Eric Williams pt 4: Eric's love & death
By Kim Johnson
Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2003
On November 13, 1957, Eric Williams, the Chief Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and leader of the People's National Movement, married his daughter's dentist, Dr Mayleen Mook Sang, a Guyanese.
The marriage had neither the passion of Soy's, nor the acrimony of Elsie's. But its greater furtiveness caused much embarrassment when it emerged how Williams pressured various officials to conceal it.
The couple never lived together, and perhaps that's why the "marriage" if it could be called such, endured until his death.
Socially, Williams relaxed but also discussed politics with Ferdie Ferreira, Carlton Gomes, Ivan Williams and others.
In last Sunday Guardian Ferreira described the unpretentious informality of those sessions, when they ate Chinese food or chicken and chips. "We served ourselves ourselves," recalled Ferreira, "going to the small bar for an occasional drink of scotch."
Williams fell out with most of them by the early 1970s, but continued with his other social circle, the Moyou family and their close friends.
From 1961 to 1978, on Saturday evenings (twice on long weekends) they shared a sumptuous dinner and played cards.
The venue rotated. When Williams was the host entire families were invited, children and all.
There was no politics. Here Williams was just a warm, caring friend who personally selected their Christmas gifts, surprising the Stetchers with his taste in crystal, china, jewellery and watches.
Like many shy men who have difficulty opening their hearts to adult relationships, Williams loved children and was good with them. Joan Massiah (née Dolly), whose father was his childhood friend, wistfully recalls, "I remember being always very excited when he was coming. There was something very special about him.
"He was very easy to love and have fun with"
Williams was also close to his friend Wilfred Best's daughters. "He always had some attention for you. He always showed some interest," Lucille Mair (née Best).
As teenagers the Dolly and the Best sisters had his unlisted number to chat with him.
With Erica at school abroad, the girls filled a void in Williams' life. But in his eyes they weren't just Erica surrogates, and when they went to university in London, Williams surprised everyone, including British security services, by having dinner at their student digs.
"We would get invited to his home for dinner, or to come over and have tea with him," recalls Lucille. "He liked young people. He wanted the views of the young people."
All young people, especially girls. He spent hours with his housekeeper's daughter, Joan Lake, and her friends.
"When my niece grew up she had an interview on Radio Trinidad and he called her and he said that was excellent, that it was well done," recalls Lake. "He was very pleased with her. The younger one, she loved him."
From 1971 until Williams died two of his sister's nieces, Peggy and Patsy Gittens, slept at his home. Their timetables rarely coincided with Williams' but when they did he talked with them for hours.
This portrait of a kind, warm man, so different from the cold, distant Prime Minister familiar to the public, is one of the strengths of Ken Boodhoo's biography, The Elusive Eric Williams.
"He was an easy person to like," says Erica's friend Celia de Freitas. "I found him very approachable... He was kind. He was considerate. I admire very tremendously his relationship with Erica, the loyalty, the love, the constant reaching out, the adoration."
Interviewed by Boodhoo, de Freitas' touching memories begin with six or seven-year-old Erica's birthday party, where Williams entertained the children.
"Only a daddy was there and very involved in the party because he organised bingo... It was strange... only a daddy and this little girl."
Erica went to school in England in 1962, and the friendship cooled. But it rekindled in 1970, after which de Freitas was a frequent visitor to the Prime Minister's residence in St Ann's.
The Williams she met was informal, interested in young people, and completely besotted with his daughter.
"He had an adoration for her that was unreal... if he was sitting in a chair in his study and she walked in, his whole face would just light up like a bulb... we used to give him jokes and say, ‘She has arrived, she is here!' It was like magic."
Both father and daughter were stubborn, so conflict was inevitable. Especially since Erica rejected her father's studious discipline.
"There were times when Erica would just... go at him and go at him and he would just fly at her," recalls de Freitas. "One time... I remember him taking out this wallet and he said, ‘You want a dollar, take a dollar, take a dollar!' and he was fumbling. He couldn't get the dollar out of the wallet.
"I think it all ended in a laughter because we started to crack up at him."
His laughter wasn't boisterous. He'd more chuckle and slap his leg. But it wasn't less genuine for that.
In one phase Erica cooked for her father every night, which shows greater closeness than the normal father-daughter bond.
"There were times when he might not necessarily feel to eat what she cooked because he said that she was going to kill him with all the highly rich foods that she wanted to cook for him," says de Freitas.
"Of course they would have a little argument about that."
De Freitas likens it to "two man rat in the same hole," but it seems closer to the bickering of an old marriage. "Erica never came in and never ended her night without going into his room."
When her dalmation died and Erica was hysterical, Williams brought the corpse home from the vet, put it in a small cotton-lined coffin, and organised a little burial in the back garden, just Eric, Erica, de Freitas and the gardener.
Williams ate meals in the kitchen, sometimes with Erica's teenage friends hanging around in shorts and slippers, sitting on the table, scrounging in the fridge.
"We used to play ‘crazy eight' in those days... a game that could get very exciting and you land up standing up on the table and chairs and a lot of noise," describes de Freitas.
"He would come into the music room and there would be four or five of us there playing cards... a friend of ours was on top the table with these cards in her hand. He just stood up by the door. He was just laughing.
"Another time Erica was playing Carnival for the first time and... she didn't know how to jump up. We put on calypso music and Eric decided that I had to show how to cross the stage... and he would sit there watching the two of us and that is what he would love... watching the two of us behave like two fools."
Erica was in school abroad from 1962 to 1970. She persuaded him to leave politics in 1973, but his resolve weakened when OPEC tripled the price of oil, and he returned to the fray.
Erica quietly left for Florida and thereafter returned home only for brief holidays.
"He missed Erica terribly... The only reason he coped with the fact that she was away is because he knew it was the best place for her. She had no life here," says de Freitas.
He called Erica often. He asked her friends to drop by to chat about her. He phoned them if he thought she sounded upset.
"I used to go up to the airport and meet her with him," says de Freitas. "I don't think the car could have gotten there fast enough."
When Erica visited Williams didn't restrict her movements. She partied, limed on the beach, went to cinema, played mas, with security guards hovering nearby.
But the intensity of the relationship condemned it.
He relied on her exclusive love. All of her friends who Williams liked, since Erica was a little girl, seems to have been female: Celia de Freitas, the Best sisters, Joan Dolly. He could bear Erica's absence, but not share her.
She needed a life of her own.
In 1978 she joined the Tourism Board in Orlando, and began seeing Jim Connell, who she brought home to meet her friends and father.
"I feel quite lost, quite empty," he wrote in 1952 to his wife Siulan Soy, the great love of his life. "I used to be so self-contained."
Now that he was really lost in a labyrinth of solitude and paranoia, Williams strove for self-containment.
He stopped the card-playing.
He discouraged Erica's visits on trivial grounds. When she married Jim Connell in 1979, he didn't attend the Florida wedding.
Halsey McShine, Williams' confidante since Tranquillity school days, through QRC and Oxford, and his personal physician, gave him a brief weekly check-ups, after which they chatted over dinner and a drink.
Williams cut him off too, around Christmas 1979, with a note delivered by his security: "I will call you when I need you."
He dismissed his domestic staff in late March, 1980, and stopped taking his diabetic medicines.
Worried, his maid called McShine on the evening of Sunday March 29. But it was too late.
Earlier that day Williams had slipped into a diabetic coma, surrounded by advisers too scared or witless to summon a doctor, and died.