© 1987
The Face Behind The Flowers 
Her life embraced art, politics, the threatened environment and a quest for a very elusive Amazon flower. Most of all all Margaret was an brilliant story-teller .
    Uncovering the Secret Life of Margaret Mee
Tony Morrison


Margaret Mee was one of the 20th century's most accomplished botanical artists. She was British and lived almost half of her life in Brazil. Margaret is best remembered for her meticulous compositions of Amazonian flowers, many of them extremely rare and some now bearing her name.

Her life had many peaks. She had strong political leanings and made her first mark in the 1930s. In the late 1960's Margaret's talent as an artist created a stir in London and then in 1988 she became a household name coast to coast in the USA. The lavishly illustrated book In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests* had just been published when in one of those quirks of a life she died in a car accident in England. This is the story of my search for the woman behind a face which charmed millions. It began in 1970 and reached four continents


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Friday May 8th 1970— Praia do Flamengo, a broad road facing Guanabara bay

"Passaporte, por favor" The solitary military policeman stopped me. Fumbling in the inner pocket of a tropical suit I found my blue passport. He glanced at it briefly, squinting at an eastern bloc visa. He turned it upside down. Its cyrillic letters worried him. " O senhor é Ingles ?" he enquired looking at me directly comparing the photo. "Yes. I am " I answered clearly. The Cold War was rumbling and I couldn't blame him for his curiosity. He waved me on. Our conversation had been simple. I understood him well and he did not want to stop me. The British Embassy Number 284 stood on the corner of Rua Tucuma. Its broad entrance with finely polished marble steps was a yard away

I was to meet Tony Wellington a long time resident of Rio. Wellington, already greying was firmly established in the British community with impeccable family credentials and Second World War honours won as a Wing Commander in Royal Air Force. My mission was simple. Could he put me in touch with anyone who knew what was happening in the Brazilian Amazon? As an independent producer and film maker for BBC Television the 'big story' of the day was the projected Trans Amazon Highway, a megaproject to state the very least. The highway would cut across 2000 miles of Amazonia through primary rainforest. New towns, agri-businesses, dams and power plants would follow the route. The interior of one of the world's last wildernesses would be opened for the first time in history and the world's media was just waking up to the fact. "This is just a recce" I explained. " I'm leaving for London tonight to edit a film and will be back later in the year". We had not met before so as a hint of what I had in mind I added "As well as the television film I have been asked to write for the London publisher Andre Deutsch"

Already in 'the can' was a film I had made with my wife Marion about the destruction of wildlife and international countermeasures in Peru. Scenes included thousands of animals packed for export to Miami and a sequence where an American built machine weighing 110 tonnes literally crushed the forest in its path. Trees toppled under a relentless pressure and monkeys ran for their lives. The sole aim was to clear land for beef farming. [More of this can be seen in 'A Park in Peru' for BBC TV * ].

"Brasil will not be easy for you" Wellington explained. " Remember this is a military controlled country. Information is restricted and you will be shown only the story the government wants you to project" The night before I had a met a friend from my university days for a meal behind the apartment blocks lining the seafront of Copacabana. He had been president of our Student's Union.and he warned of the problems for the media. In 1964 the army had staged a coup and bit by bit the screws of a tough authoritarian government had been applied. By 1967 the situation had led to revolt with Marxist guerrilla groups and students fighting back. In 1969 the repression increased and was continuing,. Death squads were about and anyone with leftist thoughts was liable to a sudden disappearance. Journalists especially of the inquisitive variety were inevitably suspect.

As I sat chatting with Tony Wellington over a cafezinho, dark and very sweet I felt at a touch of adrenalin surging. Such conditions were not new and filming trips to the Balkans under Soviet domination had given me a sense for self preservation. Also, to put matters in perspective, my environmental concerns were still rather bookish. "Emilio Medici a tough gaucho is the nominal head, but he is under the thumb of senior generals " Wellington explained with the nearest he could manage to smile "out on the street they call them 'the college of cardinals', and I doubt if you will get a straight answer". Who then was 'in' on the plans? Surely there must be some lobbying or scientific opposition? Wellington took a sheets of flimsy pale blue paper from his desk and scribbled a name and a telephone number. " I think you should get in touch with this man. He has a great friend, an Englishwoman, Margaret Mee who spends months in the Amazon drawing flowers". As he passed me the note he cautioned " Take care. Many 'phones are tapped". I needed no second warning.

The military policemen was stoneyfaced as I left the building. Instead of taking the cab parked in Tucuma I walked a few blocks of tall grey stone buildings to a leafy square, the Largo do Machado and sat in a cafe opened my guide book and read Wellington's note 'Dr. Roberto Burle Marx' * was scribbled clearly in pen on the Embassy headed paper. An address in Leme, not far away, and phone number were in pencil. Burle Marx was a second generation Brazilian and an internationally famous landscape designer. His major work of that time was the Flamengo Park the huge garden in front of the embassy on land reclaimed from the sea

Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, Friday 29th April 1988The Praça São Sebastião. About midnight.

. "Tony, I know you would like a beer." Margaret chuckled. She had a very infectious and knowing chuckle and I'd heard it many times.

Floodlights across the elegant Teatro Amazonas had just dimmed. The white metal chairs at the small streetside bar were damp from the evening's rain. I ordered a fresh mango juice for her while for me it was a well-chilled Antarctica. We had broken away from a group of friends after a splendid meal in the La Barca restaurant, my favorite and some way from the centre. The food had been marvellous. Fresh Amazon fish with typical Brasilian side dishes. We could have chatted all night about Manauense hospitality but we had planned this private meeting much earlier. We were beginning our hunt for the elusive 'Moonflower' .Here in the heart of Amazonia we were away from the pressures of Rio and I didn't have to be careful with questions. Anyway Margaret was prepared to be open.

"Where do you want me to begin" She said. I had just completed three months in Rio sifting her diaries assembling an outline of her life. We had spent ten hours a day together and still some of the details just didn't add-up. Pieces had been left out quite deliberately. Of that I was sure. Three questions were in my mind " I'm still unclear about Roberto. You met him in the 'fifties when you had an exhibition in Rio and you have been great friends......? .'ever since " She caught my question and chuckled again." We will talk about that at the end. Tony . First you must know by now that we had much in common. Our passions in life, the probelems for the world " Only one other person I knew said ' probelem' in quite the same way. "Tell me more and can you now say how you managed to avoid 'problems' with the secret police? " I moved to another chair out of the tropical rain gusting across the pavement. Brazil had changed since my meeting with Tony Wellington.

For twenty five years I had been criss-crossing Amazonia. Great changes showed everywhere. The military government in Brazil had transformed the country with an'economic miracle'. The new capital Brasilia was 'up and running' so were modern airports and roads including those around Manaus. Brazil was not just 'coffee'. Amazonia was a focus for growth and factories were opening daily around the city.

"Roberto had good friends " Margaret began and then hesitated. "You only have to look at his work over the past forty years. He had some probelems too but they came with his work." She mentioned the time from years ago when Roberto and Juscelino Kubitschek hardly spoke, later Juscelino became president. "Then as you know he was gay. Twenty years ago, even here in Brazil we never mentioned it openly" She added passionately "Thank goodness all that has changed and about time too"

Margaret and Roberto were the same age within a few months. They had been introduced in 1959 by a young botanist Luis Emygdio. A year earlier seventy nine of her flower paintings had been exhibited at the National Museum and Botanical Garden where Luis worked in Rio. In those days it was Brazil's capital and a beautiful city. The artistic, cultural life and political heartbeat of the country revolved around a tiny elite any living in the fine houses of Laranjeiras close to the congress building in Catete the older part of the city. Both are now out of the mainstream. Margaret was living in Sao Paulo four hundred miles away with Greville Mee a commercial artist from Britain. For a time I had worked in the school, it was dreadful..... I have told you about the rows. Then as you know I found a job in the museum in São Paulo " From then her life changed and trips into the forest and botanical painting took months on end. As the 'fifties drew to a close she became more involved with friends in Rio, making the twelve hour jouney by bus whenever she could afford the fare "I didn't have much money." That much I knew already as friends in São Paulo had confided.

"Rio, Luis , Roberto and the Botanical Garden were what I wanted but I couldn't move from São Paulo so I used the bus. In those days the road followed the coast and in some places ran along the beach. If the tide was 'in' you had to wait." She chuckled again as she saw I was waiting for more. Her timing was perfect. At one time she had thought of acting as a career.

"We had reached a rather slow part of the journey where the road winds through forest and we stopped. The engine was too hot or something and the driver had to get water. I think he must have upset a local bar owner or something because before we knew what was happening they began fighting. Six or seven men surrounded the driver and were shouting 'Seu desclassificado' 'Sua vagabunda!' I'd better not translate that" She said and chuckled, more of a laugh this time. Her demeanour changed suddenly as she relived the action. Her eyes sparkled quickly and then hardened. Her mouth tightened and her hand clenched. It was a quite extraordinary metamorphosis and another more vital 'Margaret' appeared .Her father had been quick to rise and her genes were the same. "I leapt from the bus and challenged them. 'Don't be so stupid' I said to the leader who must have been six feet tall.. I believe the driver had been that way many times and was getting too friendly with one of the local wives. They were so surprised that a mere woman should confront them they stopped, very surlily to begin with and then backed away"

After many hours combing her diaries and asking questions I was getting a 'feel' for the real Margaret locked behind the face everyone knew. Some of the tales I could check later and others were lost in the realm of her private world. How much was a fantasy only time would reveal. We talked for a couple of hours and returned to the hotel through almost deserted streets. A refuse truck on a corner flowed with the rancid odour of a day's city waste making us hold our breath and stop talking. The collectors with cloths across their faces were scooping up the mess left by stray scavengeing dogs. I heard the background to her political days in Europe, the dodgy times with the military governement and her clashes with the multi-national companies investing in Amazonia. Much was simply an expansion of the notes I made in Rio when editing her diaries Occasionally she said "You had better leave that out."

Our party met for a simple breakfast of fruit bread and coffee. We were heading up the Rio Negro one of the Amazon's great tributaries in search of a rare, night flowering cactus. I still had questions but couldn't ask them and it was only when we travelling on the boat that I found a chance. the noise from the fifty year old diesel motor drowned our conversation "When you get back to London you must talk to Frank, the rest of the name was lost in the engine noise. He was a friend of mine a long time ago. Frank will help you" She promised to send the address

Amazon forest ran by like a moving, fascinating and unbelievably vibrant green wallpaper only a yard to my right. The other bank was five miles away across the river. Our destination was another ten hours away.

England, Wednesday November 30th 1988 — A few minutes before midnight

"Hello, Yes. Tony here" The 'phone by the bed slipped to the floor as in semi slumber I pulled the cord." Shit", I muttered and retrieved the instrument. At the other end the caller seemed unperturbed. " You may remember me. I'm Madeleine. We met at Margaret's London reception." Madeleine was a niece on Greville Mee's side. She got to the point very quickly "I think you should know that Margaret died a short while ago in the ambulance after a car accident. Greville is injured ... Yes, He's alive".

The next twenty-four hours ran non-stop. A stream of calls and faxes from around the world deluged my desk. I had been the first person outside the family to know and as the hub for the media launch of her book the press wanted the story 'All those adventures along the Amazon and then a car accident in Britain. What irony'

By the next day the line had cooled and then at about noon came a call from John Brown, Margaret's brother. We talked for almost an hour and as I put down the 'phone I could see how Margaret's life had not been a simple at it appeared. When I was editing the diaries she had answered countless questions and then during the evening in Manaus she revised many of her answers. I was intrigued by John's call to say the very least and made a list of people to visit. My notes were just about in order when the 'phone interrupted. It was a call I had not expected."I'm Frank I hear you have been trying to get in touch. I heard about Peggy on the wireless " Few people remembered Margaret as 'Peggy' and those who did were from her distant and rather foggy past. Frank knew more than most and as she had told me on the Rio Negro,' he was the key' to her life.

Frank helped a lot so I decided to follow the story much as I had others. The 'Time Line' is the result and my search including converstions verbatim will follow in many parts on these pages.

January 1990

Margaret's name was carried forward by the worldwide concern for the Amazon forests. An charitable Trust founded just before her untimely death flourished and her passionate wish to see education as the spearhead for conservation began to reap rewards. By mid July I was back in Brazil meeting her old friends.

CONTINUE TO CHAPTER ONE "Memories of the Knights Templar"

This account is based on notes, recordings and diaries. If any inaccuracies are noticed please send an e-mail. The editor will be pleased to insert corrections. Everyone mentioned in the text has received my special thanks and I take this opportunity to say 'thank you' again. TM. All the material is available without charge for scholars worldwide and other non-commericial use. A credit would be appreciated. For commercial use please request permission from the editor.

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