Robert Gage had favourite epithets for different types of people in Toronto's tangled, secret garden of money and class. There were FOOFs: A popular acronym for someone from a Fine Old Ontario Family. There was the sort of client he described this way: "It takes a crowbar to separate them from the idea of grooming as self-indulgence." Or this: "Those who have to screw every penny out of their husbands: Even coming to me, they have to be careful."
He was a student of high society. His classroom was his hair salon, a pair of scissors in hand. He would scrutinize – not always silently – his subjects in the chair through round Harry Potter-esque glasses. "You look like you're looking out from a tepee," he told one lady of a certain age who had a serious case of hair vanity, thinking that her long, fringed hair was still attractive. Or when a haircut was finished, he might pronounce: "Freshly made love to with a capital F."
He liked to dress as an Edwardian gentleman in a vest, crisp shirt and bow tie, and beneath a pair of black pants, for a dash of surprise glamour, red Hush Puppies. His gentle moon of a face was smiling and surgically taut. His bleached platinum hair was clipped close to his head. With his generous girth, garrulous personality and the intense interest from his pellucid-blue eyes, his presence was that of a character, almost a make-believe character, memorable and fixed: a stylish Beatrix Potter hedgehog, say.
On Feb. 16, Mr. Gage died of a massive heart attack, suffered while he was in a taxi, en route from the Go Train station in Toronto to a hair salon, Studio 91, where he worked part time. He had travelled from his country home in Warkworth, Ont., 163 kilometres east of Toronto, for the appointment and had messaged a friend when he was in the taxi to say he would be there soon. When Mr. Gage suddenly collapsed in the back seat, the cab driver took him to Toronto General Hospital. Emergency medics were unable to revive him. He was 74.
"It was a shock," says his friend of over 20 years, psychiatrist Richard Meen. "[But] the most surprising thing in his life was that someone hadn't killed him," he jokes. "He could be so outrageous at times. He had a limited editing capacity, especially after a couple of vodka martinis. He would think his comments were funny. They were caustic. But those on the receiving end often didn't consider them funny."
He lost friends and clients over the sharpness of his tongue. Did Mr. Gage ever say unkind words to him? "He wouldn't dare," Dr. Meen replies without hesitation. "My last name isn't Meen for nothing. We had very clear boundaries."
The two men were frequent dinner companions in the country, where Dr. Meen has a house close to a converted Anglican church, which Mr. Gage bought in the early 1990s and decorated with beautiful antiques, giant tortoise shells mounted on walls, obelisks, rich Fortuny fabric at the side of tall windows, Roman-looking busts and portraits of noble Victorians.
At the height of his fame in the 1980s and 90s, Mr. Gage held court in his salon on St. Joseph Street, just off of Toronto's Yonge Street. A Victorian townhouse that had once been a brothel – or so he liked to say – the destination was styled to be a Canadian version of Leonard's, a legendary hair salon of the sixties and seventies in Grosvenor Square in London, England. A friend of Scott Craigie, an avatar of style who died of AIDS in the eighties at the age of 39, Mr. Gage believed in interior design as a stage set for the drama of life.
And drama there was at 14 St. Joseph St. Limousines came and went. If Mr. Gage didn't like you, he would not do your hair. His clients, male and female, were the who's-who or wannabe-whos of Toronto society: Melanie Munk, wife of businessman and philanthropist Peter Munk; Barbara Amiel, journalist and wife of Conrad Black; filmmaker Norman Jewison; former editor and co-publisher of The Walrus, John Macfarlane; former ballet stars, Vladimir Malakov and Frank Augustyn; up-and-coming Glitter Girls and fading ones, too. They came for the haircut ($200), for the gossip and for the scene.
"We often had a scenario when an ex-wife would be coming around the same time as the new wife, and I had to give [the stylists and Robert] a heads-up and keep the women in separate rooms so they wouldn't encounter each other," says Jo-Anne Boland, the receptionist who worked for Mr. Gage for over 30 years.
In 1997, I was asked to write a cover story on Mr. Gage for Toronto Life, a profile of someone whose exterior was easy enough to capture but whose interior was shrouded in mystery.
He spun a web of intrigue around his past. He grew up in the west end of Toronto, the only child of a mother who was a hairdresser and an entrepreneurial father. He claimed to be descended from a Norman knight who fought in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. An ancestor came to Stoney Creek, Ont., in the 1700s. It was a pioneer success story, he said, culminating in the naming of Gage Park in Hamilton.
At 13, with only a sixth-grade education, he left for Europe. Living occasionally with members of his extended family, he traipsed across the continent with a pair of scissors in his back pocket and a thirst for a glamorous life.
He threw out glittery bits of stories like confetti. He cut hair on the nude beach in St. Tropez on the French riviera. Once, an aristocrat, whose name he wouldn't divulge, picked him up in the Alps. They became lovers, moving from one lavish location to the next. He was in Iran at the height of the Shah's reign.
Mr. Gage described himself as "quite gorgeous" in his youth, with long blond hair, partial to wearing brown-velvet suits and satin shirts with ruffle sleeves. That period of his life was recounted with a moue, as if he were both proud of its glory and disappointed that he had to live in the present, remembering it.
There had also been a short marriage to a woman named Carolyn – whose last name he also refused to divulge. The part he chose to remember? "Nipples like minute steaks." And at night, "she left the best pieces of herself on the other side of the room. Her hairpieces. Her false eyelashes."
It was impossible to know how much of his stories were true. "Magic doesn't work well in the bright light," he would say when pressed about his background.
"He was totally self-created in the best possible way," comments Globe and Mail society columnist Nolan Bryant, who was a close friend of Mr. Gage.
It was that desire for flamboyance, for beauty, for living large, that endeared him to others. He didn't want to succumb to the ordinary – an act of will, because he could, at times, be needy and anxious.
"His house in the country was a good representation of him," Dr. Meen observes. "He had 10-foot fences around it. His outside was very different from what was going on inside. He needed a place [he] could hide and escape." He had romantic relationships over the years but they never lasted, "because of the way he lived and wanted to live," Dr. Meen explains. His constant companions were his beloved wire-haired fox terriers, Titus and Tulu.
But among those who loved him as a friend, there was enduring loyalty. He took on people as projects, championing them. "Robert always made me feel GAGEOUS … not only my hair but inside, too," writes Andrea Bolley in an e-mail. The Toronto artist spoke to him everyday. "He gave me hope and self-belief, and he made me laugh every day." For friends who struggled with illness or terminal diagnoses, he was unfailingly generous and present.
In recent years, his only health struggle had been a detached retina, which was repaired successfully. Semi-retirement was not easy, friends say. "Two years ago, to sell up and pack up from Joseph Street was a strain physically and emotionally," says Ms. Boland. "That was his whole life."
But with spare time, he had found a new outlet for outrageousness. He was writing pornographic novels. Every morning, for two hours, he sat down to write. "According to him, he was published but he wouldn't give me his pen name," Dr. Meen says.
The legend of Robert Gage goes on.
Robert Gage leaves his cousin Robyn McDonald and family of Toronto and his aunt Joan Rhodes and family of Bobcaygeon, Ont.