Memoirs of a gentleman of pleasure

KILDARE DOBBS August 1 1975


Memoirs of a gentleman of pleasure

KILDARE DOBBS August 1 1975


Memoirs of a gentleman of pleasure


Just before dawn on the day of the annual Foster Horse Show, a sultry Sunday in July, he wakes to a stupendous racket of thunder and torrential rain. But this is by no means a cheerless sound to a man comfortably in bed, protected by the stone walls of the snug house he designed himself. Outside, the storm is tearing the night apart; in here, Buffy Glassco is wondering sleepily whether the show will be rained out. He feels a fatherly concern: 20 years ago he was one of its founders and today he is to present the trophy he donated himself. In all that score of years the weather has held fair for the show.

Lightning flickers from gilt mirrors and old furniture in the house. Buffy decides that the sun will come out later, as usual. Another worry is nagging at him. The photographer fellow, a charming French Canadian, has insisted on taking his picture in riding costume, posed beside a neighbor’s thoroughbred; there was actually some talk of borrowing a dog to round out the composition. Buffy hasn’t ridden a horse for years — his enthusiasm was for harness horses anyway. And he fears now that his own strong martinis have beguiled him into presenting a false impression.

“After all,” he tells a house guest, sputtering mildly, “I’m a literary bloke.” A fair description of John Glassco, born in Montreal in 1909, poet, essayist, translator, fiction writer and pornographer. One of the best writers in Canada and perhaps the least known for an author of his rank. The very uniqueness of his gifts has kept him out of the publicity circus. In an age swarming with shaggy talents and thick-tongued spokesmen for causes, Glassco is an elegantly tailored stylist who disdains the topics of the hour. A late-blooming flower of the movement called by the shimmering, purple word decadence, he has lived by the discipline of hedonism, whose Victorian apologist Walter Pater once wrote: “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” Glassco himself has written in a poem, “The means are more important than the end.”

In 1972 his Selected Poems won him a Governor General’s Award. His radiant evocation of expatriate Paris in the 1920s, Memoirs Of Montparnasse, published in 1970 though written 35 years earlier, was received more warmly abroad than at home. The veteran American critic Malcolm Cowley called it the best of all the books written about its period in Paris — no mean tribute, since almost every North American who spent more than a weekend in the city during the last years of the Twenties has written about it. From his underground career as a pornographer, Glassco acknowledges such classics as Under The Hill, in which he completes a romance that Aubrey Beardsley began and left unfinished, and Harriet Marwood, Governess (the original version of The English Governess by “Myles Underwood”), a masochist fantasy in the same class with The Story Of O and Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs. The last-named novel, by the way, Glassco has translated, so far without finding a publisher; he feels the age is so deplorably permissive that true pornography is losing its appeal. He has also translated the Journal of the French-Canadian poet SaintDenys-Garneau, and edited English Poetry In Quebec and The Poetry Of French Canada In Translation. His pornographic work has surfaced recently in The Fatal Woman, a sequence of three tales on the theme of all his fiction, that of the beautiful, cruel female who enslaves the male.

Decidedly a literary bloke.

Later on this July Sunday, the weather having obligingly cleared, Glassco drives in his white Olds convertible (the mafiamobile, he calls it) to Knowlton. Quebec, now the site of Foster Horse Show. The horsey set greets him warmly — an old friend who during the war was the rural postman, delivering mail in all seasons, driving his own spanking horses; a former mayor of Foster who just over 20 years ago had the idea of putting on a horse show on his own farm.

The region seems an idyll of fields and farms, nestling among lakes and woods in the shelter of hills that are not quite mountains. Millionaires abound in these woods, with their swimming pools and thoroughbreds; the native yeomen do what they can to exploit them.

Buffy, a slight, willowy figure in an open shirt, a scarf at the throat, looks the compleat country gent. The military suggestion of the white moustache is muted by the noticing brown eyes, fine hands and unemphatic jaw. He turns his back discreetly on the Western classes with their cowboy gear and Stetsons to contemplate the trim, hard-bitten ladies riding boldly at their fences, horses grunting in the grip of those plump, compelling thighs. Up, and over; the Englishy bums in tight whipcords point at the sky.

The Eastern Townships include pockets of anglais in the surrounding Frenchness, retreats of rich brokers and businessmen from Montreal who tend to be defensively exaggerated in their “Englishness.” Buffy’s difference from all this is not at once obvious. He is after all a Glassco, one of a Canadian dynasty of men of affairs who made money and married it and watched it grow. One — J. Grant — gave his name to a royal commission on federal government organization; another — William — runs one of the best little theatres in Toronto.

True, Buffy has confessed to a dissolute past: in youth he burned at both ends with a spendthrift flame till he came within a flicker of burning out altogether; modeling for dirty postcards; serving the brutal lusts of rich, furry ladies; sleeping three in a bed; even, at the summons of a handbell, running to the embrace of a female leather freak, like some kind of Pavlovian lapdog. It’s all in the Memoirs. But there’s room for that kind of thing in the tolerance of the well heeled. Sowing one’s wild oats, it’s called. And for Buify the wages of such sin was not death —though he sacrificed a lung and three years of his youth to escape it — but belated distinction.

Kildare Dobbs is a free-lance writer, author and broadcaster.

Glassco burned up his youth in the cafés of Montparnasse, then spent three years in hospital with tuberculosis

Then again, he’s a man who turns at once to the financial pages of the newspapers (before reading the funnies) and talks knowledgeably about the stock market. Having decided long ago he was incompetent to hold a regular job —and anyway no one ever got rich on a salary — he set himself to learn the art of investment: to such good purpose that, primed with a modest inheritance, he soon made himself independent.

The quality that distinguishes him is a kind of innocence. It is the achieved innocence of a man who has looked steadily at the worst of life and, without resignation, accepted all. At the mundane level this quality can be disconcerting. Sometimes it fazes even Marion McCormick, the Montreal broadcaster and theatre critic who became his second wife in September, 1974. “What can you do with a man who laughs all the way through the Stratford production of King Lear?” she exclaims, exasperated. And then in her forthright, testy way, “He’s such an interesting man! Even when we have a fight the reasons he gives for quarreling are so interesting!” In a more profound way the innocence finds expression in The Pit, the magnificent poem published in the Tamarack Review. It sums up Glassco’s life and thought, much as The Fatal Woman sums up his erotic obsession. Like the One Last Word of the Selected Poems it is addressed to Marion (“my final, my autumnal love”) and is an exhortation to live in the moment, in the eternal now. The poet accepts the “endlessness of detail” of daily existence, seeing it as

detours and dead ends of a pilgrimage

Towards simplicity and the vision

That should have come in a blaze of inner glory,

1 accept them now: they will never cease.

The morning will not come.

He prays not to be utterly forsaken, though he knows that makers and artists are condemned to the abyss for daring to compete with the Creator, that “old master and wicked workman . . .”

And now the loudspeakers are announcing him as the founder of the Foster Horse Show. The Sunday crowds are applauding. He is to present the trophy he has given in memory of Graeme Taylor, the friend with whom he burned up his youth in the cafés of Montparnasse, with whom he set up house in a 16-room mansion near here in 1935, after his recovery from tuberculosis — three years imprisonment in a dreary Montreal hospital. “Return, return, my heart, to the death we should have died,” he writes in The Pit. But it was Taylor who died, in 1957.

Glassco is presenting the trophy, smiling, saying something inaudible to the winner while the crowd applauds and scans programs for the next event, it’s a horsey crowd. The name of Graeme Taylor cannot mean much to them.

Taylor: friend or evil genius? Of the two young men it was Taylor who considered himself the real writer. He seems to have brushed aside Glassco’s efforts. “It should be quite amusing,” he said dismissively of the Memoirs in progress. As for poetry, Glassco took to writing it in secret.

Glimpses of the two friends may be caught in the pages of their Paris contemporaries. Morley Callaghan, as he acknowledges in That Summer In Paris, used them as models for his story Now That April’s Here, a satirical view. The Toronto Irish Catholic was not much in sympathy with the Montreal Wasps, nor they with him, though Glassco even then perceived Callaghan’s strength of character and virtue as a writer. Robert McAlmon in Being Geniuses Together recalls his days with the two young Montrealers in Paris. Glassco was “then 18, and much the oldest, most ironic and disillusioned of the three of us.” Leon Edel, the great biographer of Henry James, comments in a preface to Glassco’s Memoirs that this was true. “I remember his bright questioning eyes,” Edel writes,” and his assumed air of indifference as he flicked the ash from his cigarette and whispered an epigram apologetically. I can still see his willowy silhouette as he sauntered on the Boulevard du Montparnasse with his friend Graeme Taylor; or slouched worldweary — aetat 18 — in some bar, often the Sélect.”

Glassco and his friend were not literary lion hunters. Having paid their respects in London to George Moore, then in his seventies, they met the stars of their Paris neighborhood as chances offered. One of Glassco’s funniest stories is of being thrown out of a party at Gertrude Stein's. When she spoke slightingly of Jane Austen’s novels, he gamely answered back. Buffy told Miss Stein’s self-appointed bouncer that if he cared to come outside he’d be glad to pull his nose.

The first three chapters of the Memoirs were written during this period in 1928, the rest during the winter of 193233, when Glassco was in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, awaiting a dangerous operation. “All 1 desired.” he explains, “was to record, and in a sense re-live, a period of great happiness. After barely surviving the operation I turned away from my youth altogether.” He did not turn away from his friend. Soon after they set up house near Knowlton, they advertised for a housekeeper.

Sitting in his living room the day after the Horse Show, Glassco sips a martini and talks about those days.

Glassco was part of a ménage à trois with a beauty queen; locals in the Eastern Townships called them the Dirty Hermits

They hired the first applicant, a young woman obviously doing her best to disguise her striking good looks. Luckily she was also an excellent cook. She turned out to be a beauty queen in flight from her past. Before long the hired man was becoming aware of strange goings on. The ménage à trois was not a common arrangement in the Eastern Townships. “The locals called us the Dirty Hermits.” Glassco recalls.

Marion scowls. “1 find it hard to believe in all those orgies.”

“You must remember we were a lot younger then."

Taylor fell in love with the beauty queen and married her. Later the marriage went sour. When war came, Taylor decided he would join the army, go to France and get himself killed in action. That would solve everything. Unluckily for this plan he was not sent overseas; he found himself patroling the shores of the St. Lawrence instead. Bully, tranquilly employed as a rural postman, found the beauty queen pleasant company. “1 became quite fond of her.” he says.

But the threesome ended in an acrimonious divorce (in those days an act of parliament was needed).

Later, when Glassco became involved with his first wife. Lima. Taylor grew increasingly strange and jealous. In 1957. having refused the help of doctors, he died of peritonitis.

In a sense, Glassco had said good-bye to him years before, as he lay waiting for death in hospital. The evidence is in The Pif.

Farewell my clear, the masking heart

The fawning smite, the tender lie

I miss my youth. I lose my art

Goodnight my only friend, goodbye.

The death of Taylor was not the last suffering for Glassco. Lima was to end her days in a mental hospital.

A fatalist might argue that Glassco sought out the kind of experience that was bound to bring him pain. The obsession pursued with such zest in his pornographic romances is masochist. “A man can only work a single vein so far.” he writes in a brief preface to The Fatal Woman, “and when he has no other must resign himself to it . /. 1 have treated the Fatal Woman with sympathy, fascination and love, but have left her still swathed in her cocoon of mystery — because, as I now see. I could not bear to have her otherwise.” Her delightful poison still boiling in his veins, Glassco has not sought to explain his Fatal Woman, only to invoke and pay homage to her. From the private reverie, his own secret dreams and manias, he has made his art for its own sake.

The itch for explanation belongs to journalism rather than art. Glassco has not written about the origins of his obsession, though he is aware that they go back to childhood.

“I remember clearly that at about the age of seven I knew that I enjoyed being driven in reins like a little horse,” he says. (Which might, incidentally, “explain” his fondness for harness horses.) He was taught by governesses, at least three of them, though none was beautiful and cruel like Harriet Marwood. "1 might have wished they were,” he adds, smiling.

Sent as a boarder to Bishop’s College School, Lennoxville. in his early teens, Glassco immediately made enemies of his classmates by easily taking first place in academic subjects. Since most of the boys were older and stronger than he was, they made his life hell until he learned to conceal his intelligence. Even then, he found school so unbearable that he sought desperately for some means of escape. He found it when he managed to infect a small scratch with a dirty bandage borrowed from another boy. The sepsis made him sick enough to be taken home. He could easily have died of septicemia.

Relations with his father were not happy (see The Whole Hog in the Selected Poems). The son would have liked to have won his respect. He never succeeded and, what was more painful, he came to see that his father failed by his own standards. He lacked the Glassco touch with money.

Such distant conflicts still reverberate in his memory. But Glassco long since learned to be unapologetically himself. When Margaret Atwood showed energetic resentment at a short story in a little magazine which took her name and Glassco’s in vain, alleging that he had told her after a poetry reading that her verse gave him an erection, Glassco shrugged off the fuss — involving lawyers. the Writers Union and a flurry of correspondence in the press — as “an erection in a teacup.”

In his mid-sixties Glassco finds Canadian winters too much for him. Marion and he spend the worst months in a romantic house in Marfil, just outside Guanajuato in the mountains of Mexico. There among the flowers and scorpions. he explores the sunlit town with its theatrical plazas, sips Margaritas and works at his writing. A poet who has schooled himself to sensitive awareness, he accepts without flinching the nights of desolation that still find him hanging on the cliff's of his departure.