Regional

Sally Henzell's long walk to Jakes

Artist looks back at how Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth investment has paid off

BY GARFIELD MYERS
Editor-at-Large
South Central Bureau
myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, March 11, 2018

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TREASURE BEACH, St Elizabeth — Sally Henzell, artist and founder of Jakes Hotel, laughed long and hard when it was suggested to her that she and her late husband, film-maker Perry Henzell, were never very good at business.

She thought the suggestion was a comical understatement.

“No, we didn't care two hoots about money,” she eventually said, still choking with laughter.

“He was interested in writing books and making films, and I was interested in writing poems and drawing pictures, and we got by on what we had. Somehow or other, Jah Jah always looked after us and at the last minute sent us enough money to go on,” she added.

In a real sense, though, it was her unconventional, free- spirited personality — inherited from English parents who met and married in Jamaica in the 1930s — which facilitated the birth of Jakes, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Born 76 years ago in cool Mandeville, high in the rugged hills of Manchester, Sally Henzell (nee Densham) and her older sister June Gay — whom she insists was even more “different” than she was — were always close to the remote fishing village of Treasure Beach, 30 miles away in dry, hot, south St Elizabeth.

“No sooner was I born in the early 1940s than my parents found out that Treasure Beach was the nearest sea to Mandeville and they built a cottage here in 1941,” she said.

The family spent a lot of time in Treasure Beach and Sally's happy memories of the place never faded. After leaving the high-end, all-girls Hampton School in Malvern, St Elizabeth, she spent time in Europe, including studying window dressing in London before returning to Jamaica in the 1960s.

She married Perry Henzell and watched at close range and provided priceless support as the latter built a career as writer and film- maker, reaching a zenith with the 1972 classic The Harder They Come, famously backed by a hard-driving reggae soundtrack.

Through it all, Sally worked at the arts in many different ways. She “dabbled” in everything. “I am an artist and there are so many ways of being an artist. you can paint, you can take photographs and you can build, you can dress design — I have been a bit of everything and I write poetry as well,” she told the Jamaica Observer.

She also cared for their children, daughter Justine, now a noted producer/director and co-founder of the Calabash literary festival, and son Jason, who is now the face of Jakes.

The way Sally tells it, Jakes was the product of different circumstances coming together. It was 1991, “exactly 50 years” after her parents had first built the old cottage at Treasure Beach.

“I was holidaying [in Treasure Beach] when somebody pointed out the lot that became Jakes was for sale. My parents had died and I had just sold the house [in Mandeville] and low and behold it (price of the land) was the exact amount of the down payment that I had gotten for selling our old family home,” Sally said.

Her initial plan was just a house for family. But a bad experience waiting to be served a meal in Treasure Beach motivated her to start a restaurant. Soon the project had morphed into overnight stay for a few visitors in two available rooms. Jakes — named in honour of a pet parrot — was born.

Essentially a shy person, Sally was never quite up to managing the business. Indeed, she confessed to having run away and taken to the sea for a swim when her first guests arrived.

But her son, Jason, then working as a bank manager in Montego Bay, kept a close eye. And when investor Chris Blackwell offered to embrace and promote the quaint cottage/villa arrangement at Jakes as part of his Island Outpost hotel chain, Jason made his move.

Sally recalled a conversation which signalled the coming transformation of her small, prized space, Jakes.

“He (Jason) came and said, 'but Mommy you know we could buy the land next door?' and I said I know its eight times what I spent on this piece of land and it doesn't have a beach so just forget it,” said Sally.

But her son didn't forget it. Instead, he struck while the iron was hot.

“Well, he paid no attention to me. He went ahead and bought it (the neighbouring lot). Thank goodness for that, and that was the beginning,” said Sally.

Her response to her son's initiative, despite her early reluctance, was to artistically design and build visitor-friendly cottages and villas on the land her son bought.

“As he bought, I built. and he kept buying and I kept building, and we worked out up and down the coast (at Calabash Bay) from the original little piece [of land] I had bought,” she said.

Her eyes widened in wonder, as Sally Henzell reflected that “back in '93 we had two rooms and a restaurant, and now we have sixty-odd rooms — 32 on property and 32 off property”.

The growth of Jakes and founding of the more recent, adjacent Jack Sprat Restaurant apart, the energy of promotion and marketing helped immeasurably in placing not just the Henzell family business, but the entire Treasure Beach, at the vanguard of community and south coast tourism in Jamaica.

Sally gives much of the credit to Jason Henzell.

“I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my son because, when I started Jakes, I had very little ambition of it being a big hotel. I enjoyed the building and I wasn't so interested in filling the building with people, and along he came with his marketing skills and promoted us,” she said.

She has no easy explanation for how it was that Jason and his sister, Justine, having spent so much of their early life influenced by the unconventional approach of their parents, became so businesslike. But she is pleased.

Sally laughingly recalled a long-ago conversation with a friend who had commented, “you are an artist, Perry is an artist and your children aren't artists.”

Her response had been: “I am so glad. Who needs another artist around here? what we need are business people … both our children are business people luckily for us (her husband and herself). Otherwise we would still be eating sardines and warm lemonade…”

Now she spends a lot of time in her small beachside house — which she “designed and built” after her husband died in 2006 — with friends and family, including grandchildren.

The house is an unmistakable reflection of its owner's personality. Dizzyingly airy on the inside, with numerous small beds and divans scattered around her upstairs “sleeping area” — inspired by what she said were thoughts of an “opium den” — the house, for those approaching from the road, is lost in a jungle of trees and shrubbery. “I like trees,” was Sally's simple explanation.

But on the other side, with a spectacular view of beach and Caribbean Sea, the wide-open building warmly beckons beach walkers.

Sally dreams of another grand design.

It's about turning her former home at 10A West Kings House Road in Kingston — where much of the work on The Harder They Come was done — into a cultural and entertainment centre.

“We are going to promote music, musicians, artists, film-makers; and when ganja becomes legal we will have a dispensary. We've already had three big events there. Kingston is just ready for that,” she said enthusiastically.

But she rails against what she considers the too slow movement towards full legalisation of ganja and the seeming fear by the Jamaican authorities of being punished by the United States. While several states in the United States have legalised or decriminalised ganja, the Federal Government in Washington remains implacably opposed.

“It's time we did our own thing,” Sally Henzell said.

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