‘Romance’ was the key to K’tut Tanti’s extraordinary character and life. She jealously protected her history by deliberately obscuring her past, by endlessly changing her aliases and by constantly reinventing herself. From what can be pieced together it seems that Muriel Stuart Walker was born in Glasgow on February 18th 1898; her mother was from the Isle of Man and it is probable that she never knew her real father, undeterred by this she invented a life for him as an African explorer who disappeared in the jungle. She and her mother went to California where she got work writing about Hollywood and the film industry, until one day in 1932, after seeing a film about Bali, she packed her paints and embarked on a new career and life in Indonesia. Between 1930 and 1932 she had married an American, Karl Henning Pearsen; she often said that he had been killed in a car crash with their two children, but there is no evidence that she ever had any children and she remained married to Pearsen, an alcoholic, until his death in 1957. Pearsen was older than her, and throughout her life she looked for a protector in older men, insisting that all her lawyers, producers and directors were men who could protect her.
When she arrived in Bali she dyed her red hair black to escape comparison with a witch and was named K’tut (Balinese for fourth-born child) Tantri (possibly a Balinese pronounciation of ‘Tenchery’ , a name by which she sometimes went). She spent her first year painting and learning about traditional Balinese custom through their royalty; she became especially close to Anak Agung Nura whom she described as her princely ‘soulmate’, but she always denied any sexual involvement with him. Although Bali in the 1930s was Bohemian and personified the age old Western search for paradise, attracting many writers and painters, any sexual relationship between Europeans and Balinese was frowned on. After leaving her ‘royals’ she settled at Kuta, then a tiny fishing village on the south coast, where she was involved in opening the first hotel; she had many disputes with her business partners but she certainly played a part in Bali’s thriving pre-war tourist industry becoming increasingly fond of the Balinese and increasingly disdainful of the Dutch. She was known as Mrs Manx, after her mother’s birthplace and indeed there are similarities between Bali and the Isle of Man which would have appealed to her idea of romance: both are mystical, quirky, independent islands. Diana Cooper stayed in her beach hotel and wrote about her visit in Trumpets from the Steep,(Hart-Davis, 1960) describing her as ‘no disappointment – old girl Manx, fifty, four foot high, a mop of black hair and a “Mother Hubbard” garment.’
During the Japanese occupation, most Europeans left but she stayed on, going to Java where she was accused of collaborating with the Japanese. She always remained evasive about what actually happened during the war but in her much ‘romanticised’ autobiography Revolt in Paradise (Harper & Row 1960) she suggests that she was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese and descibes the years 1942-45 as ‘terrible, horrible – the horrible time – I don’t want to talk about that time.’ After the war she became committed to an independent Indonesia and broadcast for the radical guerrilla armies and was known to the Allies as Surabaya Sue. She later joined Sukarno’s official republican administration, writing speeches for him; she described Sukarno as ‘the most impressive man I have ever met.’
By 1947 she had left Indonesia for Australia, but as she had no passport she was not allowed to stay; she went to America where she wrote Revolt in Paradise, a book which was both widely and well-reviewed and much translated and which despite its inconsistencies probably contains more than a kernel of truth.
For the next thirty years she tried to get Revolt in Paradisemade into a film, travelling all over the world staying in smart hotels at the expense of various film companies. But since she refused to alter any detail of the book, offer after offer collapsed. She hoped that a film of her life would fix her perception of herself as to her true identity, but when in the late 1980’s, by now a permanent resident of Australia, it became apparent that no film would be made, she cut herself off from the world and became increasingly suspicious of people. Timothy Lindsey got to know her in her old age in a nursing-home in Sydney and his recent book The Romance of K’tut Tantri and Indonesia (OUP 1997) does much to explain, without destroying , the essential artifice and romance of this enigmatic woman.