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Linda Munk left the life of luxury to reinvent herself through the arts

Linda Munk (laughing) and friends in Gstaad, Switzerland, March 1970.

Linda Munk was married at 19 in dreamy resplendence, right down to hand-stitched Parisian lace and a ballroom filled with the elite of Toronto. It was 1956.

A handful of years later, she had shrugged off her Dior skirts and Yves St. Laurent gowns, peered from beyond the house of marriage and stepped into an independent future.

Her husband, Canadian businessman and philanthropist Peter Munk, tried and initially failed to woo her back. He flew to Spain, where she had taken their three-year-old son, Anthony, and presented her with a gift.

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"I said 'Linda, I bought this for you,' " recalls Mr. Munk. "She tossed the jewellery on the floor! She was a mind-blowing girl."

"You think you can have everything," she told him, "It's a golden cage. Just because you buy me a piece of jewellery. You think you can bribe, buy, and retain anybody with your money."

But there was a happy ending. After divorcing, Linda and Peter Munk became best friends and pseudo-siblings. He often introduced her as his sister.

"I never had a sister and I was jealous of my friends who had sisters, such lucky guys, these bastards," Mr. Munk said.

Linda Munk made an art of rebranding her life and in the process made her life an art. Her ultimate achievement came late to her; she became a distinguished scholar of literature and religious studies at the University of Toronto, with a particular fluency in the language of poetry.

"She had a brilliant mind, absolutely, no question about that," said her U of T colleague Brian Corman. "An original mind and ever-exploring mind.

"Her first commitment was to poetry, and it was American poetry and Emily Dickinson that she started with. That interest never went away, but it expanded into other areas," Prof. Corman said.

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With characteristically high standards, she never let her students off the hook. She insisted that they not only read but also memorize and recite poetry.

Dickinson's "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul" would ring through the cafeteria from the lips of her inspired students.

Linda Munk died on Apr. 16, from melanoma, at her home in Toronto. She was 75. She requested donations be made to her favourite cause: The Dictionary of Old English , a project of the U of T's Centre for Medieval Studies.

Born in 1937, Linda Gutterson quickly grew bored of her staid schoolgirl existence in Toronto's upscale Forest Hill. The eldest daughter of William and Mary Gutterson, she excelled academically but struggled to find expansive cerebral challenges.

Her mother felt threatened by Linda's enormous intellectual ferocity. She discouraged her daughter's ambitions, viewing them as a liability, and hoped a suitable marriage would subdue her spirited daughter.

At 17, while in Grade 13 at Havergal College, an exclusive school for girls in Toronto, Linda fell in love with a penniless Hungarian refugee named Peter Munk. He was 10 years her senior – with an exciting history.

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"Linda tracked me down with a laser beam," said Mr. Munk. "I was a curiosity; I was different. Not because I was so great, let me tell you, I was fat, bald, poor, a boring engineering student."

Not boring at all. He kept up with her.

As it turned out, it was Linda's father, the owner of Webber Pharmaceuticals, who set Mr. Munk on the path as an entrepreneur. One day, he took the young man aside and told him to quit his day job, just like that.

"And then he just went into his safe, and he said, 'well I hope your father and your uncle will match this,' and he gave me $2,800," said Mr. Munk.

"He got me started. He gave me confidence. And that's how I started, that's how Claritone began."

Meanwhile, Linda Munk began her career as a journalist.

In 1958, while an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, she and her husband travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program. She wrote a series of articles for the Toronto Star exposing the brutality and misery of life behind the Iron Curtain.

About Leningrad, she wrote: "The city is depressing. The people are depressing. Never again will I walk down Bloor St. [in Toronto] and take the store displays for granted."

She soon packed away her writerly and scholarly ambitions to become a proper wife to the millionaire president of Claritone Sound Corporation – but these ambitions still simmered beneath the surface.

According to her daughter, Linda Munk was derailed by this early marriage.

"One of the interesting things about my mother," Nina Munk said, "is that in some ways [she] represents many women of her generation: too early to be carried up by feminism yet late enough so that she could 'escape' being 'just a housewife.' "

In the early 1960s, newly smitten with the Toronto art scene, Linda fell in with a community of painters that included Michael Snow, Richard Gorman, and John Meredith, who showed at the city's prominent Isaacs Gallery and hung around Yorkville's Pilot Tavern.

Peter Munk had no interest in this bohemian world, although he supported her astute decision to buy one of the iterations – in the form of a small painting – of Michael Snow's famous multiform artwork The Walking Woman .

"He's not disrespectful of it; at the time he's interested in making money and being a success as defined by the old guard, the Toronto's Establishment," said Nina Munk. "And that was the last thing my mother gave a shit about."

Ms. Munk often credited the painter Richard Gorman with having changed her life; he allowed her to see the world in an entirely new way, beginning with altering her fashions.

Once, he presented her with an embroidered Mexican frock and suggested she ditch the Givenchy and slide inside cotton. For Linda, there was no turning back. Her new look included blue jeans, turtleneck sweaters, knee-high leather boots and a defiantly non-bouffant hairdo.

Less successfully, Mr. Gorman also convinced her to participate in the Church of Scientology, including spending several months at L. Ron Hubbard's Saint's Hill, in Sussex, England. During the marriage, Peter Munk was also a member.

It was all in an effort to shake loose stodgy conventions and expand her intellectual and emotional horizons.

She later deeply regretted this association and became vehemently anti-Scientology.

In the mid-sixties, Ms. Munk briefly returned to journalism with a series of articles written for a section of The Globe and Mail called "The Woman's Globe and Mail," profiling female poets, musicians, and artists, as well as depicting free-spirited women in unconventional marriages. In "A Talk with Miss Loring and Miss Wyle", she interviewed two esteemed Canadian sculptors, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, both elderly and living in a renovated Toronto chapel they had purchased in 1920.

The women spoke about their work, their play and the chickens they kept years earlier, chickens named after the Group of Seven, including Franz Johnston, a fat Rhode Island Red.

In 1964, Ms. Munk left her husband and flew to Ibiza, in the Spanish Balearic Islands, with her flock of artists. This was the time of the tossed-jewellery spat, but Mr. Munk still managed to entice his young wife back to Toronto for a short while, long enough for them to try again with their so-called reunion child, Nina, born in 1967.

Meanwhile, the tomes on Ms. Munk's shelves grew to a bursting weight. She yearned to satisfy not only her wanderlust but also her burning literary desires. And so in 1969, she packed up the books and the babies and moved to Gstaad, Switzerland.

This was her next rebranding as well as the absolute undoing of her marriage. During this decade in Gstaad, Ms. Munk grew into her own skin through teaching and writing poetry, studying Jungian psychoanalysis in Zurich, and for a time owning a small art gallery.

During her off time, she lounged on ski hills in the Swiss Alps like other wealthy, beautiful people, including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

She also briefly married a Swiss man, Louis Werren, and had a third child, Marc-David, who was also given the surname Munk and was easily welcomed into the extended Munk clan.

In 1979, Ms. Munk returned to Toronto to begin her final rebranding, this time as esteemed and prolific academic.

She bought a modest house in Toronto's Cabbagetown for herself and her children, transformed the dining room into a study, and diligently worked toward graduate degrees in American literature, constantly spouting Dickinson and Frost all the live long day.

Absolutely no interruptions were allowed in her schedule, not even to cook dinner. Instead, she and the kids dined each evening at a local Parliament Street bistro.

"I'm quite sure no one in the history of Toronto earned an MA and PhD in as short a time as my mother," said Nina Munk.

"She had to get this done, she had to finish her thesis, she had to get published, and she had to do it all right away because she was making up for all that lost time."

But the frantic pace soon took a toll on her health. Sometime between obtaining her MA and her PhD, she crashed, and spent several months hospitalized with severe depression.

When the black jaws set her free, she continued where she left off, but learned to manage depression for the remainder of her life. Calm, quiet retreats, keen intellectual projects, the late quartets of Beethoven and holidays in Switzerland became touchstones to mental health for her.

Prof. Munk's degrees were from the University of Toronto, where she also launched her professional career, beginning as a lecturer in 1985, an assistant professor six years later, then a brief stint as an associate professor.

In 1999, she achieved the status of full professor with tenure. This was a hugely important achievement for her and the most delightful and productive period of her life.

She enjoyed getting to know her students, many of whom were the first generation to attend university and hadn't been exposed to literature or art. She excitedly welcomed them into a world that in so many ways fed her own restless spirit.

But she could also be intimidating and demanding, though she learned to soften her approach over the years based on critical feedback from her students; she became more mentor-ish and less school marm-ish in the process.

She "was one of those people who would always speak her mind, either in writing or in person," said Prof. Corman. "She was courageous about intellectual matters, about substance."

If she thought there was shabby scholarship, she pointed it out, even if it was from Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Harold Bloom or U of T's own Northrop Frye.

As for her own scholarship, it included The Trivial Sublime: Theology and American Poetics and The Devil's Mousetrap: Redemption and Colonial American Literature .

She also wrote a series of academic reviews where she would courageously debunk many fiercely held academic opinions, such as challenging the scholarship of the greatly admired Frye, making academic enemies in the process.

"Her enormous intellectual creativity and curiosity was insatiable," said Peter Munk. "The girl was great, the girl had a mind that just could not be satisfied."

She leaves her former husband, Peter Munk; her children, Marc-David, Nina and Anthony; and her grandchildren Lucas and Sofia Munk Galarza, and Bode and Lyndon Munk.

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