It was 1954. Sri Lanka’s legendary broadcaster Vernon Corea was at the time teaching at Uva College Badulla. He had returned from India when his mother Ouida had passed away. Vernon Corea who was studying at Bishop’s College, Calcutta decided not to pursue ordination. It was also the year that Vernon Corea met fellow English teacher Monica de Silva who also sang in the choir at St. Mark’s Church, Badulla – the vicar at the time was the Reverend Felix Dias-Abeysinghe, a family friend. Vernon and Monica fell in love and were married on the 4th of February 1954 at St.Mark’s Church, Badulla.
The Prime Minister of Ceylon in 1954 was Sir John Kotelawala a statesman respected around the world. Sir John knew and met Vernon’s father and mother, the Reverend Canon Ivan Corea and Ouida Corea. Later on in life when Vernon was an announcer at Radio Ceylon he too would meet Sir John Kotelawala. The Prime Minister of Ceylon was also related to the wider Corea Family through marriage. His sister married Dr. C.V.S Corea, cousin of Reverend Canon Ivan Corea. The Prime Minister’s nephew was the distinguished Sri Lankan diplomat, former Secretary-General of UNCTAD and former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr. Gamani Corea.
1954 was also the year that Sir John Kotelawala visited the United States. According to the US State Department they hoped that the visit would improve US-Ceylonese relations. According to a US State Department briefing:
‘Vice President Nixon’s visit to Ceylon was a great help in strengthening friendly relations between Ceylon. The recent decision to have Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala visit the U.S. should further improve U.S.–Ceylon relations….’
Sir John Kotelawala met President Dwight Eisenhower at the White House in Washington.
A hand-made silver desk set to then US President Eisenhower – Sri Lanka’s first Gift to the White House
The Island Newspaper in Sri Lanka published a very interesting article on the silver desk set in the picture presented by the Prime Minister of Ceylon to the President of the United States of America. This was the first ever visit of a Prime Minister of Ceylon to the USA.On December 7, 2010, the Internet carried a picture to mark the 56th anniversary of the very first encounter between a U.S. President and a Sri Lankan Prime Minister. The picture showed the then visiting Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala handing over a hand-made silver desk set to United States President Eisenhower at the White House on December 7, 1954. Ceylon Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala presented a hand-made silver desk set to United States President Eisenhower at the White House on December 07, 1954.
The Daily News of November 9, 1954 in a news story under the headline ‘Gifts from Ceylon’ reported: ‘Sir John Kotelawala takes with him on his goodwill tour which starts tomorrow gifts for President Eisenhower of the U.S., the President of the Republic of France, M. Reny Coty and Emperor Hirohito of Japan.
“The Emperor’s tray is of sterling silver, and embodies the traditional Sinhala Moonstone motif. M. Coty gets a silver cigarette box, also of sterling silver and decorated with Sinhalese decorative designs.
“Mr. Eisenhower’s sterling silver calendar – ink stand is constructed in miniature as a traditional piece of Sinhalese architecture. There are octagonal Kandyan pillars and the Kandyan temple doorway in the calendar. On the lids of the two ink wells are mounted two auspicious gold vases ‘punkala’, which signify fertility and prosperity. The pens will rest on two Sinhalese steps and the base of the ornament is a moonstone, the centre of which is engraved ‘Greetings from J. L. Kotelawala, Prime Minister of Ceylon’.
These three gifts were the work of Mr. L. K. Mudalihamy, Master Craftsman at the Jewellery firm of Messrs. P. J. Weeraratna and Sons of Maradana’.
1954 was also the year that Hollywood rolled out the red carpet to greet the Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sir John Kotelawala during his visit to the United States. US Television stations also covered the glittering Hollywood visit. This was the first ever occasion that a Prime Minister of Ceylon was feted in Hollywood. The top Hollywood Director and Producer Cecil B.DeMille organised a grand dinner at the Beverley Hills Hotel for Sir John Kotelawala and his delegation.Also present at that Hollywood dinner were Philip K. Crowe (United States Ambassador to Ceylon), Vice President of Paramount Pictures Frank Freeman, Ryle de Soyza, Sir John Kotelawala, P. Nadesan (Secretary to Prime Minister), R.S.S. Gunewardene, Gunasene de Soyza (Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs).
The Prime Minister of Ceylon met Hollywood A-list stars Dorothy Lamour, William Holden and Mrs Holden (William Holden had acted in ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ filmed in Ceylon), Danny Kaye and Mrs Kaye among a whole host of stars. Hollywood toasted the Prime Minister of Ceylon. Cecil B.DeMille was at the height of his popularity in Hollywood.
Also present in Hollywood accompanying the Prime Minister was the United States Ambassador in Ceylon in 1954, Philip K.Crowe.
Subsequently Philip K.Crowe wrote to US actor Danny Kaye referring to his meeting with the Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sir John Kotelawala:
Sir John Kotelawala was also invited on to the set of the film ‘The Court Jester ‘ with Danny Kaye, British actress now Dame Angela Lansbury and British actor Cecil Parker.
Here’s the official trailer from Paramount Pictures on ‘The Court Jester.’
This was the first and probarbly the last occasion where a Prime Minister of Ceylon was feted in Hollywood.