Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Feted as one of Sri Lanka’s most illustrious politicians, Sir John Kotelawala CH, KBE, LLD was Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister from 1953 to 1956. Erect and soldierly in his bearing, ‘Sir John’ as he was affectionately known was undoubtedly one of the most colourful personalities of his time. Born on April 4, 1897, Sir John received his education at Royal College, Colombo and Christ Church, Cambridge in the United Kingdom. A soldier and statesman of repute, his interests ranged from politics and sports to mining, agriculture and architecture. He excelled in sports at school and in the University, his favourite games being cricket, tennis, golf, polo and boxing. He loved horses and took great pleasure in his morning rides. Sir John Kotelawala was commissioned in the Ceylon Light Infantry in 1922. He rose steadily in the service and was promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1940. This was the highest rank a Ceylonese could hold in those days.
During his tenure as Prime Minieter, Sir John was very much in the news. He organised ‘a grand welcome’ to Queen Elizabeth who visited the island in April 1954 with the Duke of Edinburgh. He was a much respected statesman not only in Sri Lanka but also amongst his foreign contemporaries.
His political career aside, Sir John Kotelawala was also seen as quite a dandy; a handsome debonair gentleman of his time. Distinguished in his ceremonial attire, Sir John was able to cause quite a flutter amongst the ladies in his circle and those in visiting delegations.
Ruggedly charming, his love of women was no secret. The ‘Women’s Purple Brigade’ purportedly the female political wing of the UNP, was more a swarm of social butterflies, endowed with beauty who fluttered around Sir John, enamoured by his rugged good look and dapper style. à
Former ‘Observer’ editor, Tarzie Vittachi, in his popular Sunday column, ‘Fly-By-Night’, titillated readers with tales of Sir John’s ‘Oo-la-las’. Even as the Head of State, he could not suppress his naughty side. Fashion photographer, Rienzie Wijeratne, relates the story of the 1954 Queen’s visit to Ceylon. The wind was playing havoc with the regal skirt. To hell with protocol. “Ganin Yako, ganin”, the Prime Minister commanded. And Rienzie shot the Royal leg. Sir John’s name was linked to the famous, if not infamous, ‘Mountain Rest’, the Diyatalawa hideout of Victor Dhanapala, where celebrities such as Elizabeth Sellers were known to haunt in gossip-rousing activity. In parliament one day, when Sir John was Prime Minister, he said something in French. “Where did you learn that?” an opposition member shouted. “Under the blankets in Paris”, Sir John shot back. “Where else do you think?” the exchange was expunged from the ’Hansard’.
Whether on the campaign trail or travelling around Sri Lanka Sir John was often see in his familiar riding kit — breeches and boots. At official functions, he would be dressed smartly in a suit and tie. Stories abound about the legendary Sir John and his penchant for beautiful ladies including Princess Margaret, who it was rumored had a dalliance with the legendary Laird of Kandawela as he was also known.
‘Old soldiers never die, They only fade away,’ goes that old refrain. Historians will record his political role in the country he loved. Sir John’s achievements were many. He was not only adventurous in the realm of politics but also in fashion. From his riding breeches to his suits,
Sir John Kotelawala was always impeccably dressed exuding an air of urbane sophistication. A man of good taste, Sir John will also be remembered as a leading sartorial statesman of that epoch.
This article first appeared in the Hi!! Best Dressed List Magazine 2018