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Richard La Prairie.Courtesy of family

Richard Thurston La Prairie: Collector. Bon vivant. Patron. Dandy. Born March 3, 1925, in Timmins, Ont.; died Oct. 2, 2019, in Toronto, of heart failure; aged 94.

A party at Richard La Prairie’s home was an event to remember. The spacious condo seemed much smaller than it actually was, partly because of the crowds of family and friends, but more so because of the artworks that crammed every available space. The dining table was occupied by life-size figures, and only a narrow path was available up the stairs between the massed ranks of objets d’art. In the bathroom, guests would wonder how Richard co-existed with the art installation in his bathtub. In the bedroom, a display of masks from around the world (including a Jacques Plante goalie mask) terrified small children. Stacks of books on history and politics crammed every available corner. Richard would cut a swath through the throng, clad in beautifully tailored, extravagantly colourful suits, and clutching a perpetually replenished glass of “holy water” (a gin martini) in his gesticulating hand. Late in the evening, a borscht soup heavily spiked with vodka would be passed around by way of dinner.

This was a long way from Richard’s origins in Timmins, a small Northern Ontario town about a seven-hour drive north. He was born in a log cabin, one of nine children of a colourful French-Irish Catholic family. The family was mining royalty: his father, Adolphe (Lap) La Prairie is memorialized in Canada’s mining hall of fame and the majority of Lap’s seven sons spent time in the industry. Richard wanted to go to art school, but Lap was fiercely opposed. He saw Richard’s left-handedness, his speech impediment and his interest in art as symptoms of a problem that would be cured by a career as a mining engineer. Richard’s degree in commerce and his career in finance were a compromise.

He spent most of his career with Royal Trust in Montreal. Long after his departure, he was remembered there as a true gentleman, a witty raconteur and an iconoclast. He displayed two mementos of his time at the bank: the gold watch he received for his 25th anniversary, and the gold boot that he had made when he was let go six months later.

Art was the defining passion of Richard’s life. He was a canny collector: paintings, ceramics, installations, indigenous art. He cared only that the art was individual, witty, colourful and eye-catching. He said that he did not choose the art: The art chose him. Richard bought art that he loved, with little care for resale value, and was dedicated to supporting young and emerging artists. His home doubled as a gallery, and many art lovers visited for informal tours. His visual flair was also reflected in his dress, and his well-made and striking suits continue to be worn on special occasions by his great-nephews.

Richard and his immediate family maintained a lifelong silence and tacit understanding about his romantic life. He remained single, but was much in demand to squire friends, including former Globe and Mail society columnist Zena Cherry, to all kinds of events. He was also a cherished uncle to 54 nieces and nephews, many of whom saw him as a model, not only for his style and intellect, but his determination to find his own path in an era of conformity.

When he discovered Camp Ooch, a charity that provides opportunities for children with cancer, Richard took a lifelong interest in the programs it provided. He donated his complete estate to this charity and the proceeds will continue to transform children’s lives for many years to come.

With his trademark wit, Richard drafted his own obituary: “Mostly forgotten, now definitely gone.” Entertaining as always, but for once, quite wrong.

John La Prairie was Richard’s nephew.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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