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Sir Ronald Harwood makes his final exit



Sir Ronald Harwood (formerly Ronald “Ronnie” Horwitz) passed away in London last week at the age of 85, after a lifetime as a leading writer, playwright, screenwriter, and actor.

He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Pianist in 2003, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007. He was knighted for his services to drama in 2010. His love of the stage can be traced back to his childhood in Cape Town.

“I grew up with Ronnie Horwitz,” says Abel Levitt, speaking to the SA Jewish Reportfrom Israel. “We started school at the Kings Road Primary School in 1941, in the same class of Sub A. We completed our schooling at Sea Point Boys High in 1951. Throughout our school lives, we were in the same class, at Kings Road, at Sea Point Junior, and at Sea Point Boys High. We lived close to one another, Ronnie in Victoria Road, and I in Brompton Avenue. We were in the Cubs and Scouts together, we played tennis together, and watched cricket at Newlands together. At school, Ronnie took the lead in the school plays. He was outstanding.”

Harwood’s childhood friend, Gerald Masters, recalls, “My father was very good at making things, and made me a large model theatre which Ronnie and I made good use of.” Masters’ original surname was Mosselson, which he was asked to “anglicise” by his employer when he went to London because it was too Jewish. Indeed, the New York Times (NYT) reports that Harwood also “anglicised his Jewish surname as part of his effort to become a British stage actor”.

Writing in his memoir What Ever Next, Masters described how as children, they named this model theatre “The Royal Acropolis”.

“We mutually agreed to Ronnie becoming ‘Sir’ many years before he was actually knighted. Our programmes always had ‘Sir Ronald Horwitz’ as the star.

“Ronnie had long decided to go to London to train and eventually star in the West End. Just before he left South Africa, we were invited by the American rabbi, Dr David Sherman, to take children’s services [at the Progressive Synagogue in Cape Town]. He even suggested we might consider training for the rabbinate!”

However, they both headed to London, which the NYT says Harwood saw as “the centre of the universe”. They shared accommodation. “My late uncle was celebrated concert pianist Lionel Bowman,” says Masters. “He and his partner, Raymond Marriot, got Ronnie’s career underway.”

“Ronnie had left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) before completing his three years,” Masters says. “Money had been a problem, but an opportunity arose which would change his life. The opportunity was that Marriot, a great admirer of actor-manager Donald Wolfit [later Sir Donald], had heard that he was auditioning actors for small parts in his Shakespeare season. Ronnie got the job and the first play I saw in London was that night. He popped up in various small parts, some non-speaking.

“Ronnie’s famous and very successful play [later a film], The Dresser, is based on his time with Wolfit, whose dresser had left him. Ronnie asked me if I would like the job, but I ruled myself out. Ronnie decided to propose himself, and was accepted. It turned out to be a move that would change his life forever. The Dresser was his ‘golden pension’.”

However the two friends struggled at times, and Masters relates a hilarious story of them working in the kitchen of a hospital, where he once “hid a small cooked chicken under my pullover, and Ronnie may have had some other food items under his. At the exit gate, my chicken slipped out onto the pavement. If the official at the gate saw the creature, he said nothing, and we beat a hasty retreat. We ate well that night.”

From these humble moments, Harwood would go on to befriend royalty. “Whilst my dad was HRH [Harold Ralph Horwitz], it was Ronnie who was friends with His Royal Highness Prince Charles and Camilla. They hosted a dinner to honour him on his 80th birthday,” says his niece, Tessa Gnesin, from Sydney. Says Masters, “I know Ronnie was truly surprised to win the Oscar, but his real delight was being knighted. He once said to me, ‘Here I am, little Ronnie Horwitz from Sea Point, a knight who can call Prince Charles a friend.’”

“He had a great love for cricket, and was a regular at Lord’s. Whilst not a practicing Jew, Ronnie went to shul every year to say Kaddish for my dad,” says Gnesin. Indeed, Harwood’s interest in his Jewish identity would blossom in later life. Levitt and his wife, Glenda, have spent 20 years working to protect the memory of the Jews of the Lithuanian shtetl of Plunge (Plungyan) who were killed in the Holocaust, and educate youngsters there about this history, and Harwood became intricately involved in that story.

Levitt recalls, “It was whilst reading his novel Home that I learned for the first time that Ronald’s father, Isaac Horwitz, had emigrated to South Africa from Plungyan, where my father also came from. In half a lifetime, our fathers’ ancestry wasn’t a subject of discussion. I called Ronnie. ‘What about you and [Harwood’s wife] Natasha joining us in a trip to our shtetl Plungyan?’ I asked. The reply was immediate. The meeting at the airport was emotional. He had recently been awarded the Oscar for The Pianist, and here he was in Lithuania.”

“Upon our arrival, our first stop was at the apartment of Yacovas Bunka, who has welcomed hundreds of Plungyan Jews. Few would have been of the international stature of Ronald Harwood. There was an immediate warm relationship. The following morning, we proceeded to the mass graves, where 1 800 Plungyan Jews were murdered in July 1941. Ronald did not have family who had remained in Lithuania, but he walked around, silent, as he absorbed the sanctity of the moment. He was profoundly moved.

“Our next visit was to the Saules Gymnasium. Every class had seen The Pianist, and they were riveted by Ronald’s charm and dynamic personality. In the evening, there was an event where Ronald related his experiences of working on the film. The following morning, we met with the mayor. I remember Ronald’s words, ‘Mr Mayor, I know that you have difficulties with budgets. I appeal to you, whatever you do, don’t reduce the budgets for culture. To do so will be to the detriment of your society.’”

This moment motivated the Levitts to create an art competition, titled “The Ronald Harwood Holocaust art competition”, where children in the region would explore Lithuania’s Holocaust history through art. “It has grown from a local event, to a regional national event, and all forms of art are part of the competition: painting, drawing, sculpture, drama, music, and writing,” says Levitt.

“For us, that experience of being with my lifelong friend in the land of the birth of our fathers, and to witness young people’s appreciation of the artistry of Ronald Harwood, inspired us to display the winning artworks in countries around the world, including South Africa and Lithuania.”

The moment that Harwood won the Oscar was an emotional one. “I sat together with my family glued to the TV until all hours in the morning,” recalls Gnesin. “He brought incredible pride to the family, and from humble South African Jewish beginnings, achieved the highest honour possible in his field. How we wished his late parents and siblings could have shared in his glory. They all contributed greatly in allowing him to follow his dreams at the tender age of 17.”

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