‘The Sepia Valentino’

Dear Editor,

Preston Paul Meeres, also known as Paul Meeres Sr., was a world-renowned Bahamian dancer and entertainer. He had no formal training, but developed his own dancing style. He also sang and played saxophone. Suavely striking at a slim and fit 6-foot height, he was nicknamed “The Brown Valentino” and “The Sepia Valentino”.

He was born on August 13, 1902 at Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, and grew up in Grant’s Town, New Providence. His father was Paul Aitken Meeres, son of the Reverend Charles Edwin Meeres, of England, who was the rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Nassau, Bahamas. His mother was Victoria Russell-Gilbert, a woman of African descent. Paul Aitken Meeres, while working as manager of a sisal farm at Green Turtle Cay, fathered at least four illegitimate children, including Preston Paul Meeres. He later married and had two daughters with his wife.

Preston Paul Meeres’ first marriage was to Lela Dean-Meeres, daughter of Joseph Dean and Melinda Bowe-Dean, of Long Island, Bahamas, on May 28, 1922, on New Providence. They had a son born on New Providence in 1923.

Like many other Bahamians in the early 20th century, Preston Paul (Paul) went to the United States, probably in 1920, as a worker on ‘The Contract’ — an employment agreement between The Bahamas and the United States. He married Thelma Dorsett-Meeres-Beachum, of Bahamian and Jamaican parentage, around 1925. Their son, born in New York, was Paul Keith Meeres, also known as Paul Meeres Jr., who was famous in his own right. He and Thelma were dance partners during the Harlem Renaissance and billed as Meeres & Meeres, the Negro Astaires. They performed at The Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn and appeared on Broadway in the production of Hot Chocolates with Cab Calloway.

An article in The Pittsburgh Courier, published on September 10, 1927, describes Paul’s performance in Earl Dancer’s revue “Africana”. The Miami News, on February 5, 1930, and The New York Age, on September 6, 1930, mentioned he and Thelma performing together. They divorced in 1930.

His daughter, Marilyn, was born in 1931 to “Mr. and Mrs. Paul Meeres”, indicating that he married a third time.

The Daily News, on April 18, 1932 and July 20, 1932, carry notices of Paul appearing in a burlesque and a revue at Connie’s Inn.

Paul went on to tour internationally, gaining further success as a solo act. He starred with Josephine Baker, whom he had known in Harlem and at the Folies-Bergere in Paris, France. He is mentioned in the book “Josephine: The Hungry Heart”, by Jean Claude Baker and Chris Chase.

Around 1939, he returned to The Bahamas and opened his own nightclub, theatre and hotel. The Chez Paul Meeres Club was on Fleming Street in Over-The-Hill (the area south of Bay Street). This turned out to be a great success, very popular with international travellers and big-name celebrities. Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner are said to have been among the guests. He brought in some of the very best bands and performers and, having himself appeared in many of the world’s big city, famous clubs, he was able to replicate much of their atmosphere.

According to John Berkley “Peanuts” Taylor, himself an icon of Bahamian entertainment, Paul was fond of animals. He had a collie and stables on Fleming Street, where he kept horses. He would ride a horse into town. “Peanuts” got his nickname and his start in show business from Paul, who began featuring him at Chez Paul Meeres at the age of four. He worked with him until he was a teenager. He says that he saw Paul as a father figure and used words like “fantastic”, “humble” and “talented” to describe him. Further evidence of Paul’s apparently nurturing nature lies in the fact that he, with his mother, brought up a niece.

Paul spent time in London, Paris and other places. A 1945 immigration record shows him entering Rio De Janeiro as well.

The Daily News, on August 14, 1953, ran an interview with Paul at his club in Nassau, “which might be right out of the old Harlem”. Jet Magazine, on October 8, 1953 wrote: “Nassau’s fabulous Paul Meeres, known around the world as ‘The Sepia Valentino’, is again a grandfather.”

Paul and Chez Paul Meeres are mentioned in Jet Magazine, on the January 13, 1955 issue, at page 44. Around 1957, a couple from Sweden took over the club and renamed it The Tropicana. It burned down the following year under suspicious circumstances.

A relative who had escaped from prison was being hidden in the house that Paul and his mother shared. Paul took the rap for housing a fugitive, was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for six months. Never the same, he fell into a deep depression and started drinking heavily. While intoxicated, he staggered into the path of an oncoming vehicle. He was pronounced dead hours later, on September 13, 1962, at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau. He was exactly 60 years and one month old. He is buried in the Western Cemetery, in an unmarked grave.

The general feeling that seems to be shared by family members and others who knew him was voiced in this way by one person who had some contact with him: “He was a beautiful man, inside and out”.

— Phil Austin Roberts

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