"Everyone has a moment to bloom. There is also a time to drop lightly to the garden path like a drying petal…." Toller Cranston
He was Nijinsky on ice—an impassioned artist with a sense of drama and daring, whose bold and elegant moves enchanted and mesmerized us.
A big Ice Capades fan growing up, I had always adored the unabashed glamour of sequined skaters. But I never imagined what creative heights the sport could scale until Toller Cranston wowed the world at the 1976 Olympics. I was living in St. John's at the time, working for CBC radio. Enigmatically, I'd just spent a year in Paris, studying mime, and had developed a keen appreciation for the art of corporal expression.
I was dumbfounded by what I saw on my TV screen the first time I watched Toller perform. The next day, there was a photo of him in the paper, wearing black gaucho hat and cape. A teen fervor washed over me as I cut out the picture and tacked it to the bulletin board over my desk. Here was an exquisite new hero to worship—a dashing champion who intrigued and inspired.
Fast forward three years later: I'd moved back to Toronto and got a fantasy co-hosting City TV's The New Music, the groundbreaking magazine show that explored rock's underbelly. Shortly thereafter, I went apartment hunting and found a cool attic pad in an old Victorian house in Cabbagetown. On the second floor was an art gallery that displayed Toller's paintings. Serendipity! The landlady was none other than Ellen Burka, the legendary coach of Toller, who happened to live across the road.
Eager to meet my idol, I popped by his house for a visit. He was in his sunny kitchen, where he often held court, wearing paint-stained chinos, coffee mug in hand.
"Oh you're the one on that music show," he commented. "I can't understand how you can talk to those spaced out rock stars."
Toller had just watched me attempting to interview The Ramones, and a couple of members did indeed appear comatose. He was fascinated by how I handled it, and I was incredulous that I'd made any kind of impression on this major talent. We clicked instantly, and it wasn't long before Toller became my closest confidant.
He especially delighted in playing the role of style mentor, constantly dishing out style advice. In 1981, he asked me to be his date for the Genie awards, and presented me with a dazzling Wayne Clark evening dress for the occasion: a white strapless gown with a satin bodice and large, crystal-studded organza petals that cascaded over the short tulle skirt. It was my first real designer creation, and 35 years later, it's still hanging in my closet.
The heady, salon style parties that Toller hosted in the early '80s at his art-filled home were legendary. Some featured poetry readings or performing dancers, and were attended by the most eclectic guests imaginable, from socialites to starving artists. I met countless extraordinary people at those memorable soirees, from Leonard Cohen to Arianna Huffington. For one elegant dinner soiree, Toller asked his guests to dress as their secret fantasies. Few complied, but determined to humour him, and much to my host's delight, I showed up dressed as Madame X, complete with full corset and a riding crop. Toller approved wholeheartedly.
He was style personified in his dramatic capes and hats, with a wardrobe of the finest cashmere sweaters, in exotic shades of persimmon and banana. When it was cold, and he took his two English Setters, Lapus and Minkus, out for a walk he would wrap luxurious, ultra long scarves around his neck. When he wasn't out practicing at the rink or immersed in painting in his studio, I'd drop by his kitchen, where he'd greet me in paint-splattered old clothes, and go on amusing tirades about everything and anything, with deliberate physical gestures so studied and larger-than-life that he could have been wearing a skating costume. Life was theatre for Toller, and he always knew precisely how to work the stage.
An avid collector of Canadian art, Toller's walls were lined with hundreds of assorted paintings, and dozens more were stashed in his basement. He made it his mission to educate me about art, and bought me my first little piece: a water colour by his great friend, the late Marion Perlet, who died in San Miguel just last year. "It's imperative to show support to struggling artists," he announced. Toller knew too well what it felt like to crave support and not always get the attention one deserved.
Generous, loyal, and compassionate, he had a wicked sense of humour and an outrageously acerbic wit. Besides advising me on style, the highly opinionated Toller relentlessly provided guidance on affairs of the heart and though he may have seen himself as a romantic misfit, his capacity to love his friends was enormous. And all those he loved loved him right back.
When he did an about face in 1991, selling most of his art, furniture and collectibles, he seemed to be going into a kind of monastic phase. But his brush with minimalism didn't last long.
Soon after he moved to Mexico, the collecting resumed in full force. Toller created a Shangri La for himself in San Miguel d'Allende—a tropical garden paradise behind gated walls. My daughters and I visited him there for the first time in 2002. It was my 50th birthday, and at the behest of my sister, he hired a seven-piece Mariachi and feted me with an intimate champagne and pizza dinner in his second-story, glass-walled studio, where we danced the night away with wild abandon. Toller was an exhausting dance partner: Whenever he was through with me on a dance floor, I felt ravaged, but extremely fulfilled.
Taking my daughters to San Miguel to spend time with Toller will always remain one of my life's greatest joys.
A shining example of a dedication and discipline, he rose every morning at 5 a.m. to paint his heart out. He charmed us all with his curious nature, intent on hearing every detail of our lives, constantly grilling us and dispensing advice non-stop while offering insights that were often profound and always entertaining. He adored glamour, old movies, flea markets, jujubes and Christmas, yet he proclaimed himself an "emotional iceberg". I never bought it for a minute: Though estranged from most of his relatives, Toller desperately yearned for a family. And so his closest friends became just that—a precious inner circle of those who would never judge, but simply love him unconditionally, luxuriating in this wondrous artist who marched to his own drummer, battled his own demons, and made up his own rules as to how to live a life of passion.
In his 2012 autobiography, When Hell Freezes Over, Toller wrote: "The great moments in figure skating occur when a performer is true to his own nature, and puts his heart and soul on the line with no holds barred." And that's precisely how Toller approached life: boldly, unapologetically, and ultimately, artfully.