Toronto
3 min

Timothy Findley

October 30, 1930 - June 20, 2002

MAN OF GREAT JOY. Actor, novelist and playwright Timothy "Tiff" Findley came out in 1946 at the age of 16. Credit: Xtra files

Actor, novelist and playwright Timothy Findley (“Tiff” as he was known to intimates) made his quiet exit from the world just in time for summer solstice, a master of poetic timing till the end.



He died in his sleep in France of complications arising from a pelvic fracture and is survived by his companion of 40 years, William Whitehead. In their last years together Tiff and Bill divided their time between Stratford, Ontario and Provence. To some it seemed an idyllic, even privileged life but as anyone who knew them personally can attest, they maintained a work schedule that would’ve exhausted most 30-year-olds. And yet they always had time for friends old and new.



With the exception of poetry (which he loved to read but did not write) Tiff turned his talents to every form of writing. Stories, novels, essays and plays poured forth, beginning with his first novel, Last Of The Crazy People. At the time of his death he’d begun work on a retelling of The Trojan Women for the Stratford Festival. It was a project that excited him greatly; his return to the world of theatre suggested that a much-needed homecoming was taking place. A new play, Shadows, opens next month at Stratford as part of their 50th anniversary season. The cast will no doubt feel a certain sorrow in noting his absence at the opening. A member of the inaugural Stratford acting company, Tiff loved a party. He adored the company of actors, musicians, production people, restaurateurs and fellow writers, loved swapping stories and waving that long, elegant cigarette that seemed to be as much a part of his hand as was his fountain pen.



Although much has been made of his struggles with alcoholism and depression, Tiff was a man of immense joy. No one ever laughed with such unbridled delight; no eyes ever danced with more mischief. Tiff delighted in simple pleasures: good food, good wine and the company of friends both human and animal. The swans and ducks of Stratford will miss him terribly; cats everywhere have most certainly lost their greatest admirer.



Screenwriter and TV producer Bill Whitehead was the centre of Tiff’s universe – and vice versa. In past interviews Bill has described their first date in this way: “He came over to watch television one evening and never went home.” Tiff was fond of pointing out that their anniversary coincided with Valentine’s Day. There could be no more appropriate anniversary for a relationship based on great love, shared dreams and enduring commitment: a true marriage. Out as a couple long before openly gay unions were common, they were seldom, if ever, apart.



Best known for his 1977 novel, The Wars, he went on to create such memorable works as Famous Last Words, Not Wanted On The Voyage, Headhunter and Pilgrim. Elizabeth Rex, the play that earned him a much-deserved Governor General’a Award in 2000 is an actor’s wet-dream, featuring such plum roles as William Shakespeare and Elizabeth I. Tiff had a huge imagination, one that never shied away from the art of mixing darkness with light. His observations of war and other forms of social ills were astute, even prophetic. While critics didn’t always applaud his ambitious vision, readers certainly did, and Tiff gave back in kind, taking time to sign hundreds of books while chatting with each fan.



Born in the Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale, Tiff declared his homosexuality at age 16 (quite remarkable given that it was 1946), then pursued a career in dance, a dream terminated by a bad back. His inability to endure the physical demands of a dancer’s life led him to the theatre, where he worked with Ruth Gordon, Thornton Wilder and Sir Alec Guinness, among others.



Tiff was quick to credit Gordon and Wilder with his decision to become a writer. That he would go on to become one of Canada’s most prolific and beloved authors as a result of their encouragement is the stuff of legend. The more powerful part of the story is that he went on to become a mentor himself for legions of other young Canadian scribes, right up until his death. His influence will be felt for years to come as those he encouraged, taught, fed and reassured come into their own in the world of letters.



My own life was blessed by the magic of this man, who began by encouraging me as a writer and then gave me the unforgettable gift of his friendship and love. In his presence, one always felt an overwhelming desire to be good, not just as an artist, but as a human being. He was an exceptional friend, champion and brilliant teacher, a true star in the hearts of many and most especially in the heart of Bill Whitehead. Thanks to the permanence of books, our collective communion with Tiff as readers can and will continue. To Bill, we can only say, “Thank-you.”



* A celebration of the life of Timothy Findley will take place in Toronto at the University Of Toronto’s Convocation Hall on Sun, Sep 29 at 7:30pm.