The early years of Edward Seaga through the eyes of sisters, Fay Tortello and Jean Anderson

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An edited version of the Desmond Allen Interviews published in 2004

 

E ven though their lives inevitably separate into their own tributaries of fate over time, the story of Fay Tortello and Jean Anderson is inextricably linked, and woven into the larger history of the coming of the Lebanese to Jamaica, but more importantly, the rise to prominence of Edward Seaga, their beloved brother.

It covers his unlikely journey to Jamaica House — by way of Boston, United States — in a land where descendants of former slaves, brutally stolen from Africa, form an overwhelming majority. For eight years, Seaga walked proud and ruled supreme over that same land as prime minister, and they basked in the glory of it all. But there was a sting in the tail.

Ponder, therefore, the arrogance of the interviewer, to think that these pages could be enough to contain the combined story of Fay Tortello and Jean Anderson. Because it is this enduring tale which we must now try to tell in the small confines of these columns.

 

Migration and a love story

Tortello, born August 4, 1931 (and who died on August 1, 2017) was two years older than Anderson who first saw daylight on November 24, 1933. Eddie was the first of their parents’ five children. The other sisters were the twins — Pamela, now married to the former minister of mining and energy, Hugh Hart, and Patricia, now deceased. Their father, Phillip George Seaga, was the sixth child of George Seaga and wife Katbi who had migrated to Jamaica from occupied Lebanon, at the height of the Ottoman Empire.

The Lebanese were mainly traders known as the Phoenicians. As the oppression of the Ottoman regime grew unbearable, many of the young men fled. Wherever they went, they re-established themselves as traders and sent back for family. George Seaga, at 18, joined the tide of departures, making the perilous trek overland to Marseille, France and then by ship to New York, before landing in Jamaica. He spoke not a word of English.

It was the 1800s. On his arrival in Jamaica, the British customs officer asked him his name. From the guttural pronunciation of ‘Sega’, the customs officer heard ‘See-ah-ga’ and wrote down ‘Seaga’. Young George was not about to argue with that. From now on he would be known as George Seaga.

Along with another Lebanese family named Handal, and later the Hannas and the Khouris, George Seaga established himself quickly, selling dry goods from a donkey cart outside the sugar plantations of the island. Feeling they were ready, they sent for brides in Lebanon, as was the practice at the time. Three sisters arrived in Jamaica.

“We do not know how they decided on who would get which bride, but my grandfather got the girl named Katbi. It was rumoured in the family that he preferred the girl who became Mrs Khouri,” relates Anderson, who sees herself as the keeper of the Seaga family records. When Katbi and Khouri died, George and Mrs Khouri, by then in their 60s, married each other, their love having endured over oceans of time.

 

Edward Seaga is born

George and Katbi bore six children — three boys and three girls. Phillip George Seaga was the fifth. He attended Wolmer’s Boys’ School and at 17, followed the girl he loved, Erna Aleta Maxwell (distant relative of the late journalist John Maxwell and hailing from Coleyville, Manchester) to Boston, where they got married. Edward Phillip George Seaga, future prime minister of Jamaica, was born while they sojourned in Boston. When he was six months old, a babe in arms, his parents returned to Jamaica where they had four more children — Fay, Jean, Pamela and Patricia.

The first recollection Fay and Jean had was of Ocean View off Windward Road in eastern Kingston. It was a middle-class community and as children they frolicked at the famous Bournemouth pool and Sirgarney beach. There are early memories of their father as a voluntary special constable, helping to guard their community at nights from petty thieves, much the same way the Home Guards did in the 1970s, and later Neighbourhood Watch groups do today.

In 1935, they moved to Montego Bay where their father operated a dry goods store for Edward Hanna. Those were the war years and the girls regularly heard talk of Hitler’s Germany and the dire threat it posed to humanity as they knew it. In Anchovy, St James, their parents raised chickens and turkeys, and the distant moaning of the train was a constant refrain, alerting the excited girls to its imminent passage virtually though their backyard.

 

 

And Montego Bay is remembered for lasting friendships: with the Eldemires — Herbert Eldemire became a minister of health; the Chrichtons; the Scotts; the Magnuses; the Marzoucas. As children, they cavorted in the warm blue waters of world-famous Doctor’s Cave Beach, and performed regularly onstage for charity because they could sing and dance. Back in Kingston in the 1940s, they attended Suthermere Preparatory in Half-Way-Tree and from there to Wolmer’s Girls’ and Boys’ (Eddie) schools. Church was the Seventh-day Adventists, their mother being a devout member.

While Jean immersed herself in her make-believe world of paper dolls, Fay was the one with the boyfriends. She broke all her father’s rules and so was “always under punishment”. The reclusive Eddie was the academic in the family. The girls’ talent got them onto the Vere John’s Amateur Hour on radio station ZQI, now RJR.

As the gathering sounds of war echoed in Jamaica, Vernamfield in Clarendon was a military base. The family became good friends with the men at the base and the girls would sing and dance for the homesick soldiers. It was there that their father developed his marksmanship as a pigeon shooter, a talent he bequeathed to Eddie.

Phillip George Seaga at the time operated a shirt-manufacturing business upstairs a tyre-vulcanising business owned by the Matalons at Orange Street in downtown Kingston — Jews and Arabs together, getting along fine. The thrill of riding bicycles at Hope Gardens and savouring the mango orchards, the peacefulness of waterfalls cascading over the rocks at Kintyre contrasted with the news of death and destruction of the World War brought to them by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

 

The college that just didn’t cut it

The Seagas had become very good friends with a light-plane pilot named Earl Gardner from Tennessee in the USA, who was attached to the Adventist-run West Indies College, now Northern Caribbean University, in Mandeville. Through the instrumentality of Gardner, Fay and Jean were sent off to Southern Missionary College, just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. By this time, of course, they had completed Wolmer’s. Eddie had gone off to Harvard in Boston and Fay had spent a year working as a secretary at Jamaica Mutual. Hitherto, the girls had done almost everything together and shared common experiences. Here now at Southern Missionary their lives would begin to take separate turns before, in time, merging again.

In the work-study programme run by the college, Anderson was placed in the broom-making section and Tortello, barely weighing 100 pounds, the woodwork shop. “I couldn’t understand it,” exclaims Tortello. “I could barely lift those heavy logs and Jean, the more sturdy one, was put to weave brooms.” She complained and complained until, drawing on her skills as a secretary, they put her in the office of the dean.

Things just didn’t come together for Tortello at the college. First, she was already upset that they were insisting she unlearn the Pitman shorthand she had become good at in Jamaica, to learn Gregg shorthand, the American version. She never managed to do it.

It didn’t help that she came face to face with racial discrimination. As part of her duties, she used to prepare the files with application for entry to the college from students all over the world. The files would then be sent to the applications committee for sifting and approval. On three occasions, an application, including a picture of three Arab boys, was rejected. Finally, she decided to confront the dean about it. “His reply was: ‘Those Arabs, they can spot a dollar through a keyhole.’ I said, ‘Do you realise they are Arabs, and my grandfather came from Lebanon?’ And then there were these people who were always asking if we live in trees back in Jamaica! On top of that, because of the strict food policy there, I could hardly find what to eat.”

 

Girls just wanna have fun

Enough was enough. Tortello told her father she could not stand it there, scraped up what money the college had for her from the work-study programme and, much to the chagrin of her parents, left in the company of four girls she had made friends with, ‘trampoosing’ over Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia in a girls-just-wanna-have-fun scenario.

She recalls staying with Emma Lou Parish, the poorest one of the four, who lived in the mountains of North Carolina, Baptist country, “where the biggest excitement was the burning down of a chicken house”; then moving onto Paduka, Kentucky, where she applied for a job in an atomic plant, got it, but saw the offer withdrawn because she was not an American citizen.

At that, she packed up and went off to Boston where Eddie was. She got a job as a switchboard operator and to type letters at General Electric Company near Cambridge. They met on weekends where she was able to help Eddie with typing his course papers. Her parents breathed a grateful sigh of relief.

Soon enough, Tortello began to detest the cold winters and moved to Miami where she found a job as a secretary with Reliance Life Insurance Company. She lived with the Dayes family whose two daughters were Joan Mahfood, wife of Derrick Mahfood, and Carol Hadeed, wife of Russell Hadeed.

 

Eddie aborts medical studies

Meanwhile Anderson, who was doing a two-year pre-nursing course, met a wealthy young man who was also a student at Southern Missionary College. He took a shine to her and she left with him, cutting her study halfway through. “It was an innocent relationship,” she says, “but my parents were exceedingly upset.” Her father asked Eddie, who was still in Boston, to help get her into the nursing school at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital which was part of Harvard Medical School.

She was probably the first foreign student there and she became an ambassador of sorts for Jamaica, delighting the Americans with exotic stories of life on an island and entertaining them with her singing and dancing.

On completion of the course, she became a registered nurse in Massachusetts. She was offered a job as head nurse in the surgical department of the hospital where she was trained. Before accepting the job, she went home on vacation. This was 1956.

Back home, her father persuaded her to remain in Jamaica. At this time, Eddie was also home, having aborted medical studies because he could not stand the sight of blood, and was now involved in social research on culture, living and working with the underprivileged and groups such as Rastafarians. It was a difficult decision, but she stayed.

Her parents took her to Ocho Rios where she impressed the owners of Silver Seas Hotel with her talent and winning personality. Anderson thinks she may have been the first of the now popular play-makers who help make visitors’ stay a memorable one. She was offered a job by the hotel operators, Don Sutton-Brown and his wife, Ellie, as a social hostess. “And they also got a trained nurse in the bargain,” she adds.

In time, the job would reward her with a husband and lifelong friend… who had come to Jamaica to work as a geologist for the Alcan, Ewarton plant which was in the throes of construction. On March 5, 1957, she married Ronald Elrick Anderson, a Scotsman who had previously worked at Aberdeen University, Scotland. “He was a gentleman and a decent human being and that was important to me,” Anderson reflects.

In Miami, Tortello, in the meantime, had met her first husband, Edward Crimarco, an Italian. They moved to New York where his family lived. She bore him two sons — George, who is now an immigration lawyer in Miami, and Phillip, an importer and owner of Frozen Delights. It was a happy family, she recalls. But it was also a closed family. She felt cloistered as she could not go outside of the family circle and she had no friends. Tortello was lonely in the crowd.

After two years of that, she decided she’d had enough, took the two boys and went home to Jamaica. When she sent them back to the US to spend the summer vacation with their dad, he decided they should not go back to Jamaica. Tortello boarded a plane and went to New York determined to do battle.

 

A secret plan

In the court at Flushing, New York, the odds were stacked in favour of her Italian husband. The judge was Italian; the clerk of courts was Italian. Later she learned that they were all related! At the end of the hearing, the judge ruled that the boys should not have to grow up in Jamaica, a black country. They needed to learn American history and the American way of life.

As for Tortello, they were to spend the night with her and return to their father the next day. That night she hatched a secret plan. The next morning, she calmly packed her stuff and as she was about to depart for the airport, she asked the boys to come and see her off. At the airport, she told them to jump out of the cab and they ran to the counter, purchased tickets for the boys and left for Jamaica to her parents’ home in Stony Hill, St Andrew. “I had left everything in New York. The only thing I took with me were my two boys,” she says, sighing.

With a loan from her brother, she bought a car and started to make shifts which were popular at the time, selling them to the Syrians on Orange Street, King Street, and Princess Street. She remembers that the Issas were her biggest customers.

Jean Anderson, on the other hand, had moved to Mandeville with her husband when he was transferred to the Alcan Kirkvine plant in 1958 to be chief geologist. Her world was now that of expatriates and socialising.

The Revere and Alpart plants were just being established and many foreigners had come to work in Jamaica. But she hated Mandeville where she felt lonely and out of touch with the world she had been accustomed to. Now, of course, the cycle is complete and she can’t imagine living anywhere else but Mandeville.

Their first daughter, Ronna Lyne, was born on January 2, 1959. She now lives in the Cayman Islands with her three children. Anderson adjusted to life in Mandeville, recalling that electricity was provided mainly to the expatriate community by Charlie Lloyd, and the one supermarket in the town was owned by Oscar and Joseph Karram. Two years later, their second daughter, Jacqueline Jean, was born at Medical Associates Hospital in St Andrew. The hospital was brand-new at the time and she was one of the first to be delivered there.

 

Manley, Busta woo Eddie

By this time, Edward Seaga was getting famous. He was lecturing at the University of the West Indies extra-mural department and writing many letters to The Gleaner on public issues, while deepening his social studies by living in Buxton Town, St Catherine, where he isolated himself from his family for six months.

Both Sir Alexander Bustamante, leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), and Norman Manley, leader of the People’s National Party (PNP), invited him to join their parties, Anderson relates. Although he was more like Manley in personality, she says, he chose the charismatic Busta who had taken a liking to him. With that, the age of innocence had come to an end. All that had gone before would pale in comparison to the high-stakes games of power politics which had now been irrevocably engaged.

Anderson’s home in Mandeville became the staging point for Eddie’s political activities when he visited central Jamaica. She recalls some of those visits with Robert Lightbourne, the ideas man; D C “Clem” Tavares, the man with the magnetic appeal; and Eddie, the planner and organiser.

“They used my house like a hotel. Eddie was always on the phone, arranging things. He ran up my phone bill horrendously.” But their effort bore fruit and the JLP won the 1962 local and national elections.

 

 

The year before, in Mandeville, Anderson had opened a branch of Seaga’s Travel Service owned by her father, the first travel agency to be set up in rural Jamaica. The branch became a full travel service in its own right in 1974, at which time she changed the name to Global Travel Service.

She believes her father has not yet been fully recognised for the yeoman work he did in helping hundreds of poor Jamaicans to qualify to get official documents when they wanted to join the first wave of immigrants to Britain. Many were never registered at birth, did not know if they were registered or the name in which they were registered. “One man could only remember being told that the year he was born a British queen was crowned,” she says with a laugh. He worked tirelessly so that they could get passports to leave and went to Italy to charter ships to take them to England.

Anderson argues that those early immigrants — many went to Canada, Panama, Costa Rica and eventually the US, as well — were the basis on which the critical remittances of today were established and they paved the way for many Jamaicans to get a British education and return to serve their country.

With Edward Seaga now a minister in the 1962 JLP Government, Anderson was appointed to the Mandeville High School board where, she recalls, she fought many battles with the PNP members, including Cecil Charlton, Winston Jones, and Ernest Peart. Manchester was PNP country and everybody knew it, she says.

In 1964, she was appointed a Justice of the Peace by Judge Jim Hercules, and she assumes now that she is the longest serving JP still active.

 

 

In 1968, Fay met her second husband, Orlando “Bill” Tortello, head of Raymond International, a construction firm, and in 1970 their daughter Rebecca was born. From here on, there is a common story of what the two sisters term “political victimisation” stemming from the fact that they were related to Edward Seaga, the politician.

With the coming to power of the enormously popular Michael Manley, who led the PNP to a crushing victory in the 1972 General Election, Tortello says her husband was released from his job because of the Seaga name, and when he started the Jamaica Insulation and Duct Work Company he was deprived of contracts and had to close it down in 1975. They packed up and, with little Rebecca, left for Miami where she opened a small cafeteria to make a living. During those years, she recalls, she had adopted a 14-year-old boy, Melvin Gilmore, and a girl from German Town, Virginia Hacker, both orphans. They eventually married each other.

 

 

In 1977, daddy Seaga, who had suffered from a heart condition, died. He had worried himself to death over a popular prophecy sweeping the streets that said “blood would run when the three sevens clash” — a version of something Marcus Garvey was supposed to have predicted to happen on the seventh day of July, the seventh month in 1977, in other words 7/7/77. He thought his son, Edward, was to be killed. Seven days after that fateful date, the old man passed. He did not live to see it happen, but from his loins, Phillip George Seaga had bequeathed Jamaica a leader who, in three years’ time, would become prime minister.

A year later, doctors pronounced that Tortello’s husband had contracted cancer and there was no hope for his survival. Tortello brought him back to Jamaica where he died in 1978. This was in the midst of the great political turmoil and she returned to Miami to see to Rebecca’s education.

By now, her sons were in college. Both eventually got married, with Phillip, the younger, tying the knot with Diana Kay Nash, the beauty contestant. They returned to Jamaica after school. Tortello came home soon after and delved into the real estate market and bought Carriage House Apartment. Rebecca was sent to Campion College and later to Harvard where she got her Master’s in Education, before going to Columbia University for her PhD in Sociology.

 

Twin terrors

While all this was taking place, back in Mandeville Anderson received news that felt like someone had kicked her in the stomach. Her daughter, Jacqueline Jean, had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1974, the same year the PNP declared it was Democratic Socialist. She was only 13.

In the ensuing years, Anderson saw her daughter being ravaged by the cruel disease. She threw everything she had into finding a cure, but to no avail. Her suffering was deepened by the “political victimisation” she had to endure during what she described as “the frightening 70s”, including some very scary moments at the time of the 1976 State of Emergency and the burning down of her Treasure Beach house in 1979.

“But nothing could ever be as dreadful as the horror of seeing my daughter suffering at the hands of this terrible enemy. A human enemy I can fight. But this one I could not win. I searched for a cure, going to every major medical centre in the world, but could not find it,” she recounts, her voice breaking.

In 1989, Jacqueline, at 28, succumbed to her illness. In the last gasps before death, she assured her mother: “Mommy, I’m glad I lived.” A part of Anderson died with her. She became patron of the Diabetes Association of Jamaica, working with Dr Errol Morrison to raise money, in honour of her daughter, and to lift the consciousness of Jamaicans about this debilitating disease.

 

Seaga is prime minister

At the climax of Jamaica’s most bruising election up to then, and in which police reported just over 800 dead from political violence, the JLP was back in power, grabbing 51 seats to the PNP’s nine in the October 30, 1980 polls. Edward Seaga was sworn in as prime minister. That same year, Tortello was appointed honorary consul to Italy, and it was all by sheer luck… or fate, she says. The Italians were looking for someone to appoint to the post. They checked the telephone directory, she says, saw the name Tortello, an Italian name, and called her. At the interview, they were surprised that she was Jamaican, but after she explained that she had had two Italian husbands and her children were half-Italian, they said fine and appointed her.

She lists the many projects which benefited Jamaica during her tenure, including the tremendous assistance received from the Italians to restore electricity to Jamaica after the devastation of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, and the rebuilding of Bustamante Children’s Hospital. All that ended in 1989 when the PNP retook the Government, she says. The Italians appointed an ambassador but closed down the embassy three years later.

With nothing left to do, Tortello found a new pastime — calling the radio talk shows. But her favourite host was Wilmot “Motty” Perkins whom she renamed “Willy”, saying ‘Motty’ reminded her too much of a dog which is called a mutt. She found him very receptive and called him on a range of issues, but always in defence of her brother, the former prime minister.

…After the JLP lost the election in 1989, Anderson concentrated on her husband, her business, her dogs and her garden. In 1992, she formed the Consumer Action Group with Dawn Phillips and says while that did not last, she at least inspired the National Consumers’ League to rise from its long slumber, for a time.

She, too, doesn’t think her brother has been fully appreciated for all he did for Jamaica and would have liked to see him at the helm again “to complete his mandate and his mission”.

 

History extracts a price

Stripped of the politics, impossible as that might be, Fay Tortello and Jean Anderson became two typical Jamaican women, strong and resilient in their common struggles of making a life and bringing up family in a country facing the perils of underdevelopment.

But the hard knocks they suffered in politics might just be the price that one must pay for occupying a special place in history. Few of us will ever be able to say, as they can: “My brother was prime minister of Jamaica.”

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