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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

GAYNOR’S DIARY (article first published : 2000-12-9)

Exactly eleven years ago today - December 9, 1989 - a beautiful 28 year-old actress with a promising future ahead of her, plunged 18 metres down an unguarded lift shaft at the Pretoria State Theatre during a performance of Camelot.

Gaynor Young’s story and her determined battle to regain her mobility and speech has touched South Africans far and wide. She was in a coma for six weeks and suffered severe brain damage which resulted in a 98% loss of hearing, partial paralysis, 60% loss of eyesight, acute memory loss and the inability to walk or talk. To those not connected with the entertainment industry and the wider ramifications and implications of this hideous accident, she became known simply as the “actress that fell from the State Theatre stage”.

In her book My Plunge to Fame, Gaynor explains how she has had to rebuild the knowledge of her own life and experiences through reading old scrapbooks and diaries, talking to friends or reading newspaper reports and reviews of her work. She describes her memory returns as gaps that are filled as someone “draws aside a curtain and allows me to see out.”

Gaynor is an old-fashioned girl in the sense that she confides her thoughts to journals or diaries and, thankfully, most of these she has lovingly kept. In much the same sense that a computer hard drive can crash requiring programmes and data to be reloaded, so the information contained in Gaynor’s journals have been able to replace the clouded files of her memory bank.

Over in Durban North, fashion designer Sandy Day had been given an old copy of a Victoria & Albert Museum 1984 diary by two friends. They discovered it in The Old Vicarage antique shop in Windermere Road where they work and they felt she would enjoy the beautiful illustrations. This Sandy certainly did to the exclusion of anything else until she came to a page which contained some dried flowers and the words “a buttercup golden day”. Intrigued by an author who would write such a gentle phrase, she went to the inside cover. This revealed the name “Gaynor Young” and a London address.

Gaynor had been a guest speaker at one of Sandy’s Celebrity Breakfasts earlier this year and Sandy had been much moved by her description of the state of her memory. She suddenly realised that the diary’s owner and the actress had to be one and the same and what she held in her hands was a lost year of Gaynor’s life. She enlisted the help of Gaynor’s aunt Libby Nel who offered to host a small lunch party when Sandy could hand over the diary.

Gaynor takes up the tale. “She placed a parcel on my lap. There was this exquisite material envelope and inside it was a book. Very gently I drew out the book not knowing what to expect. I was a little disappointed, I must admit, because I had seen this diary before. I then proceeded to open it. That was when my world stood still. Inside the cover of the book was writing that was so familiar to me - from another era I had written “Gaynor Young, 60 Bedford Gardens, Kensington, W8”.

“I looked at it stunned. It was my diary. Disbelieving, I began to turn the pages. I began it in January 1984 when I was an au pair in London. It wasn’t just a diary telling me when I had certain appointments. No, in typical Gaynor fashion I had written about the things that I had done, various thoughts that had whizzed through my mind. It was all there. As I turned the pages so the tears began. Sandy gave me back a piece of myself. With my memory being such a shoddy thing, it is a piece that I will cherish. I have read through the diary and there is a lot that is totally foreign to me.”

“The expression on Gaynor’s face was something I’ll never forget,” says Sandy. “It was what I would call an “angel moment” – we were all crying with emotion!”

“It’s a real mystery how the diary arrived in the antique shop. I would never have thrown it away,” says Gaynor. “Apparently, an elderly lady brought it in – nobody had seen her before and they haven’t seen her since! I think she was an angel bringing me back a bit of myself."

On hearing about the diary episode, renowned actress and director Janet Suzman wrote from London. A friend of Gaynor’s from the days she directed her in Othello, she reminded Gaynor that the way she is reunited with her memories is well described in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Olivia says to Viola: "Draw aside the curtain and I will show you the picture". Now, another curtain has been drawn, Gaynor is waiting patiently to enjoy the memories as they slowly come flooding back!

My Plunge to Fame is on sale at Adams West Street, Musgrave and UND Campus bookshops. At R89,95 it makes a perfect Christmas present for those who appreciate a good survival story told with guts and humour. (Watch artSMart for the book's review.)




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