Monday, August 16, 2010

The Life and Times of 'Dean'

This slab of text was a draft version of something I was going to put in a book but decided to leave out, I figured I'd put it here.

In the heart of Tangier's Ville Nouvelle, a few minutes walk from the Grand Socco with its cafés and bars, lies the small church of St. Andrews. This curious whitewashed building stands in an odd-shaped plot of land concealed from the street by a dense stand of trees. It was built in the late 19th century to serve the town's small but prosperous British community, whose decision to use the skills of local craftsmen resulted in a building that looks strangely like the work of an Islamic architect who has had a church described to him, but never actually seen one. Inside, it is adorned with the keyhole arches and clean, smooth lines of Morrocan mosque architecture. Continuing this theme, the decoration is limited to the text of the lord's prayer in arabic, carved into the arch above the altar like the koranic inscriptions of a mosque.

Outside, in the shade of date-palms and cypress trees, there is a small graveyard, where a select few British residents of the town have their final resting places. Here you find the graves of the writer Walter Harris (1866–1933), the soldier Sir Harry Maclean (1848–1920), and Emily Keane (1849–1944) an adventurous English woman who married the bandit king of Ouezzane. The most interesting of these graves, however, is also the simplest—tucked away in a shady corner of the graveyard. On the small stone, now broken in half and laid flat on the ground, is the following inscription


Missed by all and sundry

February 1963

The city of Tanger knew Dean as a barman, an unflappable Rick Blaine type who served drinks, white suited and proper, at Caid's Bar in the Hotel Minzah. Later he opened his own bar, the imaginatively named "Dean's Bar," and his clientèle migrated with him. He had appeared in the international city at some point in the early 1930s (no one is sure exactly when)—just one of the many people who came to Tangier offering no details of their previous life, and stayed because no-one asked. In the 1930s and 40s he sold drinks to a disreputable army of refugees and deserters, spies, gunrunners, and thieves. They came first from the Spanish civil war and later from the war that raged almost to his doorstep. They all spoke to the friendly barman, and he, in turn, passed on the more interesting pieces of information to the British spies who also came in for drinks. After the war his bar was a favorite hangout of writers and poets, artists and musicians—everyone, in fact, apart from William Burroughs, whom Dean flatly refused to serve. A decision that some would say speaks highly of his ability as a judge of character.

It was not until 1992 that Marek Kohn, a journalist studying the birth of the British drug underworld stumbled across the identity that Mr "Joseph Dean" had sought to leave behind. While researching the moral panic that swirled around London following the death of lovely Billie Carleton, an up-and-coming west end actress, from a cocaine overdose in 1919, Kohn began digging up details about the disreputable crew implicated in giving her the drugs. It was a veritable who's who of 19th century criminal archetypes. There was Brilliant Chang—a mysterious Chinese restaurant owner, Edgar Manning—a black Jamaican jazz musician, Reginald de Veulle—a hedonistic transvestite fashion designer, and lastly, there was Don Kimfull—a swarthy Anglo-Egyptian rent boy and hustler.

The last figure in this rogues gallery, Don, was a cross dressing protégé of Reginald de Veulle. He was a man who could get Reginald's guests what they needed, whatever that might be. He dealt stolen goods, procured ladies (and boys) for his guests, and, most importantly, kept them supplied with cocaine. Don was, unsurprisingly, a popular member of Reginald's social circle. When Billie Carleton was found dead in her dressing room, Don Kimfull was implicated by the papers as the man who supplied the drug (the legality of which was in something of a grey area at the time). Both he and his patron were demonised as the depraved sexual deviants who, with the help of their unsavory accomplices (a chinaman and a negro no less!) corrupted a fine young lady. At the inquest, Reginald was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison, as much for his lifestyle as for any connection with Carleton's death. Don Kimfull was also summoned to court, but feigned illness and slipped away into the ether.

Here the trail goes cold for ten years—he was an anonymous looking man with underworld connections and a charming, confident personality. In the shattered cities of post-war Europe, with so many people displaced, so many prisoners of war and deserters, it was not hard for such a man to vanish. He probably settled himself in the chaotic black-market economy of a city like Berlin and kept a low profile. No more putting on dresses and hosting grand parties.

It wasn't until more than a decade later that he reappeared behind a bar in Tangier as "Joseph Dean." According to some, he had not entirely shake off the habits of his youth—Tangier rumor had it that he was a secret drug addict, which may have been the reason for his violent aversion to the known junkie William Burroughs. Although he was rumored to be a homosexual (not that unusual in 1930s Tangier) not even the most salacious rumors make any mention of him cross-dressing in his later years. Interestingly, there was one rumor, possibly started by Dean himself through an indiscreet outburst during one of his notorious drinking binges, that he used to be a big shot in London society, but had to flee when some flapper went a little overboard with the naughty salt and died.

These dark clouds were not particularly remarkable in the international city, however, and were no impediment to being accepted. He was a warmly appreciated member of the expat community there—as far as one can tell the epitaph on the gravestone was justified. It's interesting that when his friends came to order the gravestone, they didn't bother to include his phony first name, nor attempt a guess at a date of birth. They ordered a headstone for the man they knew, and didn't bother to speculate as to who else he might have been in another place or another time.