03 January 2008

Granny Lee ... the story

In 1989 an eighty-one-year-old white woman died in a car accident on a highway to Durban, South Africa. A not altogether uncommon occurrence - except for the fact that the victim was in reality neither white, a woman nor eighty-one.

When Leonard Malcolm Christian Du Plooy was born on the 18th of March 1919 to a mixed race ("coloured") family he embodied all the contradictions of a country ruled by racism and hypocrisy. The first part of his life was spent in his small hometown of Kimberley, the diamond capital of the world, teaching and becoming the dandy about town. Renowned for his dancing, piano playing and his curious habit of knitting Lee was accepted by the ladies of Kimberley but viewed with suspicion by the men.

But in his thirties he'd had enough of the small town mentality. He left for Durban where he taught once again briefly, but really began to throw himself into the city's gay seaside subculture. Soon the flamboyant Lenny was running a brothel. He was also suffering from a skin condition, which was slowly turning him white.

In his fifties, tired of the constant harassment by the Durban police he moved to Johannesburg. Here in the thriving gay clubland, during the height of the apartheid system, he was accepted as a white man, which allowed him to go where he wished.

The transformation into Granny Lee began when a liberated Lenny started wearing woman's clothing when going out. Soon the persona of Granny Lee became a full time occupation.
Abandoning any sense of restraint Granny Lee, now a pensioner, soon became the city's most famous club goer and drag queen. Her outrageous antics, sharp tongue, constant boozing and self-made outfits became a staple of the city's nightlife. Lee was now an Icon, claiming to be in her eighties, who drew the crowds to clubs, bars and parties.
He was living dangerously as a white woman in a country ruled by the racial and sexual repression of Calvinist Apartheid. When she died at the age of seventy she was still a notorious party animal. But Granny would still have the last laugh. At her wake the many mourners were shocked to hear the voice and laughter of Granny Lee insulting them all. She had recorded a farewell message to be played at her wake, resulting in confusion, elation and horror at the event. She became the first non-white person to be buried in Johannesburg's Westpark whites-only cemetery.

Even in death Granny Lee continued to break all the rules....

2 comments:

Ropheka said...

HAPPY NEW YEAR :)

roobok05 said...

Wow! I had my very first dance at a gay club (Mandy's) with Granny Lee. I was coerced into doing this, and was so embarrassed by his flamboyant twirls and rolling on the floor. Over ten years later, he reminded me about this, even though he didn't know me. It must have stuck in his mind.

I wish I could have gotten to know him a bit better. He was interesting, and would probably have been a good pal.