“It’s surprising what a friendly place it is – the whole world!”
One of the first things a visitor tended to notice on entering the massive, three-storey brick house on Bedford Road was the stuffed emu hanging upside down over the main staircase. After the bright sunlight outside, the sudden gloom might well have obscured the framed collection of Papuan penis gourds immediately opposite the front door, or the array of red and blue prize ribbons plastering the lobby. But even if you missed the gourds and the horse-racing ribbons, the stuffed emu fixed one’s attention. As one’s eyes adjusted to the low light, more exhibits came into view, crowded among the massive antique furniture: arrangements of shark jaws and monkey bones, stone axes and tribal weapons, a coffin decorated like an ornate wedding cake, display cases filled with mounted Goliath beetles and huge flying insects, a stuffed zebra head surrounded by more equestrian ribbons, an egg from the extinct elephant bird. Above the stairs and partially obscured by the emu hung a striking 8×4 foot painting, a full-length portrait of a young man in a forest of tendrils. From another room, peculiar sounds from resident animals contributed to the unique atmosphere.
For thirty-five years, 140 Bedford Road in Toronto’s historic Annex district was the home of explorer, equestrian, painter, writer and local personality Norman Elder, and the location of the Norman Elder Museum and Gallery, repository of curious artefacts from some of the most inaccessible regions of the globe. The gutting of the unique Museum in 2004 and the dispersal and partial destruction of its contents constituted the final chapter of an unusual and ultimately tragic story.
I first met Norman Elder in the summer of 1967, the legendary Summer of Love. In late Sixties Toronto, Rochdale College was briefly thriving as an alternative university, the club scene was jumping, and the Yorkville district had become a favourite destination for hippies and travellers from across the country. A jazz and blues enthusiast in those days, I had visited most of the city’s music clubs to hear Sleepy John Estes, Rev. Gary Davis and Woody Herman’s Third Herd. I had read my poems at the Bohemian Embassy and the Inn of the Unmuzzled Ox. And I wrote for Ron Thody’s irreverent pulp tabloid, Satyrday.
I was sitting with Ron in a sidewalk caf in Yorkville when Norman Elder stopped to say hello. Norman was then in his late twenties, with a handsome, open countenance that retained its boyish aspect in spite of the beginnings of male pattern baldness. His private Museum and Gallery was then housed across the street from the café. I encountered him again in 1970 when visiting the novelist Scott Symons who was lodging with Norm at the same Yorkville location. I remember that along with Norm, Scott, and a collection of large snakes, the Museum was home to a strikingly attractive young man who appeared to be in his late teens. Someone said he was Norman’s boyfriend.
My first visit to Norman’s Bedford Road mansion was in 1972, when we exchanged books: my first slim chapbook of poetry for a copy of Noshitaka, a handsome production by Coach House Press consisting of poetic notes and sketches from a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon, deep in the interior of Peru, near Machu Picchu. This taxing, mind-bending trip was one of the first of Norman’s countless excursions to remote parts of the world.
Norman’s objective, he wrote, was to live among and study the Machiguengas, a tribe that had migrated to the dense jungles of the Upper Amazon during the Inca conquest, reverting to a pre-stone age existence. There, “geographical isolation has produced a uniquely primitive social organization . . . a strange religious practice and a stoic but dynamic individualism.” The Machiguengas are reputed to be head-hunters, eaters of genitals, executors of girl children. They make meals of parrots and monkey-brains, hunting and killing with arrows the chimp-sized howler monkeys that inhabit the forest. They are subject to uncontrolled epidemics and infections that often result in death. Without words for affection or beauty, they are totally survival-oriented, reflecting “a cultural gap of fifty-thousand years.” Most had never seen the face of an outsider.
Norman’s stopping-off point for this unusual adventure was, paradoxically, a club for Lima’s moneyed equestrian set, “lush to the point of overpowering decadence,” an instructive contrast to the wretched squalor of the jungle towns with their half-naked prostitutes, “sperm-drenched gutters” and fetid smell. By comparison, the jungle was another world, immense, weird and hallucinatory. “About this place,” he wrote, “the vast Amazonas stretches its 50,000 miles of navigable water tributaries . . . it nourishes one quarter of the world’s forests . . . eighty-six percent of all things that grow . . . it breeds more animate species than the rest of the world . . . its growing rate excels all other earthly things . . . the eternal anaconda boa is its king . . . its fearful carnivorous god.”
Penetrating deep into the territory of the Machiguengas, Norman discovered a humid, jungle world hostile to every apparent concept of human life. Parrots were “thick as mosquitos” and thorn-covered vines moved “with the dense tensile life . . . (an) ever-extending layer of intestinal vegetable pulp . . . Enormous trunks uproot the undergrowth and heave their phallic erection one against another . . . like animal tendons knotted . . . pulsating . . . dripping from severed limbs . . .” Cancerous white fungi, silhouettes of tangled vines “producing strange jagged fans in the sky’s flesh,” lush, black organisms that twisted and knotted in the vivid red light and a cacophony of shrieking cries all added to this surrealistic, visionary world.
Here, fourteen-foot fish, poison frogs and giant crocodiles were common, and small, parasitic water creatures could swim into your genitals to feed on their delicate membranes. Bermiflies and screw-worms lay their eggs in your sweat-drenched clothing, burrowing into flesh and hatching white grubs under the skin, producing large abscessed swellings and infected wounds. “Insects,” Norman noted, “are breeding in the small of my back.” In this environment, common staples of civilization like shoes and leather jackets soon become fetid and useless. Leaving the hut at night to answer the call of nature, the humid air pierced by violent, overpowering shrieks, it was advisable to carry a club to deter attacks by wild dogs.
The book’s final chapter breaks off unexpectedly. Norman has managed to befriend one of his guides, a young man called Hector. They exchange presents – some carved totems, anaconda skins and monkey skulls in return for a shirt, flashlight and shoes, “all I have except my cut-off jeans and my shotgun.” But later there is a falling out when Hector “becomes irksome.” Norman sculpts a sand image of Hector and unaccountably stabs its head with a bamboo pole. He immediately regrets what he has done, remembering that in this strange society, perceived insults sometimes lead to suicide. Instead, the sensitive boy’s tentative friendship changes into poisonous glares and an avoidance of contact. Finally, surrounded by a cloud of vampire bats, Norman muses on the power of Hector’s soul as it merges with a mysterious “ovalistic symbol into the most perfect sympathy of union of two bodies.”
Noshitaka is written in a sketchy, poetic style without capital letters, with only ellipses for punctuation, and illustrated with the author’s prepared photographs overdrawn with spiky, tangled vines and spidery tendrils. The book resembles accounts of hallucinatory experiences, drug “trips” – except that this trip is a real journey, to a real place on the earth, as far as possible from the neatly tended surroundings of Bedford Road.
The book was attractive and intriguing, but I found its ambiguous conclusion confusing and unsatisfactory. I couldn’t help thinking that something important here was hinted at but unstated: “I shall leave unrecorded the rest of my diary.” It seemed to me that for all the grisly masochistic splendours of the arboreal forest, the real story here was the story of Norman and Hector – and it had apparently ended badly.
Next to the equestrian trophies in Norman’s front lobby was a large, ornate book stand displaying a copy of either Who’s Who In the World or Who’s Who in Canada, open at an extensive entry for Elder, Norman. Norman was proud – and amused – that his listing occupied the same page as the Queen Mother’s. It was there, in his front hall, scrutinizing Who’s Who, that I first began to learn about Norman’s background.
Norman Elder was born in Toronto on July 17, 1939, the youngest of five children of a manufacturing family with an address on the exclusive Park Lane Circle. His next door neighbour was Conrad Black with whom he was boyhood friends. Educated at Upper Canada College, where he was a reticent student, reluctant to speak up in class, he became an avid equestrian and skydiver, winning his first competitive medals before his tenth birthday. He was also something of a hell-raiser, burning down a historic barn, breaking both arms in fights, and getting jailed for vagrancy. When he broke a leg, he continued his sporting activities wearing a cast.
Four years later, Norman and a friend attempted to cross the Sahara in a Jeep, Norman drawing and filming oasis communities and making extensive notes on the sex customs of desert Arabs. In those days, he was describing himself as “a hippie.” His family had varied reactions to his idiosyncrasies. His grandmother encouraged him to travel, telling him “it will be enlightening for you.” His father on the other hand seemed peculiarly indifferent. “The first time I came back from the Amazon,” Norman wrote, “I was dying to tell Dad all the details of the trip, but he kept turning the TV up louder. Then I thought of a great way to get him to listen. I phoned up (television personality) Betty Kennedy and went on her talk show.”
At the age of twenty Norman won Gold and Bronze Medals in the Pan-American Games three-day equestrian event. (He won his Silver Medal at a later Games.) As a result, he was made Captain of the Canadian Equestrian Team at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics where he shared a mutual love of horses with Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. He became friendly with the Prince, who remarked to him during a long ceremony, “One thing you learn quickly as a Royal is to never pass up an opportunity to go to the lavatory.”
Stints at the University of Western Ontario and the Banff School of Fine Arts preceded Norman’s second major trip when he used the money from sales of Noshitaka to strike out for Inuit villages in the far Canadian North and “hitch-hiked to Greenland,” a journey that resulted in his second book, Oksitartok, published in 1966 in an edition uniform with Noshitaka and equipped with a Foreword by his friend the 86-year-old Lady Eaton.
Oksitartok (“the uninhibited beautiful minds”) was dedicated “to the great globs of raw humanity;” like the earlier book it consists of on-the-spot journal entries, unredacted notes in sketchy bursts (complete with occasional misspellings and grammatical solecisms) and broken up into short lines resembling poetry. In this journal account of living, sleeping and working with the Eskimos (before that term was discarded), Norman comments on the Northern peoples’ elusive character and daily habits, their attitude to their Skidoos (“this machine can’t smell the wind”) and their love of Coca-Cola and country music. He observes with pleasure that among the varied incursions of the modern world, “a primitive element shone through.”
“I feel the same respect and deep honour toward the Eskimo as I did for the Machiguenga. They personified a superior being . . . an uncorrupted purity and honesty of heart.” Several times in the book, he returns to thoughts of the Amazon forest, and to Hector, and a friendship that was sabotaged by impulsiveness and misunderstanding. In the back of the book there is a photo of the author with the dates 1939-1989. Like Glenn Gould, he predicted he would die at fifty. Unlike Gould, he outlived his prediction.
In 1967, Norman made his first trip to New Guinea, hiking 160 km into isolated overgrown volcanic highlands to collect artefacts for the Royal Ontario Museum. He published his account of the trip in Cannibalistic Catharsis, the final volume of his self-published trilogy.
The people he stayed with were men naked except for gourds tied over their penises, wild pig tusks through their noses and quills piercing their cheeks. His aim, he wrote, was to “tap the untouched resources of human behaviour” in “this oddest of circumstances, a choking sanctuary of unhygienic native smells, a blackened thatched atmosphere sealed in smoke, body odours from birth, urine drenched bamboo wall, rot of food residue on dried mud; my new home, alive with humanity.”
Norman set out on these journeys systematically prepared. He carried his necessities (including insect repellent, antibiotics, cash, and garbage-bags as wrapping for cameras and notebooks) in two army surplus canvas bags, with additional empty bags for artefacts and insect specimens. Black’s Film provided free film for some of the trips and Alex Tilley, proprietor of the Tilley clothing company, supplied free shorts and shirts. Many items were intended as gifts. “Shirts are a big thing,” he said. One man he met in New Guinea wrote to say he’d “broken” his shirt, “so I sent him fifty.” Other trade items included candy and locally-purchased cigarettes, salt and machetes. His mosquito nets and hammocks he gave away at the end of each trip.
“I’m just off running around in the bush like a little kid,” he would say with a grin, making light of the taxing, often horrendous conditions – and the recurring dysentery, intestinal parasites and malaria which, inevitably, had to be dealt with. Betty Kennedy, in her Forward to Cannibalistic Catharsis, wrote that “Norman is a man who dares simply to be himself . . . a free spirit . . . open to all ideas and all people . . . he has a natural grace that makes him equally at home with sophisticated cosmopolites or strange-tongued primitives . . . He savors every minute of life.”
The late sixties and early seventies were an especially active time, even for Norman. He made his first film, Alcoholism’s Children, and painted his best known picture, a large, fantastical image of Pierre Trudeau that later made its way to Ottawa; it was said to have adorned Trudeau’s outer office for a while. As a graduate architect, he worked for a time as a draftsman for Parkins Associates and joined the Board of Directors of the Ontario Epilepsy Foundation. Supported by the wealthy maverick politician Dr. Morton Shulman, he made several runs for provincial and civic office. (He once had to be dissuaded from parachuting into Nathan Phillips Square to announce his candidacy.) He also joined the Acres Think Tank, under a fellowship program for five “creative young thinkers,” sponsored by the Norman C. Simpson Foundation. At Acres, Norman designed something he called Earth City, a prototype for the development of the Pre-Cambrian Shield that included a research college and a Peace Centre. Earth City – based partly on Middle Eastern architectural forms – formed the basis of his graduate architectural thesis but, ahead of its time, it did not meet with favour.
I knew nothing of Earth City, but Norman did discuss with me some of his other Acres ideas. He proposed the construction of a network of riding trails in the Don Valley (ideal, he felt, for handicapped children as well as for tourists). He was also interested in planning integrated old age living and addressing the problems of drug-addicted young people, not a few of whom ended up staying at the three-storey mansion. “The Gallery turned into a hippie haven by accident,” he wrote. At one point, a young woman and her small family were living in the basement while various youthful transients crashed upstairs. “I have no interest in being a social worker,” Norman said. “But what else can you do? I see them turn from carefree kids into hard-bitten members of a criminal sub-culture. More and more of the kids are turning into speed freaks. But it is hard to get treatment for kids until they are too far gone.” Norman even became an advisor to the Ontario Department of Corrections, when his rooming house was designated an official group home – an arrangement that would have ramifications for Norman years in the future.
The Amazon continued to be a prime source of fascination for Norman and he made several expeditions there in the years to come. Some of these were sponsored by the CBC and turned into a film, Indians of the Upper Amazon, one of three films he made on native peoples of South America and Papua New Guinea. On one trip, he lost his way in the rain forest, defenceless against prowling jaguars and poisonous snakes; he seemed to take it all in stride. “Some of the best parts of the trips,” he said, “are the things that go wrong.” He said he learned from his early trips to the Amazon that “you could go into a new society and as long as you are honest and friendly and smile and aren’t loud and making them uncomfortable, you’d be accepted.” When he heard about a naked jungle tribe who killed outsiders, he determined to disarm them by parachuting into their midst in the nude. As any old-fashioned Imperial adventurer might, he believed that “being a gentleman is the key.”
By the early seventies, Norman had established the pattern of living that would last for almost thirty years. He would spend a few months of each year in travels and explorations, the rest at home, writing, painting, fundraising, and hosting visiting potentates like the Emir of Fujairah and the King of Rwanda. Norman used to say he considered his adventures to be both recreations and personal trials, a way to confront his fears. “It’s the only way I can keep myself balanced and keep my environment in perspective. When I come back, it makes me appreciate being here in Canada. I put myself in a whole new environment, a whole new dimension, so that when I come back, I find a real refreshment, a real catharsis.” In 1972 alone, Norman travelled deep into the New Guinea jungles with his friend Manny Benjamin, took a photography tour of Nepal with his friend Randy Frost, and collected wildlife specimens in Bali. He usually managed to be in Toronto for the annual Royal Winter Fair which he called “the Christmas of my life.”
In the early years of Norman’s adventures, he brought back many live “specimens.” The return baggage for one trip included nine monkeys, forty snakes, three turtles, four alligators and a vulture. In those days, there were fewer restrictions on the import of such creatures and Norman sold most of the animals to zoos and used the money to finance his trips. A few favourites were given names and kept as pets. Ferrets, pythons (housed in a large herpetarium in the basement and fed on specially prepared mice), monkeys, a tapir, dung beetles, millipedes, fluorescent weevils, hermit crabs, an electric eel, and eventually, lemurs all shared the Bedford Road house which at one point housed about fifty living creatures. For a time, a basement tank housed a big, vicious-looking fish that liked to be fed cherries. “I can’t imagine what it would be like not to live with animals,” he said when one magazine called him “Toronto’s Dr. Doolittle.” Two monkeys rescued from Amazonian hunters escaped the house and grounds one day and ended up swinging from nearby trolley-bus wires causing short circuits and “bothersome delays” before they were electrocuted. “With their hair standing on end and a full blast of current racing through them,” Norman wrote, “the jungle creatures saved from becoming food died an even more useless death.”
The inevitable problems and mishaps – and the progressive tightening of the import rules – eventually convinced him to take a new look at “collecting.” “Ten years ago,” he told me, “I’d see an animal in the jungle and bring it back. But I’m happy with all the conservation rules in place now, so I don’t do that any more. When it comes to wildlife issues, when I have a chance to speak out, I do.” He particularly enjoyed taking animals to public schools. One of the most popular guests was Tony, a 300-lb. Galapagos tortoise, a Museum resident for over a decade. At one point an electoral poll at the Museum had to be moved when nervous voters became alarmed as the great creature ambled placidly through the voting booths. (Tony’s stuffed remains now have pride of place in a private collection.)
Norman’s favourite of all his animals was Henry the Pig, actually an amiable sow whose sad story was one of good intentions gone awry. “I held her on my lap for hours and she quickly gained confidence,” Norman wrote in an article in Toronto Life in 1971. “At first she drank milk from a bottle, then graduated to commercial ‘pig starter’ and ‘pig grower.’ Later I sometimes fetched a bucket of slop for her from a restaurant . . . Henry’s size and affection grew by the day. She liked to jump on the couch when I was resting, nuzzle her way across my chest and lie there. As she approached 200 pounds, this became ludicrous, and my only recourse was to scratch her stomach. A stomach scratch sent Henry into ecstasy. She would immediately roll off the couch onto her back and call for more. She uttered an amazing range of sounds to signify hunger, thirst, leisure, fear, love, anger,” and enjoyed playing games with the neighbourhood children.
Henry loved beer which she would cadge from guests. Intelligent and house-trained, she “only had accidents when frightened. Once when we were guests on Elwood Glover’s show, I picked her up, which Henry hated; she squealed and forgot herself all over the guest chair on national television.” Baths were not enjoyed; her screams could be heard down the block. But most of the time, Norm declared, she complemented what he described as “the informality of my house” with “great good humour and grace.”
“Everyone in our house loved Henry, except Herman the Pony and our senior cat. The cat, a tough old matriarch who feared neither man nor dog, tried to bully the pig. Thick-skinned Henry ignored her claws, which freaked the cat out so badly she finally left Henry alone.” But Herman the Pony couldn’t get along with Henry and had to be returned to his farm – in the back of Norman’s beat-up old limousine which caused a police summons for “blocking traffic.”
“Henry and I often strolled down Yonge Street,” Norman recalled. “People would follow us for blocks. Henry paid little attention until some thoughtful person scratched her stomach, whereupon she instantly rolled onto her back in the middle of the sidewalk . . . Otherwise she trotted along about ten paces behind me. I never needed a leash. She never dirtied the streets or molested passersby.”
None of Norman’s immediate neighbours objected to Henry. But for one woman down the street, the pig’s very existence became unbearable. “In the end,” Norman lamented, “she brought the overwhelming wei4ght of officialdom down on us.” She complained to the alderman, who eventually involved the police, the fire department, the Humane Society, the City Buildings Department, the Health Department, a mortgage company and three insurance companies.” Once Norman had to jump out of bed to hide Henry from a particularly officious inspector. Henry dragged Norm, still naked, into the yard while the inspector took notes. On the other side in the pig war, whole school classes wrote letters to the Mayor and the authorities pleading leniency for Henry.
On her premium diet, Henry grew healthy and hearty, eventually topping 300 pounds. One day Norman returned home to find sixteen policemen with six squad cars and two motorcycles in front of the house. Henry had gotten into the street. One cop had her by the tail; another had a coil of rope and a third was threatening to shoot her. “I rushed over, asked them to release her and called her name,” Norm wrote in an account of the Henry saga he wrote for Toronto Life magazine. “Go indoors!” he told her. She promptly ran into the house. “The police stood around looking formidable and a bit foolish. Some were angry; the rest came in for coffee. One cop warned, ‘If I ever see you and that pig on the street again . . . I’ll arrest you.’“ Soon afterwards, Norman’s house insurance was suddenly cancelled on unspecified “moral grounds.” This left the mortgagee free to foreclose on the uninsured mortgage. Norman was in peril of losing his home, but managed to save it at the last minute thanks to some reinsurance through an influential friend.
Over the years Norman and the Bedford Road house came to the attention of the authorities for various misdemeanours including, most memorably, the electrocuted monkeys. But the outrageous presence of Henry the Pig became a particular irritant to local officialdom. In the face of increasing opposition, Henry’s supporters bailed out one by one as her enemies grew more determined. Norman came to see the stockyards as the only solution.
“I called Henry from the back yard where she was playing, tossing leaves over herself. She came running. As we went down the lane, I knew she expected to go for another stroll. I opened the car door and she hopped in obediently. As we drove to the stockyards, she put her big head over the seat and rested it trustfully on my shoulder.” The carnage at the stockyards panicked Henry and she cowered in a corner as the other pigs butted and sniffed her. Her ear was bitten. “Henry kept looking up at me. I felt it painfully.” Norman knew she was asking for water but her new owners refused.
“I spent hours that night, thinking. Where did my responsibility end? On the day Henry was slaughtered, the inspectors and others who helped drive her to her death still kept coming to the house to look for her. On that same day, I had a meeting with Ontario’s deputy minister of correctional services to talk about prison and reform schools . . . I could only think of Henry. Should I have consigned her to the prison of a farm? Was I wrong in permitting her slaughter? I wish now I had tried harder to find an alternative.”
A few years later, Toronto’s Riverdale Farm, now a well-run children’s farm with a small number of cattle, horses, goats and chickens might have made a pleasant home for Henry. But in Henry’s time, the farm was an overcrowded zoo, and no place for a sensitive pig. Too late, Norman realized he had not fought hard enough, and his guilt weighed heavily on him. “She trusted me, and all humanity, and all of us let her down,” he wrote. “There is no place in urban officialdom for the nonconformist.”
The Henry problem was followed by other run-ins with local authorities. At one point Norman rescued a ten-foot high ornamental iron fence that had once kept polar bears in an enclosure. Installed around the front of his property, it made a handsome addition to the site. Unfortunately, it contravened local height restrictions and a neighbour complained. Another protracted struggle ensued. Norman eventually won that one, but the official files labelled ELDER, NORMAN were growing ever fatter.
Once Norman and I were cruising down Yonge Street in his old car, a former mourner’s limousine acquired from a funeral parlour and enhanced with putty and animal bones. I remember that Norman was sporting the excellent toupée he wore only to gala events and parties. We were stopped by the police. Apparently a fringed blind in the back window was obscuring the view from the driver’s seat, or so the cop said. Norman amiably agreed to remove the obstruction. “Weren’t you on TV?” the cop asked. Once he realized who Norm was, it was all smiles and Norman was let go with a jocular caution. Fortunately, they saw no need to inspect the trunk, as a large reptile was sleeping off a meal in there.
Our leisurely cruise up Yonge Street was halted by a commotion just ahead of us. Norman got out of the car and ran over to a man who had just been hit by a now-stopped vehicle and was lying on the ground moaning. Norman ran over, threw a coat over him – he appeared to have a broken leg – and by the time the police arrived (which was very quickly as they were nearby stopping miscreants like us) Norman had calmed the accident victim down and the two of them were chuckling together. Norman gave an officer his name and particulars and we went on our way. Then I remembered Norman had left his coat behind. “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Even this shirt I’m wearing came from someone’s garbage.” I remembered his remark that “I always keep one foot in the gutter.”
Throughout the seventies Norman continued his journeys to the jungle. He returned to the Amazon to collect reptiles for zoos, filmed the isolated people of the remote Buka Buki on the April River in the New Guinea highlands, took a photography tour of the Nepalese mountains and a collecting tour of Bali. He went canoeing on the Onakawana River near James Bay, explored the Florida Everglades, Namibia and the Tierra Del Fuego region in the far south of Argentina.
In 1974, Norman published The Destructive Will, a title taken from a quotation by Schopenhauer about the “all-consuming devouring will that creates itself in order to destroy itself.” Dedicated to a list of friends, the book consists of a series of free verse meditations accompanied by fantastical, sometimes violent, pen-&-ink sketches resembling Cocteau’s drawings under the influence of opium: people jump – and shit – out of windows; a bird is impaled on a weathervane; a naked man with an erection reads to a crowd of rooted heads; long-necked creatures emerge from the belly of a horse with a man’s face; a headless corpse dismembers itself with an axe. Friendship and love are contrasted with apocalyptic visions and “blessings too sweet to endure.” The Destructive Will reveals Norman’s hit-and-miss learning; he knew his Schopenhauer but spelled chimpanzee “chimpansey.”
At the end of the decade, excerpts from the Amazon notebooks were published in an illustrated edition by Toronto’s New Canada Publications as This Thing of Darkness, with a Foreword by his old acquaintance, H.R.H.Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. People often asked how he was able to “get the Duke.” Norman said he just wrote to the palace and asked him. Charmingly illustrated with drawings and photographs, this account of journeys to the Marubas and Ticunas is straightforward and poignant, quite different from the elliptical, poetic Noshitaka trilogy. The book includes a photo of Norman wrestling a five-metre-long anaconda on a muddy riverbank, and a note about “the almost claustrophobic feeling of being trapped with no escape from paradise.”
In a Postscript, Norman recounts the problems that befell the “large menagerie I had saved from the jungle stewpot.” Shaking with malaria, he nurses a sick monkey (who shits on him and eventually dies in his arms) and then spends two days of delirium in a Bogota hospital before having to do battle with Customs officials at the Toronto Airport. Homes were eventually found for all the animals, though Victor the Vulture hung around for a while, becoming a picturesque, if unpredictable, TV personality. The tapir went to the Toronto Zoo, but “it took action by the chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Canadian Federal Government to get him there.”
Often Norman took one or two companions with him on his travels – usually young men who valued a unique opportunity to see hidden parts of the world. For the rest of the year he made the Museum his home base. It became “a revolving door” for artists and travellers. At one point, several artists were using different parts of the house as studios. Norman lived in the main floor and the basement (where the big snakes were kept in a large, sturdy herpetarium). The top two floors of the house were separated off for lodgers. Norm always slept late, had breakfast every day at the same restaurant and took everyone’s washing to a Chinese laundry on his way to swim his regular round of laps at the local pool.
The Norman Elder Museum and Gallery became a well known feature of the area. Its proliferating exhibits (animal specimens, odd artefacts, Norman’s paintings and trophies and an assortment of taxidermal relics from the Victorian age) provided glimpses of its proprietor’s taste in collecting. One visitor, who attended a slide show about Haiti, remembered that the projector was housed in a baby’s coffin. Museum exhibits were frequently rented out as film and theatre props. The interior of the house was constantly being altered as new artefacts had to be accommodated by additional rooms or knocked-out walls. It was used as a set for countless inexpensive horror movies, one TV series, Robocop, and one masterpiece, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch in which the hapless rent-boy Kiki is buggered by the giant monster in Norman’s living room.
The Museum’s grounds were modest and well-maintained, not out of place in the leafy, expensive old neighbourhood. Most of the residents behaved themselves. But a house filled with roomers and strangers inevitably gives rise to strange rumours. There were said to be tunnels somewhere under the garden. Someone once tried to find one of them and got locked in a windowless basement room in the dark for over an hour. Once a teenager dashed into the house carrying a cache of stolen goods. A snake got loose. A monkey stole a sausage from a neighbour’s barbecue. More than once the police had to be called. But the Museum stayed open to the public (not before 2 PM please). Norman was invariably agreeable and polite, and the atmosphere at the house tended to be more quiet than rowdy. Any real troublemakers were asked to leave. The press continued to treat Norman kindly, appreciative of the many good stories he provided. For Toronto Star columnist George Gamester in particular, Norman’s travels, animals, eccentricities and remarks were a regular source of good copy, and were amiably reported with a mixture of condescension and amazement.
Norman also made his own press, writing articles for magazines like Horse Sport (“Riding in Madagascar”), The Explorers Journal (“The Dyaks of Borneo”) and Doctor’s Review (“Hippo Hunting Hazards”). He played the part of the Great White Hunter in an insect repellent commercial, exposing his bare flesh to the hunger of 10,000 blackflies. His “From Pandas to Penguins” presentations at local schools were always a hit.
Hamish Grant was twelve when Norman brought his travelling wildlife show-and-tell to the Grade Six class at Jesse Ketchum Public School. He began dropping by the Museum and was soon assigned the task of ensuring that Norman got to his morning school presentations on time. Bypassing a sign on the front door that said “Do not knock or press buzzer before 2 PM,” Hamish would bang on a bedroom window to wake him up. “Norm would come to the front door and let me look around his collection while he got ready. We’d load a snake or a ferret or a chinchilla into a canvas bag and head off in one of Norman’s cars, stopping off for a donut and coffee on the way. It was tremendous fun. One time on the way back, I got curious about the day’s exhibit, a big jar of thirty live fruit bats.” Hamish tried to take one out of the jar but of course “the bats took their cue and exploded out en masse, a dark, furry cloud filling the air in the car as we drove along Bloor Street. Norm typically kept his head and pulled the car onto the sidewalk, We spent the next twenty minutes or so climbing all over the interior of the car collecting bats, laughing all the time.”
Such mishaps were not untypical. Kevin the Goose and Henry the Pig both disgraced themselves by taking bathroom breaks at inopportune moments on national television. Victor the Vulture did the same while flapping around above the heads of a live studio audience. But to Norman these messy minor mishaps were all part of the jolly fun; they made him laugh. He told me he would like to have taken the animals to hospitals too but of course, it was impossible. He joked about keeping a giraffe in the back yard. “If I get a young one – only twelve feet high – I could train it at Central Don Stables. He’d be comfortable there because he could stand with his head up in the hayloft. Of course I’d have to mount him from a stepladder. I don’t know about the reins because the neck is seven feet long. I might have to direct him with feathers attached to the end of a long stick. And if I brought him into the city, he’d have to wear boots because of the hard pavement.”
Along with the animals, some of Norman’s friends came to live at his house, a few of them after having proved unmanageable elsewhere. Duane Robertson, who would accompany Norman as cameraman on several trips, met him as a teenager at the suburban taping of a TV show. He was causing his mother concern and needed a place to stay. He ended up living at the house until his marriage, twenty years later. As unofficial curator of the Museum, he suggested making it the headquarters of a Canadian chapter of the Explorers Club in order to encourage more visits by Norman’s fellow adventurers. They wrote to all seventy Canadian Explorers Club members, and the Explorers Club of Canada was founded. It is now the largest foreign chapter. Duane’s mother believed Norman “saved his life.”
“Norm offered opportunities for interesting experiences to a lot of people,” Robertson recalled. “He showed me that the world was bigger than Richmond Hill.” Long-time friend and house-mate John Haddad said Norman “showed me how to be assertive without being rude.” Another acquaintance said simply, “he helped me to grow up.”
Norman’s travelling companion on his 1982 trip to New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands was not an adventurous young guy with a few free months to spare but Frank Ogden, also known as “Doctor Tomorrow,” the eminent author, pilot, LSD researcher and futurist, then 62 years old. The trip proved an unusual one, even for Norman. He and Ogden arrived in the Trobriand Islands at the time of the month-long Yam Festival, which turned out to be something of a local version of Sadie Hawkins Day. “It’s really a socially accepted time,” Ogden explained, “for the young women of the islands to go out and sexually attack the men in what amounts to gang-rapes.” During this popular celebration of predatory sex and lovingly cooked yams, Ogden reminisced, “about 4,000 man-hungry women go on a rampage wearing only coconut oil and tiny loin-cloths.” To escape the loud enthusiasm of the local ladies, the two Canadians got lost in the jungle for a few days where they were able to collect specimens of some of the 10,000 different insect species native to the region. Having dodged, more or less, the seasonal yam frenzy, Norman returned to beguile the locals by touching his nose with his tongue and walking on his hands – tricks he found hugely popular in most parts of the world.
Later in the Eighties Norman went to the former Belgian Congo with Robert Cudney and Ralph Reppert, on a journey sponsored by the Toronto Sun. “I’m just back from Zaire,” Norman wrote, “and I’ve got a few amoebic parasites in my system. I was living with the pygmies and they kept offering me these live slugs which are a special treat for them Well, you don’t want to hurt their feelings so you have to eat them. But you do get tired of slugs after a while.” In Namibia and Botswana, Norman had to be careful not to go into the local villages at night as it was considered impolite to refuse a chief’s offer of one of his wives. “The women wash only three times in their lives,” Norman noted in one of his many journals, “on their wedding day and with the deaths of their parents.”
On another trip, to the interior of Borneo, Ralph Reppert fell into a river and was almost swept away. “The incident made me think of how serious it could be if someone were to get hurt,” Norman mused, as though the thought had never occurred to him before. “There are no doctors anywhere in these mountain communities.” But Norman – and his companions – always seemed to be lucky – a luck that was often bolstered by considerable help from friendly local missionaries, for whom Norman always expressed great appreciation.
Nineteen-eighty-nine marked Norman’s fiftieth birthday. “”I am amazed that I ever made it to fifty,” he said. “I didn’t think that I would come back from all my trips or walk away from all my sky jumps. And now I feel I’ve got this extra time that I’m not quite sure what to do with.” He wondered if he had a death wish, but decided he “didn’t want to die.” As it happened, he had another fourteen years left to go.
For all his eccentricity and apparent independence, Norman always maintained his ties to his family and the Rosedale horsey set – wealthy, generally conventional people who knew Norman through family or sporting connections. (Norman’s brother Jim was also a prize-winning Olympic equestrian and Norman earned extra money by painting portraits of the horses owned by family and friends.) With these relations in mind, he was always discreet about his homosexuality. At a time when gays were ostensibly becoming more accepted, Norman played no apparent role in public gay life. He belonged to no gay community groups, was involved with no gay charities, frequented public swimming pools rather than bathhouses, and avoided not only gay bars but even discretely ambiguous bisexual gathering places. At Gay Pride celebrations, he was absent. He had gay friends among whom he could speak frankly, some of them as closeted as himself. But to the increasingly visible gay community, he was a stranger. Perhaps like many gay men who had grown up in an era of total illegality, he believed that discretion was the better part of valour.
The social and legal situation for gay men in Canada changed rapidly throughout the eighties and nineties as the AIDS crisis and a series of hard-fought legal and judicial victories brought new visibility. It was rapidly becoming unacceptable to scorn or persecute gay men as such. But where once group fantasies had been projected upon “homosexuals,” now the feared offenders were characterized as a growing army of male “pedophiles.” This terminological slight of hand was facilitated by the fact that while being gay had become theoretically acceptable, the Age of Consent for homosexual relations, set at 21 by the Trudeau reforms of 1969, remained in force. Well into the eighties, even sexually mature males of 19 or 20 were said to be legally children, and therefore incapable of consent to homosexual activity. This at a time when increasing numbers of young people were coming out as gay or lesbian, some even forming high school gay clubs and taking same-sex dates to the prom.
Public awareness of past sexual abuses in Canadian orphanages and Native schools increased public anxiety. Old fears began to surface in the form of a series of moral panics involving allegations of manic sexual violence. In one urban centre after another, groups of children were claiming to have been raped, forced to drink blood, consume human body parts and have intercourse with dogs and bats. Babies were said to have been skinned alive and barbecued, or flown to Mars and thrown into schools of sharks. Investigations uncovered no missing infants, the alleged burial sites yielded no remains, and no sharks were located. Nevertheless, several high-profile jury trials resulted in convictions and heavy sentences. Innocent people were jailed, families broken up and lives ruined. Eventually, many of the children involved admitted their lies had been prompted by social workers and court officials and most of the sentences were reversed. Years later, Saskatchewan Justice Minister Frank Quennell lamented this “truly regrettable situation,” calling the eighties and nineties “a unique period in the history of the justice system throughout North America.”
In the early nineties, Julian Fantino, the ambitious Chief of Police in London, Ontario, claimed, with much fanfare, to have uncovered a “kiddie sex ring” that turned out to be an unremarkable series of consensual relationships among adult men and a few teenaged hustlers. Again, there was a great deal of damage to lives and reputations; one man committed suicide. Other similar cases followed. It was in this toxic atmosphere that a series of sensational revelations about boys, sex and hockey, was given maximum publicity by the national media during the late nineties. Sheldon Kennedy, a young hockey player, had revealed that his coach, Graham James, had been having inappropriate relations with some of his young players. The Globe and Mail editorialized about “a diseased game.” Suddenly, people were asking big questions about the world of junior hockey. Crime writer James Dubro wrote that it seemed as if sex with boys had become “the crime du jour.”
Soon after the Graham James case broke, Martin (originally Arnold) Kruze, a troubled, sexually confused bankrupt in his mid-thirties, added his own twist to the sports scandals, revealing a series of unsavoury sexual goings-on twenty years in the past at Toronto’s famous Maple Leaf Gardens, the nation’s premier hockey arena. Two years earlier, Kruze had been paid $60,000 for an “agreement of silence” about the repeated sexual abuse he said he had suffered as a boy at the hands of low-level Gardens employees. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Board awarded him another $22,000.
The Gardens had traditionally been run with quasi-military punctilio, but with the advent of the Harold Ballard regime in 1972, “everything went to rat-shit” because, as one former employee put it, “the new employees were a bunch of pirates.” Under “Pal Hal,” Gardens staff were often left unsupervised. Several men on the staff began using games tickets and other favours to entice young boys to have sex with them, and with selected girls. As oversight declined at the Gardens, revenue plunged, and the impulsive Ballard decided more seats were the answer. The iconic half-century old gondola from which Foster Hewitt had called every game was unceremoniously torn out and thrown into the incinerator. Ballard’s action was solemnly denounced by the Toronto Star as “the barbaric destruction of one of Canada’s great cultural monuments.” When Ballard heard this – an employee read it to him – he is said to have exploded in paroxysms of rage and hilarity, choking on his cigar and sending a shower of ash across the accumulated detritus of his desk. Ballard was eventually convicted of 47 counts of theft, fraud and tax evasion and sent to an institution he laughingly described as a country club, where he was allowed to drink beer with the guards.
By 1997, Ballard had been dead for several years and the Gardens was about to be squabbled over as an immensely valuable piece of Toronto real estate. With the Graham James case already engaging the media, Martin Kruze decided to renounce his previous vow of silence and go public with claims of abuse. News programs publicized his charges and the Maple Leaf Gardens scandal became a huge story of its own. In a letter to the media about the case, Kruze alleged that he had been taken advantage of not merely by a few hired maintenance men but by an organized “ring” that decades later was still operating at the Gardens. Kruze, who had begun to describe himself as “an innocent child of God,” rapidly became a professional survivor (he even had a calling card printed with SURVIVOR on it). Ostensibly heterosexual, with an official girlfriend, he admitted he was still having sex with men, claiming he did it to punish himself for past misdeeds. He had become part of what he called “the sexual abuse industry.” When asked by one reporter if he was a blackmailer, he referred any such discussion to his attorney.
Toronto Sun editor Lorrie Goldstein admitted later that the subsequent press and television coverage of the sordid Maple Leaf Gardens case was largely driven by homophobia. One veteran police detective who worked the case tried to tell the media there was no truth to the claims of a wide-ranging “pedophile ring” responsible even for a notorious 1977 child murder. But the lack of a “ring,” he said, “spoils their whole story . . . The whole thing about this sex ring grew and grew.” As a result, the Toronto Police Force was under great pressure to uncover more participants in the elusive ring. After Detective Dan Tredrea, chief investigator on the case, went on the Six O’clock News asking for more victims to come forward, the phones, said one officer, began “ringing off the hook . . . It’s been dozens and dozens, literally.” One complainant claimed to have been molested “about fifty times,” and to have told no-one. More men who had known the accused Gardens employees (there were three, one of them deceased) presented themselves to the police. As no sex ring could be substantiated and no Gardens officials could be implicated, the men were pressed to remember names from further afield. One name that came up repeatedly was that of Norman Elder, and the police were able to produce a fat file of past misdemeanours and complaints, including the trolley-fried monkeys, the big pig and the polar bear fence, as well as the names of various reform school graduates who had dallied at the house.
Martin Kruze’s sensational revelations about pederastic goings-on in our national sport’s most sacred site were inevitably discussed in taverns and coffee-shops across the country, often in tandem with the enviable sum he had been paid to keep quiet. And it set in motion a chain of events that led to the first of a dozen serious criminal charges against Norman Elder. Norman had no connection to Maple Leaf Gardens or its employees, and no interest in the young boys involved. But several of the boys had later met Norman, and knew he was gay. His house was only a few hundred yards from Varsity Stadium, the main sports field at the University of Toronto. Of an evening, Norman would often stroll down to catch a game. He would fall into conversation with other spectators, sometimes inviting them to make the short trip home with him. Some enjoyed a cup of tea and a tour of the Museum. Others stayed the night. And back in the seventies, what occasionally ensued afterwards was deemed criminal if one or both parties were shy of the legal age of 21.
While the police began to prepare their case against Norman, there were ominous developments even closer to home. A one-time Bedford Road resident, a mentally disturbed man with a penchant for petty theft, had at one time become involved with a friend of Norman’s called Steve, the putative heir to a well-known Canadian food chain. The relationship had worked out badly, the young thief had been asked to leave the house and had later come to the notice of the police. He blamed Steve, and secondarily Norman for his troubles, and when he read about the Maple Leaf Gardens case, he and a friend began to talk discuss the possibilities of blackmail. One evening, they phoned the Norman Elder Museum and Gallery, looking for Steve, or at least his phone number. None too happy to hear from the pair, Norman told them the facts: “You’re too late. Steve’s dead. He died of a massive aneurism in Belize a few months ago.” Shortly after that call, Norm began confiding to a few close friends that an acquaintance was trying to blackmail him, and that he was neither willing nor able to pay. Before the year was out, Norman was arrested.
Hundreds of people had stayed at the Museum in the decades since the move from Yorkville. Many of his friends and protégés had now become established citizens with families, jobs, businesses or professional lives. But others had become petty criminals, hustlers or perennial bankrupts. It was this second group that provided most of the ten men who now revealed to the police that Norman had initiated sex with them up to a quarter of a century earlier.
After the shock of his initial arrest, Norman realized he would have to decide quickly on a course of action. The question was: whether to contest the charges in court, or to fold and hope his exemplary record and establishment connections would outweigh the flawed recollections and contradictory contentions of an apparently growing list of accusers. “Dr. Tomorrow,” Norman’s old friend Frank Ogden, strongly urged him to plead Not Guilty and fight. One of Canada’s best-known criminal lawyers was mentioned as a possible counsel. The substantial fees involved might have presented a problem, but there were several able local lawyers who could have taken the case, including one whose unofficial office was a window booth in a Yonge Street fast food restaurant, from which perch he had become a shrewd observer of the very world in which Norman’s accusers moved. Others of riper vintage retained their ancient knowledge of those obsolete sections of the Criminal Code under which Norman had been charged. Family members on the other hand dreaded what promised to be a long and gruelling trial with much attendant publicity and embarrassing unpleasantness. Norman decided to avoid further disgrace by signing a court document known as an “Agreed Statement of Facts,” otherwise referred to in the business as a confession. As his solicitor he retained a young attorney with connections to the Elder family.
Norman’s arrest was kept quiet; many of his friends heard nothing about it. Nevertheless, the word was soon out on the street. Men whom Norman had bailed out of jail decades before suddenly remembered him – the guy with the weird house on Bedford Road who took them water-skiing, or offered them cash for a blow job, or let them crash in his upstairs and took care of their laundry.
In October of 1997, I answered Norman’s request for a letter of reference to present to the court. His attorney amassed fifty-eight of these, all from people who knew him, including an impressive number of well-known and distinguished names. They described Norman in “the highest possible terms,” the court agreed, “and as a valued and highly respected member of the community.” Many of the letters attested to Norman’s taking in “confused and lost” young – and not-so-young – people, helping them, re-establishing contact with their families and setting them on the path to “productive lives.” His trial began in January, 1998, with the prosecutor asking Judge Faith Finnestad to give “minimum weight” to any letters attesting to the defendant’s good character on the grounds that his supporters were obviously “not aware that this aspect of his personality existed.”
Against the stack of character references were the sworn statements of ten accusers. The men, all sexually mature males at the time of the alleged events and now approaching middle age, were seen by the court as having been children in the eyes of the law, and thus incapable of consent. Under the statutes in force in the early seventies, no force or even coercion needed to be alleged; a mere sexual advance was an illegal act. One man said that when Norman had “gotten on top of him,” he had “got up and prepared to leave the premises.” After calming him, intercourse was attempted but “no penetration took place.” “At the present time,” he wrote, “I fantasize . . . that I will stop having the nightmare of being chased by an old male.”
In a brief address to the court, Norman admitted he had broken the law, apologized for the distress he had caused and added that “it’s been very difficult for my friends, my family and myself.” Nonetheless, the prosecutor demanded jail time, stressing the large number of offenses and characterizing the defendant as “a predator” who had “ensnared vulnerable youth.” Sympathetic observers heard echoes of the notorious summing-up by Mr. Justice Wills in the Oscar Wilde case a century earlier, when he remarked from the bench that “you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men.” On March 12, Judge Finnestad handed down a sentence of two years less a day, to be served in a provincial prison. Disheartened, Norman instructed his attorney to appeal; he was freed until the appeal was heard. Two weeks later, the police laid two additional charges against him, to be tried, together, the following January.
The following ten months were difficult ones for Norman and friends saw little of him. Though he had always enjoyed reasonably good health, his sleep patterns had become increasingly disturbed, perhaps aggravated by the “listlessness” that sometimes accompanies recurrent malaria. A physician who had been close to Norman’s deceased parents began prescribing the drug Ativan, a powerful soporofic and anti-depressant. He began taking the drug regularly, and came to rely on it to get to sleep.
In January of 1999, Norman faced his second major court appearance. Stunned by his failure to avoid a jail sentence in the first, uncontested, trial, he had decided to fight the additional accusations, which were made by two men he knew well but who by court order could not be identified. He pleaded Not Guilty to indecently assaulting the first complainant in 1979 and 1980 and the second in 1989. Both men alleged that Norman had performed oral sex on them. One claimed that Norman had once gotten him drunk in Muskoka. Norman was able to show that the beer was bought by the complainant. The man’s long history of alcoholism, drug abuse, theft and domestic violence tended to cast further doubts on his veracity, as did his pressing financial troubles and threats of lawsuits. The second man claimed Norman had paid him twice, for sex, and said he had kept the proffered $200. But there were a number of serious inconsistencies in his testimony.
Mr. Justice David McCombs pointed out that the Crown’s case relied wholly on the claims of these two witnesses, both of them silent for twenty years. He found their testimony neither credible nor reliable. “However morally repugnant the conduct of Mr. Elder may be,” he said, “I am not convinced the acts were criminal . . . I do not know where the truth lies, so I therefore find Mr. Elder not guilty on both counts.” One of the ten accusers in the earlier case was in court for the verdict. Indignant, he told the press, “This man is a legendary pee-dophile” who should be forced to “take treatment.” He and the others were having a victims’ meeting that very afternoon, he said, to discuss civil action.
A few days after the acquittal, an old friend of Norman’s held a quiet dinner party at his Rosedale apartment to celebrate the acquittal. The guests included historian Don McLeod, crime writer James Dubro and playwright Sky Gilbert; Norman was the guest of honour. The host was John Grube who had taught the adolescent Norman years before at Upper Canada College where he remembered Norman as a quiet, personable athlete. A writer, artist and translator, Grube was the author of a fictional treatment of the notorious 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids which galvanized the gay community to mass civil disobedience. He had been close to Jacques Ferron, the Quebec novelist and doctor to the poor who later founded the Rhinocerous Party.
The old professor was silver-haired now and beginning to grow frail, but had lost none of his radical fire. Over after-dinner drinks, he mounted a forceful argument for a rallying of public opinion against Norman’s sentence. The testimony of fifty-eight citizens might have been set aside, but maybe the outrage of fifty-eight hundred could make the difference between prison and freedom. Norman sipped his brandy and appeared unconvinced. Shy of further publicity, he suggested his establishment connections would see him through in the end. One guest, a young friend of Grube’s whispered, “Who does he know? Conrad Black?”
Don McLeod recalled meeting Norman at the party. He found him charming but “a bit befuddled or dazed” by his trials. “I remember clearly,” he recalled, “that he didn’t even remember some of the young men who brought the charges against him. I think he was optimistic that the verdict (in the first trial) would be overturned on appeal. At the end of the evening, Norman drove us all home in the snow in his big Lincoln. We briefly got lost trying to find our way out of Rosedale.”
The next month, Norman’s appeal was denied and he began his two year sentence in a minimum security jail near Brampton, Ontario. In May, his accusers filed a four million dollar lawsuit. Perhaps they believed Norman to be wealthy. In fact, he had almost no money, his house and car were mortgaged, and his only assets were the various records of his travels and a ramshackle cottage in Torrance, Ontario.
In September, Norman wrote to me from prison: “Great to hear from you! It is very easy to feel very cut off when in jail. So it means a lot getting your letter.” He mentioned John Grube’s much-appreciated dinner party. Jail, he said, “has truly been an interesting experience, with each day a challenge to see if I can make the adjustment to a world that is definitely harder for me than any of my travels into the rainforests. I do like to pretend I’m in a different sort of adventure here. I keep busy reading, drawing, keeping fit and working in the craft shop. Everyone here has been respectful including all the staff.” He mentioned that he still had the books I’d given him over the years – at home of course; he was allowed no outside literature. To another friend, he mentioned the pleasure he took in preparing the hot rocks the Native prisoners used for their sweat lodges.
I visited Norman soon after his release, several months ahead of schedule. Sitting in his old bedroom, glad to be back in familiar surroundings, he was relieved that he had at least been able to keep his property and belongings. He looked well and seemed eager to get on with life. The following January, I invited him to attend a literary party at the Idler Pub, just around the corner from his house. It was a chilly night; the occasion was a memorial get-together to commemorate the life of the poet Edward Lacey, who had died in a Toronto rooming house in 1995. Norman was in good spirits. It was the last time I saw him.
Soon after the Lacey memorial, Norman began hearing rumours of possible further police action against him. In addition, the four million dollar lawsuit was making its way through the court system, and he again faced the prospect of losing virtually everything he owned. Understandably, he became somewhat paranoid, fearing every knock on the door.
For some time, Norman had been taking Ativan, a strong benzodiazopine tranquillizer misprescribed to him for his persistent insomnia. Ativan is a problematic drug. Its side effects can include “agitation, anxiety, depression, persistent and unpleasant memories and a feeling of unreality.” Nightmares, paranoia and panic attacks are not uncommon. At around the time of the Idler gathering, Norman’s prescription for the drug had been suddenly cut off. Ativan is highly addictive and can require regular increases in dosage to achieve the required effect. Going off the drug without a carefully supervised program of withdrawal can lead to mental disorientation and suicidal thoughts. Sleepless and agitated, Norman began buying it occasionally on the black market. The disorientation brought about by Ativan probably intensified an already anxious mental state. His worries about his precarious financial situation and the ongoing civil suit began to prey on his mind. He feared being arrested again, and imagined being left destitute.
One day in October of 2003, a friend accompanied Norman to a meeting at the home of an Elder family member. Hoping for a loan on generous terms that would at least meet his ongoing expenses, he asked his friend to wait for him in the car while he went inside. When he returned, he looked shaken: no loan would be forthcoming. At about this time, he phoned his friend, Bill Jamieson, a fellow Explorers Club member. Jamieson was a dealer in rare tribal artefacts who had purchased the contents of the old Niagara Falls Museum, storing some of the former exhibits at Norman’s house. Norman told Jamieson he was going to sell the building; would he please come and remove his belongings? Jamieson suggested he could tide Norman over with a loan; Norman thanked him but declined the offer.
That evening or the next, John Haddad, the friend who shared Norman’s part of the house, cooked Norman his favourite meal of bacon and eggs. As they sat together in the rudimentary kitchen, the cupboard door immediately opposite Norman, which a slight tilt to the floor invariably kept shut, slowly swung wide open. John Haddad made a comment about omens. Norman smiled but said nothing.
The following morning, John Haddad was puzzled to find the pet lemurs Norman had brought back from Madagascar had not been fed. Shortly afterwards on his return from a shopping trip, Haddad found one of the lemurs in a highly agitated state, jumping back and forth onto a day-bed in Norman’s room. When he went into the bedroom to sit on the day-bed and find out what the lemur wanted, he saw Norman’s body, hanging lifeless from a fixture in the ceiling. In one of those visual hallucinations a sudden shock can induce, the corpse appeared eerily, impossibly small. Police and ambulance were summoned. As a pair of paramedics eased the body down, one of them remarked to the other, “He’s in pretty good shape.”
Seven squad cars quickly descended on 140 Bedford Road and for the last time, official investigators ranged over the premises, taking note of the excited lemurs and curiously decorated coffins, and stringing crime scene tape around the perimeter. For years there had been rumours that tunnels had been dug under the property. Some people had discerned a resemblance between Norman and the actor Bob Crane who played Col. Hogan in the eighties’ TV show Hogan’s Heroes, set in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. Now, Toronto’s Finest were convinced that Norman’s bed, like the trick bunk in Hogan’s barracks, must be the concealed entrance to a tunnel or system of tunnels leading to an outbuilding, or to the house next door, or even under the street to a manhole cover serving as an escape hatch. Seismic equipment was brought in, revealing no secret passages, only Norman’s windowless “funky room” in the cellar and a false door fastened to one of the walls. Nothing was found in the garden but a few old lion bones.
Shortly after Norman’s death, Duane Robertson had a dream of his old friend hoisting a cup of coffee, saying “I’m not afraid now.”
There seems little doubt that Norman committed some of the acts with which he was charged. He propositioned, and sometimes had sex with, young men, at a time when Canadian law made such activity illegal. But in writing this piece, I spoke with a number of men who in their youth had lived or travelled with Norman. Without exception, the heterosexual ones, some now married and with families, said Norman had never even made a pass at them. One man said, “I’ve slept in beds and hammocks with Norman and he never did anything.” They were surprised to hear of Norman’s arrest and did not believe the charges against him. But a gay man who had known Norman, a retired civil servant who lived briefly at the Bedford Road house as a long-haired hippie youth, remembered Norman offering a reduction of his already low rent should a bit of sex be involved. As he didn’t fancy Norman and was not in the prostitution business, he declined the offer and no more was said about it. He didn’t believe the charges either.
It might seem odd that though the young men Norman was accused of assaulting were said to have “immediately fled under cover of darkness,” in the court’s somewhat melodramatic phrase, he nonetheless continued the unsuccessful seduction technique of suddenly appearing in his victims’ beds. Perhaps, like the man who picked up women at bus stops, he was often met with outrage but was pleased to get quite a few takers as well. Still, the stories of innocent youths assaulted as they slept do not seem to square with accounts of gentlemanly behaviour in other, similar circumstances. But there may be a relatively simple explanation.
For bisexual men, uncomfortable with their own capacity to be aroused in the presence of another male, compromising situations have traditionally been explained away by pleading (a) I was asleep through the whole thing, (b) I was so drunk I didn’t know what I was doing, or (c) I did it for the money. All these explanations were used by witnesses against Norman. One accuser said “I told him to stop but he said, ‘Go back to sleep, don’t worry.’ He performed fellatio for a half-hour.” Another claimed, falsely, that Norman had gotten him drunk. Others admitted they were aroused, and paid. Though Norman’s gaydar seems to have been in good working order, his courtship techniques might have benefited from a little polish. Whether his actions merited a prison sentence so many years after the fact is debatable.
It was not long before members of Norman’s family removed the furnishings and other useable items from the house. Most of Norman’s paintings were auctioned off in lots along with the rest of the contents, including items Norman had borrowed or was storing for friends. One collector remembers seeing some of his own property at an antique stall, acquired from Norman’s estate as one of a large number of lots. On Bedford Road, dumpsters rapidly filled up with bug-ridden crocodile parts and moth-eaten stuffed sheep. John Haddad and the remaining lodgers moved out and the interior was gutted. The polar bear fence and the stone memorial for Jim Butcher, an old friend of Norman’s who had died young, were all hauled away, just as many of the tribal cultures Norman had visited were being swept aside by bulldozers and factory farms. Today, the house at 140 Bedford Road bears no trace of what for thirty-five years had been the Norman Elder Museum and Gallery.
Though he seemed utterly at home in the Toronto of the late twentieth century, Norman Elder resembled nothing so much as an English gentleman adventurer of the Edwardian era, his cabinet of curiosities enlarged into a private museum with trophies mounted on its walls and curious creatures taking over the anteroom. Like any number of Edwardian gentlemen, Norman appeared to be wealthy but in fact was not. He was an eccentric who insisted, “Norman is normal,” his use of the third person distancing him from his own ingenuous claim.
Norman was one of those people who always seem faintly amused by life. Once, just for fun at a fancy Toronto party, he placed a enormous, somnolent snake beneath a warm pile of coats on a bed. As the affair wound down and the dowagers were retrieving their wraps, a sudden shriek made everyone jump: Toronto the Good – meet the jungle! Though there was no malice in these childish pranks, they could be disturbing, especially after a few drinks. But it was a party to remember.
To the end of his life, Norman retained a certain boyishness of appearance and temperament – “running around like a little kid.” Hamish Grant said of him that he had something of a Curious George attitude to life. Though he loved an emir or an exiled king, he pretty much took everyone as he found them. Whoever you were, he was invariably interested in what you were up to, and greeted any piece of knowledge sent his way as a revelation, what someone called his “Gee, golly!” approach – Curious George having just found the banana. As with most trusting, good-natured people, Norman often appeared naive. He had seen hunters shoot howler monkeys out of the trees and eat them, yet was shocked by conditions in the local stockyards. He continually confronted the world’s destructive will, the “fearful carnivorous god,” the anaconda you wrestle for the camera, that almost drowns you. Yet an English poet, who had once fallen into a drunken sleep on Norman’s couch over forty years before, remembered him as “one of the calmest and most quietly civilized characters I am likely to meet.” He could do extraordinary things on a shoestring, just by being “polite but assertive.”
Norman Elder is buried in Torrance, Ontario, near his old cottage. His tombstone describes him as “Explorer, Equestrian, Author and Adventurer.” On the grounds of the the cottage is an animal graveyard. No-one who saw Norman with any of his animals could doubt his affection for them. Here their graves are arranged in neat rows, each with its own individual, sometimes highly idiosyncratic, marker. The cottage and its home-made outbuildings are now falling into desuetude. The cemetery is still maintained by John Haddad.