theo expounded on his travels. I recall one episode where Theo talked about his retiring for the night in a native hut in the New Hebrides, with the tapa drape covering the door slid open slightly, and the chief appeared with the words, “For you him big fella.” And at that he shoved a naive girl into the room. Of course Robert, being young and gullible, wanted to know what happened next, which Theo told him with unabashed enthusiasm. That was, of course, after Yattlie had left the room and gone to bed. Exuberantly, Robert asked, “Why didn’t you put that in your biography?”
“What, you want me to be ruined,” Theo said and laughed. Robert thought for a while, and then said, “Then what happened?” and Theo went on to tell another tale. When we left two weeks later, after helping with his biography, Theo gave Robert a painting and a line drawing of a teak carving he had made for my schooner.
What I thought would be a few days turned out to be a two-week sojourn. I checked over the final copy of Theo’s bio and Robert and I were finished. Theo thanked us, gave us a big, memorable feast and sent us off. Back in Bangkok, Robert and I concluded buying our nautical supplies, and flew to Samoa where the schooner was waiting. Now to come was another experience for Robert-sailing the high seas. Robert had all the exposure a young man could possibly get, and then some. I wondered if I might have made a mistake bringing him to Asia. I feared he would no longer be content returning to the humdrum life of a college student in California, not after meeting Theo and discovering the South Seas.
I came to know many of Theo’s friends over the years, from Hans Oplander, a German businessman who was the best man at Theo’s wedding, to Prince Sandith Rangsit of the Thai royal family who originally invited Theo to live in Thailand. There were many others too: James Michener, Rolf Van Buren and Roman Polanski, and artists Antonio Blanco, Arie Smith, Han Snel, and stores of writers and journalists, all who have added to Theo’s remarkable story.
When I first met Theo in Chiang Mai, I knew he had lived more than twenty years on Bali and that he had left a wife and daughter there, but little else did I know about him. When he was living with Yattlie at Wat Suan Dok, he mentioned he was born in 1908. That would have made him fifty-eight at the time. Yattlie had to be in her late teens.
Theo had little to show for his years of painting but that didn’t bother him. He was happy and enjoyed life to its fullest, money or no money in the bank. On my second trip to Chiang Mai, a few months after meeting him, I bought one of his oils, a portrait of a Thai girl, and I wrote my first story about him, the first of many dozens that were to follow, including a chapter in my book Asian Portraits.
When I was outfitting my Schooner Third Sea, he became excited as a child about the project. He even considered joining me on a cruise to Tahiti, and maybe Prince Sandith would come too. To show his excitement, he carved two huge teak storyboards for the saloon and many smaller pieces to adorn the hatches, and he gave me a painting of a nude Thai lady to hang in the galley. The friendship that was slowly developing between us was one that would last for the next two decades, until Theo’s death.
You often hear the expression “he is the last of his kind.” No expression could be more fitting to Theo Meier than the last of his kind. Who today can follow in the footsteps of Gauguin to Tahiti and the Marquesas, who can sail aboard a trading schooner to islands of the South Seas, who can live with cannibals on a savage island in the New Hebrides, who can walk with an easel strapped to his back across China dominated by warlords, who can live among lovely ladies on tropical Bali for twenty years and who can dwell for another twenty years in northern Thailand. Theo was a man who befriended, and painted, everyone from street sweepers to royalty. Later in his life, writers came from afar to write about him, and photographers came to photograph his paintings. In time his name became synonymous with Bali and Thailand. His paintings that once sold for a few dollars now go on the auction block for up to a hundred thousand dollars and more.
This is Theo’s story taken from his journal and from his private papers and letters that he entrusted to me, and from our many long talks that lasted late into the night. And I interviewed and taped dozens of people who knew 1heo. I began writing Painted in the Tropics soon after Theo’s death. I had disagreements with some, including Yattlie, Theo’s wife, about the book’s content. Do I tell about his carousing ways and do I tell why he left Bali. Why, actually, did Theo ever leave Switzerland in the first place? Do I please some by glossing over the facts to protect names, or do I stick to the truth.
But of what value is a biography if it is not the truth? Truth is the viewpoint on how I see it.
Painted in the Tropics did take a great deal of research, not only in Bali but in Basel as well, and time was needed to find out why he left Bali and that lovely Balinese wife. Questions had to be answered.