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Dewi Sukarno

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For Dewi Sukarno, the 42-year-old, Japanese-born widow of Indonesia’s founding president, a recent return to Bali was not solely for nostalgia’s sake. It also marked the start of a mission to acquaint her daughter, Karina, 15, with the heritage and land of her late father, a land Karina had never known.

Sukarno, the architect of Indonesian independence from the Dutch and the nation’s strongman and dictator for 22 years, from 1945 to 1967, met Dewi on one of his visits to Japan. He was 58 then, she was 19 and a fledgling actress. As Dewi (pronounced Davey) remembers it, “He asked me to be his inspiration, strength and the joy of his life. I was his shadow, secretary, accomplice, friend and confidante.” They married in 1959 and for the next seven years she enjoyed a pampered, enchanted life as the wife of a man who as a Moslem practiced polygamy (he had two other wives at the time) but always treated Dewi as No. 1. “People say he spoiled me, but my love for him was not because of material things,” Dewi claims. “I loved him for his mind.”

The idyll ended in the mid-1960s as Sukarno lost political power. He insisted that the pregnant Dewi return to Japan to have their child. And so Karina was born in Tokyo, on the day (March 7, 1967) her father was put under house arrest by a new Indonesian government. Dewi’s attempts to return to her husband’s side were thwarted—”They told me I would be put to death.” Only on Sukarno’s deathbed was she permitted a brief final meeting.

With Sukarno gone, Dewi returned to Japan, then moved to Switzerland and finally settled in Paris, there to replace her widow’s weeds with the best that hauts couturiers could provide. She became a jetset regular, whose amours were gossiped about all along the Avenue Montaigne. Dewi partied tirelessly and on one occasion made her entrance at an all-night fete wearing a diamond-studded turban with white feathers shooting from the top. A not-so-glamorous guest hissed, “She must have parked her elephants outside.”

Dewi always retained her Indonesian citizenship, and when she tentatively returned to Bali last year to attend a Sukarno family wedding she received a warm welcome. The years, it seems, had closed the abyss between herself and the current military government. In fact, one of three factories formerly registered in her name was given back to her. She saw her new status principally as an opportunity to restore her daughter’s birthright.

In truth, French society has paled for Dewi, though she will keep her five-room Paris pied-à-terre. Says Dewi, dramatically, “Can you imagine getting old and having nothing to do but go to stupid parties?”