As William Whitehead explains it, he never set out to write a memoir. The widower of late celebrated author Timothy Findley says the idea struck him after so many years of telling stories about his life and times with Tiff (Findley’s nickname).
“There had been several attempts at writing a biography of Tiff,” Whitehead says, on the line from his Stratford home. “Now, finally, the author Sherrill Grace is moving ahead with hers. As I was telling her various stories about Tiff’s life, it struck me that I was probably the only living source with a lot of this anecdotal evidence.”
Whitehead, now 80, said he realized he could write a powerful memoir by compiling these tales. “It dawned on me that all of these stories involved communication and miscommunication. That got me thinking — I decided I could use the framework of my life to hang these anecdotes on.”
The result is Words to Live By, Whitehead’s revealing memoir about his long and dedicated relationship with Findley. Their bond was an extremely close one, both personal and professional. Not only did they see each other through various health issues, Whitehead was the first to read anything Findley wrote, making him Findley’s first editor on everything. Findley also didn’t drive and suffered a terrible fear of flying, which meant he didn’t get on a plane for 30 years. That meant a lot of driving for Whitehead, who would accompany Findley on all his book tours and engagements.
“Tiff was set to get on a flight one day, but he missed it,” Whitehead recalls. “The plane crashed and everyone was killed. That put him off flying. Finally, I had to convince him that the only way he could make certain events was if he would get on a plane again. We would eventually get a place in France, so of course, to get to that we had to fly.”
Whitehead doesn’t censor anything, recounting Findley’s occasionally tortured relationship to alcohol. For a time, he was on the alcohol deterrent drug Antabuse. But he would go off that, only to fall off the wagon. Whitehead recalls Findley disappearing one Robbie Burns Day only to be brought home by police, described by Whitehead as “Drunk. Dishevelled. Belligerent. He wasn’t to be charged with disorderly conduct — only warned.”
But Whitehead tells me Findley’s “drinking was only occasionally out of control. It didn’t happen that often. When he did do it, he binged. It would take him a week to get through. Luckily he didn’t do anything too ghastly. When it would happen in Toronto, that’s when it was problematic. I had to try to find him. What amazed me about Tiff was his ability to find his way out of a building. We would go to an event and he would find a way to slip out unnoticed. Then I’d have to track him down.”
Whitehead says he is truly thankful for the bond he enjoyed with Findley, saying he is now happy to look back, rather than sad. “I am remembering Tiff now, rather than experiencing Tiff. I have a huge photo of him hanging above my desk. It is nourishing to look at 40 years with him and think how terrific it all was. I still think of him every day, but there’s no anguish now.”
So what was their secret to staying together for so long? “Something that really took the pressure off was our own early realization that we weren’t sexually compatible. We agreed to sexually go our own ways. I think that relieved us of a lot of tension and possible problems. We found what worked for us. And that might not work for everyone. Each couple has to find their own way.”
William Whitehead will read from Words to Live By at Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop (598 Yonge St) Sun, Oct 28 at 7pm, along with fellow gay memoirist Wayson Choy, who will read from Not Yet.
Words to Live By