Twenty-six years ago, in the fall of 1968, I was getting on a bus in Morocco for a daylong journey headed for Ouarzazate, in the Atlas Mountains looking out across the Sahara.
There was this stunning young woman, a Candice Bergen look-alike with shiny blond hair, a mahogany tan, a purposeful stride and a particular style about her. She looked like a starlet who was slumming. Why the bus? Manoeuvring the queue, I squeezed into the seat beside her. And thus began a friendship that lasted for a quarter of a century.
It turned out she wasn’t from Hollywood. She was from Montreal. Her name was Susan Lumsden. She was a freelance journalist who existed on her own in Paris, selling pieces on art and history and anything that occurred to her to The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and whoever else. She wrote for the old Weekend magazine supplement.
She was as smart as a whip, as stubborn as a mule, with a laugh that tinkled the wineglasses. We were never involved romantically, just two journalistic junkies encased in the same fascination for travel and interest in our mutual crazy trade.
We kept in touch, through letters and gossip, and eventually she returned to her native Montreal, where she was already somewhat of a minor legend among her university girlfriends, someone who was doing what many of them wished they were doing.
She went to work for the CBC’s International Service, preparing documentaries, phoning all over the globe to track down the contacts she’d met. She’d travel to Sweden for an environmental conference, to South America—one of those lucky and talented people whose profession equalled the personal hobby.
She adored her two brothers, one a teacher and fine tennis player, the other the boss of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. She talked about them all the time.
I shepherded her through a marriage, and then a divorce—her ex-husband a friend of
mine to this day, a prominent Montreal lawyer, a perceptive and witty luncheon companion. I think he thinks me slightly batty.
Paris having been conquered, Susan Lumsden then decided to lay Italy at her feet. She moved to Florence and found a little house in Settignano, a village that sits in the hills above that most precious of all Italian treasures and looks out across the green beauty of Tuscany.
The first time I passed through, the most obvious sight over her mantel were at least two dozen large silver cups, goblets, trophies—obviously for athletic feats. Knowing her affection for her brothers, I assumed they were family heirlooms she had confiscated for display.
Her rage was uncontained. ‘Typical male conceit” was one of her more printable screams. They were all her own, the fruits of her new passion—long-distance running. She won most of them representing the Tus-
can Postal Workers’ Union, the male athletic club that accepted her.
She knew Florence, the town of Michelangelo, like the back of her hand. Her favorite restaurant was a rough-looking place where the artisans ate lunch and served the best osso buco this stomach has ever met.
As always, she survived, fighting with her evil landlord, polishing carefully researched articles on Florence architecture or cathedrals or gardens, maintaining her friendships with editors in Paris, London, New York. She never was rich, but just dressed that way.
Several years ago, her alma mater, Bishop’s University in the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships, had its grads’ 25th homecoming reunion. As it happened, she had to return to her Montreal doctors for a problem with skin cancer. Since I was in the territory, I was seconded as the escort.
Her female classmates, encumbered now with husbands and children, swarmed around like bees: the beautiful foreign correspondent who never had to do car pools or mandatory bank cocktail parties. I added to the allure by telling them that the bruises and cuts on her face (the product of the treatment) were injuries from flak while covering the Beirut war.
When my cruel employer assigned me to cover the 1990 World Cup in Italy, she served—for a fee—as my translator, guide and bodyguard. Insisting as always on a private room, she was a very private person who never divulged her love interests to others.
Curiosity, the one essential for a journalist, never flagged. There was never a visit when she had not discovered some new concert
pianist up the hill—a mere two-kilometre
walk away—who had just moved from Poland. Or an interesting new writer who was having problems with his wife who was, etc. She was effortlessly fluent in French and Italian, could get along in German.
I’ve never met anyone who was so interested in so many things and, therefore, was so interesting.
Last month, she phoned from Montreal, saying she was back from Italy briefly for treatment for “a little problem.” She was never very explicit. I said, great, I’m just about to have a housewarming and come along, the guest bedroom will be there. She thought it a great idea, establishing further newspaper and magazine contacts for her work.
She left a message several days later, saying she might not be able to make it. Nothing further, just that.
Last week, her best friend phoned. After an operation, she died. She was 51.
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