Bubbles Schroeder was found dead 63 years ago this month. Lin Sampson talks to writer Rahla Xenopoulos about her obsession with the murdered girl
There is something transcendental about Rahla Xenopoulos. It is as if she hovers between adulthood and childhood, encased in a glass box, a perfect ornament, her white hands flashing like dove wings, tipped with a spread of tiny diamond rings and red nails.
Her style is annihilating in her chain-store dress that looks as if it’s come from the Place Vendôme by special delivery, oversized boots and the head-down, sympathique way she listens to questions.
She seems to have everything – a pretty, understated Victorian house in Cape Town with vegetables in the garden, successful film director husband, triplets; but there are shadows on the bright glass.
“We’re all in therapy,” she tells me cheerfully.
Anyone recalling her first book A Memoir of Love and Madness, an acute look at her own suffering with bipolar disorder, will know that Xenopoulos, like the heroine of her novel Bubbles, has also met the devil.
“I can’t tell you what a shocking year I had last year. I was back to square one when I had been feeling so fine. My GP came to see me every day. It just hits you from the back of the head.”
When she was better she asked her son what he thought when she was ill. He said: “I thought you would go away and I would get a new mummy.”
People who suffer stand separate and perhaps it is this that has added a texture to her first novel, Bubbles, roughly based on the story of Jacoba Schroeder, nicknamed Bubbles, a young girl of 18 from the wrong side of the tracks whose body was found in 1949 in an empty field north of Joburg.
She had been strangled and limestone stuffed down her throat. The story made local and international headlines.
Attempts were made to pin the crime on the “natives”, who apparently put stones in murder victims’ throats so the killers could not be easily traced.
“But,” says Xenopoulos, “a doctor phoned me from London. He said, “Rahla, that was the first year of apartheid, there would have been no natives around in King Street’.”
We know a few things about the story: on the night of her death, August 15 1949, Schroeder left a Rissik Street apartment with Morris Bilchick and David Polliack. They met Hyman Liebman in the driveway of the Polliack family home. They ate a late supper of asparagus soup, chops and chips.
After that the screen goes blank.
Bilchick and Polliack were arrested and remanded in custody but later granted bail. With no direct evidence proving a connection to her murder, they were acquitted.
Xenopoulos’s obsession started when she was 19 and went on a date with a charming young man, who started the evening by saying, “My father’s a murderer.”
He was the son of one of the men involved.
The story must have lodged in her subconscious. “Many years later, when I started writing, the story came back to me. I’ve always felt that as a society we are very quick to shrug off abused women. What outraged me about Bubbles is that the story was always told with a sense of sensation and no regard for the young girl who was murdered. She was never given a voice. She was just a girl who got her comeuppance.”
With Bubbles, Xenopoulos has imagined a life for this forgotten girl of 18, found dead in the veld, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who longed for luxury and glamour and who earned money by entertaining and dancing at parties and indulging in more intimate acts.
“I hated doing it, hated going down there. I tried to learn how to do it efficiently so that the entire affair was over really quickly,” the imagined Schroeder says.
The unwrapping of her life revolves around the original autopsy report that stated she was still a virgin.
“What I always found so poignant,” says Xenopoulos, “was that she was a virgin, this poor woman. All she had to trade with was her sexuality, and yet she had hung onto it, believing that one day the right man would come along.
“I was angry with the way the newspapers portrayed her. Benjamin Bennett was the crime writer of the time. He was very influential and he set the tone. She was soeking [looking for it] – her skirt too high, top too low. The men were nice Jewish boys from rich families. She got them into trouble.
“We went to the UCT archives and we found his notes, written on the back of a script pad. What he wrote was so mean. These guys were young, their parents came off the boat, they were the future. I am sure there were people paid off.
“One of the men involved is still alive. When I phoned him, I said ‘It must have had a terrible effect on you’, but he said ‘no’.”
It is the lush use of researched detail that is the binding ingredient of this book that acutely records the 1940s in South Africa, with its underbelly of poor whites.
“I was obsessive about the truth. I felt there had been so much mendacity from the other side and people were so generous with their memories.
“A lot of people still remembered and I had all these little pegs to work towards. I knew she had been at a party in Northcliff and at the party she had met Polliack.
“It was hilarious – I had all these 80-year-old men who had been around at the time. They were all very happy to chat about the language and the slang of that era.”
Fortuitous meetings followed her.
“There is this scene where Bubbles was going to a movie at His Majesty’s Theatre and while I was writing the book, I met the critic Percy Tucker in a cinema queue and he said: ‘I’ll find out what was showing at His Majesty’s the week Bubbles went so it will sound completely authentic.’”
The work is filled with these details.
One can thank God that Xenopoulos is a high-school drop-out who didn’t do gender studies; her book avoids the trying feminist shibboleths in favour of a poignant portrait of a young girl in trouble, sprinkled with the sweetest of vignettes.
Finally, this is a novel and nobody knows who killed Bubbles Schroeder.
“I just wanted Bubbles to come out clean, to be well represented,” says Xenopoulos.
The film rights have been bought by Lisa Bryer, co-producer of The Last King of Scotland.