At the end of January 1965, I started teaching music at Kingsmead College, a private girls’ school in Melrose, Johannesburg. Some of the schoolgirls were only three years younger than me, but at twenty-one I felt quite worldly wise. I settled down to teaching piano students in my music room at Kingsmead House, and music appreciation and matric music in a rondavel called Etunzi at the top of the sloping lawn overlooking the swimming pool. The classes were small; the girls well-behaved. Everything at Kingsmead was very pleasant indeed.
I still went to singing lessons and had the studio on a Wednesday to teach my private students and to work for my LTCL paper work in piano.
Singing in Nabucco was a wonderful experience. The conductor Leo Quayle had recently returned to South Africa after a time as conductor of the Welsh National Opera. He had dreams of building a similar company in South Africa by nurturing young home-grown singers so that they were capable of taking principal roles. If this could be done it would no longer be necessary to import big names from abroad and South African singers would not have to leave the country because there was not enough quality work for them.
Nabucco is a great chorus opera and Leo Quayle came to rehearsals occasionally to hear us rehearsing with our excellent chorus master Eberhard Künkel. Professor Quayle said that we should always remember that we were the finest singing talent in the province.
The principal roles were taken by South Africans: Emma Renzi (Abigail), who had done well in England and Italy; Norman Bailey (Nabucco), who made his name in England; and Rudi Neitz, (the High Priest) the bass, who remained in South Africa. I can still visualise the Hebrew slaves seated at the feet of the High Priest, casting their eyes into the darkness of the auditorium, homesick for their fatherland, singing The Slaves’ Chorus. The production was sung in English.
Webster was on the film set of King Hendrik, playing the minute part of the British ambassador on the Johannesburg opening night of Nabucco. Anne attended the performance with Dudley Holmes’ mother and Dudley’s old friend, Grace Christison. Dudley was giving me a lift back to the staff residence at Kingsmead from the show that evening. As we were leaving I heard Grace ask, “Are we going straight to Anne’s?”
I was dropped outside the staff residence at Kingsmead, while the others went on to spend the rest of the evening with Anne.
At my lesson the following day I still felt hurt at being excluded. To my horror I found myself having an argument with Anne over some silly triviality. Webster looked on in alarm but did not take sides in the affray.
After this upset, I had to go back to school on the Rosebank bus to supervise the junior boarders’ evening prep. It was all I could do not to cry in front of the girls, but although I controlled myself during the prep, I spent the rest of the night in tears. Next day I sent a bouquet of flowers and a note of apology to Anne. The argument had not been entirely my fault, but I could not bear the thought of never seeing them again.
Before I left for the theatre that afternoon, Anne phoned to thank me for the flowers. She said she had not mentioned our argument to anyone and that we should forget all about it. “We three will always be friends,” she assured me.
After Nabucco ended my spirits were at low ebb. My particular friend at Kingsmead, the domestic science teacher, Joan Wishart, became engaged. Quite a few of my school friends were engaged; some were even married with children. I decided to go to the UK; it seemed the only thing to do. After my argument with Anne I realised how easily everything could fall apart.
I had been living in the sheltered and fairy tale world of the studio and Anne and Webster for nearly five years. Although I was teaching music, singing at concerts, and taking parts in shows, even mixing with people of my own age, Anne and Webster remained the most important and influential people in my life. I cared deeply for both of them, but I realised that I could not depend on them for my happiness for the rest of my life.
They had been asked to go on another tour with the SABC orchestra. After the tour Anne was going to Bloemfontein to produce The Merry Widow. Webster phoned to wish me a happy birthday before going on the orchestral trip. They would be away for two months so I would have a taste of life without them.
While they were away, Robin Paterson, one of the mathematics teachers at Kingsmead, whose husband was headmaster at St John’s Preparatory school, asked me to sing in a madrigal group under the leadership of Jimmy Gordon, the director of music at St John’s College, who had recently arrived in the country from Kenya.
He had been a chorister of the Chapel Royal, King’s scholar at Cambridge, and had taught music at Eton College before moving to Kenya. He was a brilliant musician with a pleasing tenor voice. I was no soprano, but I sang soprano with Robin in this choir. There were ten of us, and every week we went to the College to rehearse the various Fauré, Bairstow and Byrd songs for the concert. Bob Barsby, another music master at St John’s, sang alto and played the organ brilliantly at the concert in St John’s Chapel. It was a great success, and Jimmy decided to work on the Fauré Requiem the following term.
In the meantime, I was still teaching at the studio every Wednesday. One day I went into town, thinking I might go up to the studio to practise, as Anne and Webster were not due back for another few weeks.
The sign Anne had put on the door when they left on the trip was no longer there. I could hear a student singing inside the studio. I could not understand why they had not let me know they were back early so that I too could resume my lessons. I went home without opening the studio door, once again feeling hurt and confused.
The first thing I did when I arrived home was to phone the studio to hear Webster’s voice with his usual gruff, “Hello”. I put down the receiver without speaking.
I assumed that they were back and didn’t want me there for some reason. The next few days passed miserably. I didn’t go near the studio, but the following Wednesday I had to teach my private students there. About 11.00 am the phone rang. It was Webster to tell me he was back. I replied rather dryly that I already knew that.
“So it was you who phoned on Friday, Jeannie. I thought so. Why didn’t you stay on the line and speak to me?”
I told him that I had been too taken aback to say anything. He said that Anne was still in Bloemfontein doing The Merry Widow, so she had decided that I should wait until she returned before I could resume my lessons. But he wanted to see me. Could he pick me up from school on Friday?
After my few days of misery, I felt reassured after my conversation with him. On Friday I waited at the bus stop on Oxford Road, watching Tyrwhitt Avenue for his car to drive down to Oxford Road. They had sold the Ford Anglia and the Hillman Minx convertible, and bought a blue and white Super Minx (TJ9051) to replace them.
We had tea together and talked for ages – the first time we had been alone together in nearly a year. He told me about his son Keith, who now had a baby daughter Jane and was struggling to get his flower farm established. He was desperately sorry he had not been in a position to help him financially. He spoke of his brothers: Edgar had followed their father’s trade as a hairdresser and had retired to Weston-Super-Mare recently. Norman Booth, his eldest brother, an accountant, had been in the navy during the First World War. Norman had retired to Rugby and never went near the sea now that he was retired. Webster’s three sisters had spoilt him as the youngest child of the family, and whenever he was doing a show in Birmingham, the entire family expected him to host a big party for them at the Midland Hotel.
When Anne returned from producing The Merry Widow in Bloemfontein I resumed my singing lessons. She made no mention of Webster being at home on his own; I did not tell her that I had seen him.
One day I arrived to find Anne by herself in the studio. She did not refer to Webster’s absence, but as soon as I arrived home, I phoned him. Hilda had gone on another trip to St Helena. Once again they were alternating the days in the studio, but this time he had nobody to play for him.
During the time Hilda was away, he fetched me from school if he was going to the studio on his own. On one of our journeys he told me he had been a very serious young man and had his first heartbreak when a beloved girlfriend suddenly married a man many years older than herself. His mother told him that he shouldn’t be heart broken, as there were “lots of good fish in the sea”.
After that, he had become a bit of a lady-killer, determined that no woman would ever get the chance to hurt him again. When he was in Concert Party everyone in the company knew that when he went on to sing he’d look out for the prettiest girl in the hall and sing to her alone. Nine times out of ten, the same girl would appear at the stage door to see him after the show.
The term ended and some of the girls gave me farewell presents. Joan Wishart married her fiancé Alan, and made a beautiful bride. The time was drawing in; I would soon be leaving the country.
Anne and Webster did not have a happy Christmas. Webster had received an airmail letter from one of his sisters, who casually mentioned – almost as an afterthought - on the back of the letter that his brother, Edgar had passed away suddenly, without explaining how or why. He was extremely upset about Edgar’s death. On top of that the distinguished critic of The Star, Oliver Walker, whom Webster admired for his astute criticism of theatre and music, had also died suddenly on the golf course. When he spoke to Keith in a long distance Christmas call, Keith’s mother-in-law had also died, so with all the deaths, and the strain of having to cook Christmas dinner all by himself, without Hilda in attendance, it was a miserable start to 1966.
They went to the Kenneth McKellar Show. Kenneth McKellar found out that he was in the audience through the “boys” – Maryon Rawicz and Walter Landauer - who were on the same bill. Kenneth told the audience that Webster and Anne were in the audience, and sang Macushla as a tribute to Webster. After the show they went with Rawicz and Landauer and Kenneth McKellar to the Balalaika night club till 3.00 am. The following day Webster had felt much the worse for wear after his late night, so Anne cancelled all the students for that day.
One morning we took the dogs, Lemmy (Lemon) and Silva (Squillie) in the car to Zoo Lake, with Lemmy sitting on my lap on the journey. We had a pleasant walk round the lake with the dogs. Webster said that if any of the bowlers at his club noticed us, they would be asking what he was doing out with a dark haired young woman. It was all so pleasant and companionable.
Anne gave me a farewell gift of a container with little pouches for tissues and make-up, and we parted seemingly as friends.
She said, “You must keep in touch with us, darling. Let us know how you’re getting on.”
On 24 January I went into the studio to say goodbye to Webster He had given me a pretty mother of pearl powder compact as a farewell gift, which I still use today. We recalled our lunch in Dawson’s, and how young and unsophisticated I had been when he took me there, although it was only a few years before.At last it was time to go. I powdered my face violently with his nice compact and tried hard to be cheerful although I felt as though my heart was going to burst. He kissed me and said in as matter-of-fact voice as possible, ‘Well, darling, all the best.”
I tried to smile, but I couldn’t say a word. Despite my resolve, I wept. He said, “You’ve been such a good girl up till now. Please, darling, don’t cry, for my sake?”
Eventually I pulled myself together and he said, “Good girl. I didn’t think you were going to cry, and I don’t want you to.”
I managed to say, “Anyway, we’ll meet again, won’t we?” and he said, “Of course we will.” And we did.
Jeannie C ©
Extract from Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth (2006) Available at SWEETHEARTS OF SONG: A PERSONAL MEMOIR OF ANNE ZIEGLER AND WEBSTER BOOTH