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Bloody Mary’s pharmacy heritage

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The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific was mostly filmed in Hawaii, although the mysterious island of Bali Ha’i was a heavily disguised Es Vedrà, near Ibiza. The story tells of two wartime romances, one involving an expatriate French plantation owner and an American nurse, and the other an American marine and a local girl. The latter affair is enthusiastically encouraged by the girl’s mother, the colourful “Bloody Mary”.

The film’s storyline was adapted from ‘Tales of the South Pacific’, a collection of short stories by James A. Michener based on his experiences in the US navy in the New Hebrides and American Samoa. His Bali Ha’i was a small island near his base that was often obscured by vapours from its grumbling volcano.

Michener escaped military routine by visiting Apia on nearby Western Samoa, where he met the woman who helped to inspire the character of Bloody Mary. Aggie Grey was 45 years old when the Americans arrived in 1942. Her first husband had died and her second was a compulsive gambler, so she supported herself by selling food and drink to the troops. Supplies were scarce in wartime, but she was resourceful. She was even rumoured to have installed a still to supply her clients’ needs while circumventing government attempts to prohibit alcoholic beverages. Her business thrived and became a legendary meeting place for war-weary servicemen.

Aggie’s parents were William Swann, a British-born pharmacist, and his Samoan wife Pele. Swann arrived in Apia in 1889 and opened his business in Beach Road at about the same time that Robert Louis Stevenson first visited the island. Swann and Stevenson became friends when the latter settled at Vailima in the hills near Apia, where he spent the last years of his life.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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