When Perry met Sally Henzell

Nazma Muller tells the story of a love driven by a passion for life, art – and Jamaica

  • Perry and Sally on the beach in 1974. Photograph courtesy Sally Henzell
  • Octopussy One – one of the houses designed by Sally. Photograph courtesy Sally Henzell
  • Bathroom at Octopussy Three. Photograph courtesy Sally Henzell
  • Detail of the stonework in one of the cottages
  • Photograph courtesy Sally Henzell
  • Perry, Sally, Justine, Jason, and Justine's son, Dylan. Photography courtesy Sally Henzell

It was 1960, and Jamaica was hopping: everyone could smell the sea breeze of great change blowing in the air. A dashing young filmmaker called Perry Henzell, newly returned from working at the BBC in London, where he had moved up from stagehand to assistant stage manager, was holding down a job as an account executive at an advertising agency in Kingston.

He clapped eyes on the new girl in the office, 18-year-old Sally Densham, and Jamaica was never quite the same again. “Sparks flew,” as Sally puts it. Those sparks burned for the next 46 years and touched many lives.

The soundtrack to this great romance was the early rumblings of reggae, the experiments of other young, hip Jamaicans like Lee “Scratch” Perry. As the 60s and all the revolutions that they wrought swept across the island, the two young hippies created their own maelstrom. They both had what he used to call a fire in the belly. It fuelled a creativity that produced the most famous Caribbean film ever, and a unique style of architecture.

The movie was The Harder They Come, of course, Perry’s masterpiece, and the architecture was Sally’s concrete-bending psychedelic blend of Morocco meets Gaudí with ital Jamaican overtones.

Sally, born in Mandeville, educated at Hampton School in Malvern, had started writing poetry in her teens. She, along with her sister June Gay, had had a mad whirlwind of a childhood. They played just about every sport. “My parents cut down their polo sticks into little ones for us. We played tennis every day of the week,” recalled Sally. “And every weekend we would go on trips around the island, or have friends come to stay.”

But then she married Perry in 1965, and that was the end of weekend road trips. “The first weekend of married life, I said, ‘So where are we going?’ And Perry just looked at me like I was mad.

“And after about a year of crying every weekend, I settled down. I realised that I had married a completely driven man, and the last thing he wanted to do was to go on holiday.”

Perry was driven to understand life. It showed in his writings and ponderings, a relentless quest to analyse the “ism schisms” in Jamaican society, and resolve them, if only in fiction. All of this left him with little inclination or time for the mundane.

“So here I was, living with this wonderful man, but physically he had to be looked after,” Sally said, half-seriously. “He couldn’t do up his buttons or light his spliff. But he was so brilliant, I was really happy to do everything else.”

Mostly because he was her biggest fan. He loved her poetry, her architectural designs, her set designs (she did the set and costumes for The Harder They Come). “He never kept me back, never. In fact he would urge me to go further, do more, push harder. He was just a wonderful husband. He never held me back. We never held each other back. Maybe that was the secret of our marriage.”

In Itopia, the Georgian stone house tucked away amidst acres of rainforest above Runaway Bay that they called home, Perry wrote his novels Power Game, Cane and No Place Like Home, lit by lamps, as the seventeenth-century building didn’t have electricity as yet. Here they raised their two children, Justine and Jason. And they threw the most bohemian of lunch and dinner parties, where guests included many of the island’s most famous musicians, writers, and artists.

They called each other Rudie, after a song that came out when they were making The Harder They Come, called “Rudie Don’t Fear”. Sally began to call Perry Rudie because of that; and he in turn called her Rudie too.

While he would leave his mark indelibly through words and images, she made hers in stone. In 1941, her father had built a family vacation home, Treasure Cot, where she and her sister would spend the August vacation on Treasure Beach, swimming and fishing in the waters just off this belly button that juts out on Jamaica’s southwest coast. Alex Haley wrote much of Roots at Treasure Cot.

Fifty years later, Sally purchased a bit of land just down the road from Treasure Cot that would eventually become the much-loved Jake’s, site of the Calabash literary festival. “I bought the land with the idea of building a cottage for me, Perry, and the children. I’d seen myself having a restaurant, but I never really thought about how or where. Then one day, when me and a friend called Reima were there fixing up the place, we got hungry and the local restaurant had run out of food, and I thought, ‘Oh this must be the place where I’m going to have my restaurant.’ And that’s how Jake’s started.”

It was originally a six-bedroom unit. Then Jason, a banker at the time, suddenly took notice. He gave up his job and started managing the property. “He said, ‘Mummy, build, build, build’, and that’s what I love to do.” She built one cottage a year.

Jake’s now has 30 cottages, villas and suites designed by Sally which draw on Moroccan, Indian and adobe influences as well as the work of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí. Sally has personally overseen the planning, construction and design of each of the exquisite rooms, with their emerald and cobalt-blue embedded bottles and charming mix of kitsch and Caribbean cool.

When someone asked them if they thought the kids would grow up to be artists like them, Sally replied, “Artist? Who needs another artist in this family? What we need is business people! And we got them. It’s amazing. Justine grew up and started to help Perry with his work and Jason came in with me at Jake’s.”

Jason is also the president of Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost chain of hotels, while Justine, a former accountant, administers her father’s works and organises Calabash, the annual literary festival at Treasure Beach that has seen the likes of Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott grace the thatched-roof stage. (Soyinka fully recommends the full-body massage at the Driftwood Spa at Jake’s.)

In 2006, Perry passed away, aged 70. “I still miss him,” Sally says. Life without Rudie has not come to a standstill, though. These days she’s working on a new website for Jake’s, and designing the pavilion for a sports park for Treasure Beach, where she lives in a purple house that she calls Bohemia. Every morning, after a game of tennis and a bit of snorkelling, she works on one of her many projects. She might start off sewing a pair of pants for herself, then see a butterfly touch down on a flower and grab her Canon to take the photo, or a line of poetry will take shape and she will drop the phone to jot it down. The fire in her belly is still very much alive.

Last poem for Rudie

by Sally Henzell

Your voice
has become
no voice

Your face
No face

Like pure fresh water
Or air
Without which
Impossible to live

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.