Books reviewed for this essay:
Irving Layton: Our Years Together. By Harriet Bernstein. (Inanna, 2019)
Irving Layton: A Portrait. By Elspeth Cameron. (Stoddart, 1985)
Nobody’s Daughter. By Aviva Layton. (Seal Books, 1982)
The Gucci Bag. By Irving Layton. (McClelland & Stewart, 1983)
As Good as Gone: My Life with Irving Layton. By Anna Pottier. (Dundurn, 2015)
A man got a Gucci bag as a gift from his in-laws. Not a fan of the designer purse in question, did he:
- A) Graciously accept the present, then put it in the back of a closet and forget about it.
- B) Regift it.
- C) Sell the bag on eBay and donate the proceeds to charity.
- D) Nail it to the outside of his house as a talisman against bourgeois materialism, then write a book of angry poems, called The Gucci Bag, about his dislike of his by-this-point former wife.
Montreal poet Irving Layton went with option four.
A rebel in his youth who changing times turned into a reactionary, Layton’s story has a familiar shape. Born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Romania in 1912, Layton and his family immigrated to Canada while he was still a toddler, settling in Montreal. A bohemian artist emerged from a stifling religious background, bristling at the bourgeois. He published his first poem in 1941; by the time he died in 2006, aged 93, he was a CanLit celebrity, recognized for bringing the nation’s poetry out of its traditional pastoral serenity and into a rougher 20th-century universe of cities and frankly mentioned sex. His longtime friend Leonard Cohen gave a eulogy at his funeral.
As many prominent writers had done before, over that time he took a lover, then another, then another, and then suddenly he was an elderly man with like 500 different ex-wives, common-law and official, and scattered children from these relationships. Layton was a man with no patience for the domestic, and with a seemingly endless string of young women prepared to ensure he didn’t need any.
For the past five years, the #MeToo movement has prompted reconsiderations of male artists’ monstrous behaviour, and of power-imbalanced romantic relationships. #MeToo is also, more subtly, a defense of female creatives, whose careers too often, have been cut short by abusive men, or just male partners who can’t be bothered with the housework. The pattern—exemplified by Layton—wherein an egotistical genius takes on a young, impressionable muse has gone from a shrug-eliciting cliché to Exhibit A of patriarchal immorality.
As memoirs by Irving Layton’s ex-wives reveal, some women willingly sign up for the life of a muse, or in less euphemistic terms, doormat. There’s something in it for them, something that a #MeToo analysis fails to capture. This is tricky: such nuances complicate #MeToo narratives and can, perhaps, restore to at least women some understanding of their own agency and choices. They can also be too easily invoked—a kind of hand-waving that can suggest that maybe things weren’t so bad after all.
Also tricky: men like Layton often have many kinds of relationships with women over the course of their lives. Some are closer to fine than others, and some are clearly not fine at all. Tarring them all with the same brush risks obscuring the women themselves, and their distinct experiences, in the process.
Unsurprisingly, the women who were drawn to Layton for his strengths as a poet tended to be writers themselves; their works about him could fill a healthy-sized bookshelf. And while they may not hold all the keys to Layton’s poetry, they do illuminate quite a bit about the man himself, and indeed of the role of the iconoclastic male artist in a post-sexual-revolution, pre-#MeToo era.
The first two of these volumes appeared in 1982. One came courtesy of Layton’s second wife, Betty Sutherland/ Boschka Layton, a visual artist, who channelled her Laytonian laments into poetry, in The Prodigal Sun: “We’re not, Irving, merely strumpets / for your pleasure; we’re almost enough / your wives / to unionize, vote you out.”
The themes of all the Layton ex-wife lit are present here: the objections to objectification, paired with the insistence on keeping Irving central to the conversation. The reference to unionization, recalling the labour the role of Irving Layton helpmeet entailed.
Also in 1982 came Nobody’s Daughter, a novel by Aviva Layton, wife three. The Australian-Jewish coming-of-age novel is filled with frank talk of bodily functions, incest, and the pros and cons of being common-law married to a poet, featuring protagonists Anna Cohen and Alex Jacobs. Their resemblance to Aviva and Irving did not go unnoticed.
In one memorable incident in the novel, Anna describes urinating outside a car on a road trip with Alex. When she returns, “Alex is waiting for me with a poem.” As one does. “With one wave of Alex’s magic word- wand I’ve been transformed from a weak-bladdered mortal to a goddess who rains her golden liquid into a parched and sterile world. … ‘I’ve made you immortal,’ says Alex.” While some women might have had a different reaction, perhaps laughing, Anna “feel[s] alive, invested with meaning. Mythologized.”
In another scene, a phone call interrupts Anna and Alex’s love-making. He insists on picking up. “‘It might be God wanting to let me know he’s made me an archangel,’ says Alex. ‘Or King Gustav calling to tell me I’ve won the Nobel Prize.’… But it never is. It’s always some lady wanting him to read her latest poetic effort or to help with a paper on CanLit or to meet for ‘a cup of coffee.’”
The 1982 objections to male caddishness were not those of 2017. But even by the standards of that moment, an egotist who treated women poorly did not get a pass from the women in question, at least not once the relationships had wound down.
There are also more recent memoirs by wives four and five, Harriet Bernstein (Irving Layton: Our Years Together, 2019) and Annette “Anna” Pottier (As Good as Gone: My Life with Irving Layton, 2015), respectively.
For all the differences in particulars (Bernstein is Jewish, Pottier is not; Bernstein had a child with Layton, Pottier did not), their stories have a way of blending together. Both met Layton when they were in their 20s and he was in his 60s. Both knew and loved the poet before meeting the man himself. And both found themselves swiftly promoted from flirtatious friend to servant-spouse, a hybrid role in which they had to inspire and type his poems.
“I was his muse, his publicist, his lover, his protector, and then his wife, making a home for us, tending to our physical needs, to the daily business of living—the tedium of routine chores that he for the most part did not want to be bothered with at all—but still I was his student, still mesmerized by the power of him, the seduction of his words.”
Pottier, meanwhile, recalls the seductive way Layton asked her to move in with him: “‘Looks like you’re the new housekeeper!’” Not that she minded:
“Normally, one works decades to obtain life’s tangible and intangible fruits—things like a national presence, a fully paid-for home, and a steady pension; there was a car in the driveway, PoetPuss the cat on my lap, four ready-made children (albeit two of them older than myself), and a stimulating life… What more could any 23-year-old want?”
Irving Layton: A Portrait, a 1985 biography by Elspeth Cameron, belongs on a different shelf. It provides the vantage point of a woman impressed with Layton’s work but not entangled with him (romantically or otherwise), and decidedly not under his spell. Cameron’s Layton is a significant figure in Canadian poetry and also something of an art monster.
No one source is perfect. The exes have their axes to grind. A novel, even an autobiographical one, is, well, fiction. And Cameron’s biography includes a lot of speculation about how various real-life people must have felt at whichever moment. But reading them together, an image of Layton begins to coalesce. He runs off whenever he has a new baby. He makes his first wife sign a weight-loss contract to stay married to him. He says things like, “‘There are three types of women: itches, witches, and bitches.’”
Cameron writes of Layton’s tendency to demand his meals from his wives via one-syllable grunts. “He’d come in and shout, ‘Dinner! Aviva! Tea!’” Aviva Layton’s fictionalized account is quite similar to what she’d told Cameron: “‘I’m here!’ bellows Alex as he bursts through the door after a week’s absence. ‘I’m here! Who called me? Who wrote to me? Where are my messages? Where’s my mail? I’m here!’”
“Many of Layton’s poems at this time reflect a profound dislike of women, even those he hotly pursued,” writes Cameron. She cites (in context) a poem with lines like “‘Women are stupid. / They’re cunning but they’re stupid,” and, “‘Women will never give the world a Spinoza / A Wagner or a Marx; / Some lab technicians and second-rate poets, yes’.”
Cameron strikes just the right tone in her response: “Such poems were not likely to speak to a generation that turned to Margaret Atwood for consciousness-raising about sex roles.”
Nor, one imagines, would the poems of 1983’s The Gucci Bag win over an even marginally feminist readership. Not with lines such as, “Lord, must I be punished and was it a sin / to have loved her fat ass and pendulous chin / her many folds and bulges and hanging tits… Because I once loved her fat thighs and fat knees / must I now sweat to pay my lawyer’s fat fees?”
Why did women put up with this?
The party line for #MeToo would be that Layton exploited them, even if that’s not how they understood it at the time. But did he? All of this was taking place in late 20th century North America. These were women in educated, artistic circles, in major cities, living through the peak of second wave feminism. They had options other than poet’s doormat. Was he a sadist, manipulating women into lives they didn’t want? Or were these women grown-ups launching themselves head-first into a life decision that had tangible advantages?
Certain people are attracted to the role of muse. Some of it may be an ego thing: The poem is about me. But it’s also about the art. Muses feel themselves to be an integral part of the creative process, as though they are artists too by virtue of their inspirational presence. Pottier is clear-eyed on this front: “Seeing pieces of my stories dressed up and becoming part of Irving’s work thrilled me no end. Surely this was the writer’s life, and I was living it from the inside out.’”
Bernstein describes a similar feeling: “There was my love of Irving the poet, the creator, and my fascination with living with him, with being up close to that creative process, watching poems take shape.” By cooking a poet’s meals, weren’t they basically writing the poems?
They weren’t entirely wrong. In 2016, Swedish writer Katrine Marçal published Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, a surprisingly splash-making book of economic history. In it, she explores how the everyday household labour of women—labour that makes men’s paid work possible—gets ignored in economic analyses. So too with Layton: the wives made his output possible.
There were also professional advantages to being Layton’s plus-one, which meant having a spot in the Canadian literary scene. The memoirs include a bunch of star-struck name-dropping, even if apart from Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood, the names themselves are at this point obscure. Layton was a ticket to a more sophisticated world, and to eventual bylines of their own: Aviva Layton already had a career as a children’s-book author prior to Nobody’s Daughter, but were not for their romances with the great poet, it’s quite possible that neither Harriet Bernstein nor Annette Pottier would have had a chance to write books.
As a career move, life as a typist-housekeeper to a blowhard big-shot seems to have been a mixed bag. In one sense, it was a way to be at the site of artistic creation, without having to create art. (Not that Layton gave them time to do so while he was with them, which was its own point of contention.) Writes Pottier, “Everything I did to help Irving lent my life significance I could never garner working in some office.” There are, however, certain advantages to the “working in some office” route: “No school could teach me more than Irving, but employers rarely take such learning into account.”
Irving’s wives saw themselves as suffering for art. You don’t sign up for life with the Genius Artist in order to have a husband who does 50 percent of the laundry.
Layton’s unreliability contributed to his allure. His preferred dynamic was to be tragically torn between a wife and a mistress. The mistress would eventually take the wife’s place, leaving, as the saying goes, a vacancy, and the cycle would repeat. In Nobody’s Daughter, Anna describes seeing Alex as a “prize,” a pretext for competition among women. “Victory for me if I got to wash and iron the shirts. Victory for her if she gained possession of the intimacy of socks and underwear.”
And without elaborating on this point in a family publication, Layton was, per these memoirs, remarkably energetic, well into old age. So that probably entered into his appeal.
And Layton, for all his failings as a partner, did not, by their own accounts, ruin these women’s lives. Bernstein returned to the film industry and raised her child with Layton as a single mother. Pottier burnt out from being Layton’s caregiver once she was 35 and went on to have a career as a wrestler. Aviva Layton found another man, other work.
While any individual anecdote about Layton’s behaviour could be brushed aside, once they start to accumulate one sees in them a master manipulator at work. This darker aspect of Layton’s character emerges in choices like Annette Pottier becoming “Anna” because Layton didn’t like the name Annette, which reminded him of a disliked relative. Or in asking Pottier to sleep elsewhere and pretend to be the housekeeper while he invited another lover to share his bed. Or in refusing Bernstein permission to purchase new clothes—and calling her a bourgeois materialist for even wanting to—while also not allowing her to have a job. Or in going on a trip to buy Aviva an engagement ring while still married to Betty Sutherland—and then outsourcing the task to Leonard Cohen.
To be Layton’s girlfriend or wife was not to be his partner—not just in the sense of a 50-50, 21st-century-style balance (not that this is all that common even today), but even in a looser one that allows for however much adherence to traditional gender roles. He wasn’t merely the dominant figure in his relationships, or the breadwinner. He was more of a serial tormentor, enabled by a society that not only permitted such behaviours, but treated them as confirmation of a man’s artistic genius.
A tormentor, and worse: In her memoir, Pottier recounts Layton offering another writer “a titty-feel” as an 80th birthday present, catching the both of them off-guard. Bawdy or rapey? I vote for the latter.
And then there’s this, from Cameron, describing a 1978 Toronto Star photo of Layton in front of the Toronto Stock Exchange: “His arms spread wide in a gesture of all-embracing exuberance, his widening girth bulged through his shirt and a huge silver medallion (which, he was soon to claim, was awarded to him in a competition in Morocco for deflowering fifteen virgins in half an hour) gleamed on his chest.”
The medallion story is repeated in Pottier’s memoir. I guess he really did go around saying this.
The most generous possible interpretation is that this was swagger, and not intended as literal boasting. But another possibility is that he did the thing he said he did. And it’s beyond far-fetched to imagine that these “15 virgins” in Morocco were consenting adults.
We are no longer in the realm, then, of the artist as flawed human being. This is artist-as-predator territory. And no matter how sophisticated or nuanced or generous one might wish to be in one’s interpretation of his documented relationships, no matter how much agency one wants to allow the women in Layton’s life, it becomes exceedingly difficult not to draw a line between his actions in these different contexts.
It is why one must understand Layton-the-man not as a poetic bad boy, swashbuckling through adventures, so much as a domineering mid-century middle-class husband, demanding the washing of his socks, the prompt arrival of his meals. It’s banal, not Byronic, and lends his oeuvre whatever the opposite is of mystery.
This piece also appeared in the Winter 2022/23 magazine from The Canadian Jewish News: