Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Scott Symons

Jul 13, 1933 - Feb 23, 2009

'THE MONSTER FROM TORONTO.' Scott Symons, seen here in 1986, was an uncompromising artist, a difficult friend and a giant of a man. Credit: David Blair

Scott Symons blew the hinges off the closet doors in 1967 with the publication of his post-modern novel Place d’Armes, the autobiographical story of a Toronto WASP finding redemption in the arms of French Canadian hustlers in Montreal. Labelled “The Monster from Toronto” by his lifelong rival Robert Fulford, then at the Toronto Star, Scott lived up to the title with vigour. Place d’Armes was quickly eclipsed by scandal when Scott left his wife and son to run away to Mexico with the 17-year-old son of an establishment Rosedale family. Pursued by the RCMP and their confreres in Interpol and the Mexican police, he and John were chased through Mexico until friends in high places (he had many, though they would eventually dwindle to none) facilitated his return to Canada to claim a prize for his novel. A meeting with Pierre Trudeau, who asked him to join a brain trust of Toronto intellectuals — as a high Tory, he refused — resulted, as Scott often claimed, in the decriminalizing of homosexuality in Canada through Trudeau’s omnibus bill of 1968.
 
His next novel, Civic Square, an excoriating attack on the “bland man” of his native Rosedale establishment, opened with the axiom, “All cocks are beautiful.” His publisher, the legendary Jack McClelland, who would pour substantial resources into Scott’s works, was afraid of being labelled a pornographer, so devised a limited edition that would contain the manuscript in blue boxes, adorned with Scott’s signature phallus drawings. Next came his masterpiece, Heritage, a beautiful coffee-table book on Canadian furniture, which may have been the first and last time chairs and tables were eroticized into fetish objects. Eventually he and John split, and Scott made his way to Morocco where he began work on his masterwork, with the somewhat Spinal Tap-sounding title Helmet of Flesh. The first volume was published in 1986 and was met with terrible reviews. Undaunted, Scott found a patron in the form of his boyhood friend, the late Charles Taylor, who he convinced to finance a somewhat luxurious lifestyle for Scott in the lovely seaside town of Essaouira. Scott was commissioned in the late ’80s by the late Richard Doyle of The Globe and Mail to write a series of brilliant essays about Canada. After this came his total break with his home and native land, which he felt had slipped into a “black hole” of trite consumerism. Perhaps he was right, but nobody was listening. While the gay community moved on to greater triumphs, he alienated many with his call for a men’s liberation movement to counter the woman’s movement.
 
The screenwriter Donald Martin told me about Scott Symons while I was working on my film Symposium in 1993. I had never heard of him, but when I spoke with Scott for the first time on the phone he demanded to know if I was aware of what a giant he was. I was hooked. With cameraman Harald Bachmann, I went to Morocco to film a segment of him for the film, and quickly realized here was a story for a whole film in itself. Scott came to Toronto for the premiere of God’s Fool in 1998 at the Harbourfront author’s festival, and it was a triumph of sorts. He described watching the film with an audience as, “being fucked by a Tyrannosaurus Rex wearing tinker bells.” With the death of his patron Taylor in 1998 Scott quickly ran out of money and was ejected from Morocco in another cloud of scandal involving the nonpayment of debts.

In 2000, abandoning his longtime lover Aaron to his own fate, Scott arrived back in Canada penniless and promptly moved into my tiny one-bedroom Church St apartment, commandeering the bedroom, somewhat to the consternation of my spouse Michael, who Scott immediately marked as an enemy. After some months of feeding him and running his errands I was forced to choose between the two. Scott was quite surprised that it wasn’t him.

But, like some sort of shaman, he continued to wrap me up in his life. I was able to help get a collection of his writings published under the title Dear Reader, we wrote an aborted teleplay together for the CBC and I tried to write a major magazine article about him. But I was to join the many burned-out friends incapable of giving my life to his. His last years were very tough, ejected from various domiciles, he was eventually placed in a charity nursing home where he spent his final years, forever working on his diaries and memoirs.
 
He was a powerhouse of a man, fiercely attractive and relentlessly horny, too much for all of us perhaps. He was every bit the giant he said he was, and like the many he touched, and burned out, I loved him.