Revealed: The Truth behind K’tut Tantri’s Revolt in Paradise

Muriel Stuart Walker, Revolt in ParadiseBy Dr. Ronnie Anderson
For The Bali Times

KEROBOKAN, Bali ~ This year marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Muriel Stuart Walker, the self-styled K’tut Tantri, one of Bali’s most extraordinary, if controversial expatriates. Stuart Walker was the author of the internationally renowned and bestselling autobiography Revolt in Paradise.

Originally published in 1960, Revolt in Paradise has been reprinted numerous times and can be read in at least 12 different languages around the world.

Such was its universal acclaim, that by 1963, it was hailed as “a staggering human document … one of the greatest stories of our time.”

Since then, there can be no doubting its impact. As one recent writer observed, for close on 50 years “the book has attracted filmmakers, empowered women, educated Indonesians and became the inspirational starting point for expatriate Indonesianists.”

On the back cover of its latest English reprinting, the publishers gush that it is “a story of one woman’s adventures in a foreign land, packed with dangerous incidents and cloak-and-dagger affairs, but under this surface lies a tale of sheer guts and determination, of love and devotion for a strange land and its freedom”.

And up to point, that is the gist of it.

But then pour great dollops of primary narrative color on to the frame of the story; create a long-term “friendship” with a Balinese prince; build one of the first commercial “hotels” on the island, in Kuta; hate the Dutch colonialists with a passion; be captured, imprisoned and tortured at the hands of the Japanese; and finally, play a central role in the Indonesian Independence Movement and you have, in essence, a truly astonishing story.

For almost 50 years, the self-appointed K’tut Tantri insisted to the world her story was true. But sadly it is largely fabrication. In fact Revolt in Paradise is simply a delusional autobiography that springs from what Edward Said once explained as “the imaginative geography of the past.”

It was, and remains, merely an exercise in self-aggrandizement carefully manufactured from what can be only described as diminutive shards of truth.

Indeed, everyone I spoke to who met her, both in Bali and Australia, all agreed: Muriel Stuart Walker was a fantasist, a con woman and the consummate manipulator. Writing several weeks after her death in 1997, Diana Darling coined an apt soubriquet when she described her as “Bali’s most notorious Stranger.”

Unlike the rest of the world, few in Bali were taken in by her story. Nevertheless, she was certainly a character.

In her memoirs Trumpets from the Steep, the celebrated English society hostess and actress Lady Diana Cooper recalled meeting her in Bali at the beginning of the Second World War.

The encounter, according to Stuart Walker (by then masquerading as a Mrs. Manx – possibly chosen because of her mother’s birthplace in the Isle of Man) was her “hour of triumph.”

Cooper, however, remembered it somewhat differently. She met, she wrote, “old girl Manx, 50, 4 feet high, a mop of black hair and [in] a Mother Hubbard garment.” According to an Australian academic, Timothy Lindsey, Stuart Walker was less than pleased when she was told of the description.

So who, then, was this woman who created her own history by obscuring her past by constantly reinventing her present?

Muriel Stuart Walker was born in Glasgow in 1899. She never knew her father. But with a typical Stuart Walker infusion of romanticism, she reinvented him on the first page of the first chapter as an archaeologist who died of tropical fever in Africa.

In fact, research has shown he was a boilermaker in a Glasgow shipyard.

After a spell at Glasgow School of Art and a failed marriage, she immigrated to the United States, probably in early 1930. Settling in California, she met and married again, this time to an American, Karl Kenning Pearsen.

Although she fails to mention any of her marriages in the book, in later life, when pressed, she finally admitted her marriage to Pearsen. Her explanation for the omission was that he, along with their two children, were killed in a tragic road accident and it was all too painful to remember.

Again it was complete fabrication. There were no children and her unhappy marriage to Pearsen – who was much older than Stuart Walker – remained legal until his death from the effects of alcohol abuse in 1957.

Even her decision to move to Bali is shrouded in mystery. Stuart Walker claimed in the book that one wet afternoon in 1932 she was walking down Hollywood Boulevard when she stopped outside a small theatre which was showing a film called Bali, The Last Paradise.

According to Stuart Walker it was a defining moment. “I became entranced,” she wrote, “The picture was aglow with an agrarian pattern of peace, contentment, beauty and love. Yes, I had found my life. I recognized the place where I wished to be.”

Stuart Walker alas, had overlooked one small but significant fact, a faux pas made all the more surprising since she claimed she wrote about the film industry while living in Hollywood.

There was never any film made of that name. The nearest film title to it, Bali, The Lost Paradise, was a 12-mm black-and-white production, directed by Michael Lerner made in 1939 – some seven years after Stuart Walker’s arrival in Bali.

More likely, if anything, Stuart Walker watched a film called Goona-Goona – An Authentic Melodrama (also known as The Kris) which was released in the United States in 1930. The film was made by Andre Roosevelt and Armand Denis, assisted by another infamous expatriate, Walter Spies.

It was films such as this which introduced the allure of the island of Bali to the western world. Indeed, as early as 1937, Miguel Covarrubias, in his book Island of Bali, observed that “Goona-goona, the Balinese term for ‘magic,’ became at the time newyorkese for sex allure. The newly discovered ‘last paradise’ became the contemporary substitute for the nineteenth-century romantic conception of primitive Utopia, until then the exclusive monopoly of Tahiti and other South Sea islands.”

But however Stuart Walker was drawn to Bali, her “island of dreams,” it was there where the real invention, or some might argue the sinister implications, of her book emerge.

From her arrival in Bali to her departure some 15 years later, the cast of improbable characters and the chronology of highly implausible events is long, repetitive and ultimately confusing.

Take, for example, her relationship with a Balinese Royal family, a theme that which casts a long shadow throughout her narrative. Stuart Walker claimed that she quite literally stumbled upon them by sheer good fortune.

According to her account, she filled her car with petrol in Denpasar and drove into the countryside, vowing wherever the engine ran dry “there I would stay.”

Luckily for her it happened to be at the gates of a Balinese palace. There she was “adopted” by the king, who gave her the Balinese name K’tut Tantri, and installed her in a sumptuous apartment within the palace confines. It was here, she claimed, that her life-long spiritual affinity with the Balinese began.

What she failed to admit, in fact, was that she taken to the family of Anak Agung Ngurah by a tourist guide and once there rented a drab concrete bungalow on the outer edge of the palace precincts.

Years later, when members of the family were eventually tracked down, only a vague and hazy recollection of Muriel Stuart Walker remained.

But within a year, however, she had departed the supposedly refined, spiritual environment of the palace for the somewhat more earthy, though financially rewarding, demands of commercial enterprise.

It took some time to arrange, but by dint of circumstances, in 1936 she formed a partnership with an American couple, Robert and Louise Koke, and together they established one of the first hotels outside of Denpasar, the Kuta Beach Hotel.

Perhaps somewhat predictably, the obdurate nature of her character lead to quarrels and disputes and, in the end, the joint venture fell apart. Stuart Walker departed the scene once more and created another hotel in the same area.

According to the historian and former diplomat Robert Pringle, such was the rancor that had developed between them and remained thereafter that “neither woman mentioned the other in their respective accounts.”

But perhaps the most intriguing and mysterious element of Stuart Walker’s story, if not the most controversial, was her wartime experiences and her alleged role in Indonesia’s struggle for independence.

In often harrowing detail, Stuart Walker graphically describes her war after the Japanese occupation in 1942 as one of resistance, imprisonment, brutal torture and solitary confinement.

But why did she remain in occupied Indonesia when most other westerners fled? Research by Robert Lindsey, who knew her well in later life, suggests her decision to remain was motivated as much by lack of funds as any notion of heroic solidarity with her “adopted” Balinese people.

Indeed, when it was gently suggested to her in old age that she may have initially collaborated with the Japanese, she bristled with indignation, became evasive and would always defend herself by claiming the years 1942-45 were “terrible, horrible – the horrible time – I don’t want to talk about that time.”

Yet paradoxically, she spent almost 40 pages of her book detailing the period.

Time and again when questioned about other conflicting facts, she would inevitably clam up and refuse to talk. It is also worth noting that throughout her long life, she assumed, at different times, at least nine different aliases. All these helped, of course, to adroitly obfuscate her past.

Equally problematic was her role in Indonesia’s independence movement. Certainly by November 1945 she had become involved in broadcasting propaganda for radical Indonesian guerrilla armies. Given the nom de guerre “Surabaya Sue,” it seems she broadcast their message to the English-speaking world for several years.

But once again the motives for her allegiance to the Indonesian cause are unclear. Some even suggest that it was personal expediency, rather than any notion of political ideology that shaped her commitment to the independence movement. Quite simply, it was a sensible and timely choice of “sides.”

Although useful up to a point, her increasingly strident attitude became an embarrassment to those around her, and in 1947 she was “encouraged” to leave the country.

From Indonesia, she traveled to Australia, where she quickly aligned herself to the trade union movement and other left-wing causes. But in the jittery environs of the post-war world, it was a huge mistake, and within months the Australian intelligence service recommended her deportation as a “communist.”

After Australia she traveled to the United States, but when the news of Indonesia’s independence finally broke she somehow managed to wrangle herself back into the country. Once there, she worked for several years as civil servant for the Department of Information in Sukarno’s government.

By the early 1950s she was gone again from Indonesia and did not publicly resurface until the publication of the book in 1960. Many believe she had returned to the US and at least one witness claimed that Stuart Walker was living her life in Greenwich Village, New York, working as a civil rights activist.

One of the last remaining unsolved paradoxes of Stuart Walker’s life, however, is why the book was never made into a film. She certainly encouraged the idea, yet inexplicably, the moment a deal was close she always deliberately stymied it.

There are those whom I met who simply believed she loved the whole romance of the “chase” by the Hollywood movie moguls who fell over each to entertain her at the best hotels and shower her with gifts and, of course, offer her the monetary “options” that she was now so dependant upon to survive.

Others, however, believed it was the strict conditions she imposed on the film companies that became the most impossible obstacle to overcome. Amongst her more bizarre stipulations was that she absolutely forbid that any script should contain scenes that showed kissing or smoking. Indeed, at one point she even demanded that her role be played by Shirley MacLaine, after she had watched her Oscar-nominated performance in Billy Wilder’s hugely successful 1960 film The Apartment.

Her incessant desire to control her image, hence her history, meant that the cat-and-mouse charade with the moguls continued for years. However, when it finally dawned on her that no film could ever be made under such restrictive and, in truth, unreasonable dictates, slowly, and perhaps inevitably, she cut herself off from the outside world. In her last years, in a nursing home in Sydney, she was described as being increasingly remote, but steadfastly defiant in her belief in her only published work, Revolt in Paradise.

All said, the fictionalized life of Muriel Stuart Walker does not make her book a bad one; it simply makes it a different type of book to what she always claimed it to be. It was not the first of its kind, nor, I am sure, the last.

Indeed, in many respects it has striking parallels with another “autobiography” I reviewed several years ago for a London broadsheet. Written by an American author, James Frey, the book A Million Little Pieces was a vomit-caked chronicle of a descent into drug addiction, alcoholism and crime and the subsequent battle for deliverance.

Courtesy of Oprah Winfrey’s show, Frey’s “autobiography” quickly became a bestseller, but just as swiftly it was exposed as a fraud. But what was fascinating was his defense for the deception.

In an apology that lawyers demanded must be prominently placed in every future edition, Frey explains that his major mistake was to write “about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.” Could that mitigation be applied to Muriel Stuart Walker? In truth, we will probably never know what was ultimately behind her mask of fiction.

But for the more cynical amongst us and, as I found on my recent travels, there are many, perhaps the truth is less illusive and more likely to be found in the comic wisdom of Groucho Marx, who allegedly whispered to a friend troubled by the potential seduction of a fraudulent caper: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you have got it made”.

Not quite perhaps for Muriel Stuart Walker, but almost.


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