Skip to main content

Writer Judith Fitzgerald, shown in May 2000.Daniel Jalowica

She was a slight, fragile woman, barely 80 pounds, who survived vicious childhood abuse to become an eloquent and distinctive voice in Canadian letters as the author of 25 books of poetry and two prose works, as well as a literary journalist, blogger and writer-in-residence at various universities. Judith Fitzgerald wrote her way out of psychic pain, using the healing power of language.

"She was in the top range of Canadian poets and completely dedicated to poetry," recalled Thomas Dilworth, a professor at the University of Windsor who met the poet when she was a writer-in-residence there from 1992 to 94. He became her mentor and wrote the introduction to her final book, Impeccable Regret, published in October.

"Judith was one of the most gifted and most afflicted people in the world of poetry," Prof. Dilworth said. "Her life was suffering. Sometimes she lived on welfare and on money friends gave or loaned her." (Among the friends believed to have helped her financially was Leonard Cohen.)

During her time at Windsor, she wrote River (1995), inspired by the broad view of both banks of the Detroit River that she saw from the balcony of her high-rise residence. Prof. Dilworth described the book as a wild poem, a blend of lightness and darkness that contains "extreme pain, hilarity, verbal pyrotechnics, and broad cultural criticism." He taught it in his graduate seminar. River was a finalist for the province's Trillium Award.

"I was always amazed and dazzled by what she could do with the written word," recalled Marty Gervais, whose Black Moss Press in Windsor issued eight of Ms. Fitzgerald's books, including her only books for children, My Orange Gorange (1985) and Whale Waddleby (1986). "She was brilliant, eccentric, single-minded and could write about the big issues of life, the failure of love, but also about baseball and country music. And she was an amazing poetry editor who helped me a lot – she could transform [an average] manuscript into a gem. She knew the strategies."

Rosemary Sullivan, now an acclaimed biographer and retired English professor, met Ms. Fitzgerald in the late 1970s when the two hung out at Dooney's, a literary café on Bloor Street West: "She was exceedingly beautiful, with long red hair and this physical fragility – quite an eye-catching figure, irreverent, funny, and sometimes outrageous. Her poetry was experimental and very interesting."

Ms. Sullivan, who wrote poetry herself then, recalls it as a time of creative ferment when people such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Al Purdy (a friend of Ms. Fitzgerald) were becoming prominent. "We were dazzled by everything Canadian," Ms. Sullivan said. "Judith encouraged me and got my poetry (which she edited) published with Black Moss Press."

Judith Fitzgerald was found dead at 63 on Nov. 25 at her home in Port Loring, Ont., where she lived alone. She is believed to have suffered a massive heart attack several days earlier. Over the years, she had had a string of health problems including osteoporosis, cervical cancer, celiac disease, repeated falls and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which required her to use an oxygen tank for months.

Judith Ariana Fitzgerald was born in Toronto on Nov. 11, 1952, the daughter of Marjorie Fitzgerald, a Grade 6 dropout who had numerous children by different men. Many years later, Ms. Fitzgerald confided to friends that her mother had sometimes worked as a prostitute. Her father was Robert Ouellette, about whom she wrote in a poem: I used to call him uncle daddy. I was afraid he would leave again. He did.

Most of the children were removed for adoption, leaving only two siblings with young Judith at home – her brother, Robert Norman Ouellette II, and sister, Maggie. The children were so starved and neglected that Judith, as the eldest, went out to scavenge for food for them behind the restaurants on Queen Street East. "I was their caregiver. … Our mother paid no attention unless it was time for a beating," she wrote.

When she was seven, the police were called after a violent incident and she was temporarily sent to live with her grandparents. She had scurvy from poor nutrition and her arm, she wrote, had to be reset since it had failed to heal properly after it had been fractured by her stepfather. Later in life she refused to go swimming or wear a bathing suit because, she wrote, "My body is a roadmap of scars."

Her grandmother, too, had a cruel streak and the girl later returned to live with her mother and stepfather when they relocated to Huntsville, Ont.

She told the Huntsville Forester in a 2003 interview that when she was attending Pine Glen Public School there, she had only one dress and one Orlon sweater: "The whole year I only had one outfit because they refused to spend money on clothes for us. We were just welfare meal tickets." A kind teacher noticed her distress and bought her a new dress to wear on a class trip to Ottawa. Her stepfather later burned it.

With the intervention of her teachers, she was made a Crown ward at the age of 13, in 1966, and moved into foster care in Bracebridge, Ont. Her siblings, she later said, were "lost." When Maggie died at 29, Ms. Fitzgerald dedicated Given Names, her 1985 book, to her sister's memory.

When she was attending Bracebridge High School, Rip Pridday, a fellow student, came into her life, first as a boyfriend then as a friend. "She was an exceptional student, and a bubbly, lively, quite outgoing person," he recalls. He took her home to Milford Bay to meet his parents, Robert Pridday, a war hero, and June, a nurse. The warm-hearted couple were the first adults to give the girl unconditional love. "My mother had a lot of maternal instinct. She saw a need and saw that she could help her," said Rip Pridday, now a ski coach in Alberta.

Although never formally adopted, Ms. Fitzgerald became part of the Pridday family (she referred to the parents as Mom and Dad). June helped her financially to go to York University, where she took a BA and a master's in English and fell under the spell of the charismatic Irving Layton, who taught that poetry was a grand, almost sacred calling. To make ends meet, she drove a cab.

Her first small book of poems, Octave, appeared in 1970, when she was 18, and the second, City Park, came two years later while she was still a student.

After receiving her master's she started a PhD in English at the University of Toronto, and told Rosemary Sullivan that she was the first Crown ward to obtain a doctorate. But in fact, she never completed her third degree.

Making a living as a poet proved extremely difficult. The first of her books that Marty Gervais published, Easy Over (1981) sold only 400 copies. Her reputation was growing, though, and in 1985, Given Names sold 1,500, "which for a poetry book is amazing," Mr. Gervais said. Royalties were slim.

Knowledgeable about baseball – her uncle had pitched for the Toronto Maple Leafs – she wrote for Martin Levin's short-lived baseball newspaper, Innings in the 1980s. "I sent her to interview Dave Stieb, the Jays' best pitcher and they sent out Jimmie Key (another good pitcher) to fool her. She didn't bite; she did a good job." Baseball imagery dots her work. When Mr. Levin became books editor at this paper, she contributed reviews and articles to his pages and won the Fiona Mee award for literary journalism.

She wrote a book about the singer Sarah McLachlan and a study of Marshall McLuhan, whom she idolized. Her friend Lenore Langs, who taught English at the University of Windsor, said that she made presentations on Mr. McLuhan's work and named the three dogs she successively owned Mac, Lu and Han.

After Windsor, Ms. Fitzgerald spent a year in France, near Nice, teaching in a program run by Laurentian University. She became adept at obtaining grants. In 2001, when Quill & Quire, the trade magazine, researched how much Canadian authors received in government grants, she topped the list with $154,000 collected in the previous decade.

Men came and went in her life. She twice moved to Florida to be with an American businessman. In the mid-80s she fell for Daniel Jalowica, also a poet, and the two had a stormy on-again, off-again marriage for about 15 years. "They were not good for each other," her friend Ms. Langs said.

Perhaps her greatest love, the inspiration for her most passionate love poetry, was the novelist Juan Butler, whom she met at a Toronto party a few years before he committed suicide in 1981.

Juan, you cannot believe the cold white room, the cold white moon, a symphony of light…

My eyes won't let you go. I miss your heart in my pocket, your hand under my dress.

The lines are from Rapturous Chronicles (1991), which is dedicated to him, and was shortlisted for a Governor-General's Award.

Ms. Fitzgerald was a difficult individual who could be needy, demanding and vindictive, as well as encouraging and fun. In the way of abused children, she expected to be hurt by others and tried to reject them before they rejected her.

She moved constantly and knew how to organize a small space impeccably. When Rosemary Sullivan invited her to live in her basement suite, the arrangement ended after three months in shouted accusations, recriminations and a call to the police.

"She was talented and could be generous, but she did always retreat in the end," Ms. Sullivan said. "With men, her dynamic was familiar. As soon as she felt she was becoming dependent on a boyfriend, she would leave. I believe she needed to create chaos to write."

"She didn't realize how much work she was. We used to joke that Judith doesn't burn her bridges – she explodes them," said Avrum Fenson, a lawyer, and long-time friend.

More than once she left angry messages on Mr. Levin's voicemail cancelling their friendship, and Prof. Dilworth recalled that she once berated a Windsor woman who brought her flowers in hospital; she expected her illness to be a secret.

"She had a blistering intelligence, but I believe she had borderline personality disorder," Prof. Dilworth said, "Sometimes her stream of complaints got into her poetry; complaint is an aspect of confessional poetry but it's not a good thing."

She left Toronto after her return from France, and bought a small house in Sundridge, Ont., on Highway 11. But her rural escape ended badly on June 2, 2002, when she was beaten and left for dead near the highway's edge by three men – one had worked on her house – in a dispute over money.

She woke up several days later in hospital, where she developed ARDS.

The police, who failed to arrest anyone for the assault, advised her to leave the area. It was then that she moved an hour's drive away to Port Loring, Ont., where she became increasingly frail, reclusive and prone to falls. She lived on income support from the Ontario Disability Support Program, sending out a stream of e-mails full of wordplay to her remaining friends.

One of her best books, Beneath the Skin of Paradise: The Piaf Poems (1984) ends this way:

Nothing/I regret nothing/I opened my heart /and it all poured in/

Nothing/I regret nothing/and Paradise is exploding/just beneath the skin

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Interact with The Globe