Book reveals a Gerry that the public didn't know
While dealing with the death and struggles of the famous DJ, Verwoerd's memoir has a broader story to tell, writes Liam Collins
After all that has been written about him, it is the sheer desperation of Gerry Ryan's last days and weeks that leaps from the pages of the riveting memoir by his partner of two years, Melanie Verwoerd.
On the surface, he was a 'shock jock', one of RTE's most highly paid presenters, a big man with a cigar and a glass of wine who hobnobbed with U2 and the rock and showbusiness glitterati of his generation.
But underneath, according to this memoir, there was another Gerry Ryan, desperately clutching at his last few friendships, plagued by financial meltdown and humiliating himself as he did the rounds of friends and acquaintances (with the exception of his best friend Harry Crosbie, who he didn't want to ask), looking for a loan that would save him from bankruptcy.
"It was clear that all the pressure was getting to be too much. The banks were also constantly phoning him and his accountant. The demands from Revenue were also becoming more threatening. Gerry needed money fast," Melanie Verwoerd relates in her memoir When We Dance, which was due to be published last week.
"I had nothing left, having paid for most of his living expenses, as well as loaning him money so that he could meet his obligations, for months."
Gerry Ryan was taking home €36,000 a month, but now separated from his wife Morah and facing a 10 per cent pay cut at RTE, his chaotic lifestyle had caught up on him.
RTE had lost €68m in 2009 and Cathal Goan was demanding voluntary pay cuts from its highly paid presenters. Gerry Ryan was the only one publicly resisting the cutbacks.
I remember the last time I met him, at a reception thrown by Michael Colgan in the Royal College of Physicians in Kildare Street. He complained loudly about the pay cut. His friend Harry Crosbie warned him -- "he'll put that in the paper." But it had already been in the paper. "What do you think?" he asked. "Well the one thing I know is that you've made RTE millions in advertising revenue," I replied. "You're right, you're right," he said.
Gerry and Melanie first crossed paths on a radio interview. Melanie, a former South African Ambassador to Ireland was now heading up Unicef and was in Kenya when the Gerry Ryan Show phoned to do an interview about the situation there.
After it was over he expressed concern for her safety and then continued to keep in touch by phone and text until, during one conversation, she finished giving him information about the aid world by asking "so is that all you want?" to which he replied, "no, actually, I also want you, but you are clearly not interested".
She was stunned, but told him that she was divorced and under no circumstances would go out with a married man. He replied by telling her "about three people know this", revealing he was separated and living in his childhood bedroom in his mother's house in Clontarf, Dublin.
His friend Des McEvaddy later lent him his penthouse apartment in Ardoyne House in Ballsbridge and it was there that they had their first date.
"By the end of the evening, there was no question that we would be together" she writes. "As soon as I was back in my bed in Dalkey, he phoned again. The conversation continued till 3am -- as it would every night after that for months to come."
On the surface they were very different. Melanie didn't drink and apart from her work rarely socialised outside of family occasions with her son and daughter. Gerry, on the other hand, had what she says was "a large capacity for alcohol" but, she adds, "even though he liked to drink, Gerry did not have to drink."
The real Gerry Ryan was not the guy with the glass of wine, the cigar and the famous friends and the loud voice demanding to be the centre of attention at social gatherings, that most people knew.
Her Gerry Ryan was another guy altogether. "This was not the public Gerry Ryan; here was a man who was deeply sensitive, emotional and hurt. I felt so honoured that he trusted me with all his stories so early in our relationship," says Melanie.
There was also another and more troubled side to the long-running presenter of the Gerry Ryan Show on 2fm, the television programmes Ryan Confidential, Operation Transformation and, in his own mind at least, heir-apparent to The Late Late Show.
"Gerry explained that their friends had taken sides after the separation. With the exception of four or five friends, he did not hear from or see any of them.
"Gerry was extremely confused and upset about it all, and in the beginning spoke about it often. He could not understand why this had happened. I told him to give it time and that I believed that people would come around. But I was wrong. Things did not change. In fact the situation would get worse over the next two years."
Gerry moved into a house on Leeson Street. The rent was high, but Harry Crosbie helped get it reduced.
"But the first year's rent was needed up front, and Gerry could not afford it, so Harry lent it to him."
It was a pattern that was emerging in his life. He borrowed from Melanie, from Harry, from others. On the one hand, he was living beyond his means and on the other he eventually accepted a 10 per cent pay cut demanded by RTE, even though he had publicly resisted it.
He couldn't pay his credit card bills, his bank wouldn't allow him to write any more cheques. Melanie, his accountant, his lawyers and trusted friends tried to convince him to control his spending.
"I urged him to explain to RTE management . . . but Gerry was too proud and would not. Over the weeks that followed, Gerry felt that RTE did nothing to protect the senior presenters from the horrendous media onslaughts."
He also believed that his public resistance to cuts cost him the ultimate prize, his dream of succeeding Pat Kenny as presenter of The Late Late Show. "Publicly he was gracious, but privately he was bitterly hurt," that he would never get the 'gig' he always wanted, says Melanie.
"While all these battles were going on with RTE, his money situation was getting worse on a monthly basis. The perfect storm was starting to build up, he was still running deeper into the red every month. His spending was just too high, his salary had been cut back, and as a result of the recession outside work had dried up."
By now, Gerry Ryan began contacting friends and acquaintances seeking loans. "One came through with a smallish amount but the rest said no," says Melanie.
Ryan was so stressed by his financial predicament that his doctor had prescribed Xanax and Stilnoct, drugs that were aimed at lowering his stress levels and helping him to sleep.
Gerry Ryan's last day on earth was not an easy one.
He and Melanie had planned to go to an opening at the Gate Theatre with their friend David Blake Knox, but Melanie was tired and asked if she could cry off.
Gerry was facing a demand from the Revenue Commissioners which had to be paid the following day -- the financial pressure was coming to a head and unless he could get a substantial loan he was facing the humiliation of bankruptcy.
"I got a call from Gerry's accountant saying that she had just given him some bad news," writes Melanie.
"She said the bank had declined the request of giving him a holiday period on some of his loan repayments. She said that Gerry was extremely upset and she asked that I call him to check if he was all right. I asked if he had indicated where he was and she responded that he was just outside his house."
Gerry Ryan was going out to dinner that night with friends. She spoke to him again at 8pm and sent him a couple of texts at 11pm.
"We had another brief conversation at 11.22pm in which I again asked whether I could go over to see him, since he sounded so anxious. Again he said that he was already in bed and just needed to sleep. At 11.39pm he phoned to say goodnight and we had a lovely few minutes on the phone."
It was the last conversation they would have.
The next morning, Melanie didn't get her usual 7am call from Gerry and his phone rang out. She went over to his house later but couldn't get in. She rang his producer Alice and was told that he had called her just before midnight the previous night to say he was taking a day off.
At first she was relieved, but after 11.30 Melanie began to worry and left work and with her son Wian tried to get into Gerry's house. They couldn't get the security chain open, so she asked one of the builders working two doors down if he could help and he used a hacksaw to cut the chain, and as soon as the door was open he left.
"I will never forget the next few seconds as long as I live. I ran up the stairs calling Gerry's name. I knew something was wrong, but I hoped against hope that he was okay. When I got to the bedroom door, there was no sight of him, and for a moment I thought with relief that he had gone out or was in the bathroom. But then I saw his feet on the floor on the opposite side of the bed. I knew the worst had happened. In an instant my world completely disintegrated."
The aftermath of Gerry Ryan's death is described in detail, Melanie breaking the news to Gerry's older son Rex, the media scrum that began to develop, how she and Gerry's agent, Noel Kelly, had to go to his other son Elliot's school and, as they were about to tell him the dreadful news of his fathers death, it was already making the headlines.
Death is always a stressful time for a family, but when there is a wife, in this case Morah, and a partner as in Melanie, then the protocols and problems surrounding the event become magnified. Melanie does not spare us the detail. Her own background as a South African Protestant trying to cope with a Catholic Irish funeral was both confusing and extremely difficult for her. An added dimension is that much of it was done in the full public glare of the funeral of a fallen star.
Of the scene at the grave she recalls visiting the cemetery with Gerry on a bright Irish morning as he wanted to put flowers on his mothers grave. "But on this day everything was dark, cold and grey, and I felt the deepest despair. I stood at the back. I knew I wasn't part of the ceremony."
The inquest, too, was a traumatic event and the moment cocaine was mentioned there was, she says, "a sharp intake of breath" as journalists scrambled from their seats in the Coroners Court to contact their newsrooms.
The coroner found that Gerry Ryan died of cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and stated, repeatedly, that he could not say for certain what caused it. But just a trace of cocaine meant he had to give a verdict of death by misadventure. "For the second time in eight months, my world came crashing down," she says.
Of course, When We Dance is not the story of Gerry Ryan, it is the story of Melanie Verwoerd. Her husband's grandfather Dr Hendrik Verwoerd was "the architect of the policy of apartheid" in South Africa as Bishop Desmond Tutu tells us in the foreward.
Yet she and her husband Wilhelm committed what must have been seen as "the ultimate treachery" to their race by joining Nelson Mandela's African National Congress a few years before the first democratic elections in 1994.
This in itself is a riveting story. Melanie not only became South African ambassador to Ireland but later became the very successful chief executive of Unicef Ireland -- a position she later lost because some of the directors felt her association with Gerry Ryan and the publicity that surrounded it was harmful to the organisation.
This is a big book, big in breath and scope, peppered with great names and events. If there is an obsession with Melanie and her relationship with Gerry Ryan it is because for us "all news is local" but for those who want to look beyond the parochial, more than half of When We Dance is taken up with the great international event which is the formation of South Africa.
Ultimately, When We Dance is a human story, uplifting, tragic and revealing. There will be many who will not like this book, who will attribute unkind motives for the fact that she wrote it. Melanie Verwoerd recognises this but does not let it deter her.
In the end we are all entitled to tell our own story and in When We Dance, what a story there is to tell.
'When We Dance -- A memoir' by Melanie Verwoerd with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is published by Liberties Press. Due to a court injunction, it was withdrawn from sale on the morning of publication.