Friday, July 26, 2013

Daisy Buchanan in the South Seas

The House of the Columns, Mahina, Tahiti
During my recent reread of The Great Gatsby, I was surprised to discover this sentence: “Next day at five o’clock she married Tom Buchanan without so much as a shiver, and started off on a three months’ trip to the South Seas.”
Thus began the troubled marriage of Daisy Fay from Louisville with the “low thrilling voice... bright eyes, and bright passionate mouth” and Tom Buchanan of Chicago with his “sturdy physical egoism” and “peremptory heart.” I began to wonder how it might have been if Tom and Daisy Buchanan, in the course of their South Pacific honeymoon, had set foot on the island of Tahiti.
According to the novel, the couple left for their wedding trip in June 1919. Their most likely route to Tahiti would have been via San Francisco on a steamship of the Union Line. After 10 days of shipboard life, they’d have arrived in the port of Papeete, with a pilot boat guiding the steamer through the gap in the reef. “Going to the ship” was still a ritual for Tahitians because the sea was still their main lifeline, even though the island was now connected to the rest of the world by telegraph. So every time a ship docked, the whole town came down to the Quay du Commerce dressed in their best, most gaily colored clothes to greet returning family members, arriving colonial officials, or visiting dignitaries. 
As the Buchanans came ashore, they would have noticed that the temperature was no more than a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit. June is a winter month in the southern hemisphere, which means that the couple wouldn't have had to contend with the stifling heat and monsoons of the Tahitian summer.
They had arrived only a few months after the end of the terrible Spanish flu epidemic that had decimated Tahiti’s population. A majority of the older generation had been wiped out, taking with them most of the accumulated knowledge of the island’s ancient heritage and customs.
It was also less than a year since the end of World War I. The war had cut off the flow of American and European visitors to the island that had been more or less continuous since the mid-1800s. The flow would resume with a vengeance the following year – 1920 – with the arrival of the American painters, Jerome Blum and George Biddle, the Russian writer Elsa Triolet, the French writer Marc Chadourne, and – most significantly ‒  the American writers Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall who went on to write Mutiny in the Bounty and many other books about Polynesia.
There were no proper hotels on the island in 1919 – just a lodging-house called the Annexe. Its rooms contained only a double bed with mosquito netting, a chair, and sometimes a bureau. The showers and toilets were on the ground floor, and none of the rooms had a door, only a half-length curtain to let the air circulate from the verandas. For Tom and Daisy, used to drinking mint juleps in a suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York, it would have been quite a culture shock.
But it’s unlikely they would have had to resort to such basic accommodation. As soon as they stepped off the ship, the Buchanans would have produced letters of introduction from other Americans and instantly been swept up into the generous embrace of the Salmon and Brander family.  
For many years, the main point of contact for visitors had been the family paterfamilias, Tati Salmon, the chief of the Teva clan, but he had died six months earlier in the flu epidemic. His oldest son had also died of the same disease on the same day, and as a result, Tati’s younger son, Mote Salmon, was now chief of the Tevas. As soon as Mote knew the Buchanans were in town and in need of accommodation, he would have put his father’s house in Papeete at their disposal, complete with a cook and various attendants.  
Mote would also have arranged for the young couple to come to stay at the family’s house at Papara for a traditional taamanu or feast of roast suckling pigs, breadfruit, taro, fei (wild bananas), and freshwater shrimp – all wrapped in banana leaves and cooked under hot stones in an oven dug into the ground (ahima’a). The diners would sit cross-legged under a bamboo awning, each woman crowned with an elaborate wreath of native flowers and the men with others made from pandanus leaves. They would eat the food with their fingers from banana leaf plates, using coconut half-shells filled with water as finger bowls.  
Mote’s cousin, Norman Brander, was another enthusiastic and generous host. One American visitor in the early 1920s described Norman as “...a very highly cultured and delightful man... He is very English until he hears Tahitian music, whereupon he becomes Tahitian. His eyes begin to sparkle and he cannot keep his feet still.” Although Norman had only recently lost his wife in the flu epidemic, he is still likely to have treated Daisy and Tom to one of his famous fifteen-course Chinese dinners in Papeete (almost a quarter of the city’s 3,000 inhabitants were Chinese and many had opened restaurants). And he would no doubt have invited them to stay at the Brander family’s beautiful House of the Columns at Mahina, which he had inherited from his brother. Shaded by rows of enormous coconut palms, the French colonial house faced out over a beach of black volcanic sand to the lagoon and the roaring Pacific beyond the reef – a perfect paradise for any honeymoon couple.
Back in Papeete, the Buchanans would have called at the house on Broome Road to pay their respects to ex-Queen Marau, now almost 60 years old and large of girth. The Queen, always regal, was mostly gracious to guests but could sometimes be difficult. George Biddle described her behavior at a Christmas gathering in 1920, “The old dowager Marau... was in an execrable temper. She cast a damper over the festive family gathering. They are all mortally afraid of her.”
Ex-Queen Marau
But the Queen’s daughter, 32-year-old Princess Takau, was always a charming hostess to overseas travellers, organizing expeditions to beauty spots in the island’s interior. Biddle was impressed with her, “Takau is a woman of dignity and intelligence... She speaks French perfectly but with a charming soft drawl... She is interested in art and... is proud of her ancestry and the legends and folk art of her people.” Her friendliness and ease with guests did not prevent her from having a strong sense of her own status. Disappointed in the quality of singing at a himene that she had organized for Biddle, she interrupted the singers and “...spoke to them quite sharply. She upbraided them for singing with so little spirit; told them she had expected a better performance... She spoke with great self-assurance and simplicity. Her words were a royal command and galvanized the himene.” No doubt the Buchanans would have found the Princess to be equally solicitous on their behalf.  
Princess Takau Pomare
Although the Buchanans’ visit to Tahiti is merely a fiction of mine (by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald), this is a very real depiction of the open-handed hospitality extended to foreign guests by the Salmon-Branders over many years.  
After all of this Polynesian abundance, it was time for the Buchanans to get back on the steamer to the United States. By August, they were in Santa Barbara where Daisy discovered she was pregnant and that her husband had cheated on her with a chambermaid from their hotel. Four years later on Long Island, Daisy encountered an old flame, and the tragic and iconic story that is The Great Gatsby began to unfold.

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