Stuart McLean called me up one day in 2004. He wanted to discuss a column I'd written for this paper making fun of his show.
It was a cold, bright Friday in February and we spent three hours in the restaurant at Hart House on the University of Toronto campus, drinking wine and eating and laughing until the staff had to roll us both out into the snow-covered quad. I was amazed to discover he wasn't the least bit insulted – or even annoyed. He thought the column was funny. That was the thing about Stuart: He had an almost bottomless appetite for jokes at his own expense. He adored all his many impersonators, from the brilliant Gavin Crawford to the satirical Twitter account, Hulk Stuart McLean ("MORLEY TELL DAVE TO CLEAN GARAGE! HERE NEW SONG FROM BE GOOD TANYAS!"). He loved, beyond anything else in life, to laugh. It was a gift he brought wherever he went, passing out thimbles of whisky in the form of laughter to everyone he cared for.
Stuart and I remained close friends for many years after that lunch although we fell out of close contact in recent years due to geography and life getting in the way (I moved to England and had kids, he was constantly on tour).
He was, it must be said, almost nothing like his homespun on-stage persona. In person, once you got to know him well, Stuart could be dark and grimly funny, almost self-consciously neurotic, like a WASPy Woody Allen. He swore like a sailor, and had a reticence that people sometimes mistook for superiority, but in truth he was just comfortable with uncomfortable silences. In social situations, he never played the game. He loved life, and art and music and architecture and surrounded himself with talented young people brimming with creativity and drive, but he had little time for executives or lawyers or contracts or what you might call "society" parties with their hobnobbing and small talk. He battled with the CBC to retain all the artistic rights to The Vinyl Cafe and won – in broadcasting circles his "deal" was legendary. He is viewed as part of the Canadian media establishment, but in truth he had very little use for the petite bourgeois comforts that fame afforded him. He hated being fawned over and adored the people he worked with. His loyalty to his team – producer Jess Milton and editor Meg Masters in particular – was utterly unshakeable. Mostly, he just loved to work.
While Dave and Morley occasionally thrummed at the sentimental heartstrings, Stuart's own view of the world was astringently tragicomic. Despite his immense success, I don't think he ever saw himself as anything but a failure. Or perhaps he saw that his continuing to view himself as a failure was the thing that made him successful. As a mentor, he urged me to view myself in the same way. "Just remember kid," he'd say, "one day you're gonna get fired. Don't take it personally, okay? That's my advice."
He was full of regrets and ruminations and pet peeves that dogged him, as we all are. Stuart's great gift was the way he could take all of life's little miseries and spin them into something funny and comforting and bright.
His e-mails, in particular, were wonderful – like short, elliptical poems, all in lower case, and full of bleak humour. Here's one he sent me in response to a note in which I'd moaned about my struggle to be "present" as a mother to my young son.
"I was for the record an abject failure at bedtime stories
always imagined i would be out of the park great
and would use the stories that i told at night as a rough draft for my work
a synergistic win win
it was not the case
i ended up like most parents i know
reading my friend Bob Munsch over and over until i wanted to shoot myself from the boredom of it all"
His grown boys were a source of immense pleasure in the end. He also loved good wine, single malt Scotch and stinky cheese and relished, above all, paying his taxes (he often bragged about having been audited by the CRA and passing with flying colours).
Ironically, he was one of the most fastidiously health conscious people I've ever known, exercising religiously and limiting his pleasures with the moderation of the Buddha. He meditated and practised yoga and read, and in recent years he bought a cabin in Quebec, not far from where he'd once been to summer camp – a defining life experience. He was lonely for a long time after his divorce, but in the end he found love.
Stuart was a magical person – clever and winsome and utterly original. There will never be another person, or storyteller, like him and I am so very, very sad that he is gone.