Still searching for the real Gerry Ryan
The Gerry Ryan described in Melanie Verwoerd’s memoir – now back on sale after an injunction – is quite different from the man depicted in his 2008 autobiography
IT WAS VERY important to Gerry Ryan to appear to be a man of means. His autobiography, Would the Real Gerry Ryan Please Stand Up? was written at a time when he was, according to his partner Melanie Verwoerd, constantly worried about money and heavily in debt. (In fact the €100,000 advance was a large reason for writing the book.)
Ryan’s own book depicts a wealthy gourmand who refers to the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin as his “canteen”, boasts about his expensive taste in whisky, cigars, food and holidays and applauds the lifestyles of men such as Charles Haughey. (“Corruption only happens when you’re not being appropriately rewarded,” he writes.) In his introduction he talks about a muckraking journalist who has to stop shadowing him because she found it too expensive to keep up.
Read now it seems sad and elegiac. In her book, When We Dance, which was off the shelves until this week due to a High Court injunction taken by Ryan’s friend David Kavanagh, Verwoerd repeatedly refers to the financial pressure Ryan was under. In her telling of it, he is a loving and lovable man who is inconsistent about money. At one point in the narrative he tries to buy her a €1,000 Louis Vuitton bag; at another he returns overly expensive wine in a hotel.
She describes how, in contrast with his brash public persona, Ryan was heavily dependent on her, both emotionally and financially. At a key point she finds him weeping on the bathroom floor from the stress of his precarious financial situation. It’s regularly noted that Ryan’s finances were very much out of control, but she never goes into close detail.
She often seems perplexed by Ryan’s inability to face up to his money issues. “It became more and more incomprehensible to me why he could not get on top of it,” she says. Later in the book she recalls how, in 2009, “Harry Crosbie and a few other friends were trying to convince him to take steps to control the outgoings.” What those “outgoings” were is vague in Verwoerd’s telling of the story.
She disputes that any of it went on cocaine, as has been suggested elsewhere, particularly after the inquest into his death reported that there were traces of cocaine in his system.
She asserts, towards the end of the book, that she had been through his spending and that the bulk of it went on family obligations, debts – he owed money to the bank and to the Revenue Commissioners – and mortgages.
Of course, some of these family obligations seem to include a yearly trip to Walt Disney World, and there’s no doubt, as evidenced by his autobiography, that Ryan had expensive tastes: humidors, classic malt whisky, fine dining and recreational oxygen tanks.
Whatever the outgoings, the income did not match them, and, it is speculated, Ryan was coming under increasing pressure to pay his debts. Hence Ryan’s outspoken prickliness over RTÉ wage cuts in 2009 – it was “bullsh*t”, he declared on air – and his private dismay when RTÉ said it was stopping sick pay for highly paid contractors.
Shortly before his death he felt isolated from his friends; he depended on Crosbie paying the rent for his flat on Leeson Street and on Verwoerd covering his living expenses; and he was seeking loans from others, without success.
Early in the relationship, Verwoerd writes, she “realised that [his financial situation] was a big problem that would develop into a huge crisis if it was not addressed. Gerry, however, was reluctant to discuss any possible solution.
He was adamant that he wanted to keep his family in the lifestyle that they were accustomed to, ‘even if it kills me’, as he put it. He wanted to ensure that nothing would impact negatively on the children and also that his public image would not be tainted in any way. ‘Even if I have to live in a shack, people will never say I don’t look after my family.’ ”
The story of Verwoerd finding and losing her partner is sad and moving. It’s her life, and as she says in the introduction “it strikes me that I did not plan much of it”. She also writes movingly about how she was sidelined after Ryan’s death and ultimately shows how bereaved unmarried partners are often marginalised in a culture that still puts the nuclear family on a pedestal.
Verwoerd comes from a famous South African family, and her ex-husband’s grandfather HF Verwoerd was the so-called father of apartheid.
Her memoir starts with an introduction by Desmond Tutu and features 157 pages of eyewitness testimony about pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. During that time she often dealt with people for whom looking after their family amounted not to the provision of life’s luxuries but to survival.
The book tells of her life as an ANC politician at a time of tumultuous change and later as executive director of Unicef Ireland. Yet the reader is mainly left wondering how an Irish DJ couldn’t survive on a gross salary of more than €47,000 a month – €30,000 net – which was his income in 2009-10.
Verwoerd doesn’t answer the question of what Ryan did with his money, and it probably won’t be in any book. Unless the answer is that in a consumer society it’s easy to spend a lot of money when you have a lot of money. Rich people squandering their riches shouldn’t be an unfamiliar concept to residents of Ireland in 2012.