Memories of the incomparable Aggie Grey
As I am regrettably unable to accept the invitation to attend the official opening of the re-developed Sheraton Aggie Greys Hotel* in Apia this weekend, I thought the next best thing would be to share some memories of that venerable institution as I first came to know it in 1951, and of incomparable Aggie and her family, and the one and very only Fred Fairman.
I had met Aggie and Fred Fairman in the private bar of the Commercial Hotel in Auckland’s Shortland Street, the favoured watering hole of many from Samoa during their triennial three-month holidays which were the vogue in those pre-air-travel days, and the Union Company ships Matua and later Tofua the only way to get to and from Apia.
But my next catch-up with Aggie in Apia Harbour in late September 1951 was more inglorious: coming down the gangway of the Matua to board Aggie’s open 40-footer, a former U.S. Navy steel personal launch, that ferried passengers from ship to shore, I slipped halfway down and slid the rest of the way on my muli to land at Aggie’s feet in her boat.
As editor of the weekly Samoa Bulletin, then Samoa’s only newspaper, Aggie’s Hotel on the banks of the Vaisigano River, soon became a regular source of news, as then Tasman Empire Airways (TEAL) – now Air New Zealand - launched in December 1951 its Coral Route, described accurately by Wikipedia thus:
It became the only air route into Tahiti, with Americans and others from Northern Hemisphere flying by land planes into Nadi in Fiji, making the short hop across to Suva to join the flying boat at Laucala Bay, for its fortnightly flight along the Coral Route, leaving on a Thursday morning for Samoa, alighting on the Satapuala lagoon about 2 p.m. Passengers were driven by cab through Samoan coastal villages to Apia, where they enjoyed respite and dinner at Aggie Grey’s hotel until 2 a.m. when they were driven back out to Satapuala for a pre-dawn take-off to the Akaiami lagoon at Aitutaki where they went ashore for breakfast and an optional swim until mid-morning takeoff for Papeete, timed to ensure that arrival was after the end of the siesta period at 2 p.m. After launching ashore and completing Customs, passengers had to wait a further hour while their luggage was sprayed against horticultural pests, a time usually spent by the majority across the road from the Customs house at Quinn’s Bar. In all, a 30-hour leisurely introduction to life in the South Seas which made the Coral Route a legendary travel experience.
Aggie’s Hotel thus became a temporary stopover for many newsworthy celebrities heading for fabled Tahiti, many of whom later returned for longer stays in Samoa. It also forged a close personal link between Aggie and the top brass and crews of TEAL (later Air New Zealand), typified by the airline making a special despatch of 80 red roses many years later when Aggie celebrated her 80th birthday.
Speaking of birthdays, reminds me that, in 1957, with her 60th birthday approaching, Aggie called me down to ask: “Terry, I want you to print me a special invitation for my 60th, something light and out of the ordinary.”
These were the days of letterpress printing, and nothing in the way of the imaging tools available in this computer and offset printing age. It had to be in words, so the invitation read: “Mrs Agnes Grey wishes to advise that, after 20 years of being 39, she has decided to turn 40.” It worked, and the party was memorable.
By 1951, Aggie and her hotel were already legendary, ranking alongside Fiji’s Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, as the two pre-eminent accommodation hotels in the South Pacific. But whereas the GPH was noted for its formality and grandeur (and it was as pleasant and efficient as it was grandiose) Aggie’s was loved for its laid back Samoan friendly fa’aaloalo, where every guest was greeted and treated as aiga, and enjoyed service that was as efficient as the smiles were always wide.
The fame established by Aggie’s Hotel during World War II has never been better described than by James Michener in Esquire magazine, March 1951 in an article entitled “Siva tonight.”
It began: “At mid-afternoon the radioman would send the following message from far out in the Pacific:
ETA FALEOLO 0320 ZEBRA XXX FOURTEEN AGGIE XXX STIKE NAIGS XXX SIVA HARMONY XXX.
“To old South Pacific hands this message needs no translation. It is immortal.”
Michener went on to explain the first phrases signalled arrival at Faleolo at 3.20 a.m. GMT (4 p.m. Samoa time).
“STIKE NAIGS meant steak and eggs pronounced New Zealand style….The meals were served on a cool, wickered verandah by two dumply little girls, masters of American slang…
“SIVA, of course, meant that the pilots wanted Aggie to throw one of her memorable siva-sivas…Aggie did the best siva. Kicking off her shoes she would step into the middle of the floor and start the slow rhythmic dance….The siva at Aggies usually lasted until about one in the morning. Fortified by a little whiskey and lots of Australian beer, a siva in Apia was a wonderful thing.
“HARMONY….meant the prettiest girl in Samoa….famous in the South Pacific; a fair Polynesian, slim, flashing eyes, tall, soft-spoken and witty.”
When I showed Aggie the Michener article, she told me “Harmony’s” real name, and told me how talented and graceful she was as a siva and Tahitian dancer. She has lived in New Zealand for many years.
In 1976, as part of its bi-centenary celebrations, the U.S. government arranged for American celebrities to visit most countries on Earth. For New Zealand, that visitor was James Michener. It so happened that Aggie was also in Auckland at the time, and I had the privilege of arranging a reunion meeting between the two in what is now the Pullman Hotel in Waterloo Quadrant. One outcome was that Michener confirmed to me something that Aggie had denied for years that, she was NOT the lady on whom the character Bloody Mary (of “South Pacific” musical fame) was based, a myth started in Canada and which always annoyed Aggie.
I always felt blessed to be one of those papalagi taken under Aggie’s all-embracing wing, and became close to her family.
Before I came to Samoa, I was involved in forming the Marist Softball Club in Auckland at the same time as Aggie’s elder son, Edward (Ted to us here) was one of the founding spirits of the Saints Softball Club.
Once in Apia, I was privileged to be among the select group of older Apia personalities who were always at Aggies house about 11 a.m. on a Saturday for a beer or three and a catch-up on local gossip.
When Alan returned from school in New Zealand, he soon set up regular Wednesday late afternoon volleyball matches in the backyard of the hotel, about where the pool would later be sited.
Alan went on to become a talented first five-eighth for Ulalei, and later, with the title Laauli, a powerhouse in the administration of Samoan rugby.
I can remember daughter Maureen coming home for a prolonged spell from Australia, and causing many male hearts to flutter with coquettish ways that led us to dub her, “the barefoot contessa.”
Older daughter, Pele was to live in Apia for a term with her husband, Cam Turner, when he was appointed manager of Radio 2AP.
Later, some years after our respective returns to Wellington, Cam and Pele were to honour me by asking me to be godfather to their son Brian; possibly because earlier, Aggie had honoured my family by being godmother to our son Paul, born in Apia in 1955.
The few of us left who were part of the film, “Return to Paradise” remember how much of an influence was Aggie behind the scenes: her hotel was the accommodation and management base for the entire film crew, and she personally supervised, day by day, the catering unit on location in Lefaga.
Reflecting on Aggie’s during my time in Apia, I can’t forget the influence of her loyal companion, Fred Fairman, not just a Mr Fixit with an inexhaustible range of technical skills, but a man of quiet wit and a heart of pure gold.
Whether it was building the white wooden launch that replaced the steel 40-footer to ferry passengers out to the ships at anchor, or fixing whatever needed to be fixed around the hotel, his hobby in my time was completely refurbishing and selling to village churches decrepit old foot pedal organs that he located in New Zealand and shipped back to Apia.
Many a church choir was to sing to one of Fred Fairman’s restored organs.
After seven-year spells in Wellington and Napier, we shifted back to Auckland’s North Shore, not far from Fairfax Avenue, Northcote, where Aggie owned a home. This led to an annual resumption of our associations.
I’d get a phone call to my home in Milford: “Terry, it’s Aggie. I’m here”. There was no mistaking the message: get in your car and come round. When they were in Auckland, Aggie and Fred Fairman were frequent visitors to our place, and if there was a party, I always managed to persuade Aggie to perform a siva.
Her personality made such an impression on your youngest daughter Sarah (now on stage as Hera) that when Hera graduated from Te Toi Whakaari, the national drama school in Wellington, and had to write and perform a monologue, she chose to base it on Aggie. The way Hera brought Aggie to life, in speech, walk and siva dancing (the latter after expert tutelage from Moira Macdonald Walker) brought me to tears.
In the 90’s and early “noughties”, I stayed a couple of times at Aggie’s Hotel, and was surprised at how little the essence and magic of the place had changed.
Sure, there were new wings and bungalows, and pool where once we played volleyball, and the huge and brilliant fale in which we dined and fiafia-ed Wednesday nights; but the unmatchable Samoan guest-centred ambience remained, and the spirit of Aggie was everywhere.
In the Beach Road-front shop, and around the hotel there was Marina, Alan’s wife exerting the same constant, caring, focused attention to detail as her mother-in-law; and in the background, quiet, almost shy, was Alan making absolutely sure everything worked exactly as it should.
And Alan, in turn has passed on this legacy to his son Fred, and the ever-watchful eye of his sister Tania.
All of this was washed away on the dreadful December day in 2012 when Cyclone Evan unleashed its fury on Samoa, and caused the peaceful Vaisigano River to become a raging flood that ravaged all of the ground floor buildings of Aggie’s Hotel, and rendered it unfit for purpose.
The only consolation has been the involvement of the international hotel chain Sheraton Group in the rebuilding of Aggie’s. The introduction of the marketing clout of Sheraton with its worldwide connections, and its reputation as a hotelier of quality will greatly enhance the appeal not just of Aggie’s Apia Hotel and the resort at Mulifanua, but also the attractiveness of Samoa as a tourist destination.
But I have a final word of advice to Sheraton: never, ever, forget that what you are operating in Samoa is Sheraton Aggie Greys, and, especially at the Vaisigano end of Beach Road, her name, her legend, and her legacy of incomparable Samoan hospitality and fa’aaloalo is what will draw people to this handsome new property, again and again.
*The re-opening of the Aggie Grey’s Hotel as Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Hotel is this Friday, with the start scheduled for 4.30pm.