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Sunday 21 September 2014

Gerry the hellraiser? Melanie Verwoerd paints a different picture

Published 14/10/2012 | 06:00

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Gerry Ryan and Melanie Verwoerd

When Melanie Verwoerd's marriage fell apart in 2006 she made a promise to herself. She would never get herself into a relationship with a famous man again.

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Within three years she had broken her own pledge. She fell in love with Gerry Ryan, who happened to be one of the most popular broadcasters in Ireland, a household name, lionised wherever he went.

Melanie was well used to the glare of publicity having married the grandson of the South African Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, the founder of the apartheid state.

She herself moved in powerful circles as an anti-apartheid activist and one of the youngest MPs representing Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, before arriving here as her country's ambassador.

Melanie and Gerry were partners for the last two years of his life, and about half of her new memoir When We Dance is given over to that period and its aftermath.

The controversial book was temporarily taken off the shelves on Wednesday only hours after going on sale in a few bookshops. This followed an injunction by Gerry's friend Dave Kavanagh, who was one of the last people to see the broadcaster alive.

Mr Kavanagh objects to certain passages in the book. The author and publisher have agreed to delay publishing the book until that application is heard later this month.

The book portrays Gerry's occasionally bizarre life in the public limelight in meticulous detail, and the intense pressure he was under in his final months.

When they started their relationship in 2008, he himself was still devastated after the break-up of his marriage to his wife Morah. According to the book, he was staying at the time in his childhood bedroom in his mother's house.

The memoir tells how Gerry and Melanie almost formed a relationship on the radio. They met up after he had interviewed her over the phone from a violent trouble spot in Kenya, where she was supervising an aid programme in her job as the Irish head of UNICEF.

He kept in touch with her afterwards, because he was concerned about her welfare.

When they had their first date in his new apartment in Ballsbridge, he drank whiskey and she had sparkling water.

"Great!" he joked. "Cheap date and a designated driver! Fantastic!"

The book opens a revealing window into the world of two public figures, as they tried to keep their relationship secret. Even their friends were kept out of the loop for a time.

They did not travel anywhere together, and she arrived at his apartment discreetly dressed in hoodies, hats and glasses.

In one of the better passages, she recalls how she once made her entrance, disguised in a long, blonde ABBA-style wig.

The book paints a picture of Gerry as a domesticated figure. She tells how he was a keen cook, and according to Melanie, his chicken stuffed with lemon and potatoes in goose fat was legendary. He also returned home to his family to cook the Christmas dinner.

The figure portrayed by Melanie in the book is not entirely the hellraiser of popular lore.

She describes him as "extremely tidy'' and recalls how he would clean the kitchen meticulously every night before going to bed. He ironed very well, she says, and could do basic needlework.

Although she wanted him to drink less, she believed the image of the heavy boozer was exaggerated, not least by himself.

She often heard him say on the radio that he was hungover, and he would make a point of dissolving a Solpadeine tablet on air, when she knew that he had not had any alcohol the previous night.

He believed it made for good radio.

At his home, the broadcaster liked to keep a tank full of Siamese fighting fish, and he had a pet lobster called Norman. He occasionally addressed remarks to Norman on his radio show.

The book offers some insights into the occasionally odd life of an Irish celebrity.

As he went about his grocery shopping in Tesco, women would talk to him, sympathise with him about his separation and offer to come over to help him with his domestic arrangements.

The book tells how both he and Melanie found it strange that women he didn't know thought it was acceptable to touch him, especially his hair.

Once, when he was on the phone to Melanie, a woman actually licked him. The offender told him he looked as though he would taste nice.

The memoir tells how he was freaked out (but also amused) by this and Melanie sent him to have a shower as soon as he got home.

At the time rumours swirled around Dublin about Gerry's love life.

In the hairdressers, Melanie heard all sorts of tall tales -- that Gerry was living in the penthouse of the Four Seasons Hotel, and that he was having an affair with X (Melanie does not name the woman at the centre of this false rumour).

The memoir also offers some glimpses into a showbiz world.

On their first holiday together, the couple stayed with Gerry's close friend, the U2 manager Paul McGuinness, overlooking the sea at Eze in the South of France.

According to Melanie, the days were filled with lovely meals, lying next to the pool and occasionally going out. "Paul and Gerry would bob in the swimming pool for hours like two lazy hippos."

U2 were recording their album No Line on the Horizon nearby, and they dropped in to the holiday home of Bono and his wife Ali.

At his French home, Paul insisted that his household could only play Gregorian chants or other heavy classical music until the album was completed.

According to Melanie's account, a combination of events led Gerry to feel under intense pressure in the months up until his death.

By the end of 2009, Gerry was so short of money that Melanie feared he would go bankrupt, despite his RTE income of over €500,000 a year.

As the money ran out, he continued to take his children to Disney World every year.

He was devastated when RTE announced that its top presenters were to take a 10pc pay cut, and he initially resisted the moves to slash his salary.

He felt that RTE did nothing to protect its senior presenters from "horrendous media onslaughts'', and was shaken when he was "door-stepped'' by one of the station's own reporters as he arrived at work.

The presenter was upset when he was not chosen as the replacement for Pat Kenny as host of the Late Late Show. Gerry felt that Miriam O'Callaghan was a more likely replacement than Ryan Tubridy.

Gerry phoned Ryan and congratulated him. As Melanie puts it, "Publicly he was gracious, but privately he was bitterly hurt".

He knew at that moment that he would probably never get the "gig'' that he always wanted as Late Late Show host.

With his financial troubles mounting and moves by RTE to axe his sick pay, Gerry effectively acted as a shop steward for the stars in RTE.

The book tells how he convened meetings between the presenters, got legal advice for a number of them, and spent hours advising them on their approach to RTE bosses.

By a tragic irony, Gerry became seriously ill with swine flu, and his general health seemed to be deteriorating, when he was midway through the recording of the RTE health programme, Operation Transformation in 2010.

The book tells how he could barely move, and had to take time off from the series. He went from his sickbed to record the voiceover.

The memoir records in harrowing detail how Gerry had severe heart palpitations and frequent panic attacks in the weeks until his death.

Melanie found Gerry dead on the floor of his house just before lunchtime on April 30, 2010, after she sought help from builders to saw through the security chain on the door.

The book tells how almost immediately texts started to come in on Gerry's phone from friends and colleagues, concerned about his well-being.

Some even made jokes about the ridiculous story that they had just heard about him having died.

They just could not believe that their friend was no more and the same sense of incredulity overcame his thousands of fans when the news was confirmed.

The chapters in the second half of the memoir about Melanie's relationship with Gerry have inevitably attracted the most attention, but the former politician led an eventful life up until that point.

She tells how she was inspired by Nelson Mandela when she met him for the first time at the age of 23.

He told her that she had a voice and that she should be careful how she used that power.

From a young age she turned against the apartheid regime and secretly campaigned for the ANC.

She became the centre of national attention when it was revealed that a woman married to the grandson of the creator of the apartheid regime was an ANC activist.

This "baptism of fire'' must have prepared her in some way for the intense public scrutiny when she formed a relationship with Gerry Ryan.

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