Entertainer, singer and actor
Willem Sonneveld, born and raised in Utrecht, was a Dutch entertainer, singer and actor. Sonneveld is still known for his songs, such as The Village (Het Dorp) (1966), Margootje (1965), Aan de Amsterdamse Grachten (1962) and the conference Frater Venantius (1964). For the sake of his career, he kept his homosexuality a secret from the general public.
Sonneveld’s parents owned a grocery store at 84 J.P. Coenstraat. He lost his mother at the age of four. His father was a man of norms, values and strict rules. All six children were given household duties and tasks in the grocery store. Wim soon showed his entrepreneurial and artistic talent. He sold stamps in the shop and organized performances with friends, for which he sold tickets. As a young man he had several jobs, but a leopard can’t change its spots. So, he spent the money he received from his father for an accounting course on singing lessons. Not in vain: on September 29, 1934, at the age of seventeen, he made his radio debut with the Catholic Radio Broadcasting Company / KRO.
Menage à trois
Around that time, he also met Huub Janssen, a former monastic, with whom he went to live in Amsterdam. As far as we know, his first serious gay relationship.
Years later, in 1947, Wim Sonneveld also gets into a relationship with Friso Wiegersma. Wiegersma:
“I literally forced myself on him by going to the show ‘It is only comedy (‘t Is maar comedie’) eight times. I sat there in my best suit front row centre. […] But nothing happened and at the eighth time I thought: ‘now I do not stand a change because my pennies are gone’. Fortunately, the usher brought me a note from Wim at the very last moment. I was asked to come to the backstage door. Wim took me home that evening and there was instant love there.’
Sonneveld maintained his relationship with Huub Janssen, which led to a somewhat complicated ménage à trois, which lasted throughout his life. Friso:
“For me, the situation was clear, it was take it or leave it. […] At some point I realized that someone else might have a troublesome mother-in-law. And I had Huub.”
Wim often portrayed both men as ‘permanent employees’.
If you now look at recordings by Wim Sonneveld, he often looks a bit gay, but the general public at the time did not notice. Artists were more often seen as ‘weird’. It is easy to understand that Wim concealed his homosexuality. He was afraid that coming out of the closet would mean the end of his career. And that fear was not unfounded. These were different times.
Unhealthy and unnatural
Niek Engelschman, co-founder of the COC, said about the 1940s:
“At that time it was better for your career to keep the gay world a bit at a distance.”
And in 1944 a reviewer in the popular newspaper Telegraaf wrote about the audience in the Leidseplein Theater:
“Does this always have to be unhealthy and unnatural at cabaret premieres?”
The good listener understood what was meant. Things didn’t get much better after the war. The KRO refused to work with Wim Sonneveld for years because he was homosexual.
In explaining why the general public and Sonneveld only found each other late, he himself referred to his homosexuality in veiled terms:
“My nature, my way of doing things, used to fit much less in time than now. The Dutch have not accepted sarcasm and irony for very long. Besides, they looked at me very differently fifteen, twenty years ago. I may have been the artistic boy with talent, but I dressed differently, I spoke differently, I moved differently.”
In 1947, Wim wanted to take his friend Huub with him on a tour to the Dutch East Indies, organized by the Nationale Inspanning Welzijnsverzorging Indië (NIWIN), which was committed to the welfare of the military in the Dutch East Indies. Huub played a small role in a sketch in which the United States, England and Russia were presented as naughty boys in sailor suits. NIWIN cancelled the tour. The newspapers all reported that someone from the Sonneveld cabaret has been refused, but not who it was or for what reason. In artist circles people knew the ins and outs:
“If Lou Bandy [a famous entertainer] wanted to bring an extramarital girlfriend, that wouldn’t have been a problem for NIWIN.”
Sonneveld was furious and filed a lawsuit against NIWIN. He won and received compensation of 10,000 guilders. NIWIN appealed and then even appealed to the Supreme Court. The case was not closed until 1951. The Supreme Court upheld the first ruling. Sonneveld won.
The word never got out
In his later life, Sonneveld became a bit more relaxed about his homosexuality, but the word never got out in public. Once, almost… In a documentary by Kees Brusse in 1971 he said:
“I agree with the religion that you are equal to God. In this respect that you have completely everything. That’s why bourgeois people who close themselves off are such disgusting people, because they put a limit on themselves. We have everything in us. I am everything. I am straight and gay and lesbian…I am everything…and religious.”
COC chairman Benno Premsela tried to persuade Sonneveld to reveal his homosexuality because he could be an important example. He failed. Sonneveld in a newspaper interview:
“I know, of course, that the public is speculating about my private life. I do not care if they do. Homosexuality has nothing, nothing to do with my profession. If a gay actor would act differently than a straight one, than he would be a bad artist.”
A person wants to be happy sometimes
Isn’t there any homosexuality found in Sonneveld’s work? Yes, there is, but you have to look caarefully. His last show in 1971 with Willem Nijholt and Corry van Gorp included the sketch ‘Een mens wil d’r wel eens gelukkig zijn (A person wants to be happy sometimes)’, about a couple with a son who enters into all kinds of relationships through personal ads. Wim played a Chinese homosexual in the sketch:
Chinese gay old man
Hopes to find a friend
To which he can reveal
The mystery of the Far East
But he is most explicit in the song ‘Een moeder is altijd een weelde (A mother is always a wealth)’, in which a gay man tells how protected he was raised by his mother:
… The boys at school were terrible
So wild, but my mother said
“As soon as you can, dear boy
you will come to work with me in my perfume shop”;
A good friend of hers, a doctor
Got me rejected for the military service
Oh, if I think of those rough soldiers
What could have happened to me…
It was part of the ‘one man’ show ‘Wim Sonneveld and Ina van Faassen’ which premiered in 1966.
There he is
At the age of 56, Wim Sonneveld died unexpectedly of a heart attack. On Tuesday, March 11, 1974, he was buried amid great interest at the Roman Catholic cemetery Buitenveldert in Amsterdam. Journalist and writer Simon Carmiggelt spoke that evening at eight o’clock on both TV channels in the Netherlands:
“When he came on stage you thought: there he is. And when the curtain fell, you thought: what a pity it’s over. The latter actually formulates the feelings that both the spectators and friends have today; what a pity it’s already over.”
“In six years they will say: Sonneveld, Sonneveld, who was he? They will have forgotten me. There may be one man of eighty years old left in Amsterdam who recognizes me. It all means nothing anyway.”
said Sonneveld in an interview in 1970. The opposite is true. Songs like Margootje and Aan de Amsterdamse grachten can still be heard regularly. Het Dorp is number 56 in the Dutch Top 2000 list 2022. Various CD and DVD collection boxes have been published after his death. More than ten books, a theatre play and two musicals about him appeared. The Wim Sonneveld Award is an important Dutch cabaret prize. The main hall of the De la Mar theatre in Amsterdam has his name. A bridge has been named after him and there are statues of him in Utrecht and Schin op Geul.
His partner Huub Janssen died in 1984 and was placed in the grave at Sonneveld. There was also room for his other partner Friso Wiegersma, but – according to his will – he was cremated after his death in 2006.
Het dorp (The Village)
Wim Sonneveld’s most famous song with English subtitles. Based on the French chanson La Montagne by Jean Ferrat from 1964. Text: Friso Wigersma. Video editing: Willem van Westbroek, 2010.
W. Ibo, En nu de moraal… Geschiedenis van het Nederlands cabaret 1936-1981, 1982 (Alphen aan de Rijn: A.W. Sijthoff).
C. Jansen Type en taboe, autobiografische thema’s en rolposities bij een show van Wim Sonneveld , Utrecht – doctoraalscriptie 1989.
H. Scholten, Wim Sonneveld, de parel van het cabaret. Arnhem 2006
J. Sonneveld, Wat leefden wij eenvoudig toen… : jeugdherinneringen van Jan Sonneveld aan zijn broer Wim. Amsterdam, 2017.
W. Sonneveld, F. Wiegersma en F. Jochemsen, Niemand dan wij, brieven en tekeningen, Amsterdam 2017.
H van Gelder, Sonneveld, 1987.
Famous songs on Spotify (Dutch)