How shall I begin my story?
How shall I begin my story? The islands of the Bahamas that formed me seems as good a place as any. As a child who delighted in the light and colour, I was lucky enough to grow up in the heart of old Nassau Town, in a truly charming Bahamian neighbourhood where madly flowering gardens clamboured around pastel-coloured houses with porches that were sheltered by spreading, climbable trees with leaves the rival of any Maple come the change of seasons.
And then there was the sea! The ever changing, sparkling, aqua, green, ultramarine sea with its wide expanse of soft, pale pink sand that gave rise to stories of fanciful sea creatures, and dreams of pirate ships laden with treasure, lured onto ragged reefs by mermaids who scattered seashells and weathered sea glass on the beach as gifts for children entranced by the perfection of their design. I can't think of a place more suited to the fertile mind of an imaginative child than Nassau Harbour and the Western Esplanade.
Another source of wonder was Junkanoo. I remember lying awake each Guy Fawkes night, after the sparklers and burning Guys, waiting for the sound of the Junkanoo drums to make their way from Over the Hill down to the shore. The sheer skin tingling excitement of those first beats was almost too much to bear because it heralded the start of the Christmas season. Like every Bahamian child, I knew the rudiments of ‘cutting and pasting’ the brightly coloured crepe paper that was used for the costumes. Junkanoo is an ephemeral concept that has as much to do with capturing the imagination and spirit of a people through the play of light and colour as much as it does with anything else. One New Years morning, I followed the ‘rushers’ and watched them cool off by wading into the water. Seeing those vibrant pinks, yellows, reds and oranges stain the blue-green sea as the crepe paper dissolved around them seemed as much a celebration as the masquerade itself. The image of those happy faces, swimming through circles of colour has stayed with me all my life.
We were doubly lucky growing up, because our summer house was on another beach, on the other side of the village of Adelaide (next door to Albany). This was my favourite place on earth. Adelaide beach was quieter than the one in town. Cool summer breezes carried the scent of the spider lilies that lined the driveway to our cottage and at low tide small islands magicked themselves out of the sea to provide us with endless hours of exploration. As children, we swam day and night, caught fish to grill on a stone barbeque that had been built by my grand-father, picked wine-red sea grapes, marsh-mallow soft coco plums, and cut our own coconuts to make ice cream in hand-cranked machine. At bedtime, we curled up in mock fright as my grandmother told island ghost stories about Chick Charnies and wicked sea witches who shed their skin to fly through the windows of sleeping children suck away their life blood, but the gentle lap of the sea caressing the shore always lulled us to sleep.
School was Xavier’s College, which was run by the Sisters of Charity of Mount St Vincent, a Catholic order of teaching nuns (the founder of the order, Mother Elizabeth Seton, was the first saint to be cannonised in the USA). I loved it! In retrospect, it was a wonderful experience because we girls saw women in so many different roles that it never crossed our minds that we couldn't be or do anything that we wanted to be or do in life. A levels followed at the brilliantly run Governement High School, which was followed by the University of the West Indies (I was determined to be a Caribbean woman, but fate had other ideas).
Home was lively, and fairly chaotic. My father was a New Englander ( from Rhode Island), who’d come to the islands and promptly fallen in love with my mother, the only daughter of a Bahamian family and proposed. He was 26 and she was 16, so her father said ‘No’! Rather than give up on love, Daddy traveled to the Out Islands, first to Cat Island, where he lived with the Hermit of Cat Island - the famous architect, Monsignor Hughes – where he helped him to build the beautiful church there, the one on Long Island, as well as the exquisite Benedictine Monastery at the Eastern end of New Providence. He was a classicist, so he also taught on the islands – and wrote love letters to Mummy. When she was 21 they married. Two years later, I was born – the eldest of eight - so there was always a prodigious amount of activity at home. Conversation around the dinner table flowed continuously, sometimes in the form of fierce debate, other times in the form of delightful anecdotes; music was always in the air, as was laughter.
I was a tomboy – far happier climbing a tree, or sneaking into town - much to the chagrin of my mother, who struggled to put me in dressy dresses, or worse, to keep me still long enough to work on a piece of embroidery. It’s ironic that I now put so much emphasis on beautiful embroidery with Jeannie McQueeny because growing up, was nothing more painful for me than an hour spent laboring over my embroidery hoop!
Mummy was beautiful, other-worldly, elegant, and a frustrated dress designer. She was always sketching and creating gorgeous clothes, for herself, for us, or for anyone who showed any interest in her designs. I now marvel at how attuned she was to what was happening with fashion – she was always a season ahead – in much the same way that designers today ‘know’ intuitively what the themes and colours of each season will be, she knew.
And then, there was my fabulously glamorous grandmother, Pearl Cox. She was immaculately stylish, but more than that, she was the best fun in the world. I suppose that I absorbed a love of clothes from her as much as from my mother. When my grandfather died, she opened the very first, real boutique on the island, with clothes that she imported from Europe, as well as those that she designed and made herself. She staged the first fashion shows. She also had a passion for things Bahamian and experimented early on, using shells, sponges and coral on some of her creations.
In my late twenties, I had the great good fortune to marry the love of my life in the garden of our Lyford Cay home. Nicholas had it all - he was a dashing, former British cavalry officer who'd commanded the elite Guards Independent Parachute Regiment - he was brilliant, handsome, funny, eccentric, earthy, strong and charismatic. A man of ferocious intelligence and energy, he read a book a day and was a prolific letter writer; he also wrote hysterical limericks, beautifully crafted romantic poetry, AND on occasion, he carried me up the stairs Rhett Butler style!. When we cemented our civil service in the the beautiful chapel of that Benedictine monastery of St Augustine's that my father had helped to build, I inherited a raft of step children (we also went on to have a son of our own) but such was Nicholas' charisma that we quickly formed one big, happy band that flourishes today.
I suppose that we lived a pretty glamorous life - the year was divided between the UK (Ascot, Wimbledon, shooting parties etc), Nassau, relaxing at the Lyford Cay Club, and Gstaad, where chalet life was enhanced by many happy days at the Eagle Club and the Palace. This gave me a good idea of what kind of clothing resort life demands, however, given the number of children and a fairly peripatetic life style that we led, there was little time for me to apply that knowledge.
Once grown up independence took hold of the children’s lives, Nicholas became involved in environmental work. He founded BREEF (Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation,) with the purpose of educating teachers and students about the fragility of the sea and its reefs, Around that time, I found myself drawn to gemstones. The clarity of their colours was so mesmerizing and the energy that some of the stones imparted was such a revelation that I started to make jewelry. So, that's how Jeannie McQueeny started. Within a short time, I had a little following in Nassau, Gstaad, New York, Palm Beach and in London, which was where I met Rajni Malla. I fell in love with the refinement of her embroidered pashmina shawls and in particular with a ravishingly lovely coral reef scene that I asked her to put on a couple of linen kaftans. From that chance encounter and those kaftans, Jeannie McQueeny Jewellery morphed into Jeannie McQueeny Resort Wear.
We were a few months shy of our 25th anniversary when my beloved Nicholas died of mesothelioma. Designing Jeannie McQueeny collections helped me to focus on something positive. There’s a quiet strength in beauty. Capturing it in any form of creation requires discipline, resilience and focused dreaming. In a sense, marveling at the light bouncing off the bright blue green sea of my childhood, dreaming mermaids and of jewel-laden pirate ships guided me to another kind of exploration and the safe harbour of Jeannie McQueeny International.