Siulan Soy Moyou.
“She was very lovely, very vivacious and full of life.” Thus recalls one of Siulan Soy Moyou’s early boyfriends. “She was bright, and interested in local culture. We used to go by Beryl McBurnie’s Little Carib, which had just started, to do shows.”
Another friend who knew her well described her as glamorous, dramatic, sexy, outgoing: “Sometimes we’d go to dinner at Soy’s house, about six of us—her father was a good cook—and everyone would have to dress formally, the men in suit and bow tie,” she recalls. “Other times you visit Soy and she’s wearing just a nightie, all her nipples showing.”
Soy was a 25-year-old typist at the Caribbean Commission, Kent House in Maraval, Trinidad, when, late in 1948, Dr. Eric Williams arrived to head the Commission's research.
He was a quiet, brilliant, driven man drawn to people whose strengths complimented his weaknesses. The insouciant maverick CLR James, for instance, whose wide-ranging thought contrasted with the strenuous intensity of Williams’ focus.
So too Soy’s extroversion counterpointed his shyness; her spontaneity negated his repression; her exuberance lifted his pessimism. She was sensuous, he was intellectual. She was poised, he gauche.
Williams fell in love with this Chinese woman as he never had before or ever would after. But he also happened to be married.
Eleven years earlier, in 1937, Williams, a graduate student at Oxford, had secretly tied the knot with Elsie Ribero, who was studying music in England. Dr. Halsey McShine, Williams’ best friend in England, hadn’t thought the couple close enough to get married. Ray Dolly, close to both Williams and Ribero, was equally surprised when he discovered years after. Perhaps Williams' passion for music drew him to the musician in her. Whatever the reason, Williams claimed that he hid the marriage in fear of losing his scholarship. But even the romance had been furtive. Why?
Years later his description of Elsie in a draft of Inward Hunger is cold and disapproving: “My first wife whose humble antecedents were compensated by a Portuguese father, an education in England and an income of her own, met decidedly with [my parents] approval.”
Elsie gave birth to Alistair in 1943. The disappointed Williams claims he wanted a girl, but the subsequent birth of Pamela didn't improve things. “The problems [in the marriage] were exacerbated by the birth of their second child Elsie Pamela, on July 22, 1947, and the issue of paternity,” dryly states Ken Boodhoo in The Elusive Eric Williams. “Williams’s characteristic weakness, his affinity for gossip, displayed itself… He acted on the gossip: he took leave of absence from Howard [University, where he taught].”
One friend close to Elsie and Williams dismissed the idea of her infidelity. But by 1948 Williams' appetite for Elsie had surfeited, sickened and died, and in May he left his lectureship at Howard University and abandoned his wife, their five-year-old Alistair and one-year-old Pamela. He took up a post in Trinidad heading research at the Caribbean Commission. By October, with winter approaching, Elsie had to vacate university housing because he hadn’t bothered to request that she be allowed to remain. She had no job but for many years Williams refused to support them.
To him, Elsie was history and soon he would fall in love with his secretary at the Commission. He described her in Inward Hunger as simply “a girl whose sole qualifications were a poor Chinese father, a native intelligence unspoiled by a university education, and a character uncorrupted by a private income.” In other words, poor, uneducated and dependent. But that was written many years after, in 1969, by which time he had already entered his labyrinth of solitude, and the truth is, in 1950 Williams was consumed with desire for Siulan Soy Moyou. It breached the solitude that was both his armour and his prison.
How could she resist? Even before he had acquired the aphrodesiac of power, Williams’ exclusive concentration generated the magnetism of a great seducer.
“He was able to speak to women young or old and charm them,” recalled Diane Dupres, Williams’ political secretary. “When he spoke to you, he focused on you, he listened to what you said. Whatever you said was important. He would not allow anybody to join in the conversation when he was talking to you… He was a woman’s man. When he focused on you, you were the important person at the time.”
And he focussed on Soy as on no one ever had. “Why are you going with that short, black, deaf man?” enquired one of Soy’s Chinese friends.
She replied: “Wait and see: one day he’s going to be great.”
In 1950 Williams filed for divorce in the US Virgin Islands. Elsie protested and he submitted to the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia. Soon, however, on a six-month US research holiday with Soy, Williams restarted divorce proceedings, this time in Reno, Nevada.
Elsie took out an injunction.
Still, despite an order he be arrested by a US Marshal, Williams married the pregnant Soy Moyou in Reno on January 2, 1951. On January 20 Elsie got a divorce (effective July 21). And on February 12, in Reno, Erica Siulan Williams was born.
“Lover girl,” he wrote on November 22, 1952, “if we were together now, I know from experience how you will be able to help me, as no one has been able to do and no ever will…“I do not quite understand, this longing for you. I feel quite lost, quite empty. I used to be so self-contained.”
Six months after Williams wrote those words Soy, having completed a typing project for her husband, who was in Puerto Rico, coughed blood. She was rushed to the Colonial Hospital, and then transferred to the Caura Chest and Heart Centre. Contacted, Williams arrived within 48 hours.
Two days after Williams returned, on May 26, 1953, tuberculosis carried off Siulan Soy Williams. She was 29, her marriage 30 months old, her daughter was two years old, and her husband 42.
At the highly emotional funeral Williams’ eyes remained dry. His grief was locked in. He fell into lethargy and depression and abandoned the projects he was working on. He applied for leave from the Commission, shipped off his beloved Buick Dynaflow, the most stylish car in Trinidad, and embarked on a six-month road trip.
A letter he wrote in January 1954 in response to Edgar Erickson, whose PhD dissertation Williams had edited for publication, described those months: “Your letter of May 20, 1953 reached me on the day of my wife’s unexpected and sudden death. Its successor of July 15 reached me in Madrid; I continued my plans for my trip on my doctor’s advice. I had every intention in the world of replying to you during the trip, but a serous lethargy coupled with the physical strain of driving all over Europe sapped all my energies, and I only recovered my balance somewhat after seven weeks of the placid life of Switzerland.”
The Caribbean Commission insisted he return to Trinidad two months earlier than he’d planned. He did so in November 1953 and immersed himself in work, slogging at home and in the office at the backlog that had accumulated during his absence.
His letter continued: “Perhaps you can appreciate the strain of having a two-year old daughter, with no house to live in, and books, files and papers scattered in a number of places which have only one thing in common – they are for the most part inaccessible. I cannot imagine any one with a lower rating in public relations than myself.”
He threw himself into his public lectures, which segued into politics. The party he founded in 1956, the People’s National Movement, won elections the same year.
Eric and Erica Williams, surrounded by their extended family in 1956. Photo courtesy of Erica Williams.
The following year he secretly married his daughter’s Guyanese dentist, Dr Mayleen Mook Sang, although the couple never lived together. Instead, his life revolved around politics and the PNM and his daughter Erica, as the country moved into the challenges of independence, and Williams became more and more isolated by his power, his shyness and his paranoia, his intelligence and capacity for hard work, his inability to communicate with the young generation of Trinidadians, including his daughter.
Eric and Erica Williams flanked by John & Cynthia Lennon and Ringo & Maureen Starkley, 1966.
In 1974 Prime Minister Eric Williams, on an official visit to Japan, was serenaded over dinner by strolling violinists. He whispered to his Minister of Trade & Industry, Errol Mahabir, “Could you get them to play a song for me?”
And as the musicians swung the tune to which Williams had danced with Siulan Soy Moyou on their first date back in 1948, the tears, twenty years after she left him for good, finally forced their way out in public.