Tall, blond, impeccably groomed, Marilyn Thomson cut a couturier swath in any crowd. Although Mrs. Thomson, who died on May 23, was the matriarch of Canada's wealthiest family, she grew up in modest circumstances, the daughter of a railway employee. A lover of dogs, children, classical music and fast cars, she remained financially prudent long after she married media mogul Ken Thomson.
An accomplished amateur musician, who had saved up money as a girl to buy her first piano, she had beautiful hands with long sculpted fingers – what used to be called a pianist's hands. Her funeral this week at Rosedale United Church in Toronto was a celebration of her life and of music, with members of the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra raising the spirits of mourners with glorious performances of Bach and Mozart.
It was a fitting coda to a musical life. Mrs. Thomson had long-standing relationships with the TSO and RCM, serving as a board member of both organizations. In 2013, her children donated $5-million toward the Marilyn Thomson Early Childhood Education Centre at the RCM, which develops innovative music programs for children across the country.
In a eulogy, David Thomson, her elder son, told mourners that he "had learned early on that she always followed her heart." He remembered flying kites with her on weekends in Hyde Park and excursions to Portobello Road Market when the Thomson family lived in London, England, in the mid-1960s. He also recalled a hair-raising drive up a hill in France with his mother and two younger siblings in an old Peugeot that seemed to have only two gears. Later, his sister, Taylor, pointed out – in the way that siblings do about shared experiences – that her mother was properly "petrified" because the driver had only one leg, which made changing gears highly problematic.
Peter, the youngest sibling, spoke of his mother's love of car racing, explaining that she often served as an unofficial member of his pit crew after the two of them had gone to racing school together 30 years ago. Perhaps that is where she acquired the driving skills she delighted in practising on the leafy streets of Rosedale, their Toronto neighbourhood.
"She never got a speeding ticket," he said, hinting at either luck or charm in talking her way out of traffic fines. "She was tenacious and determined and would never take no for an answer," he said.
His sister also described her mother as "strong, vibrant, tenacious." As an example, Taylor explained that her mother, who hadn't learned to swim as a child, had gone to a friend's cottage as a teenager. Sitting on the dock, she had watched her pals all plunge into the deep water. "Torn between panic and embarrassment, she ran to the end of the dock and jumped in," Taylor related with a mixture of pride and astonishment. Needless to say, Mrs. Thomson ensured that all of her children had swimming lessons.
Throughout the Thomsons' very public family life, David said that he and his siblings were always aware that "our mother was there for us," in good times and bad. Even in his mother's last days, as she disappeared into the pernicious fog of Alzheimer's disease, he could sense a "lifetime of feeling" and shared experiences flooding through her and into him as he held her hand. "She could not have lived with greater resolve or humanity," he concluded. "She is here with us," he said, urging us "to go deeper and I think we all can."
Nora Marilyn Lavis was one of two daughters of Albert Lavis, a railway-safety supervisor, and his wife, the former Evelyn Mary Ellis. She inherited her love of music from her father, a violinist, and her beauty from her mother. Born on July 27, 1930, she grew up in what is now Etobicoke, a suburb within Toronto, attended Vaughan Road Collegiate and studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where she earned an ARCT diploma. She also embarked on a successful career as a model and a beauty queen. Among other accolades, she was crowned queen at an engineering students ball at the University of Toronto in February, 1951, and at the Ontario Society of Photographers gala in Niagara Falls in May, 1955.
Newspaper pictures of her from the early 1950s show a blue-eyed blonde with a dazzling smile. That was Mr. Thomson's first impression of his future wife, as he later recounted in an article in Globe Magazine from March 11, 1967.
"I saw her picture in an Eaton's fashion display in one of the papers," he said. "Must be some fancy New York doll," he concluded, but then he read that she "was a model right here in Toronto."
He sought her out with the same determination he would later exercise as he collected Old Masters and his beloved Krieghoffs. "A friend from Eaton's arranged a lunch date, and we went from there," he recalled.
The couple was married in a simple ceremony at the groom's home in Port Credit, Ont., on June 13, 1956. The bride wore a powder-blue silk bouffant-style dress with a simple pearl necklace and carried a small bouquet. Her only attendant was her sister, Beverly.
The Thomsons spent the early years of their marriage in Toronto, where he worked as president and chairman of Thomson newspapers, the chain of small-town dailies and radio stations that his father, Roy Thomson, later Baron Thomson of Fleet, had acquired beginning in the 1930s. All three of the Thomsons' children were born in Toronto, David in 1957, Taylor in 1959 and Peter in 1965.
Family life changed in the mid-1960s, after Mrs. Thomson's father-in-law made a fortune in North Sea oil, was granted a hereditary peerage and acquired The Times of London. By then, he was ready to retire, or at least to slow down, and so his son, Ken, moved to London with his family to run the British operations.
"I think it will be quite a challenge living on this side," Mrs. Thomson told a Globe correspondent in London in October, 1966, while on a house-hunting trip for her family. "Social life in Canada, as you know, is very informal and I imagine it will be much different here," she said. "Of course, we are looking forward to visiting Europe. I think it will be very exciting."
After Roy Thomson's death from a stroke in 1976, Ken Thomson began shifting the focus of the Thomson empire to North America. Back in Toronto, Mrs. Thomson did not take an active role in running the media conglomerate, which her husband expanded and transformed, but she shared her husband's love of dogs, supported his fascination with visual arts and collecting and was his stalwart companion.
David Binet, CEO of Woodbridge, the Thomson family holding company, recalled how Mrs. Thomson sparkled at social events. "She always seemed to be in a Chanel suit, and looked stunning even into her 80s," he said.
When Mr. Thomson died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006, she handled the loss of her husband, after 50 years of marriage, with "grace and dignity," according to her long-time friend Gwen Whittall.
By then, Mrs. Thomson was already suffering memory lapses, Ms. Whittall said. Mrs. Thomson had "the most dazzling smile and was a warm, affectionate, supportive and loyal friend," she added.
Susan Doherty Hannaford met Mrs. Thomson in 2005 when both were members of the RCM's board. The two women shared a love of music and art and worked together on fundraisers including a gala for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth.
Mrs. Thomson was no longer driving, so Ms. Doherty Hannaford was behind the wheel for theatrical excursions to the Stratford Festival and escapades to music halls and craft fairs. In 2007, just before a production of Oklahoma! at Stratford, Ms. Doherty Hannaford remembered that they stopped "to admire a boy sitting on the steps of the Avon Theatre playing the guitar and belting out song after song, like he was Elvis." They gave him five dollars "for his audacity and fearlessness" and only later realized that the artist they had supported was a 13-year-old Justin Bieber.
Entrepreneur Bob Corcoran met Mrs. Thomson back in 1992 when they were both members of the TSO board. They bonded over music and cars and "seemed to see eye to eye," he recalled in an interview. Mr. Corcoran and his wife, Ann, spent a lot of time with the Thomsons in Toronto, Florida and Barbados, enjoying a relationship that was "down to earth," despite their "very different wealth levels."
A few weeks ago, remembering a poignant story about Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello at his father's deathbed, Mr. Corcoran decided to arrange a similar musical passage for Mrs. Thomson. He invited cellist David Hetherington of the TSO to play for Mrs. Thomson, who was in palliative care at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
Tears came to her eyes as Mr. Hetherington played, Mr. Corcoran recalled. "By then, she could only whisper, but she could hear," he said of his final gift to his friend.
Mrs. Thomson, who was 86, had been in failing health for a decade. She leaves her three children, seven grandchildren and her sister, Beverly McKerrow.