Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
This is the final instalment of a three-part series in honour of Dr the Hon Louise Bennett Coverley. Part Two ended with the lady known as 'Bibis' from childhood receiving her first performance fee.
With the money, Bibis purchased a lovely pair of shoes at a King Street store. One thing led to another and Bibis soon started earning money regularly for her writing.
While at the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) one evening, she received a telephone call from Archie Lindo, a broadcaster at Jamaica's only radio station at the time, ZQI. He wanted her permission to use one of her poems on his radio programme.
She consented and, as a result, received another phone call while at the YWCA. This time, it was from the head of a big sugar and rum manufacturing company, Horace Myers. He had heard the poem on radio and wanted Bibis to recite at a dinner party that very night.
She agreed to do so, but wanted to know about transportation to the venue. Myers said he would send a car for her. He did, and Bibis arrived at the dinner in fine style.
"Among the guests," Bibis recalled later, "was the managing director of The Gleaner Company, Michael deCordova."
WEEKLY GLEANER COLUMN
He, too, liked her recitation and invited her to meet him at the newspaper's offices the following Monday morning. Bibis was more than a little surprised when, at the meeting, she was asked to write a weekly column in The Sunday Gleaner consisting of her verses. Just months before, the newspaper boss had been hesitant about publishing her poems.
However, Bibis mused subsequently, he may have been swayed by the fact that, at the dinner party, both the middle-class guests, who didn't normally speak the Jamaican dialect, as well as the household help, who did, understood and laughed heartily at Bibis' poems.
"The response was so good," Bibis said. "I knew the Jamaican language was familiar to everybody there."
Bibis was paid half a guinea per column, but she would have written for free. Her mother had told her, "Bibis, if they offer to pay you nothing, let them publish what you write."
Smiling at the memory of the experience, Bibis said: "My dear, it took off. We were getting letters from all over the country congratulating me and The Gleaner (Company) for publishing me, and we heard that people everywhere were reciting and dramatising the poems."
She continued: "I was asked to go to different functions - to the Women's Club, to King's House, to functions in Spanish Town. I respected the Jamaican language from the very beginning, for the people who were good to me as a child used it."
TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF
Bibis started travelling across the island to various events to recite her poems. Usually, she received nothing more than a soft drink as payment, for many people took terrible advantage of her. One of the many was the publisher of Bibis' first collection of poems. He demanded money for a few copies of the book, which Bibis took, thinking they were part of his payment to her.
Annoyed, Bibis wrote and published in The Gleaner a poem about the publisher's stinginess. The poem, Old Puss, called no names, but the publisher brought a court suit against her and The Gleaner Company, claiming defamation of character. Happily, his lawyers persuaded him to withdraw the suit.
Years later, after Bibis had got professional training in drama in England at the renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), to which she got a scholarship in 1945, she met Eric 'Chalk Talk' Coverley again in New York. Romance blossomed, and subsequently, the two got married and Bibis became formally Mrs Eric Coverley.
Living in the Big Apple, one of the culture capitals of the world, meant going to Broadway shows and other theatrical events, which they both loved. But it also meant that, as Bibis put it later, "money was tight".
One way in which the couple coped with the financial constraints they faced was by keeping their food bill low. They lived on mince. Mr Coverley bought minced meat every day at the grocery and Bibis learnt "to cook mince every possible way". She told the story laughingly, for, like many other Jamaicans, she had learnt "to tek bad s'inting an mek laugh".
Another important male figure in her early life also featured many years later. The first job offer she received on returning from England in 1947 came from Mr Powell at Excelsior. He asked her to teach drama at her beloved former high school.
Her childhood nickname, Bibis, gave way in her adult years to the more popular one, 'Miss Lou', and, in matters formal, to the Hon Louise Bennett Coverley, OM, OJ, MBE, D Litt (Hon), or Ambassador Coverley. The actress, folklorist, poet, story writer and storyteller, was one of Jamaica's best-known and best-loved personalities.
She was the author of numerous books of prose and of verse, the first of the latter being Humorous Verses in Jamaica Dialect (compiled and published by George R. Bowen: The Herald Ltd, Kingston, 1942).
As a student of Jamaican folklore, she did years of research and teaching while with Jamaica Welfare.
Her entry into broadcasting began with 'Caribbean Carnival' for the BBC in London, while she was a student at RADA. In Jamaica, her radio programmes included 'Laugh With Miss Lou', 'Calling Miss Lou', 'Miss Lou's Views', and 'The Lou and Ranny Show'.
For many years, she hosted the popular children's television show Ring Ding. She acted in (and co-authored) many Little Theatre Movement pantomimes, appeared in several feature films and documentaries, and made several recordings of her poems, stories and commentaries on topical issues. She and her late husband had one son and several adopted children.
She died in Toronto, Canada, on July 26, 2006.