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book review
  • Title: The Missing Millionaire: The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed with Finding Him
  • Author: Katie Daubs
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
  • Pages: 368

Scores of people go missing in Canada every year, many never to be found. The list of missing and murdered Indigenous women remains over a thousand (some say far more), despite a national inquiry. In 1919, the same year 53-year-old Toronto theatre magnate and impresario Ambrose Small disappeared, days after selling his empire for $1.75-million, thousands had failed to return from the Great War. So, it says something perhaps obvious about money and its perennial bedfellow, class, that a full century later we’re still wondering what happened to him. And nobody even liked the guy.

Thankfully, Katie Daubs’s spirited new book The Missing Millionaire is less a lament for the unsolved mystery of a petty, philandering, Machiavellian middleman (neither Small nor his body ever showed up) than it is a vivid social and physical portrait of the rapidly evolving city in which he lived.

Look past the coal dust and horse-drawn carriages, in fact, and Ambrose Small’s Toronto often sounds uncannily like today’s: a city of ceaseless development (Union Station was, as ever, under construction) and skyscraper building, but also of scant housing, where rent and food costs easily swallowed modest wages. Stroll down contemporary Queen Street West toward Ossington, where Ambrose Small lived in his youth, and you’ll even see a steady parade of hipsters sporting his ferret-like moustache.

Lured by the manufacturing boom, Ambrose’s father, Dan Small, came to Toronto in 1874, where he ran a hotel and bar on Adelaide Street, west of Yonge. It was at the Grand Opera House next door that young Ambrose got his foothold in the theatre world, first as an usher, then as an accounts man. Eventually, he would buy the Grand and make it ground zero for an Ontario theatre circuit into which “money poured in like a capitalist’s fairytale.” When Ambrose married brewing heiress Theresa Kormann in 1902, he was already a wealthy man.

The Missing Millionaire’s memorable list of dramatis personae includes Small’s embittered personal secretary, Jack Doughty, who slipped away to Oregon after Ambrose’s disappearance, but was dragged back and imprisoned for stealing war bonds from his boss, Ambrose’s long-time mistress, Clara Smith, who sent him coy, flirty letters even after she got married; and the erratic, psychic-consulting and ultimately ineffective Austin Mitchell, the case’s prime detective.

And then there’s sly, proud, forest-animal-wearing Theresa, a devout Catholic who poured thousands into various church-affiliated causes – including the Sisters of Service, missionaries whom she housed across from her Rosedale home and outfitted with habits from Holt Renfrew – but who left her unmarried sisters-in-laws penniless (Daubs calls Theresa’s life “an exercise in cognitive dissonance.”)

Patrick Sullivan, a hard-drinking ex-cop, flagrant opportunist and self-styled Sherlock Holmes, took on the sister-in-laws’ defence, primarily by attacking Theresa through his own conspiracy-touting tabloids. Multiple claims on Ambrose’s estate, many spurious, would drag out in the courts for years; but the house always wins, of course, and in the end much of his fortune was sponged up by taxes.

Ambrose Small may have vanished, but his story never has. For years, it was the subject of breathless headlines here and south of the border. In the ’60s, a rumoured gravesite was dug up in the Rosedale Valley. In 1987, Ambrose and Clara were immortalized as characters in Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion. Today, local ghost tours visit the area around Yonge Street where Ambrose was last sighted in “Toronto’s most sensational mystery.”

Daubs, a feature writer for the Toronto Star, brings a journalistic doggedness to her task, which included chasing down the descendants of various players. This makes for some fascinating and unexpectedly touching exchanges. She keeps things rolling: Daubs’s use of detail is judicious, her style entertainingly wry (“His favourite place had always been the edge of good taste” she says of Ambrose).

A 1936 inquiry into the Ambrose Small case fingered Theresa, who had died, and Jack Doughty as the most likely culprits. Theresa was aware of Ambrose’s womanizing and had difficulty keeping her story straight (she also took two weeks to file a missing-persons report). Doughty felt he’d been exploited. But with no body, it could only remain conjecture.

His money might be why we’ve stayed interested in Ambrose Small. Other people’s money might be the reason the case was never solved. Daubs writes: “In the hallways of power – where the husbands of Theresa’s luncheon guests grew wealthier every year – there was a great reluctance to question Theresa Small’s narrative … It raised too many questions about police incompetence, payoffs, compromise, and how the rich and powerful were treated.” Plus ça change.

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries and Best Canadian Essays 2019

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