While drugs and sleaze have been overtaking Long Street, with flat blocks like Senator Park slated as dens of iniquity, one apartment block on Cape Town’s notorious party street has always remained aloof from the general raucousness. Victoria Court, the Italianate building at the top of the street, has maintained its genteel character partly because it is set slightly back from the street, and partly because it is surrounded by a beautiful tranquil garden.
The garden is largely thanks to the efforts of Beryl Bloom, who became caretaker of the block in the mid-80s and has kept a beady eye on the block’s goings-on ever since.
But this week the mood among the block’s close-knit residents has been sombre as Beryl (whose irreverent nature would have railed against the journalistic standard of referring to surnames after the initial introduction) died a few days after her 88th birthday due to complications caused by cancer on Monday evening.
Her death marks the end of a period in the iconic building’s long history, and the loss of a fun-loving socialite who was party to many of 20th Century South Africa’s historical figures and events.
Nicknamed ‘The Duchess of Long Street’ by long-time characters of the inner-city, the like of whom hang out at Bob’s Bistro (although she would never be found there), Beryl, ever glamorous, lived a life full of mischievous serendipity.
The first wife of writer and anti-apartheid activist Harry Bloom, with whom she had a daughter, Susan, and son, Stephen – who is now one of the world’s top wildlife photographers – Beryl also hinted at receiving the occasional Christmas or birthday card from Hollywood heartthrob Orlando Bloom, who was Harry’s son from his second marriage to Sonia Copeland.
Beryl married Harry when she was 19, after knowing him for three weeks, and travelled wartime Europe with him while he was a Reuters war correspondent.
Her daughter Susan, having flown over from Australia to arrange her cremation and estate, says she bears the surname Storm-Bloom as Beryl and Harry went under the nom-de-plume Storm to avoid the stigma and danger of being Jewish at the time.
Dignified no matter how straightened their circumstances, Susan tells how Beryl travelled with a small Irma Stern watercolour she had acquired and put it up in whichever hotel room she and Harry stayed in to replace the nondescript hotel decor.
And how back in South Africa, and poor, she and Harry would gatecrash parties and exhibitions for free food, drink and socialising, with Beryl always in her one cocktail dress and fox furs.
Beryl was also apparently a dab hand at entertaining political luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Trevor Huddleston and Bram Fischer in their Bramley house in Johannesburg, as Harry did pro-bono legal work for the anti-apartheid activists from his office in Alexandra township.
Susan said although Beryl is not credited for it, she played a significant role in helping Harry write the hit musical King Kong which shot Miriam Makeba to stardom.
Harry was arrested for his political activism in 1960, three years after they moved to Cape Town, however, and Beryl’s daughter Susan recalls how they had to flee their home as the security police had warned Beryl that they would be returning for her.
“Beryl was so terrified that she took us kids out of school and set out for Lorenzo Marques (now Maputu). But she didn’t know where it was! So we stayed with various friends.
Beryl and Harry got divorced soon after he fled the country following his release.
The divorce was more due to the enforced separation than any ill-feelings, says Susan, although “I think she was quite happy to see the back of Harry” as she did not share his interest in the politics which consumed his attention.
Single with two children for 12 years, but always among the social circle of the avant-garde, Beryl met the person she was to love for the rest of her life at the age of 53 when she was working as a film librarian at the Canadian Embassy.
Stephen Darvall, who at 23, was a year younger than her own daughter, was wearing his army raincoat when he went to take out a movie, – “and looking up her skirts”, chirps Susan.
“She always loved a man in uniform,” said Stephen, in between sorting out her belongings in her immaculate Victoria Court apartment.
Going out with a man 30 years her junior did not bother Beryl, who shunned convention, and Stephen – who is the younger brother of the word’s first heart transplant donor Denise Darvall – tells of how he and Beryl used to enjoy sunbathing nude and frequented Sandy Bay – where they and many others once got arrested in an apartheid police raid.
“She’d swim naked, but with her Mikimoto pearls around her neck,” says Susan.
Always mischievous, Beryl would start a conversation with one of the hip young artistic tenants of Victoria Court, only to within minutes have them blushing at her knack for indulging in ribald puns. She would even smile cheekily as she deliberately turned a phrase in dry body-corporate meetings, residents recall.
Susan said on a recent visit to the doctor, in the grip of the dementia she was beginning to suffer, and the pain from the cancer, she responded to the doctor’s greeting of “how do you do Ms Bloom?” with a glint in her eye and the retort: “How do I do what, Dr. Smith?”
In keeping with her Buddhist leanings, Beryl’s body was to be cremated at the Maitland crematorium on Friday. – West Cape News