Short, with a dark complexion, smouldering brown eyes and a thick helmet of black hair, Scott Symons had a chunky wrestler's body and a magnetic personality. He could energize a gathering simply by being there, but he could just as easily unleash his voraciously narcissistic side, suck all the oxygen out of a room and verbally flail his nearest and dearest.
Born into a prosperous, well connected Toronto family, equipped with a fierce intelligence, a passionate curiosity, and the literary ambition to break out of his pre-destined establishment mould, he dreamt of writing the great Canadian novel - a visually creative and sexually revolutionary work that would liberate readers, and empower them to embrace hedonistic experience and shrug off the complacent shackles of post-War Canadian society.
He wrote three novels, including what is arguably Canlit's first openly gay novel, but he will be remembered most for his outrageous lifestyle, which began in scandal and ended in poverty and illness, his political and cultural journalism about post-Duplessis Quebec and his book Heritage: A Romantic Look at Early Canadian Furniture, an imaginative and culturally provocative treatise with photographs by John de Visser and a preface by George Grant.
As a fiction writer, Mr. Symons could craft visually charged scenes, as though he were wielding a paint brush instead of a pen, but he had profound difficulties in stepping back from his material and establishing a distance between himself - the author - and the characters he created to espouse his polemical and homoerotic views on the "lived" life.
As for absorbed experience, the bedrock of all fiction, he paraded it raw. Perhaps his biggest mistake as a writer was his obsessive journal-keeping, an addiction that began in his mid-20s. He recorded everything in his Combat Journal, as he called his diary, which then became, seemingly without selection, the sprawling stuff of his fiction.
His life was his art. Alas, it was not a masterpiece.
He affronted family, alienated friends and lovers and destroyed relationships by wantonly inflicting pain in the most flagrant and public ways without any semblance of remorse. At 34, he abandoned his wife and small son to run away with a 17-year-old boy - with outraged parents and police in hot pursuit - at a time when even homosexual acts between consulting adults were criminal offences. Vicious in print, he attacked the character and writings of friends including Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Bill Glassco and Robertson Davies.
His closest and oldest friend, the late journalist and essayist Charles Taylor, supported Mr. Symons emotionally, intellectually and financially, and wrote, in Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern, what remains the most perceptive profile of Mr. Symons, a 1977 biographical essay that is empathetic, knowing and revealing.
Mr. Taylor was not his only champion. The late Jack McClelland, his publisher, believed he was "one of Canada's most important writers." Poet and editor Dennis Lee, who spent more than a dozen years wrestling Helmet of Flesh into a publishable manuscript, says that Heritage, the furniture "novel," and Helmet will secure Mr. Symons' writing legacy. And, in 2005, the Literary Review of Canada included Place d'Armes as one of the 100 most important books in Canadian history.
Hugh Brennan Scott Symons was born in the early years of the Depression, the fifth of seven children - one of his older brothers is Tom Symons, the founding president of Trent University and author of The Symons Report - of Major Harry and Dorothy (nee Bull) Symons.
His father, a fighter pilot in the First World War, made his living in real estate and won the inaugural Stephen Leacock Award in 1947 for a book called Ojibway Melody. His British-born grandfather, William Limberry Symons, had designed Union Station, many of the houses in the exclusive Rosedale enclave where the Symons family lived, and founded the Ontario Society of Architects. On his mother's side, the Bulls were United Empire Loyalists. His maternal grandfather was William Perkins Bull, a lawyer, financier, art patron and writer, who was known as "The Duke of Rosedale."
Mr. Symons grew up surrounded by books, traditions and culture, and "thinking highly of himself," according to his youngest brother Bart Symons. After attending Rosedale Elementary School, he was, according to Mr. Taylor, "already showing signs of a moody truculence," a rebelliousness that his parents hoped to curb by sending him to board at Trinity College School, a private boy's school in Port Hope, Ont. Although he hated everything about the school - except Mr. Taylor - he was an excellent student.
"Charles was shy and diffident, Scott was self-assured and authoritative," said Mr. Taylor's widow Noreen, "and they developed this friendship," augmented by their admiration of each other's intellect. "And TCS being what it was, they shared a skepticism on the life of privilege and the worthiness of privilege for its own sake that never left either of them."
At TCS, he fell in love with another student, a love he repressed by becoming a gymnast, "a form of athletics which suited him because it was solitary and ritualistic, with a touch of grace," Mr. Taylor writes. He practised obsessively and one night, alone in the gym, he fell off the high bar and broke his back. He was immobilized in a body cast for several months.
While it is tempting to speculate that being trapped in a body cast is symbolic of the way Mr. Symons felt encased by society, what we know for certain is that that he moved back into the cocoon of his parents' home after the accident and spent 1950-1951, his final year of high school, at University of Toronto Schools, an academically elite boys school in the centre of the city. That fall he entered Trinity College in the University of Toronto, where he enlisted as a naval cadet, sat on student government and excelled academically, earning a slew of scholarships and medals along with a bachelor's degree in modern history in 1955.
Instead of revelling in his triumph, he skipped the ceremony and spent the day working at a part-time job at Woodbine race track - perhaps a sign that he wasn't going easily into the dark establishment night. Nevertheless, he went up to Cambridge that fall as a student of F.R. Leavis at King's College, although later he said he received his real education at Evensong and in the Fitzwilliam Museum.
About this time he became engaged to Judith Morrow, a childhood friend and a bank president's daughter, and returned to Toronto to take up a short-lived job on the editorial page of The Telegram. After being asked to write a report surveying the paper's editorial policy over the previous 50 years, he said it had deteriorated miserably and was soon shown the door. He and Ms. Morrow were married on March 1, 1958. At the reception, both the groom and his best man, Mr. Taylor, made well-lubricated speeches denigrating the guests and everything they represented.
Two months later the newlyweds had settled in Quebec City, where Mr. Symons took a job with The Chronicle-Telegraph, improved his French, and moved so easily in Quebecois intellectual circles, dominated by Andre Laurendeau and Jean-Louis Gagnon, that he was invited to join the St. Jean Baptiste Society - the first non-francophone and non-Catholic member, as he liked to boast.
By the autumn of 1959 Mr. Symons and his wife were in Paris, studying French literature and grammar at the Sorbonne, exploring the countryside and helping to harvest grapes in a Bordeaux vineyard. They returned to Canada a year later with their newborn son Graham because Mr. Symons had been offered a reporting job at La Presse. The end of the Duplessis era - the autocratic premier had died the previous year - was a propitious time for a bilingual outsider to sniff out political and intellectual ferment, and Mr. Symons made the most of his opportunity with a National Newspaper Award winning series of 25 articles in 1960-61 that presaged the coming Quiet Revolution. Indeed, he said later that he had coined the term.
Although his family and hers had frowned upon his career choice, Mr. Symons had considerable prowess as a journalist. But success frightened him and he "backed [away from journalism]into what seemed more respectable," as he later wrote. With his customary restlessness, he quit La Presse, moved back to Toronto with his family, and took a job as an assistant curator in the Canadiana collection of the Royal Ontario Museum.
Again, he seemed to have found his métier. Within three years he had been appointed curator and assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Toronto and granted a sabbatical, which he spent as a visiting curator at several august institutions in the United States. He gave a memorable public lecture, complete with slides, at the Smithsonian, in which he compared the "full-bodied and orotund" Quebec weather vane roosters with flat and one-dimensional American "cocks," as his stunned audience slowly grasped that they were on the losing side in a lecture on comparative cultural eroticism.
Mr. Symons was intent on kicking against the pricks, a defiance that he tried once too often with his superior at the ROM who fired him for insubordination while he was on sabbatical. Unable to abandon the field of battle, he turned down a permanent job at the Smithsonian so that he could pursue his self-styled vocation as "a kind of priest of the chapel of Canadiana."
Back in Canada at the 50-acre farm in Claremont, Ont., that his wife had bought from her husband's family, he began and abandoned a book on Canadian history, wrote a play in which a symbolically unfulfilled English Canadian achieved a beatific state when sodomized by a French Canadian chair, and, perhaps deliberately, messed up an audition for This Hour Has Seven Days, the provocative television show that seemed suited to his talents and tastes. The Symons' universe was unravelling.
He fled the farm and holed up in a small hotel in Montreal. In an obsessive 21-day outpouring, he produced his first novel, Place d'Armes, an autobiographical torrent about Hugh Anderson, an English Canadian, who wants nothing more than "the right to love my country, my wife, my people, my world," a goal that he can only achieve by reclaiming his emasculated soul through sexual intercourse with male Quebecois prostitutes in the square (La Place) adjoining l'église de Notre Dame. Anderson celebrates his deliverance by taking Holy Communion in the church, eating the host in La Place, and embracing bemused passersby.
Critical reaction was not mixed when Place d'Armes - Mr. Symons's Centennial project - was published in 1967. Writing in The Star in Toronto, under the headline, "A Monster From Toronto," cultural critic Robert Fulford castigated Mr. Symons' gauzily veiled protagonist as "the most repellent single figure in the recent history of Canadian writing" and criticized the author for being incapable of writing with or about love.
A savaged Mr. Symons licked his wounds in Yorkville, which was enjoying its sexually liberated heyday, by cavorting with all manner of libertines, including two statuesque and begowned black transvestites whom he invited to a family party hosted by his in-laws.
He was also creating his second novel, Civic Square, an even more unwieldy manuscript that was the English Canadian counterpart to Place d'Armes. A massive collection of polemical letters addressed to Dear Reader, the nearly 900-paged unbound manuscript (Anna Porter, then an executive editor at M&S, insists she ran the Gestetner machine) was packaged in a blue box, a symbolic reminder of a gift package from Birks, the tony establishment jeweller. As a final flourish, Mr. Symons drew birds, flowers and a red phallus on each page as it came off the assembly line, and then personally delivered a copy to St. James Cathedral, his family's church, depositing the nearly four kilogram offering on the collection plate after communion.
By now Mr. Symons had more serious preoccupations than rampaging book critics, although Civic Square did receive a favourable notice from writer Graeme Gibson in The Globe Magazine. The year before, Mr. Symons, 34, had run off with John McConnell, the underage son of a prominent Canadian family. The lovers lived for a time in the lumber camps of northern B.C. and then fled to Mexico with the police in hot and fruitless pursuit. Coincidentally, Mr. Symons received a minor literary prize - the Beta Sigma Phi Best First Canada Award - while he was on the lam. He returned to Toronto to pick up his laurels and his $1,000 cheque, and a formal meeting with his disaffected wife, who, not surprisingly, had begun divorce proceedings.
And so Mr. Symons began the long nomadic phase of his life, living variously in Trout River, a west coast Newfoundland village, where he wrote much of the text for Heritage, his furniture book (which would eventually be published, again by M&S, in 1971), the Mexican expatriate artists colony in San Miguel de Allende, where he began writing Helmet of Flesh, and mainly in Morocco, where he lived and loved and wrote for more than two decades in Essaoira, a walled medieval town, where he seemed most in harmony with himself, his new lover Aaron Klokeid, and his cultural and physical environment.
Periodically he returned to Canada: in 1970 on "a personal Odyssey into the heart of early Canadian belief" as he researched his furniture book; in 1986 for the launch of Helmet of Flesh at a lavish party hosted by Mr. Taylor; and in 1998 to attend the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront where Nik Sheehan's documentary film about him, God's Fool, was being screened and Christopher Elson's anthology, Dear Reader: Selected Scott Symons, was being launched by Gutter Press.
Mr. Symons always claimed that he was homosexual, not gay, by which he probably meant that he didn't embrace the gay liberation movement as a defining political and social cause. He wasn't seeking equality, he was railing against the real foe - the Blandmen - the establishment types that he felt had betrayed Canada's British and French heritage, (He saw the maple leaf flag, which replaced the Union Jack, as a particular outrage.) Frequently lonely and depressed, often suicidal, perpetually broke, he was dependent on the indulgence of friends, especially as his job prospects dwindled and his health deteriorated. He smoked, drank, and ate prodigiously and suffered over the years from diabetes and kidney problems.
In 2000 he returned permanently to Toronto. By then Mr. Taylor had died, his final bequest had been spent, and Mr. Symons was on his uppers and "a postscript to his own life," according to one friend. He spent his last years at Leisure World, a nursing home, where some of the faithful continued to stop by and take him out for a meal or celebrate his birthday.
"Rightly or wrongly, wisely or unwisely he had divorced himself from the family," said his youngest brother Bart. Nevertheless, Bart Symons "almost in fear" of a confrontation, made the train trip from his home in Stratford last August to visit his older brother, who was in St. Michael's Hospital because he was having trouble breathing.
"He was an absolute sweetie," and so a five-minute duty call became a lengthy and emotional visit. "It was an incredible event and he was so glad I had come and in hindsight so am I." Scott Symons was born in Toronto on July 13, 1933. He died there on Feb. 23, 2009 after several years of ill health. Mr. Symons, who was 75, is survived by his son Graham, five siblings, and his extended family.