Jack’s New Novel – Eaten by a Crocodile?
My solitary quest to discover the life of ‘Jack Reynolds’, the shadowy author of the 1956 novel, “A Woman of Bangkok” is continuing apace and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It has become totally absorbing as each new bit of information comes to light, but there are so many leads to follow up that I’m overwhelmed. (There’s more here.)
Most dramatically, I now have a photo of the Christian headstone to Jack’s grave, though I don’t yet know where it is exactly. It shows him as Jack Reynolds Jones and his wife as Wanpen Muthikul Jones. He was born 1st June 1913 and he died on 8th September 1984, just over twenty five years ago, aged seventy one. A photograph shows a man with glasses, dark hair and a square lantern jaw. An empty space awaits the picture of his widow.
My previous article described the extraordinary phenomenon of this talented writer producing a first novel about the conniving but accommodating ‘woman of Bangkok’ which bursts upon the world at about the same time as Frank Mason’s, “The World of Suzy Wong”. The book reputedly sold more than a million copies, but apart from one serious non-fiction work about China, its author then disappears from the view of the wider public almost without trace.
Fewer and fewer people will actually now remember him and as there is no record of his life, I’m now trying to find those who knew him and to fill the void with a short life history. The few thousand words I plan to write seem to be growing though as the information about Jack flows in.
One new and unique source is an unpublished book written by pioneering Oxfam stalwart, Bernard Llewellyn in the late eighties which has just reached me. This remarkable manuscript book called, “A Traveller in the Third World – The Memoirs of An Itinerant Do-Gooder, 1940-1982” should definitely see the light of day, though that’s another story.
Outside of Bernard’s family and a few friends from Oxfam, I am privileged to be the first person to read it and I am thrilled to find four fascinating passages in it about Jack. Bernard and Jack worked together in the Friends Ambulance Unit in China during the war years and having so much in common as the England born sons of Christian Ministers of Welsh stock, as aspiring writers and conscientious objectors, they became firm friends.
One rather poignant passage goes some way towards explaining Jack’s failure to produce another novel.
Llewellyn writes that when he visited Jack in Bangkok in 1957, the year after “A Woman of Bangkok” was published, Jack, “was making heavy weather of his more serious work. His novel had taken months to write and rewrite; but in 1957 “A Woman of Bangkok” had finally appeared. He wrote it using his mother’s maiden name: the nom de plume, Jack Reynolds. Though we did not know it in 1957, this was to be Jack’s sole full-length novel. Some shorter pieces were later to be collected and produced in paper-back [this was “Daughters of an Ancient Race”, Heinemann 1974] but nothing was to cap his early achievement. The picaresque adventures along Chinese and Thai roads which made his letters such fun to receive for the most part never found their way into print; though he was to send me in the sixties a summary of the plots and the characters around which nine separate books were to be written. But Jack could never quite settle to complete them one at a time and, in his mind, one story merged into another and he wrote and rewrote until the accumulation of material confronted him with an impossible task. Nor was the literary problem the only thing on his mind. Family life and the problem of earning a living in a country of infinite distractions held back the flowering of what seemed to me a prodigious talent.”
Jack’s protagonist in the novel, Reginald Joyce, was a tormented character torn between the biblical strictures instilled into him by his Christian Minister father and his own more tearaway tendencies. In the book Reggie escapes his upbringing in Bangkok by taking to booze and easy women with a huge appetite, but all the time racked with guilt and recriminations.
Given the autobiographical implications of the novel, perhaps Jack too was a complex character and I hope his old friends can tell me more. I have received two personal reminiscences suggesting that in his later years his joy in writing had turned to dust and that he suffered a terminal case of writer’s block. There was also mention of an article called something like, “The Ghost of Soi ??” that appeared somewhere in the Bangkok media in which his picture showed him with a whispy grey beard.
The great strength of Jack’s solo novel is of course that it is so ‘well-researched’, so precisely observed from life. His picture of Bangkok and of Reggie’s arduous drives up to Korat are passionate and vivid. Thus one inevitably asks, who was the inspiration for Vilai, ‘the woman of Bangkok’ herself, otherwise known as The White Leopard of the Bolero dance hall and a bitter rival of The Black Leopard? Were they too and the Bolero itself drawn from life and who exactly were they?
It seems I may now have an answer. My informant, now in his nineties, tells me as follows (after some editing).
“The Bolero was the Cathay, an open air Bangkok dance hall on the site of the later lottery building, which had a concrete floor and Mekhong and Singha on offer. There was a roof, a bit of a bandstand and sometimes serviceable toilets. There was also Thai food available. The girls sold drinks and tickets to dance with them. It was mostly Thai men as there were very few farang then. At both the Cathay and the Hoi Ten Lao, a famous six storey restaurant with a nightclub on the top floor, the White Tiger and the Black Tiger were the mainstays. (They were of course Jack’s inspiration for his characters in the ‘Bolero’.) The Black, as I think it was, moved on and set up shop elsewhere until the nineties. One of the Tigers, I think the White, got sick and spent all her savings on doctors but died anyway in the sixties.”
A number of sources say that Jack and The White Tiger were firm friends and saw each other every New Year for many years and that it was a problem for him keeping her identity private. However, later on when Jack was in declining health, she had eventually failed to show up to see him. Perhaps though, rumour is a lying jade!
About six years ago (?), Bernard Trink, in his Nite Owl column in the Bangkok Post, said he saw the White one in a Sukhumvit bar playing pool. This is what he said.
“If you didn’t read Jack Reynolds’ “A Woman of Bangkok”, long considered the literary classic about the night life of the metropolis, skip this item. Believe it or not, its White Leopard heroine was seen shooting pool a week ago at Rajah Hotel’s Hillary Bar (Soi 4 off Sukhumvit). Her name, incidentally, is Muck. And her personality is much the same as when Jack wrote about her.”
It would be fascinating to resolve this mystery though the ‘facts’ by their nature may always remain shadowy. Of greatest interest would be to see Jack’s version of things, and to my delight, I’ve just been given a copy of a Bangkok Post article written in 1981 three years before he died, which gives exactly that.
In it Reynolds confirms that the character of Vilai was based on The White Tiger of the Cathay and that they ‘were very good friends for a couple of years until I got married. I had been very active in her support, you might say. Well, naturally there were encounters with her but… no, we were really good friends. When I was sick in hospital, she was the only person in the whole of Bangkok who came to see me regularly every day.’ Then after his marriage she tactfully faded out of the picture.
So was it really The White Tiger that Bernard Trink quite recently saw in a Sukhumvit bar?
In the book Vilai was about thirty as at the beginning of the nineteen fifties and Trink saw The White Tiger in say the year 2000. If this fits and it really was she, at eighty the Tiger would have been one of the older chicks playing pool in the Hillary Bar.
Perhaps though she was only seventy. Or maybe it wasn’t her at all.
Finally I’ve just received very specific intelligence on why Jack never published his second novel despite the run away success of “A Woman of Bangkok”.
The manuscript got swallowed by a crocodile! And this is how I know.
A recent email to me from Michael, the son of Jack’s China friend, Bernard Llewellyn reads in part as follows.
“In Dad's first edition copy of Jack’s book "A Sort of Beauty" [as his book was first titled] there is an inscription in Jack's handwriting that reads, "Recalling all those happy times when we have met, and paused awhile, between the Breasts of Dora and the back streets of Bangkok." Jack, April 29 1957.
I also found a hand-written loose note from my father [Bernard] that he had placed in Jack's book. This reads:
‘On Sept. 17, 1956, was published a first novel by Jack Reynolds, A Woman of Bangkok, a detailed and sympathetic study of a young man's enslavement to the flashy charms of Bangkok's most famous courtesan, White Fox. It had a big success, and I waited eagerly for the second novel to be submitted. But it didn't come when promised. Again and again I wrote the author, still living in S.E.Asia , for news of progress. His reply, though deeply discouraging, has always remained in my memory. 'Recently I was crossing the river here on a punt.' he wrote, 'I had the novel, almost complete, in my dispatch case. In mid-stream I stumbled and lost my balance, the case fell into the water, and a crocodile swallowed it.' ’”