In 1926 Aggie married Charles Grey
When one reads the history of Samoa, particularly through the 1800s to the mid-1900s the list of characters that flowed in and around Apia, the capital of Samoa, would keep a Hollywood producer in work for years.
Aggie grew up across the road from the International Hotel and one day, when she was a child, she saw carpenters dismantling the wooden building very carefully. This strange happening was mentioned to her father who told Aggie and her sisters that a Mr Hetherington had bought the building and planned to rebuild it on the bank of the Vaisigano river.
The International Hotel was rebuilt exactly as it was originally in 1870.
There was a character known locally as ‘Obliging Bob’ for his good manners and how he managed the International Hotel.
Robert Easthope (aka Obliging Bob) was born in England (Cumberland) in 1848.
At an early age he picked life at sea as his career and ended up in Samoa in 1894. By February 1896 he was managing a hotel called Club Hotel followed by The Tivoli and then the International, which was the most popular at that time.
His nick name came about because he was well mannered, and nothing was too much trouble. He would use his own boats to ferry his guests to their ship, which would be moored in the harbour before sailing.
When he died in 1932 at 84 years old, he was the oldest British resident in Samoa.
Billy Hughes, the slave trader used to drink in the International Hotel before it moved to its present location. When I visited this hotel Billy Hughes would have recognised the outside, nothing had changed.
On my second trip to Apia, I stayed at Aggie Grey’s again and it had changed somewhat. This time I was not shown to the fale as I expected, but taken upstairs to the ‘new’ extension, which was airconditioned and overlooked the sea. It was a pleasant hotel room, but not as ‘Samoan’ as the fale. The above picture is the ‘new’ hotel.
A little bit more about Aggie Grey – when she was a child she watched the International Hotel be rebuilt, but little did she know of her future connection with this hotel.
Charlie and Aggie were great entertainers, but there was a problem, Charlie was a gambler, and they had three children, plus Aggie’s four children from her first marriage. Her entrepreneur skills showed early because when she was in her early twenties, she opened the Cosmopolitan Club.
Later in 1933 she borrowed £200 to buy the old British Club, which was renamed ‘Aggies’ through which she sold illegal alcohol because the New Zealand Government, who controlled Western Samoa, declared the island to be ‘dry’. The ‘dryness’ included Europeans as well as the local islanders. The Europeans were not happy.
The British Club had been the old International Hotel.
To get around the problem of ‘dryness’ the NZ Government authorised the medical officer in Samoa to issue ‘points’ to the Europeans and depending on your position in society and rank, you were allocated ‘points’ on a monthly basis. Technically the points were for the use of alcohol for medical purposes. This system went on until after 1960!
Today Samoa has its own brewery bought from Germany.
In 1942 the Americans arrived due to the war in the Pacific and Maggie opened a snack bar selling coffee and burgers from a location next to the current hotel, and she also operated a sandwich cart around the streets. Things were picking up – but in 1943 her husband Charlie, died. She was now on her own with children to feed, so had to come up with an income.
She moved the business in to the old British Club, which was now called Aggies, and Aggie Grey’s was born.
From this location besides the food, they also sold ‘bush gin’ which was a palm toddy at $2 a bottle.
The toddy was created from the coconut palm tree and a local would climb thirty feet (nine meters) up the palm tree to tap into the sap, and allow it to drip in to a glass jar.
The tree sap looked like barley water.
The liquid had a fizzy tang to it . . .
There was an unfortunate incident due to ‘bush gin.’ The Admiral Wiley Pictured above) was anchored in the harbour and unloading stores. The Captain went ashore for a few glasses of bush gin, which caused him to become unsteady.
It was dark and the only way the captain could return to his ship was via a native boat, but the instructions were that native boats were not allowed near military ships. The watch keeping sailor on the ship could not believe that the person in the native craft was his captain.
After a long argument the sailor allowed the captain to board and the Captain went to his cabin.
The captain still full of bush gin, was as mad as anything at the idea of being refused to board his own ship, so he left his cabin and started firing his pistols at the sailor. The sailor had no choice but to return fire and killed his Captain.
The First Mate was told to take command and to be prepare for sailing. The problem was that the First Mate worked in haberdashery before he had joined the navy and had taken a six week crash course in commanding a merchant ship – he was incapable of taking the ship to sea, so the ship had to wait for a competent merchant seaman officer to arrive and take the ship to sea.
During the time that the Americans were located in Samoa they had to place military police outside Aggie Grey’s premises because officers would arrive in jeeps but when they wished to drive back to their ship or barracks, they would find that the jeep had been stacked on rocks because the wheels were missing, the petrol had been syphoned and parts of the engine were missing.
The local Samoan society believed that everything that they owned was available for anyone to use, so it was not theft but a cultural problem for the Americans.
The war was over and James A Mitchener a naval historical officer wrote
This edition was published in 1947
Michener became friendly with Aggie, and I believe that she contributed her ideas during the editing process.
I must admit that reading his book while wandering around the South Pacific added to the experience for me.
One might say that James A. Mitchener became the Tusitala of the 20th Century Pacific Islands.
James A. Mitchener 1907 -1997
In 1952 ‘Return to Paradise’ a Mitchener story was turned in to a film and Gary Cooper played the lead role. The American crew stayed at Aggies and at the Casino run by Aggie’s sister, there were a total of fifty Americans, but in every other aspect the US film company used local Samoans and the dancing girls (Samoan dancing) were trained under Aggie.
Roberta Haynes 1927 – 2019
Aggie also directed and trained Roberta Haynes in her dance sequences.
Roberta Haynes’ ashes were taken back to Samoa by her son and interred at a chapel at the Return to Paradise resort in 2019.
If you wish to see a short piece of the film click below.
In addition to Gary Cooper 1901-1961 who was awarded three Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and a number of other awards,
Aggie Grey’s hotel has been visited by
Dorothy Lamour 1914 – 1996, She received a citation from the US Government for selling $300 million worth of War Bonds during WW2. She was known as the ‘Bond Bombshell’.
Marlon Brando 1925-2004, Two Academy Awards, Three BAFTAs, Two Golden Globes.
Raymond Burr 1917-1993, Two Emmy awards & and a stamp issue by Canadian Post
Robert Morley 1908-1992, CBE, but he declined a Knighthood
William Holden 1918-1981 Academy award winner
to name a few.
The above were film actors, who became famous due to their ability to entertain, even though they did not have Facebook, Tick Tock, , Instagram, Linkedin, Youtube nor did they Twitter on & on . . . but they were good at their job and entertained us.
When Gary Cooper was seriously ill and close to death amongst the huge number of well-wisher’s cards & letters there was a telegrams from Queen Elizabeth and the Pope, and a phone call from President John F. Kennedy, Gary Cooper was famous, they even used his name in this song.
In 1971 Aggie was ‘stamped’ with success (please excuse the pun)
Aggie died in 1988 at 91 years of age.
Her son took over the running of the company and in 2013 Aggie Grey’s hotel was sold to Chinese investors for US$50 million and is now operated by the Sheraton Hotel Group. Aggie Grey’s Hotel is now known as the Sheraton Samoa with a subtitle ‘Aggie Grey’.
The hotel was rebuilt after major damage during the cyclone in 2012 when the Vaisigano River (which I have mentioned earlier) flooded the hotel up to the third floor (American) or second floor if you are British.
The hotel re-opened for business in July 2016