THE DREAM OF ADRIENNE CLARKSON
Vichyssoise on ice meets crunchy Granola
The red brick house in south Rosedale — that is, not the real Rosedale where the certified Toronto establishment lives, but near there — blends right into the street. A compact car of indefinite year and make stands in the driveway. Irises and peonies drip petals on a noncommittal lawn. It’s nine-thirty in the morning; the sky is a hot white, and a heavy wind pushes through the branches of chestnut trees with a rushing sound.
The focal point of the house must be inside or at the back. Smart people, I think, staring at the peephole in the number on the door. The door opens; it is a young-looking man with longish wavy hair and a silk paisley kerchief knotted around his neck. Stephen Clarkson lets me inside. He offers me a cup of rosehip tea, but I’ve just had coffee. I sit down on the couch in the living room. He inquires politely about my activities; the air is charged with suspicions — his and mine. He asks me what I think of the working title of his upcoming book, City Lib, which is about his 1969 campaign for mayor of Toronto. Lib, I think, must stand for Liberal, not Liberation.
I look around at the living room. Broadloom, Victorian settee, sofa and two matching chairs, the oil painting with the small birdlike shape emerging from an off-centre point, Borduas over the mantel, velvet curtains. Everything has a sense of having been carefully considered, of meeting certain personal requirements. The things are beautiful, interesting in themselves, in proportion with each other, historically and personally significant. It is an intensely cultural room; the actual value of the objects appears to be relatively unimportant. Everything relates subtly to everything else in color — rose, gold and olive green — and in form, but not in period or national origin. It all relates most strongly of course to the people whose home it is. Nothing jars, it all blends into a harmonious traditional whole, touched by the same mind, as, I discover, are most other elements in this private world.
It’s Adrienne Clarkson’s world, pretty much as I had anticipated it, and as I sit there, scraps of her image float across my consciousness like headlines in one of those old movies when they want to signify the passage of time. Adrienne Clarkson winning a short story contest; Adrienne Clarkson reviewing books for Chatelaine; 1965 — Adrienne Clarkson making it on national television (“She’s a gasser, just marvelous,” says Anna Cameron, and she’s only 26); 1967 — Adrienne Clarkson in Montreal during Expo to interview Buckminster Fuller for Take 30; 1968 — Adrienne Clarkson writes her first novel, A Lover More Condoling (“My dream is to dance with Fred Astaire. It’s the one great unfulfilled desire of my life. I’m serious. I’d even quit eating lemon meringue pie if I thought it would help”); 1969 news item — Adrienne Clarkson says she and her 31-year-old husband, Stephen, running for mayor of Toronto on the Liberal ticket, symbolize the new family representative of the new fast-moving metropolis (the beautiful Hong Kong-born woman wept copiously when her husband was defeated in his first try for office); 1970 news item — “She’s beautiful while she’s carrying her baby, and she’ll be beautiful after she has her baby” (Adrienne Clarkson telling the press how she looks so pretty during pregnancy); Adrienne Clarkson telling the press what her New Year’s resolutions are; Adrienne Clarkson telling the press she’d buy three million bicycles and leave them around for public use when asked what she’d do if she were premier of Ontario for a day. Music, maestro. And now — 1972 finds Adrienne Clarkson writing in The Canadian Forum about The Godfather and The Last Picture Show; Adrienne Clarkson’s 1970 novel Hunger Trace comes out in France under the title L’Empreinte du Désir; Adrienne Clarkson, general editor of the New Woman series for New Press — Abortion In Canada by Eleanor Wright Pelrine, her own True To You In My Fashion, and The Lace Ghetto by Maxine Nunes and Deanna White; Adrienne Clarkson, member of the Board of Governors of York University; Adrienne Clarkson, member of the Committee for an Independent Canada. Talk about Citizen Kane! Here we have Citizen Clarkson. Rumor has it that women dislike her because her image, which she cultivates by consenting to publicity, puts them down in an absolute sense.
The Adrienne Clarkson image is airtight because it’s ambivalent. It has all the approved symbols — MAs, PhDs, the right schools (St. Hilda’s at Trinity), the right class (upper middle), the right clothes (Paris originals until haute couture fell), the right house in the right place (modified establishment), the right sorts of involvements, associations with the right sorts of people —and it has the reality—brains, beauty, marriage, children and hard work. You can’t knock the symbols without knocking the reality and without appearing to be doing so out of jealousy, professional or otherwise. You don’t want to be negatively disposed toward her because of her symbols. It all looks as if it might have happened naturally as much as by design.
Mrs. Clarkson appears with an article on the UN environmental conference in Stockholm in her hand, and Mr. Clarkson disappears. She sits down at the other end of the couch. She is wearing a short green-and-blue cotton sundress that ties around the neck. She sits with her ankles together, feet in white leather clogs. Her black hair is loose, brushed back; it is professionally trimmed. I can only presume she wears a bra. Diamonds and emeralds sparkle on the third finger of her left hand. What she sees from her end is a tall, fit, slightly tanned person of about her age, with long brownish hair, a straight Irish face, wearing faded jeans and top that look like jungle fatigues, a red bandanna around the neck, your original freelance revolutionary Miss Natural. Nothing sparkles on the third finger of my left hand; I’ve let nobody near my hair with scissors for years. She. the first-generation daughter of a Chinese family who came to Canada in 1942, went up; I, the fourth-generation daughter of a middleclass Irish-French-Scottish Prairie family, went down. We stare at each other across that gulf. My mind races . . . In 1968, A Lover More Condoling was published; in 1968, I hit radical rock bottom, having broken every rung in the ladder on the way down. The choice was life or death. There was, as Sartre said, no exit, no escape from oneself and what one was except death. One could never become the dream; the terms of the dream were too hard. In choosing life, you chose yourself, as Sartre also said, because there was nothing else. You had to come to grips with the fact that the society you vowed to reject held some of the solutions to life’s problems, but that it was your life, and nobody could tell you what to do with it except yourself. The freedom we sought was nothing as superficial as being uninhibited; it was taking full responsibility for yourself and how you affected the world. But you couldn’t live it in the forms your parents had; you had to invent. Adrienne Clarkson also struggled to invent her own forms with no outside help. But likely she learned her lesson in survival much earlier. In any case, that could be why the counter-culture trip turned around from negative to positive, from drugs and freakouts to health food and living in the country.
RUMOR HAS IT THAT WOMEN DISLIKE HER BECAUSE HER IMAGE PUTS THEM DOWN
At the time she married Stephen Clarkson, 1963, the Beatles were just about to happen. She must have seen the top in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, the Hermes bag, the signature silk shirt, the Charles Jourdain shoes, the Pucci pyjamas and the Jackie Kennedy goggly sunglasses; she must have known she had the drive, the brains, everything it took to get there, and she went for it. She must have equated the establishment and all its concomitant symbols with valid achievement. All that must have still held meaning for her.
Not so for me; for me, it was already coming apart. I can remember wrestling with that high-class image. I had my hair Sassooned on Bond Street in London in 1963. I even had one pair of Charles Jourdain shoes. Girls I knew married wealthy men and kept buying more Charles Jourdain shoes. But what discouraged me about such wealthy suitors was that they didn’t do anything; wealth was not the equivalent of character. It was all too easy to slide into the old forms of marriage and money without testing anything. Art was the religion of the educated middle class; I wanted desperately to be a beatnik, or some kind of artist. I also wanted desperately to change my head around and lose my obsolete “linear fragmented intellectual man” way of thinking and become a “totally integrated human being reacting with all faculties at once.” It was McLuhan time, total environment media barrage time, global consciousness time. Party time.
Perhaps Adrienne Clarkson never questioned the status quo but saw in living up to it the same thing as I saw in the alternative — a means of changing herself, of becoming what she saw as a desirable image. For me, the whole necessity of doing anything at all came under fire. I tried doing nothing, but found I needed to be productive to be happy. We had a lot of naive illusions about freedom: freedom was being irresponsible, uninhibited, dropping acid and staying up all night; it was living at night instead of the day - until you discovered daylight was necessary for sanity; it was never washing dishes or cleaning —until you found out that filth wasn’t the best thing for your morale; it was having no possessions — until you found out, no matter where you lived, you needed a bed to sleep on.
Did any of that ever distract Adrienne Clarkson from her goal, I wonder? Was she ever drawn, by the legends of grass, by the rhythms of rock to be part of it all? Was she ever hit by the revelation that the elements and quality of high culture were present in the best of what people her own age were producing, that art was something living people were making, not just something in museums and books? Did she ever sit by while the RCMP tore her house apart searching for hashish, knowing there wasn’t any? Was she ever arrested? Did she ever experience the injustice of the society she was so eager to join? If she did, why was she so eager to join it? Likely, while I was struggling for acceptance in the rock culture, she was struggling for acceptance in the establishment.
In 1969, Stephen Clarkson ran for mayor; in 1969, purely by coincidence, I moved into a communal house. I didn’t want to, I was hoping to get back to Charles Jourdain shoeland, but by then I was too much a part of the counter-culture, or the counter-culture was too much a part of me. We were, at first in this house, half real and half people of our own creation, trying to keep the dream alive but slowly coming down to earth. Somewhere along the line, the false shell falls away and you emerge as your natural trueborn self, roots, parents, flaws, and all. You come home, because that’s where you’re happy.
It’s been said of Mrs. Clarkson that her life is a work of art. Maybe she really is capable of that kind of perfection, I think, turning on the tape recorder. Mrs. Clarkson is small, her body composed. Her features, a serene arrangement of semicircles, are not without character. Her forehead is high and prominent, her chin is held up, perhaps to make overtures with strangers; her eyes are large, heavy-lidded and very cool. Her style and her voice are upper-class Anglo-Saxon; they contradict her Oriental features. Her voice is strong, in charge, definite, cultured, controlled, not girlish and hesistant, like mine; it is the voice of a woman older than 33. She speaks in a modified version of what her heroine Regina Adler calls, in Hunger Trace, “the ritual accents of upper-class Canada,” but it has assumed these rhythms long ago, and assimilated them. It is surprising to hear this voice coming out of that person. It comes down from above, seeks words, surrounds them and takes them. The demands of finding a word include one that fills the requirement of only qualified disclosure. Thus she can talk about anything, all the while controlling how much she wants to reveal by her choice of words.
We stare at each other across the gulf. As she begins to talk, her world expands and surrounds us both, spinning larger and larger like one of those big bubbles you make by blowing through a plastic ring; they wobble aloft, full of colors and pink and blue reflections. I finger the pin in my pocket.
As I listen to Mrs. Clarkson, I discover she lives on a different plane, a plane where she can do things and know people and go places inaccessible to most other people. In her job, she meets and talks with all kinds of celebrities — she’d just returned from interviewing Conor Cruise O’Brien. Sir Kenneth Clark, Spike Milligan and Arthur Koestier for this fall’s Take 30 shows. She doesn’t just know the names of these people; she meets them and talks to them. When she says, “Edward Albee told me once that Herbert Gold was asked by an executive to write plays with happy problems,” she isn’t putting you on; Edward Albee really did tell her that once. She reads a lot, and remembers what she reads, so she can tell you interesting things — that Ernest Hemingway used a vocabulary of only 2,500 words, comparable to that of an Eskimo, so that writing was much harder, but by using simple language he was able to touch a very deep core in people. As well, she has traveled extensively, and has what appears to be an intimate knowledge of Paris. These things combined add up to the different layer of life she inhabits.
HER STYLE AND VOICE ARE UPPER-CLASS ANGLO-SAXON; THEY CONTRADICT HER FEATURES
She reaches up, and pulls down out of the air words like arrondissement, and names like Baron Haussmann, words like Galatea, words that only a person with intimate knowledge of these areas could know. This world they come from seems to be a power up there somewhere, to which she is allied and from which she can draw names and knowledge, pull them down and present them to you in the verbal equivalent of a duelist slapping you with his glove, a challenge. She’s loaded with ammunition. But these are only the preliminaries.
She talks about Paris; nobody’s talked to me about Paris for years, because few people I know have been there. I lived there myself, but it doesn’t hold much attraction for me any more.
Adrienne Clarkson: “Paris is a place of secrets, you know. Although it’s physically very beautiful and accessible to anyone who arrives in it, who wants to walk around, it has its various layers of penetration. You know that you can enjoy that street, for instance, just for its ordinary facade, and all that’s going on in it, and all the shops and the people, and where they live, and the hours they keep, and the kind of life that goes and comes in the cafés, but behind that there’s another set of life, and behind that, even. Although there are many contradictions, and I think that life should be simplified in many ways — at least, not made complicated — I think that you should accept the fact that there are many layers to life, and many many . . . things that go on at different removes; to put it vertically is wrong. I suppose you could say that it’s more like a penetration into an inner garden, and doors you open, and there’s something you meet at every stage.”
Me: “Do you think it gets more complicated, or do you think it’s quite simple?”
Adrienne Clarkson: “Life or Paris?”
Me: “Well, if you’re thinking of Paris as a metaphor for life ... I don’t know, that’s a very heavy question.”
Adrienne Clarkson: “I’ll not answer it either.”
I think of Peer Gynt, how he’d gone traveling far and wide in search of himself, and upon peeling off the concentric circles of an onion, found only a void at the core. He returns to the girl he’s left behind him, Solveig, and asks, “Where have I been all these years?” and she answers, “Here in my heart.” Reality as layers of penetration is not only very sexy, it’s very cerebral, and quite distinctive. As I listen, I discover why she says this. But at the time, I just think it’s very mysterious.
She was in Paris to publicize her novel, Hunger Trace, which was picked up from her New York publisher William R. Morrow and Company and translated into French by the time she’d signed the contract. She says she received a beautiful review in La Presse, which she offers to let me read (does she know I read French?). I ask her if she believes it was more appealing to the French sensibility. She says she didn’t know what they were going to make of the Canadian background; the book is really about how the social life of Canada is organized on a certain middleclass level, but the French publisher was more interested in the heroine, Regina Adler, and her romance with Tiercel Margrave, a 56-year-old Senator.
Adrienne Clarkson: “It’s dealing very much with one aspect of human life and trying to analyze it and dissect it, and trying to be a bit more realistic about it. I think that a lot of the confusion about it in people’s minds in the Englishspeaking version was that they kept wanting it to be a romantic book, and it kept turning up its toes on them, and saying, ‘I’m not romantic at all.’ It’s savage in many ways, um, icy. I mean, I didn’t deliberately set out to do that; it’s just what happened.”
Perhaps English-speaking people aren’t appreciative. I went to four bookstores to buy it, and none of them had it in stock. I phoned Eaton’s and Simpsons, and then ordered it and read it. The problem was that I couldn’t identify with the main character, who was intended to be something like myself. There were none of the feelings I could have identified with. Regina’s code is “arrogant sensuality.” She is closed, emotionally, to the reader but thinks good things. There is always somebody centre stage, and people come and go efficiently. The writing is complex and witty. She gets off some good lines: “I am not particularly fond of the nude male body, and the genitals in particular look out of place in the muscular lengths and planes of masculinity, like rosebuds plastered on a Boeing 707 — clash of styles.”
Mrs. Clarkson’s novels are emphatically not autobiographical; I asked her if the fact that she was a writer, filing experiences away in her mind, justifies a lot of the things she does. She answered, “Unfortunately not, I’m a little too inhibited for that.” Instead, she feels that when she’s in a receptive mood, she can visualize a whole story from one phrase somebody says. The mystique of the romantic artist. When Paul King, then of The Globe and Mail, interviewed her on publication of A Lover More Condoling and asked her if there was anything of herself in the book, she replied, “Novels are not a form of autobiographic art. They’re not a vehicle for the artist to tell you why he was severely toilet trained. They’re an adventure of the imagination. If you want a cool lucid biography, read Bertrand Russell.” She wrote Hunger Trace in six weeks.
Later, while talking about France and French, she said: “I love going to Montreal to speak French to French people ... I think that if we were all bilingual in this country we’d meet and interchange in both, I mean, really speak both French and English interchangeably. It’s not enough to say I understand your French, you speak French and I’ll speak English, you know, both all the time. I mean, if we were with a French Canadian who wanted to speak French, or if he wanted to speak English and so we spoke English, we would be able to fight out our basic disagreements on completely different and much more real grounds.”
Me: “I used to live in Montreal, and I found that, even though I spoke French, I couldn’t really; there was no way of communicating with French people there.”
Adrienne Clarkson: “Really?”
Me: “The first thing was that their French was a lot different from the French that I spoke. And the other thing was that I got the impression that they didn’t want to. All you could say was ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ ”
Adrienne Clarkson: “Well, I mean, if that’s all, I mean sometimes if your language is more profound than that, you know, really, it has to be deeper than that. I just feel it’s so necessary for the survival of the country. I just feel very strongly about it. And that we have to do it, and if we can’t do it for ourselves, we must do it for our children.”
Well, that’s okay for Mrs. Clarkson, but what about the rest of us? Her personal desire to speak French takes precedence over the situation in Quebec? People there might not take kindly to wealthy Rosedale socialites on jaunts to pratiquer leur français. But maybe the people she speaks French to aren’t your average bonhomme. In which case, I’m outclassed. But France is her spiritual home, in spite of everything; she’s claimed it for her own.
She talks about women’s lib. She seems really interested, but moderate. Perhaps she doesn’t have to prove that she’s liberated herself by not wearing a bra, or not having her hair cut, although it seems to me the fashion trip on any level is oppressive. Maybe she just likes to look nice on television. After all, she, not I, edited the New Woman series. And she, not I, covered the conference on women. And she, not I, passionately wanted to be on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, but there was no one on it under 40. Still I have the same ambivalence: is she interested in really doing something or is women’s lib something she can latch onto that cuts safely across political and social lines?
She says she speaks out about taking the abortion law out of the Criminal Code every chance she gets, but adds that if women want the abortion law repealed they’ll have to go after their MPs. That’s a strange attitude: here is a powerful woman who, if she went out on a limb, might go a long way toward accomplishing what she advocates. She says she got interested in women’s lib through letters she’d received on Take 30 from isolated women in isolated places. But when she says of French women, “I still don’t think they get equal pay for equal work, and all of that sort of technical side which is terribly important, although not so interesting to talk about,” I figure she’s more interested in feelings and insights into women’s problems than in the issues.
I ask her if she feels there is any conflict between her women’s lib views and the fact that she has a housekeeper. She says, “Well, she’s a widow, she has her own children who’ve grown up and she calls us by our first names. It’s not as if she were a West Indian in a uniform.” Twang go the vibes. She introduces me to the woman, who is wearing a green coverall. This is a delicate issue. How can she do everything she does without a housekeeper? And yet, how can you edit books on women’s lib while your freedom to do so is bought at another woman’s expense? I decide Mrs. Clarkson is more interested in having things work than in resolving such contradictions, or else she’s missing the point of her cause.
I ask her if she’s considered becoming a politician herself. Adrienne Clarkson: “Yes, well, I’ve been asked to run, but I said no, because I don’t think this is my time, for one thing. I’m not terribly happy the way things have gone for the last four years either. And I’m not a convinced, you know, party person. I’ve been a Liberal for a while — I think I’ve voted for every party in my voting career — and I think, fundamentally, if I were to analyze myself politically, the result would be a picture that wouldn’t fit into any one boundary.”
I ask her about the NABET strike at the CBC, and here she takes a stand: “I felt basically, that, in a way, I didn’t want to work while those poor guys were out there starving on the picket line. They’re all good friends of mine. I’m just glad I wasn’t put in the position of having to make a bitter choice. I mean, I don’t think the CBC management ever would have. They would have just canceled contracts or something. But basically, I felt that technicians are very important people. I’ve worked with them for so long, there’s not a single camera crew I don’t work with. I know every single one of the cameramen.”
I ask if she’d ever crossed the picket line, and she answered firmly, “Never.”
I ask her about herself. She says, “I tell people, the only difference is that I know the areas of my insecurity. I know where I’m insecure and I try to shore that up.” She had her handwriting analyzed by a professional graphologist, who said she must learn to assert herself.
Adrienne Clarkson: “You know, you back down when you shouldn’t back down. I think that was quite true, I don’t push right through to the end when I’m sure I am right, simply because I don’t want to get hurt, or I don’t want to take the risk. But I always have found that if I have done that, if I’ve pushed it right through to the end, that usually it’s been better for me; that if I leave it, I just never know what could have happened or what should have happened. I can’t think of a specific example, but I think oftentimes in work or what have you, ‘I’ve accepted a lesser person’s judgment and let it ride, simply because I think in the long term it’ll all work out,’ and I’ve made rationalizations for it, saying it’s in the interests of friendship or humanity and so on, and often it just isn’t really, sometimes it’s just moral cowardice.” She hates being bored, and gets bored very easily. At times she sinks into deep conditions of melancholy in which she’s unable to respond to anything. “My life goes on on the surface, but, I mean, I just know that none of it is really . . . I’ve just come out of one of those periods. It’s been going on for about seven or eight months, I guess. And while that’s on I can live my life on the surface and cope, but I also know that there’s something that’s not. . . quite right. But I also know that it’ll come back at some point, though it can go on for as long as seven or eight months. I’ve had it go on for as long as two years . . .”
I ask her how she manages to fit everything into her life. She says, “If it fits, I’ll work it in.” And the priorities seem to be: “I’m a wife, a mother (Kyra, three, Blaise, 18 months), and a person who works out in the world.” I ask her if she thinks people envy her, and she says, “At this stage, I just want to lead an interesting life.” She says she does have an interesting life: dinner with Gunnar Myrdal, lunch with Thor Heyerdahl, and it’s rewarding in every way — intellectually, financially and socially. She didn’t say if it made her happy.
By the end of the second lengthy conversation, she is herself. I decide everything she has said is honestly her. I look at her; she is staring down into her lap. The outside and inside persons have sort of merged into the dark, serious, brilliant, romantic, Chinese woman she is, a lady who has somehow managed to incorporate herself into a world that contains everything she thought was good and valuable in life. She has worked it out so that all the necessities and activities in her life are maintained in equilibrium. She claims she can transcend her situation as a privileged middle-class woman, get beyond it by using her mind. That is, her private world can remain unchanged while she uses it as a base for her other activities.
A former acquaintance from her university days says she is able to live and grow under all circumstances, because she can grasp the essentials of new situations and see what works together. She can appeal directly to what people and things have to offer, and put them together. This is what she brings to bear on reality and the elements around her, whether they’re people, concepts, words or whatever. He compares her to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. When she sits down to dinner, the conversation is not so much steered as orchestrated — now you call on the woodwinds, now you call on the strings.
But to me, it’s all contrived, a total fabrication. Her context may be more secure than mine and more permanent; communal living is hard because you keep losing friends and making new ones. But in Mrs. Clarkson’s world, everything is set, and it must, to work, be closed. How can you respond to changes in yourself and in the real world in such an artificial situation? How much energy do you have to put into pretending that it’s you? Wouldn’t such a life deny you contact with what you have in common with other people and contact with yourself? Wouldn’t it sustain you at a superficial level? Isn’t its whole purpose to deny her roots?
What drives a person to do everything in her power to become someone else? How well can it work? And how long? Is it one of the forces that makes the earth turn?
I wait in the hallway while she goes upstairs. I look into the dining room. A bouquet of peonies stands on the long polished table, with its red-seated chairs; a chandelier hangs above. I imagine the table glowing with candelabra, crystal, sterling and linen, and a group of sparkling witty famous dinner guests in formal dress sitting down to vichyssoise on ice. A true salon. It’s the kind of traditional dining room I find so threatening. And I think, she really lives up to all this; it’s not so much that they’re other people’s standards, it’s that she believes they’re her own now. She’s part of her own dream. No wonder she’s a romantic. She is the author of her life but a product of her time. And so am I.
I drive her to the Medical Arts building. On the way, she tells me her housekeeper has given notice. I wonder at that, and consider asking her if good help is hard to find these days, but don’t. It feels good to be back outside. ■