He’s no John Donne, but how many condominiums did Donne ever sell?
The voice on the radio oozed burnished butterscotch. Husky honeyed sweet nothings dripped over the airwaves of the midmorning hotline. Mother’s Day dawned this morning, right on time as usual.
In the background, a wistful flute and living strings rose throbbing to the occasion. Above them in an aphrodisiac whisper, the voice ebbed and flowed relentlessly on.
But I wonder how many of us remember why we celebrate, how many of us take for granted the pain she suffered giving birth, or fail to recognize the joy in her love-filled eyes The violins were cresting to an orgiastic crescendo. In the glassed-in studio, hotline host John Gilbert could feel a certain mist mounting behind his hornrims, but he blinked it back. Already the switchboard of Toronto radio station CHUM was alight with weeping housewives on the line.
“Oh. my mother was the greatest person alive,” sobbed one. “She gave what she didn’t have to give . . .” “Gee. love is so great,” wailed another. “I’m gonna go cry now.” By the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire control room, John Gilbert’s cheeks were ridged with damp rivulets and he had to break abruptly to a commercial before his professional pear-shaped tones caved in. “1 mean, the guy really got to me.” he said later, “more than I’d ever been gotten to in my life before.”
Terry Rowe has been getting to more than one person of late. With his three slim volumes of warm-blanket blank verse, he has crept into the hearts and tear ducts of thousands and emerged as the country’s current best-selling poet and its newest literary phenomenon. In the two years since he launched his first book To You With Love on Mother’s Day with a single rose on tl;e cover and a free autographed matching Mother’s Day gift card, he has sold more than 16.000 copies in Canada and just wrap-
ped up a paperback first printing of 60,000 in the United States, with New American Library, those wonderful folks who gave us Love Story. His sequel, You And I, And Love, chalked up more than 7,000 in sales before its appearance this year just in time for Valentine’s Day, complete with a verse beginning. Valentine’s Day is coming/it does every year/at the same time, which has a certain familiar ring to it. His third tome, The Warmth Of Christmas, has also proved a perennial snappy seller as soon as the Yuletide shopping bulletins go out.
It is a phenomenon all the more curious in a country where 6.000 books can rocket an author to the best-seller's list, considering the fact that Terry Rowe has accomplished it without benefit of cross-country promotional tours, critical kudos or a literary content that differs markedly from a Hallmark greeting card. As John Gilbert puts it, "The only criticism I ever have from listeners is when they don’t understand something. Well, you never get that with Terry Rowe on the show.”
I wandered the streets all day
waiting for you,
didn't need a haircut
but a Jew minutes in
a stylist’s chair
(they don’t call themselves
barbers any more)
helped waste a few minutes . . .
No, with lines such as those Terry Rowe has shown an unerring instinct for his audience and where to find it. He has charted his literary course unswervingly through the heart of Middle Canada and staked out his claim as minstrel to the morning talk shows, bard of the suburban shopping plaza and balladeer to Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date. He has taken a public school education and the talents of a onetime carnival barker, turned his own special eye on both the larger and the smaller moments of life and developed an uncanny knack for turning the mundane into. well, the mundane. With the acknowledged inspiration of the man who trod the path
before him. he has spun it all into a kind of poetic Muzak, in the process ensuring his mantle as Canada’s own Rod (Listen to the Warm) McKuen.
The comparison might drive other poets to thoughts of homicide, but Terry Rowe does not hesitate to proclaim it proudly in his ads. “I certainly don’t mind being compared to the poet who has sold the most books of any other poet, living or dead,” he says. “You write a book, you want to sell it. They can criticize me all the way to the bank.”
It is not exactly the sentiment one expects from the man who likes to say. “My message is love.” But then again one doesn’t exactly expect to find the country's current messenger of love in a three-piece pinstripe suit, imitation Gucci loafers and a diamond pinky ring ensconced in this plush paneled executive suite on the outskirts of Toronto peddling suburban condominiums.
“Hi friend.” he breathes periodically into the phone, talking progress reports. “Hey, buddy,” he purrs, ordering up kitchen appliances for his model suites with a knowing bow to avocado green and harvest gold.
Around him. the office bulges with broadloom sample books, highrise floor plans and draftsmen’s door sketches. Out in the hallway construction moguls come and go with weighty briefcases and superman cigars. But in the midst of it all. Terry Rowe prevails with an interesting blend of down-home folksiness and the smooth city-slicker assurance of a onetime real estate pitchman who sold Florida lots sight unseen from Toronto hotel suites. His quick, wary, color-shifting eyes are offset by a stylized ruddy beard, his natty six-foot-two presence by an index finger permanently jaundiced from nicotine. But it is his voice that is the imposing instrument. It draws you in with its soft, soothing intonations like terry toweling, beckons you into orchestrated intimacy with its practised cadences, here and there a sentence nicely
Marci McDonald is an associate editor and a senior writer for Maclean’s.
Rowe has written poems on toilet paper
punctuated with your name.
“Please believe me. I'm the world’s best salesman,” he says. One would never doubt him. but witnesses keep popping up to testify. Builder Virgil Vatri shakes his head admiringly to relate how Terry Rowe talked him into carpeting the bathrooms and kitchens of his condominium model suites with deep lush shag although the units themselves wouldn't come with it. “He knows who he’s selling to,” says Virgil. “It’s the woman who buys.” “Ves,” says Terry Rowe, “I think it’s part of the secret. Knowing what people want. It’s the same with poetry.”
Indeed, poetry and condominiums have proved surprisingly compatible. His former employers, the brothers DelZotto — recently linked to criminal elements by a royal commission into violence in the construction industry — bought up 600 copies of To You With Love and gave one away free with every condominium. Sometimes inspiration has even come on the job.
“I’ve never, ever sat down to write a poem." he says. “I'm just an instrument of a force I cannot explain.” God? “Perhaps.” Spirits? “Perhaps. It’s just a matter of sitting down and having the words come to you. I could be sitting in a restaurant or the john. Why, I’ve written poems on toilet paper. Once I was in the middle of talking to some people who were buying a condominium and I just had to excuse myself and go and write it down.”
Generally, however, such urgency is brought on by thoughts of love. We are not five minutes into the interview when he suddenly philosophizes, “You know, there’s just no such thing as lost love.” It is a subject that he never tires of, which is handy. “People,” says his publisher Eve Orpen. “really do want to know about love.” In that enduring search, they have flooded him with adoring letters. flocked around him at book signings and forced him to an unlisted phone. Should they want to listen to him on the subject, however, they only have to dial 416-962-8888 to hear him murmur into the receiver with feeling:
I remember how I used to lay beside you
awake at dawn, pretending to be asleep hoping you would awaken and get up,
put the morning coffee on .. .
A quick, high, perky voice on the 24hour voice-activated Harding Record-aCall box then chimes in with the announcement: “This month on Dial-a-
He used to wear his sneakers when he read poetry on television — until he found out that was what Rod McKuen did
Poem, Toronto’s most requested poet Terry Rowe.” A bleep at the end invites listeners to state their names and addresses for further information on how to obtain his companion To You With Love album, backed by a hallelujah chorus and quivering symphonic strings. At certain times the Dial-a-Poem-ofLove line is tied up solidly for hours.
“Housewives tell me it just picks up their whole day.” he says.
The album and the dial-a-poem are the brainchildren of real estate ad man Stan Kates who first heard Terry Rowe on the John Gilbert show over his car radio and knew he had to sign him up that same afternoon. “Not because of what he was saying.” says Kates. “But
because of the reaction he was having on people. It was incredible. Terry’s a super salesman, and a good salesman can sell anything. What he’s selling in his books are nice warm thoughts.”
It was a pitch he picked up early when he ran away from his grandparents' Peterborough farm at 13, leaving behind his first literary effort — a farewell note. It had been, he says, “a terrible, terrible childhood.” His mother dead when he was three. His father a career army man, never on the scene. He was shunted from home to home, first a “cruel” stepmother’s domain, then to his grandparents’ dirt farm where “the only fond memories I have about it is the land.” One July afternoon — “the memory is as clear as last-night’s dinner,” he says — he just decided, “there must be somebody out there who would show me some affection.”
In the midst of his story, his employer’s father wanders into the room looking for a match. “Hey, Dad! Hey, Dad Black,” Terry Rowe engulfs him. “Why, Dad Black has shown me more affection than most people in my entire life.” Dad Black looks a trifle bewildered by it all and wanders out again. “Sometimes,” Terry Rowe continues on, “people have never known how sad I’ve been.”
standing in the aisle, nose pressed to the frosted glass, happier,
watching the countryside rolling by; one of the happy, unhappy people now am 1 . . .
On the road, his life took many turnings. Busboy, shoeshine boy. burlesque candy boy. field hand and cotton picker — they are turnings remarkably reminiscent of the ones Rod McKuen reports. Not that they are the only similarities. He used to show up to read his poetry on TV wearing his sneakers too “till I found out that’s what Rod McKuen wore.” In a Detroit strip palace, he hitched up with an old blind comic, headed south, picked up trained dogs, strippers and a tent, and joined “one of those ragbag carnivals. I was the barker. I guess I had a natural gift for it. Whatever I was doing I always wanted to be the best.” His younger brother Ed. left behind on the farm, wasn’t surprised when the postcards started to drift in from the seedy fringes of circus life. “As a kid Terry was always connin',” he remembers. not without some envy. “He was always popular, always tradin'
He talks about the time he was on welfare, brokenhearted, drinking too much. Actually, he was only on welfare five weeks
lunches, always on the move. My brother would be the ideal perfect car salesman.”
When phony identification papers prompted Uncle Sam to beckon for the draft, he beat a hasty retreat back to London, Ontario, to bunk in with his brother and father, but only long enough to join the RCAF and turn into
a model citizen. Husband, father, cubmaster, head of chapel committee, champion curler — he spent 11 years at it, 10 of them in Europe, till opportunity could no longer be resisted.
He left the services to open a German Dairy Queen. From that disaster he bounced into heading up a mutual fund for the short-lived British International
Finance group in Europe, driving a silver Mercedes and living high, till the bottom fell out of that too. Back in Canada he turned his talents to the worlds of life insurance and real estate. In some circles today they still talk about the intimate, soft-sell dinners he ran from Toronto hotels, pitching modest Florida plots after the free roast beef had been cleared away, assuring his lucky guests selected from a routine mailing list that he was only interested in offering them a deal of a lifetime, not selling anything, oh no. It is nothing, though, that he cares to dwell upon.
Terry Rowe prefers to talk of the time when he was down and out on welfare, brokenhearted, and drinking too much. Actually he was only on welfare five weeks and then because he admits he was sick of working and wanted to write. “But I was in a bad way,” he says.
A phone call to a fellow Florida land salesman with a farm outside Toronto brought a quick invitation for shelter. There he spent a lot of time in rocking chairs rereading Kahlil (The Prophet) Gibran, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the ubiquitous McKuen. It was a diet that promptly produced To You With Love, although he insists he wasn’t influenced by any of them. “No one can teach you to write about the soul,” he says.
Sure, I like riding in a Cadillac, but I don’t care if ever I own one.
1 can sit for hours now in a beat up pickup truck,
just listening to life . . .
Terry Rowe is talking about getting back to the land. “My dream would be to have a couple of hundred acres. Just a place where people could come and read and think,” he says. “The simple things — that’s what I love.”
Unfortunately he has not yet been able to get around to it. For the moment he has had to content himself with this $125,000 two-story house in the heart of suburban Mississauga with a chocolatebrown Oldsmobile Royale and a white Mustang in the driveway, a living room full of pristine overstuffed pink and powder-blue velvet and a denful of imitation Spanish modern with a wellstocked bar from which he is just pouring himself his second rye and coke of the day. “I could live right now on my royalties if I didn’t have such extravagant tastes,” he says. “If I don’t make $25.000 this year from the books. I’ll be
He bought Joy a Mustang before he kissed her. “Terry’s very romantic,” she says
It is the next afternoon and he is the picture of contented domesticity, his feet up on the coffee table, a vision direct from House And Garden. The smell of bread baking in the kitchen wafts through the conversation, a small white poodle romps on the red broadloom and the current love of his life, a beautiful curvaceous blond named Joy Miller, glides into the room with his scrapbook. “This is the woman with whom 1 want to spend the rest of my life.” he says.
They met in the Ports of Call bar two years ago when she was with another man. “I just took one look at her and knew,” he says. The next day he phoned her at her office and announced, “The search is over. Then I phoned up the three or four other girls 1 was taking out and told them I was concentrating all my efforts on Joy.” In case she didn’t get the message, he bought her a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the white Mustang in the driveway before she’d even kissed him goodnight.
“Terry’s very romantic,” Joy says in a silken whisper. “That’s how much money means to him.”
“Yes, money means absolutely nothing to me,” he says. “I’m in the $50,000 bracket, but that doesn't interest me. It’s what it does for you.”
Joy’s seven-year-old son Terry, a blond elfin ball of energy, bounces into
the room then, his plaid shirt sleeves stuffed with pennies. “Hey, look, look, I’m rich, I’m rich,” he squeals. “See all my money.” But Terry Rowe is finishing his conversation. “We’re walking away from all this probably by next year,” he waves his hand around the room. “Money just isn’t important. It’s only paper.”
“What are you saying?” gulps little Terry genuinely horrified. “What do you mean it’s only paper?” “He imitates everything I do,” says Terry Rowe. “These two are the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
Not that To You With Love isn’t close in the running. At first rejected by three publishers, he'd had to print it himself. He hustled it into bookstores singlehandedly and charmed his way onto the Elwood Glover show. But when sales went wild the minute the show switched off the air, it was enough to convince publisher Eve Orpen to take him on, repackage his thoughts in a warm, sepiatoned edition attractively priced for giftgiving and build her fledgling firm around him. Having just returned from Australia promoting Rod McKuen, she saw that “Here was someone with the same appeal. So many poets speak to just a few people. Terry hits everybody with a very understanding reality.” Well, maybe not everybody. “I’m not writing for the intellectual minority who
“Always was a love-’em-and-leave-’em type, just get tired of them and disappear”
are so hung up on their own egos they can’t see the truth and call it syrupy sentimental pap,” he says.
In times that are too often confusing, Terry Rowe is clearly saying something to those who want a simple message to cling to. In an age when emotions are more often numbed than ravaged, he serves up an instant infusion of feeling, quick, cathartic and painless, but best of all easy to read. He has become surrogate bedside suitor to a whole epoch of women who need a little romance in their lives, substitute spokesman for a whole age of men who aren’t sure now what they’re supposed to say, or how.
“I only hope people will look into it,” he says, “and discover the real meaning of love.”
The memory of a love long ago is like the old grey sweater with holes that I keep telling myself I’ll throw away, some day.
“Love is the strongest force in the universe,” says Terry Rowe, stabbing his steak sandwich. “Love is harmony with yourself, harmony with your fellow man and harmony with the universe. It is love that is going to bring us all back together. Love is man’s ability to conquer ego.”
It is the following day over lunch just blocks from his condominiums rising out of a sea of mud, and 1 am searching for a definition. But Canada’s current love poet is getting annoyed. “You’re talking about the personal level between a man and a woman,” he waves off the question. “I’m interested in a far greater sphere. I have thought I was in love many, many times,” he says. “But as I grow older I realize if it had been love, it would have lasted.”
“Terry was always a real ladies’ man,” remembers his brother Ed from their latter days in London. “A real love’em-
and-leave’em type. Terry’d just get tired of them after a while and disappear.” After seven years of marriage to a French girl named Arlette and three children, he disappeared out of his marriage and is currently awaiting a divorce. He has never seen the kids nor supported them since, he says. “You don’t know how painful that was for me,” he says. “I cried myself to sleep every night for six weeks. But I figured I was doing them more good that way than being a part-time father.”
Other relationships too have vanished. The German girl who consoled him and followed him to Canada; the New York secretary who prodded him into publishing the first book and was rewarded with the poetic promise that my love will keep/ on living/ of this I am sure; his father, now in a London mission, whose whereabouts he says he doesn’t know “and I don’t want to know.” As George Willis, a former friend who once lent him his apartment rent-free to write in. says, “1 guess I feel indifferent to him. He never comes around any more. Terry’s the kind of guy who just drifts out of your life.”
He is drifting out of the restaurant now, and back to the world of condominiums, but not before I ask him about his goals in life. He talks about cross-continent concert tours, records, films, a novel, his own talk show and a TV spectacular tracing “the entire history of art from the beginning of time to the present day.” But his hearty warmth of two days ago has cooled somewhat, he is all business and bustle. It isn’t until later that I realize he may already have answered the question:
Some of us never change, only the images we see.
Today, it’s Paul Newman, tomorrow, it might be you, or even me.