It’s 10:30 in the morning and I’m standing across the room from Florence Richler, the widow of Mordechai Richler, once Canada’s most famous novelist. She is 83 – her eyes are a glassy blue, and almost completely blind. Perched on the edge of a mahogany desk in the den is a picture of Mordecai in a simple frame. She catches me staring at it and picks it up very gently, running her fingers across his face. This, she says, accompanies her wherever she goes.
The picture was taken at the country home in the Eastern Townships where Richler did most of his writing from 1974 – when they bought it – until he died in 2001. Like so many authors, he required undisturbed silence as he wrote.
One morning, Florence caught sight of Mordecai on the balcony just outside the kitchen, deeply absorbed in what was then the manuscript of Barney’s Version, his last, great novel. It was clear, from his furrowed brow and hunched posture, that there was no summoning him. Instead, Florence picked up a nearby camera, crept into position, and took a picture of her husband in what was his natural state.
He didn’t realize he was being photographed at the time. Now, he has no idea how this image of his oblivious self is pored over, caressed, watched with half-blind eyes, day after day.
Mordecai died a decade ago, but Florence still lives part-time in the lavish apartment on Sherbrooke they shared, a few blocks west of McGill’s downtown campus. Their building is called the Chateau, but that doesn’t do it justice – it’s much more grandiose than most castles, covered in turrets and arches and majestic grey stone, taking up a full city block. When I arrived in the lobby the doorman said, rather inexplicably, “You must be one of Florence’s angels.” As I ascended in the elevator to her eighth floor home, I began to sense that I was in fact entering a different realm.
Florence’s voice, soft and lilting, somehow matches the walls of her pale pink apartment. Dressed in a dark, flowing, shapeless dress, which barely reveals her feet, she ushers me to a velvet couch on the far side of the living room. Sherbrooke, buzzing with traffic eight floors below us, might as well be a foreign country.
Florence sits down next to me and starts leading me on a visual tour of her apartment. Though she can barely see, she knows the contents of this room by heart. She describes it to me with her eyes almost fully closed, like an oracle.
A few months ago, the Richler family cleaned out their country home, and miscellany from the house now clutters Florence’s living space in Montreal. The items form a kind of constellation of memory. Florence muses that each one contains a specific memory of her children, who spent so much of their childhoods in the Townships. The objects also contain memories of Mordecai.
• • •
For half a century, Richler was an inescapable and controversial figure in Canadian life. The native Montrealer – he was raised on St. Urbain – was also a native-born pest, getting under the skin of Quebec nationalists in particular.
His greatest literary contribution was to fiction: he published ten novels, many of which are Canadian classics. His final novel, Barney’s Version, won the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Giller, in 1997, and was recently made into a film starring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman. He died in 2001, at age seventy.
The last time I visited his and Florence’s apartment was at the end of my first year at McGill. I went to read Florence one of the final drafts of a mammoth biography of Mordecai, which was written by my father. She and I sat next to one another at the dining room table, and, as I read, Florence stopped to correct my pronunciation of Jewish and French names. Until my arrival, she had been trying to read the first pages of the biography using a computer-sized magnifying glass that blew up one word at a time.
The time between my first and more recent, second visit to Florence’s apartment had seen the casting of a brightened spotlight on Mordecai’s life and work. The woman I was visiting in October 2010 had, during the intervening sixteen months, devoted herself endlessly to the commemoration and, frequently, the defence of her controversial husband. She keeps a crowded schedule of interviews and public discussions, some of which can be grating – at a recent talk in Toronto, a reporter asked about Mordecai’s fairly heavy drinking, never a pleasant topic for a widow to breech.
While Florence wears this public persona well – she is unfailingly elegant and polite, often described as Richler’s “better half” – it is the privacy of her apartment that reflects her and her relationship with Mordecai best. For Florence, Mordecai was not “controversial” or “inflammatory” or “legendary.” He was, simply, hers.
• • •
The tour of the apartment continues. One of Florence’s wells of memory is a mahogany desk that sits in the den, a valley amidst a mountain of books. The desk’s overwhelming presence, Florence points out, commands the small room, just like her imposing husband once did. “Even when he stood still,” she says, “he still occupied a room in its entirety.”
With a flick of her hand and a sigh, Florence guides me to another moment in her eternally vivid past. It’s a photograph of her and Mordecai in Cairo, a pyramid towering behind them.
Giggling, she describes how a small boy had approached them and asked Florence if she would have her picture taken next to the camel he was holding firmly by the reigns. Much to Mordecai’s dismay, she accepted. An intensely private man, any pressure to put on a public face, even for a simple photo, could summon the irascible personality he was known for.
Though he huffed and puffed, he finally agreed to pose, albeit sombrely, alongside his grinning wife and her camel. This photo later appeared in a travel piece he wrote titled “Florence of Arabia.”
Just as Mordecai’s solemn expression was characteristic of this intensely shy yet publicly outspoken man, so Florence’s display of elegance and tact was what friends and family would forever associate with her. Though it was Mordecai’s mug that graced the pages of books and magazines, many thought of Florence as his best face.
• • •
Florence Isabel Wood was born October 18, 1929, in a foundling home in Montreal. Her adoptive parents, Albert and Ethel Woods, lived in Point St. Charles – a mixed neighborhood of English, Scottish, Irish, and French-Canadian descent known as “The Pointe” – with two other adoptive children, a boy and a girl. The Woods, both born in England, were raised to follow a model of British politeness that they would consistently emphasize to their children. At age ten, Florence got a job working at a five-and-dime store owned by the Stotlands, a rare Jewish family in the neighborhood. The store, and the Stotlands’ apartment above it, became like a second home, and the family encouraged her early dreams of a career in the arts. At eighteen, the aspiring actress embarked to London, where she found part-time work as a store mannequin, and fell in love with the city – despite its devastated post-war condition. Upon returning to Montreal she became involved with the Mountain Playhouse, where she met the young actor Christopher Plummer, and Stanley Mann, whom she married when she was twenty-two.
When she was in her twenties, she lived in London with Mann. Mordecai was living there too, and she saw him often enough at parties to figure out she was in love with him. She and Mordecai began seeing each other before her divorce with Mann was finalized. It was a scandal – and illegal. Whenever they spent the night together they enlisted a friend to keep an eye out for police nosing around for adulterers.
They were married in 1960, had four kids, and brought up another from Florence’s first marriage. In 1972, they returned to Montreal and spent the next 29 years together in the city and the Townships.
• • •
The next stop in the den’s memory bank is the last photograph ever taken of Mordecai, which captures him sitting, once again, in the family’s country home. Though he rests in an archetypal pose, his eyes look unusually weary. The skin below them has begun to droop and his hand, resting uneasily at his side, seems to bear the entire weight of his slowly declining body.
Florence recalls the rigour with which the photographer conducted the session, and her sense, watching the scene from afar, that her husband was fading. She approached the photographer, and whispered that Mordecai was not well, and that the session would have to end soon. She knew that Mordecai, though by nature introverted, would sport his strong, public face until the photographer had finished shooting.
In the dining room, Mordecai’s presence is not felt in photographs, but in a number of his possessions, which sit, untouched, where she left them on the day he died. One of these is a place setting at the table, which Florence insists be kept out for her husband.
On one side of the living room entrance sits the leather overnight bag that Mordecai took to the hospital during his chemotherapy. One day, he asked Florence to take the bag back home for him. That day, just forty-eight hours before he passed away, she dropped it carelessly next to the bookshelf. The bag has never left that spot. “Family and guests find it upsetting,” she says, “but I find it only comforting.”
Next to the overnight bag, atop a wicker chair, lie a cashmere sweater and a pair of mittens. Both belonged to Mordecai. They rest there as if he will soon snatch them up and tear out the door in a state of deep mental absorption. Though she speaks about it with a slight smile, it is clear that with every glance at these everyday objects, the pain of missing him, and his larger-than-life presence, surfaces.
Soon enough, she reveals to me, some of these same objects will be used to create a replica of Mordecai’s country office for the public to visit. Along with his desk, typewriter, and a portion of the 2500 books the home once contained, the exhibit – organized by the Segal Centre and Jewish Public Library, in conjunction with McGill – will do in a sense what Florence has done in the Chateau apartment: immortalize a human life through the objects which defined it.
For lovers of his novels, Mordecai Richler is preserved by his words. The city of Montreal commemorates him with a shabby gazebo on the side of the mountain. For his widow, however, he is everywhere she goes: in his stories, letters (some of which hang framed in the apartment), in the eyes of their children, and every corner of the apartment they shared for a quarter century. When I ask if her memory ever falters, Florence laughs slyly and peers out the window. “He’s just as present now as he ever was,” she says.
The most prominent image in the den is a large poster of Mordecai’s face.
Florence encountered this massive image in the window of the Chapters on St. Catherine only days after his death on July 3, 2001. The sight of her husband’s face, wearing a typically grave expression, brought her to tears. It also filled her with a desire to secure the poster for herself.
She entered the Chapters and asked the man at the desk if she could have the image in the window when it was taken down. She gave no name, just a phone number. Three weeks later, Florence was called back to the store and handed the wrapped-up poster by the same man at the desk. When asked why she was so interested, she replied, “I knew him well.”