MONTREAL — Demand for tickets to a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Irving Layton’s birth was so great that all 185 seats were spoken for more than a week in advance.
A waiting list was drawn up and organizers pleaded with ticket holders to let them know of any change in their plans. Those anxiously wanting to get in started lining up more than an hour before the March 11 event at Concordia University for a chance at any unclaimed tickets – which were free.
If fire regulations had not prevented it, the J.A. de Sève Cinema would have been standing room only.
Endre Farkas of Poetry Quebec, the organizer, was surprised and heartened at such an outpouring for a poet who died six years alone, save for a small circle of friends.
The three-hour evening of recollections and readings brought together literary people, former students, colleagues and perhaps lovers, and the multitude whose lives were touched by Layton’s writing or who just admired the self-made iconoclast.
The testimonials were both funny and poignant.
Television executive Moses Znaimer, in from Toronto, remembered how Layton seemed like a rock star to the kids in his first-year high school class at Herzliah in the 1950s. The first schoolday Layton, without so much as a hello, covered the two blackboards with endless nines.
“At last, he explained that 99.9 ad infinitum was the percentage of people who were philistines. I had no idea what that was, but I decided right there that I did not want to be one.”
Layton peddled to the kids, for pocket change, his books that were just starting to come out. “We assured our parents that inevitably these would be collectors’ items worth a lot of money,” Znaimer said, otherwise, they would not have approved of the naughty words and taboo subjects in a lot of the verses.
Znaimer figures he spent $4 to $5 throughout high school buying all of Layton’s volumes. Today they are worth thousands, he said, “but I would not part with a single one.”
Another Herzliah student of the same era, MP Irwin Cotler recalled his Grade 9 class went on strike when parents demanded Layton be fired. He kept his job.
In addition to English and history, Layton taught chemistry, physics and math. “I know little about those subjects today because he spent most of the time teaching literature and philosophy or talking about his works in progress,” said Cotler, who thinks of Layton as his “spiritual father” because of the model of injustice fighter he provided.
Stan Asher, who was a young teacher at Herzliah with Layton, remembers their being panellists on a Canadian TV show decades ago. The issue was where sex education should be taught. “Layton replied, ‘in bed’,” Asher recalled, leaving the show’s producers stricken.
Layton’s final years, when he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and residing at Maimonides Geriatric Centre, were evoked by Musia Schwartz, one of his most devoted friends. She first met Layton when she was 18 and newly arrived in Montreal after surviving the Holocaust. He was teaching poetry appreciation to immigrants at the Jewish Public Library.
“I worshipped him, revered him as a poet and teacher,” but also as for his kindness to these war-scarred young people.
She came here not knowing English, but Schwartz would eventually earn a PhD in English, thanks to significant part to Layton’s encouragement.
That compassion remained, even as his mind failed. “There was a woman in the next room at Maimonides constantly screaming, ‘Take me, take me.’ I thought isn’t it awful that he has to endure this. But Irving sighed and said, ‘The poor soul, how she must be suffering.’ In his own wretchedness, he did not feel self-pity but empathy for another human being.”
Layton’s fifth and final wife, Anna Pottier, who now lives in Utah, wistfully remembered their 14 years together until 1995 when they mutually parted. Their 47-year age difference, both agreed, was unfair to her.
For all his public bluster and ego, she described the private man as “a quiet mad man, never far from tears.”
Pottier is working on a memoir of her life with Layton, every second of which she feels was a privilege, titled Good as Gone.
In a videotaped message, the poet’s eldest son, Max Layton, said he thought his father would be surprised but gratified to know that so many Canadians, whom he once had disparaged for their lack of culture, cared about him today. In his will, Layton stipulated he wanted no marker for his remains, but only to be remembered in this very spirit.
A surprise guest was another Montreal Liberal MP, Justin Trudeau, who said that he came to appreciate Layton’s poetry while at university.
“Irving Layton said that, in my father, Canada finally had produced a leader worthy of assassination. My father was tickled pink by this compliment,” he said.
The Layton celebration does not end with the Poetry Quebec evening. Montreal-based playwright David Sklar’s latest work, Dance With Desire, is coming out. Actor Joel Miller performed an excerpt in which Layton courts his second wife, Betty Sutherland. “I invented bedrooms and bathrooms,” the character thunders. “Before this, these did not exist in Canada."