77th Post: 2nd CANADA – Oscar’s Canadian Friends


Lake Ontario


After the first few shows I had a couple of days spare which mostly I used to get acquainted with Toronto – or rather ‘Terron-oh’. On a bus tour of the city the guide informed us that no native would pronounce the second ‘T’.

“T stands for tourist here.”

The Canadian accent is nasal and quite fast – but they pronounce their ‘O’s with a soft and slightly owl-like hoot. So ‘About’ becomes ‘Ab-hoo-t’ and so on.

The bus tour itself was a good introduction to Toronto’s various districts – like many cities, most of them distinguished by race or income bracket – hence Chinatown and Little Italy, etc, or Posh Town and Hippie Ville, etc.

Back in the 1960s Yorkville to the north had been the heart of the hippie movement and the folk-rock music scene. When the city extended the subway line to Yorkville making the district accessible to downtown, the hippies were ejected and the area began the rise to its present opulence. It is now home to five-star hotels, ultra-chic shops, and mega-dollar real estate.

Coming south from Yorkville, the tour passed the University of Toronto. The buildings closely resemble those of Harvard University in Boston USA. As Harvard has always refused to allow any movie or TV crews to film on its premises, Toronto University has become the go-to stand-in for Harvard.

CN Tower from Yorkville

Visible throughout the city, the CN Tower is the emblematic symbol of Toronto and even Canada as a whole. Its initials stand for ‘Canadian National’ and the one sure-fire way to rile a native is to mistakenly call it the ‘CNN Tower’ in reference to the US TV company. It appears that one method of determining a unit of weight here is to judge what something would weigh in moose. Hence the revolving restaurant at the top of the CN tower is capable of carrying 35 moose. It also houses the highest wine cellar in the world.

Still attempting to trace Oscar Wilde’s elusive trail through Toronto I tried to find the site of the Grand Opera House where he gave his main lecture. I knew it had been demolished – I now found out why. In 1919, its owner Ambrose Small disappeared with a large sum of money. In the resulting outcry it turned out that he had also maintained a secret sex den at the theatre where he and his mistresses indulged themselves. In a city known at the time as ‘the Methodist Rome’, such behaviour was well beyond the pale. The GOP was levelled and the land is now occupied by a 68-storey office block.

Trump Tower, Toronto

Passing near the main Union railway station, we caught a quick glimpse of the ice-floe choked harbour and beyond it the freezing Lake Ontario. This also had a faint Wildean echo. When he gave his lecture in Montreal, Oscar had upset his audience by describing their mountain as ‘a hill’. A Toronto paper had commented that if he described Toronto harbour as a pond ‘there will be nothing for it but to put him in it!’

Ferry and ice on Lake Ontario

I had a definite quest at the next destination. I knew that the Art Gallery of Ontario had some pictures by a Canadian painter called Homer Watson. Wilde had met him and praised his work. After a lengthy search during which the gallery attendants had denied all knowledge of the man, I located two of his paintings tucked away somewhere at the rear of the building. They were disappointing – very small and rather dull landscapes. I couldn’t understand what Oscar had seen in them, especially as he called Watson ‘the Constable of Canada’? Maybe on the spur of the moment Oscar had just overdone the praise. In one town he had complimented his hosts on the magnificence of Canadian tea and cigarettes, only to be told they were both imported.

Painting by Homer Watson in Art Gallery Ontario

However the trip to the AGO was certainly not a waste of time as in a further gallery I came across the work of somebody previously unknown to me – one Cornelius Kreighoff. Kreighoff is not one of the great painters – he probably isn’t even in the upper echelons. His human figures sometimes bordered on the cartoonish, and the paintings lacked the fluidity needed to really live. But nevertheless, he had recorded a fascinating slice of French Quebec frontier life in the 1840s.

Painting by Cornelius Kreighoff – AGO

He poked gentle fun at his characters – one scene showed a sledge and its occupants hurtling past a toll booth without paying the indignant toll collector; in another a soldier flirted with a young wife just as her smouldering husband arrived home behind him; in a third he portrayed probably the first road traffic accident in Canadian history as two horse-drawn sledges clashed and careered off into snowdrifts. I spent a highly entertaining half hour in the company of Kreighoff.

Painting by Cornelius Kreighoff – the road accident AGO

Meanwhile the shows had re-started – as ever they varied unpredictably. Wednesday was OK, Thursday good, Friday very good. Occasionally a new venue or country throws up some oddities. Wilde’s crack about teachers – ‘everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching’ – has been a reliable laugh line in every country I have visited. For some reason it didn’t work in Toronto, being met with only a polite titter, sometimes not even that. I have no idea why not – simply a quirk of Canada.

On another evening during the Q and A session, an audience member informed me that in 1882 Wilde stayed at the Waverley Hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they have preserved his bed and room to this day. There is always something new to learn.

On the Friday night despite both performance and audience being on form, I was disconcerted by the sight of a blonde woman in the front row. She sat in stony-faced silence for the entire show. After a while I deliberately set out to try to stir some reaction – it was like trying to squeeze a smile from an Easter Island statue. Sometimes you cannot win.

Casa Loma, Toronto

On a further excursion into Toronto I visited a renowned landmark called the Casa Loma. It is probably the closest that Canada gets to a genuine English stately home and certainly was meant to look that way. It was the creation of a man called Sir Henry Pellatt (1859-1939) who had become immensely wealthy after being tipped off about the commercial possibilities of electricity by no less an adviser than Thomas Edison. As a result he cornered the market in powering Toronto.

He used his riches to build what he hoped would be the most palatial residence in North America – a mongrel cross between Balmoral and Heidelburg. It possessed thirty bathrooms, a marble swimming pool, three bowling alleys, and was guarded by a giant stone unicorn.

Casa Loma, Toronto

When I alighted from the bus, the driver called after me: “It’s easy to find Casa Loma. It’s the first castle on the right.”

The building was impressive enough – a vast entrance hall and a myriad of rooms stuffed with outdated luxuries. Pellatt as a young man had met Oscar Wilde. Aged only twenty two, he had acted as guide and host to Oscar after the latter’s second lecture at the Horticultural Gardens in Toronto. Something may have rubbed off in the DNA as later on Pellatt was to acquire Canada’s premier comic writer, Stephen Leacock, as a son-in-law.

Pellatt himself came to an unfortunate end. His electricity monopoly was taken from him by the city authorities, he lost his money in unwise speculation, and he was forced to sell his mansion. When it re-opened as a public attraction, rather sadly he was the first person to sign the visitor’s book.

Casa Loma – Main Hall.

However, it was not Pellatt or Casa Loma that was to provide the real surprise of the day. Next door to the mansion was a small park leading to a steep flight of stone stairs. These are known as the Baldwin Steps, named after the Baldwin family who had owned the property next to Casa Loma. This was another mansion, now also owned by the city, called Spadina House (after the First Nation word for ‘hill’: ‘espadinong’).

The Baldwin Steps, Toronto

Dr William Baldwin had emigrated from Co Cork in 1799. He and his family did well enough to build their house and also to lay out the grand Spadina Avenue that links the house to downtown Toronto. His memory of the appalling excesses of the ’98 Rising in Ireland left him with a strong desire to keep violence out of politics. Both he and his son Robert became known for their adherence to the concept of ‘Responsible Government’ – moderation and the peaceful shift of rule from governors and the established elites to government by an elected assembly. By and large, between them they succeeded.

By the end of the 1840s they convinced the British that the provinces of Ontario and Quebec should be able to pass their own legislation. Robert Baldwin also managed to persuade the leader of the French Canadians, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, to join him. Together these two became co-premiers of the provinces and the first true Prime Ministers of the country (although John Macdonald was the first acknowledged PM).

Robert Baldwin’s son-in-law, John Ross, also had a distinguished career in Canadian public life, becoming the president of the Grand Trunk Railway and a Conservative senator for Ontario.

Sir Henry Pellatt’s portrait at Casa Loma

While I found this historical information marginally interesting it was the next piece that really caught my attention. John Ross had been the father of Robert Baldwin Ross – Oscar Wilde’s great friend ‘Robbie, with the face of Puck and the heart of an angel’.

Sir Henry’s bedroom – a tiger skin and a cannon – what every chap needs.

Although the scion of this most distinguished of Canadian families, Robbie Ross was actually born in France where the family had moved due to the ill health of his father. However the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 necessitated their return to Canada. Later, after John Ross’s death, the family moved to England.

Robbie has been portrayed at least three times in major cinema films about Wilde. In the Robert Morley film, the part was taken by Dennis Price; in the Peter Finch film, by Emrys Jones; and in the Stephen Fry version, by Michael Sheen. All three of them played him as an Englishman speaking impeccable English. None of them realised that throughout his life he never lost his Canadian accent. (The same applies to the recent Everett film.)

Oscar sometimes teased Ross about ‘becoming depressed and Canadian’. Indeed there does seem to be a melancholic streak in the national psyche. Maybe it is a characteristic of all creatures who have to undergo the northern winters. An undemonstrative Nordic sadness that infects man and beast – as cool as a Canadian, as morose as a moose. 

Despite any cultural despondency that he might have inherited, Ross was an extraordinary man. Nobody emerged from the extended Wilde story with much credit except for him. Throughout it all, he showed generosity, courage, and humanity. Despite great personal risk, he stood by Wilde throughout his trials and helped him in his last years when things got desperate. Then after Oscar’s death Ross rescued his literary royalties; he paid off the family bankruptcy; and most of all became a guide and protector to Oscar’s sons in a very hostile world.

In an act of remarkable bravery, he ignored the danger of arrest and returned to London to attend Wilde’s bankruptcy hearings in 1895. While Ross waited in the court corridor, Oscar was led past in convict dress and handcuffed. As Oscar later wrote: ‘before the whole gaping crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he gravely raised his hat to me’.

Casa Loma gardens, Toronto

When Ross died in 1918, the London Times obituary read: ‘It was his foible to pretend to be a trifler in all things. In acts of kindness, he was always in earnest’. Ross himself said that his true epitaph should read: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in hot water’.

In 1917, a friend reported an incident that seemed to sum up Ross’s character. One evening, the friend saw him walking along Piccadilly during a German air raid. Bombs were raining down over the area and the anti-aircraft guns were firing back from Green Park. Ross noticed a confused old lady standing in the middle of the street, gazing in terror at the sky. Taking her by the arm, Ross reassured her, then raised his umbrella over her head to ward off the bombs, and steered her to safety under the Ritz Hotel arches.

I can think of no higher compliment to Canada than that it produced a man like Robert Ross.

Canada, though, seems oblivious of its unsung hero. For the time being I suppose the Baldwin Steps, despite bearing no sign of ever having heard of him, will have to suffice as his memorial.

Downtown Toronto seen from the Baldwin Steps.

Next week on November 27 – Oscar Wilde and Niagara Falls. 

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