My mother’s best friend when she lived at Clifton was Terry Strauss, a woman whom I remember mostly for the lasting effect that her presence had on my psyche. I can say without doubt that I am still attracted to women who resemble her, both because she was, by conventional standards, a beautiful woman, and because such women evoke, for me, her erotic presence, however faintly. I have it in my mind that she died young, in the early 1960s, although I cannot say where I learned this.
I have only a few facts about Terry – she was married to Alec Strauss, a beefy, grumpy man who managed the Clifton Hotel, a swanky establishment situated above our bungalow. She came, I think, from Switzerland, or had some other Swiss connection. I seem to recall that she spoke with a slight accent, but I may be confusing her with other women who had such accents. What I mainly remember about her is an atmosphere of vivacity and warmth, and her hair – long and dark, worn in a plait or chignon or hanging loose, as in the photograph – and the sense that those dark tresses were the most attractive thing in the world.
I do know that for a few years, sharing the same spatial axis – the beaches, bungalows, ocean and mountain backdrop of Clifton in the 1950s, she and my mother were together every moment that they could contrive. This cinematic pair, for no-one could help noticing that they both resembled film-stars, must have had a powerful presence among the others with whom they mixed, but it is through Lesley’s eyes that we must look at the friendship.
I cannot say how much of my memory of what Terry looked like is by now based on the two photographs in Lesley’s album. I look at the eyes in the grainy print. They are not dark as one might infer from her hair and eyebrows. Are they green or blue or, like mine, somewhere in between? I cannot recall.
The first mention of Terry in Lesley’s diary is on the 1st of May: ‘Terry came for lunch – we toasted the day with a little Terry champagne.’ On the 5th, when Jack is working to reinforce the retaining wall behind the bungalow, ‘Terry sent down steel rods to help construct the back bank. Had a long talk to her about going away – does she really want to go?’ The next day, ‘Uys came for the afternoon and evening – Terry too – Uys thinks such a lot of Terry and was really hurt at the rebuff two months ago at Onrust. Uys read his Afrikaans translations of Lorca – and pointed out how very like the Spanish the sounds were. He is an excellent Afrikaans poet.’
On Sunday the 8th, Lesley ‘cooked an elaborate lunch to which no-one turned up. Terry was too excited at the news of a booking with Eve Boswell to go to England, and ate nothing.’ Later there is a party at the Clifton Hotel ‘for the musical review people who entertained us at the mike – huge banquet spread – whiskey flowed – but I could not feel a part of it – I had nothing to say. Light music-hall wit – dirty jokes – tap-dancing. Terry looked charming but constantly smiling and strained – a good hostess! I came home at 1.30, three hours before the party broke up. The party was for Eve Boswell.’
In the evening on Friday the 13th, she is ‘off to the market with Terry in the evening. What a lot of vitality she has – she loved the market and we loaded the van with goods for the hotel and us.’ That Monday, ‘Terry brought Gigi Lupini down for tea and to see my paintings with a view to buy – he was extremely critical, but not a sound critic. “This one is too carefully painted – looks too feminine – This one is masculine (lots of palate knife) etc.” His criticism on tone values was accurate & helpful. Needless to say he bought nothing.’ On the Tuesday they are off to market again, and on Wednesday Lesley records, ‘Uys for lunch in excellent form. Terry and Uys play the fool a lot together.’
On the 24th, Raymond’s birthday, she and Terry take a small party of children to the Hout Bay sand-dunes. On the 28th, she ‘washed Terry’s dog who smelt like merry hell,’ probably from playing with the rotten red-bait that sometimes washed up on the beach. On the Monday, before leaving for a painting trip, she ‘met Terry at the Hotel at 7.30 who gave me enough tinned food for a month – a water carrier, chicken, & bread.’ When she returns on Thursday, in time for Jack’s birthday the following day, she notes: ‘children so glad to see me – Terry also.’ On Jack’s birthday, she ‘took the van in the afternoon to post Gigi Lupini’s painting. In the evening to dinner at the Chinese restaurant with Jack & Terry, which was unusual and pleasant. Had a drink at the Clifton Hotel against my will – my intense disliking for Alec Strauss keeps me from going there.’
On June the 5th, ‘Terry, Pippa, Raymond, Jillian, Piken [Michael], Jack and I all sunbathed and swam. Had both lunch and afternoon tea on the beach.’ On June the 16th, they learn that Terry’s husband ‘is definitely interested in buying this property from Billy Ray,’ the landlord, which puts their plans to alter and expand the bungalow on hold, and renders their tenure insecure. Terry, on the other hand, is arranging to sell Lesley’s paintings and lending her money: ‘Borrowed fifteen pounds from Terry – now owe her twenty-one pounds,’ she notes on the 23rd of June. The next afternoon, she ‘took Terry to Constantia. Terry was dressed most unsuitably for the occasion – rich black embroidered top with checked hose pipe trousers gone baggy at the knees, black sox and shoes and reeking of sweet perfume – but she was genuinely terrified and her face and hair lovely as usual.’
On the weekend of the 25th of June, Lesley cooks a chicken for Terry to take on a picnic. Terry invites Jack and Lesley for supper on the Saturday, but ‘completely forgot at the last minute. She had the most sexy dream last night about Jack and told him all about it.’ The next day Terry, ‘looking radiant, is off to her picnic with champagne and two glasses. What I find intolerable is her affectionate way with her husband when she tells us that she finds him crude and unbearable. She now vows and declares – once more – that she is definitely off – it’s the cry wolf story.
On Tuesday, Lesley writes that ‘Terry sent me a box of mixed fruit and veg – then came to tea. I went to town to buy a few essentials for framing… Terry joined me and asked me to run her all the way to Constantia where she went upstairs with Ronald while I cut roses in the garden, had tea and scones at Kirstenbosch and bought cooldrinks and scones for them. He offered me a lovely wicker barrow which Terry claimed – and as she kept me waiting longer than she promised, I came home livid with her and let her have every rose – every twig etc.’ On Saturday the 2nd of July, she ‘lent Terry the van to dash out to Hout Bay to see R. She says she stuck in the sand and bumped another car – the gear lever feels most peculiar – but we’ll hope for the best. She informs me that she can drive anything from a tractor onwards, but that she found the van tricky.’
On the 7th, Lesley writes that ‘Terry took me upstairs and told me a fabulous story of a first marriage. Most wealthy people who pushed her into marrying a specialist – when she had changed her mind. His sexual technique was most crude on discovering her a virgin. She was frightened and disgusted. On reaching Switzerland she removed her ring and left it on the table and walked out – never having heard of or seen him since.’
‘Terry tells me of a car – Chrysler New Yorker – ’48 model bought in the Congo,’ Lesley writes on Sunday the 10th, ‘but must be returned and resold in the Congo. I am very tempted at the offer – fetch Terry from Meller House in the afternoon and we go to the yacht club to see the car and return her to Alec. It looks battered – windows cracked etc. – but goes well. Had a long chat to Denis who tells me of some of the snags – sale is illegal.’ On Tuesday, she ‘took Terry to town to see Ronald – she came back in tears as he won’t include her one hundred percent in his life. If only she’d go overseas! She seems to love me too much.’ Lesley dashes to Johannesburg to try and arrange an exhibition, and when she returns by train she remarks ‘how lovely to see Jack and the boys all smiling to greet me at the platform. Terry and Uys at home ready with tea. Uys stayed to supper.’ The next day she writes, ‘Ronald asked me to go and chat and say goodbye. He seems upset but is not prepared to go through with his Terry affair. I suspect he is too bonded to Odette.’ The next day, ‘Terry arrived in floods of tears. She loves R. and suspects most strongly that she’s pregnant. Her old fat Brindle [the dog] is spending most of his time here.’ That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, ‘Terry had supper here – much more cheerful. I will keep Brindle till their return – they’re off on a holiday right round the Union – how she will enjoy that.’ On Thursday, there are only two lines: ‘Terry and Alec off for a holiday – Brindle absolutely at home.’
Terry must have returned to the Clifton Hotel while Lesley was showing her paintings in Johannesburg. The day after she gets back, she takes nine paintings to the hotel. The next day, a Tuesday, ‘Terry lay on my bed feeling rotten. She says she’s going to send me down yellow curtains. A lovely box of fruit & veg from her today.’ On Thursday, the last sentences in the last entry read ‘Terry gave me a rubbish box of Chinese characters which I shall frame instead. They are made of padded silk, etc.’
I do not remember Terry’s dog. I must have accompanied them, at least once, to the night-time market. The only other piece of information I have concerning Terry Strauss was conveyed to me by Lesley when she was in her sixties. Terry, she told me, had ‘made a pass’ at her. She had not responded and it had not disturbed their friendship. To me, it seems merely to confirm Terry’s status as Venus, the ocean-born goddess of love. Whatever opinions we can form about her must finally be nothing but reflections on ourselves, for within a few years she was stone dead.