At first glance, Florence and Mordecai Richler were an unlikely match. About all they had in common were unhappy childhoods in Montreal during the Depression. She was soignée and cultured; he was a rumpled, often funny, frequently corrosive novelist. She was Anglican, he was Jewish, and both were married to other people when they met in the mid-1950s in London. Their respective marriages soon ended and the two became a couple. Mr. Richler was so smitten that the novelist Doris Lessing once compared him to a moonstruck calf.
Their powerful bond survived 40 years of marriage, the raising of five children and his international success as a writer.
The elements of their romance were ripe for satire, especially in the hands of a writer with a mordant wit. Mr. Richler’s fiction often featured a Jewish character with a passionate obsession for a beautiful gentile, since at least St. Urbain’s Horseman in 1971.
Noah Richler, their second son, drove the point home at his mother’s funeral, five days after her death on Jan 10, at the age of 90. He read the hilarious scene from his father’s final novel, Barney’s Version, in which Barney Panofsky falls in love with a beautiful, elegant guest at his wedding to somebody else.
If Mordecai had his version, so did Florence, and hers included a private Anglican faith, which was manifested in her funeral last week at St. James Cathedral in Toronto. The music was glorious, the poetry abiding, the sermon short and the eulogies heartfelt, funny and celebratory of a woman of great intelligence, discernment and charm.
“She was very intuitive about people,” editor Robert (Bob) Gottlieb, of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker, said in a telephone interview. Their friendship dates back more than 50 years, ever since Mr. Gottlieb began editing Mr. Richler after the success of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
“She was also a brilliant reader and that was a great thing for me,” he said, “because in the many, many books that Mordecai and I did together, or that I helped ease out of him, she was always the first reader and that could have been a very bad thing if her readings and mine weren’t in tune with each other, but they always were. We saw everything the same way.”
Anybody who knows the Richler oeuvre understands that he lived a hardscrabble life and had a fractious relationship with his family. Much less well known is that Ms. Richler’s life also began in hardship and strife. Her early days had enough drama and passion to fill the pages of the sort of romance novel that she might have disdained as a reader.
Every so often she would reveal a tidbit to friends, family and nosy journalists, but ask too many questions and you would be quickly diverted by a dazzling smile and an amusing deflection into another topic.
She was “so very captivating,” that it was almost impossible “not to be curious,” her elder daughter, Emma Richler, said in an e-mail interview. Over the years, she would ask about her mother’s early life, “politely, shyly, but with intent” in moments “when the mood and occasion were favourable.” Many of those details are now public in the family-written death announcement and from tributes at the funeral.
Born on Oct. 19, 1929, in Montreal, she was registered as Gwendolyn Crowe at the Montreal Foundling and Baby Hospital on St. Urbain, a street her husband would later make famous in his novels.
Adopted by Albert and Ethel Wood, she was raised in Pointe-Saint-Charles, a working-class district of Montreal. School became a salvation, as it was for so many poor but intelligent children growing up in illiterate households during the Depression. She learned to read and write, which meant she could nourish her intellect and her imagination. In high school, she developed a love of music by taking piano lessons along with an older student, Oscar Peterson, the son of a railway porter.
Poverty, which was endemic in her neighbourhood, was nothing compared with feeling unloved. When Florence earned a scholarship to McGill University, her mother insisted she refuse it and work as a clerk at Woolworth’s instead. Educating girls who were only going to get married and have children was often considered a waste of time in those days, but that doesn’t explain her mother’s animosity toward the daughter she had adopted.
Ms. Richler had to get away from home if she were going to reinvent herself, a choice made easier after a definitive brawl with her mother, according to Daniel Richler, the eldest of her children. Ms. Richler’s poise and beauty caught the eyes of fashion editors and she found work at Toronto-based Chatelaine magazine before moving to England where she modelled for Dior, found some roles on stage and screen and married fellow Montrealer Stanley Mann, a screenwriter.
By 1960, the Manns and the Richlers had divorced, Florence and Mordecai had married and he had adopted Daniel, her son by Mr. Mann.
They had four more children, Mr. Richler became an international success, and they lived an expansive life together in London and then back in Montreal, after he decided that as a writer, he needed to be closer to his roots. It was hard for her to leave London, where she had flourished, and return to a place where she had been so unhappy, but she did it with grace, aided somewhat by frequent trips and eventually a flat in Chelsea.
As a couple, the Richlers had a bond that was “practically hermetic,” according to one friend, while another confessed she was envious when she spied them across a crowded room. Typically, there isn’t much space for children in such a passionate, all-encompassing relationship; not so with the Richlers. The children were at the heart of their lives, never excluded, always embraced. Ms. Richler was the antithesis of her adoptive mother, often exhausting herself in domestic feats to create an ideal home life for her children and a quiet space for her husband in which to work.
A life that had begun so rudely had expanded. Where once she had been thwarted, she was able to help her younger daughter, Martha, scout out universities to pursue a poetry degree. Always her husband’s first reader, she eventually took on that loving chore for Emma, her novelist daughter.
Underneath her maternal drive and her ineffable charm, she was rigorous in her judgments. “She was not a patsy by any means,” according to Mr. Gottlieb. “She was very clear-headed about Mordecai and the kids, but that didn’t affect her love and admiration of them.” What’s more, “she knew her value and that is a very important thing when you are an adult – not to overrate it, but not to underrate it either,” he said. “Mordecai certainly saw her value because he valued her over everything.”
His death from kidney cancer in 2001 was devastating, so were the infirmities – macular degeneration, deafness and physical frailty – that gradually narrowed her independence. Travel became problematic and she could no longer manage the flat in Chelsea or the cottage in Quebec. Once again, she reinvented herself, moving to Toronto to settle near her sons Noah and Jacob (Jake) on the edge of a park, in a small house that resembled an English country cottage.
Despite her loneliness, she carried on, with the help of family, friends, large print readers and the telephone to keep in steady contact with her three London-based children and aging friends from around the world. Among her coping strategies, she memorized the number of steps at a favourite concert hall so she could climb the stairs on her own, if an arm were not readily proffered.
Where once she had taught her youngest son, Jake, to cook, she became the recipient of his culinary efforts, rewarding each meal with a telephoned critique. “I don’t think any cook since Escoffier has ever received such consistently effusive reviews,” he told mourners.
After the funeral, Ms. Richler had one final journey to make. Her children accompanied her casket to Montreal so she could be buried next to her husband. Twenty years ago, as Mr. Richler lay dying in a Montreal hospital, he had scrawled his burial instructions on a piece of paper, requesting that an adjoining plot be reserved for his wife, so that “eventually we may lie beside each other in death, as we did so happily in life.” Clearly, that was her wish too. She installed a bench overlooking the gravesite, where visitors can contemplate the lives of this extraordinary couple.
Ms. Richler leaves her five children and their families.