I Married a Corporation
If your wife says-she’d like a career, pause and consider the sad case of this husband. Soon after his spouse went back dancing he found himself doing the housework and answering to "Mr. Elizabeth Leese”
ELIZABETH LEESE is my candidate for the title of Montreal’s Busiest Woman. There are just 168 hours in a week. She spends hers typically like this: Teaching dance
classes (28 classes to 250 students), 42 hours. Rehearsing for and at television show, 25 hours. Rehearsing for and at radio program, 6 hours. Rehearsing for and at lecture, demonstration or dance program, 15 hours. Studying piano, recorder, yoga, judo, fencing, English speech, French speech, dog-training, and what not, 14 hours. Frittering away a weekly average of 42 hours in sleep, she still has a good 24 hours left to be jam-packed with her particular hobbies, which are prowling through
secondhand shops, buying and_ tending plants, exercising and grooming her dog, grooming her cat, reading Freud, visiting her friends, and sharply criticizing the literary efforts of her husband. I know all this firsthand, because I’m the guy who married her.
Looking back, I can’t blame it all on my mother. Part of it was my fault, too. But my mother really started me off in the world with a couple of hum steers. One of them was that you shouldn’t kiss a girl with enthusiasm (mother called it “smooch”) unless you had serious matrimonial intentions. Kissing games at parties were perhaps harmless, but “smooching” could lead to no good unless there
were serious intentions, and serious intentions, in my mother’s book, were very holy wedlock.
The other idea that she impressed on me from an early age was that it was desirable to marry a girl who was or could be solvent. A frustrated businesswoman herself, she encouraged the idea of two strings to a family’s economic bow and, as I look back, I can recall that girls who were employed, “sensible girls,” were favored around the family hearth over those who regarded marriage as a career in itself. The latter my mother always regarded with covert suspicion and damned with faint praise. She was an expert faint-praise damner.
So it was that in my Freudian search to replace
the mother-image I got to “smooching” and wound up married to a dancer of Danish-German extraction, by the name of Elizabeth Leese. Temporarily retired from dancing by a back injury, she was studying acting and dance instruction in London, England, when I met her. I remember we got involved in a reading of There’s Always Juliet and a scene that called for some stage smooching. Well, in no time at all we were married and back in Canada, where the frugal ways and stern business sense of my bride won my mother’s immediate approval. Though she was once slightly appalled at the summer cottage when she discovered her daughter-in-law trapping bloodsuckers in Lake Muskoka by using her legs for bait. Our incipient entrepreneur had heard that they might be sold to druggists for leeches at twenty-five cents each and she had a good dozen in a tomato can when she was finally persuaded to desist.
Another member of my family comes in for a share of censure at this stage. My brother, a Toronto osteopath, undertook to meddle with my wife’s displaced vertebra and after several treatments, fortunately free, she found that she could indulge in dance exercises without pain.
And now I must accept my share of the responsibility for what followed. Up until that time I had been a happy if somewhat incredulous husband. As soon as it had been established that my smooching was with serious intent, my bride-to-be, who had hitherto devoted her most creative efforts to the stage, promptly returned to the parental abode where she devoted a six-week concentrated effort under the expert tutelage of her mother in mastering the fundamentals of homemaking. She had left London with barely the knowledge of how to brew tea—in fact I taught her that— and she came back a potential genius of the kitchen, equipped with rare and treasured recipes that her mother had imparted along with a grounding in the principles of home economics as only the dollar-short Europeans have mastered those principles, and with a firm belief that a wife can do much to add to the material and spiritual comforts of her spouse.
I look back upon those first happy years with a nostalgia somewhat tinged with bitterness. The meals I enjoyed! The linen in perfect order! The socks that were always deftly darned ! The favorite if aged shirts with expertly turned collars! The care! The tenderness! Oh, happy memories!
Then I opened my big mouth.
It was in 1939, I shall never forget the year. The Eaton Masquers, a Toronto variety group, were performing at army camps that winter. One of them learned that Elizabeth was a dancer, and invited her to join the troupe. She asked my advice and I cheerfully urged her to start dancing again. She didn’t need much urging as I recall, and unhappily her efforts were well received by the audiences and by the Toronto papers.
She was pleased, and I was too, by the reception.
I hadn’t seen her dance when she had visited Canada before as a soloist with the Trudi Schoop company, and I was naively flattered by the thought that I had snared a first-rate wife who was also an artist in the bargain. So I encouraged her.
Boris Volkoff was forming his Canadian Ballet Company at that time, and I prompted her to offer her services to the gifted little choreographer. She did, and they got along famously. Soon she was dancing leading parts in ballets which Volkoff created with an eye to her particular dance talents and, stimulated by the association, she started to teach dancing for him and even created a ballet or two on her own hook. It was fine. She ran our apartment to perfection; I enjoyed nice hot meals when I got home from work each-night; and we both derived a great deal of pleasure from that happy artistic association with Boris Volkoff.
The only serious embarrassment which I can recall from those days concerned my wife’s laudable desire to save a buck. She furnished our modest apartment chiefly from auction sales, and sometimes found that when she had purchased an item in the heat of bidding it turned out to be unsuitable by the time she got it home. But she solved this problem by coming to Continued on page 59
I Married a Corporation
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an arrangement with the auctioneer, who would take the article back to be palmed off at a subsequent auction on some other eager bidder. Since she invariably bought items that were rank bargains at the price she bid, this arrangement worked quite well. But some of the bulkier purchases, notably beds, cost a couple of dollars’ cartage, and that was a dead loss.
I did not learn of my wife’s method of solving this economic block to her trading until the secretary-treasurer of the magazine which employed me remarked to me one day: “Do you know, Mr. Johnstone (he called everyone Mr.) I had the strangest impression driving down Bay Street today. I thought I saw your wife walking along the street carrying an enormous bed on her back. Of course, it couldn’t have been her. But the lady looked most extraordinarily like your wife.”
“Of course not,” I agreed with an uneasy laugh. Then I rushed to a phone and laid down the law in no uncertain terms. She told me that she had beaten the cartage company for four dollars already, and only after I threatened to hand in my resignation at the office did she agree to abandon the practice. But I am certain to this day that she merely took to the lanes not likely to be traversed by prying secretary-treasurers.
The Princess Couldn’t Stay
Then I went to Ottawa to work for the National Film Board and, at the conclusion of the ballet season, my wife joined me. The Ottawa Civil Servants Recreational Association was then embarked upon an ambitious program to cater to the after-work needs of thousands of new wartime employees, and my wife was engaged to direct a broad dance-instruction program. About seven hundred civil servants enrolled for classes that ranged from ballet to ballroom and included modern dancing, tap dancing, folk dancing and jitterbug.
My wife, who is primarily a ballet and modern dancer, rushed off to New York where she took an intensive teaching course in ballroom dancing. Then, further fortified by Arthur Murray’s book on the subject, she undertook to offer instruction to classes that ranged up to one hundred pupils at a time. The only snag was that in a group of eighty students there would be seventysix girls and four bewildered men. Soon all our male friends were invited to attend as assistants. We numbered at most about ten, and it was a frightening experience which still haunts me to hear my wife announce midway through the lesson, “Choose partners,” and to see fourscore eager-eyed girls bearing down with the fixed determination to secure at least a male coat sleeve for the next waltz.
During that sojourn in Ottawa one of the local ballet teachers one season invited my wife to take over her classes. The pupils included among the children of the diplomatic corps one of the daughters of Holland’s present Queen, then Princess Juliana. It is my wife’s fixed opinion that parents at dance classes only distract the children. So, when Princess Juliana arrived one day to watch her daughter perform, she was gently but firmly informed by my wife that it was not permitted. The Princess raised no objection.
It was about this time that my wife made her debut as a public speaker and I got my first tasfe of the nature of our
future collaboration in that field. A friend in Peterborough invited her to speak at a meeting of the University Women’s Club there, and the topic was to have something to do with dancing. My wife has never been able to resist the opportunity of appearing before the public. But, she told me almost tearfully, she had no idea of how to prepare a speech, and she was frantic with anxiety at the approaching ordeal. Generously, I agreed to write the speech for her and I did so, laboring far into the night for several evenings until I had what I modestly considered
to be a charming and effective effort. She read it carefully, I’ll say that for her. Then she went off to Peterborough, leaving my script behind. She spoke to the University Women’s Club, and she also threw in a lecture at the high school. But she carefully avoided all the material in my speech. 1 learned that from the report that was subsequently published in the Peterborough Examiner. It was well received, too, and that hurt me worst of all.
Yet, on the whole, I cannot complain too much about that period. 1 ate well, and my laundry was always in
order. Furthermore, when my wife took her annual three-month summer study course in New York she was able to pay for the expenses with her earnings from the Recreational Association and the dance school. I did think it rather silly at the time that a person who had danced professionally for more than ten years should still think it necessary to tour the New York dance studios, taking three and four professional classes daily in ballet, modern dancing, oriental dancing, Spanish dancing, and what have you, and in the middle of a blasting hot New York
summer at that. I complained, but after all it was her money. My laundry used to get all out of order in her absence. Only the fact that my job kept me traveling most of the summer anyway reconciled me to her holiday.
At the war’s end we came to Montreal, where I was employed by a publication in that city. As my job took me out of the city for the greater part of the time I lost track of just what my wife was up to. It probably wouldn’t have made much difference anyway, for by this time she had the bit between her teeth. She started teaching dancing and soon had a quite effective dance group organized. This group she employed to fulfill choreographic assignments which she received from Montreal theatrical organizations. She was a hard taskmaster. I shudder when I recall her measured praise for one of her soloists when the latter had performed at one of those open-air symphony concerts which were given at the McGill stadium. The girl presented herself at the end of the dance to my wife and asked her anxiously: “How did I do?”
My wife reflected. “Well, you didn’t fall off the platform,” she offered cautiously.
But dancing, teaching and choreography failed to keep her sufficiently occupied though she worked for such groups as the McGill Revue, the University of Montreal Bleu et Or Revue, Les Compagnons de St. Laurent, Henri Deyglun, Pierre Dagenais, André Audet, and practically any other organization which required dances or dance movements in their presentations. She decided to become a radio actress.
Soon she was performing on the für in French programs, German programs, and in English programs. She studied English diction with Eleanor Stuart and French diction with Mme Audet. She studied the recorder with Mario Desehenes, and the piano with Herman David. *
Herbert Whittaker, now a Toronto theatre critic, was active then as a director with the Montreal Repertory Theatre. He selected Elizabeth to play the title role in I Remember Mama, and even crusty old Morgan-Powell, trenchant dean of critics, accorded her a rave notice.
She continued her career as a public speaker, both in French and in English, and added that of fashion commentator. And she continued to badger me for help in the preparation of lectures, although she never made use of the notes which I painfully compiled. Her lecture methods were decidedly unorthodox. On one occasion, lecturing at the Montreal Repertory Theatre, she started to speak, then raised a hand dramatically to her forehead, then slumped slowly to the floor. When front-row spectators rushed to her assistance she gracefully rose to her feet and announced brightly: “1 love to
act.” That was the theme of her lecture.
She did one film stint, a night-club dance solo in the picture, Forbidden Journey. The film, produced by Selkirk Productions, had some excellent photography but no story and was deservedly a flop.
In the last year, television has claimed her attention and she has added that medium to her repertoire, both as a performer and as a choreographer. But she has not allowed these diversions to interfere with her activities as a dance teacher, choreographer and performer for the live stage. This month she is playing the lead in Anna Christie for the Montreal Repertory Theatre. This will be her third successive year of participation in the Canadian Ballet Festival, where she appears with her dancers in ballets of her own devising.
We have been in Montreal about eight years now and things have changed for me very much for the worse. True, we have accumulated some worldly goods; a home in the country, a car, a dog and a cat, and the most bewildering collection of old furniture gleaned from a haunting of country auctions on my wife’s part. She will buy anything, if it is cheap enough. One day she came home triumphantly with a wooden yoke which used to be employed on the farm for carrying two pails of water. Fortunately we have running water in the country, and I pointed this out. “But I only paid six cents for it,” my wife objected indignantly. So I turned it upside down and fastened it by its hooks to the ceiling and she keeps ivy in it.
Busy with dancing, radio, television, speech-making and her eternal lessons, my wife now finds little time for my socks and shirts. But she discovered that nylon socks never seem to spring holes. So now my bureau drawer is piled deep with nylon socks. And nylon shirts which can be rinsed out in the bathtub at night and save laundry expense. And nylon underwear. But the cotton thread used in stitching nylon underwear eventually wears out and my nylon shorts developed many draughty vents until my brother’s wife took pity on me recently and sewed up a couple of pair. The gesture roused some dormant sense of conjugal loyalty in my wife’s breast and she promptly sewed up the balance of the seams, using nylon thread for the purpose.
Her sense of humor is something that has puzzled me ever since I met her. It was a year after our marriage that we met a couple of her former dancing associates on the street one day. She introduced them, and they had back-
breaking names. Then she turned to me and looked at me with puzzlement “And what is your name?” she asked me. I’ve never been able to figure out whether she was kidding or not.
There was also the time that an old lady came to the door of our country home, which is in an area where only French is spoken. I heard the old lady mumble something about propagation ce la foi, which I considered to be a touch for the church. 1 saw my wife slip her a dollar, and T asked afterward: ‘ What, did she want?”
My wife blandly replied: “I am buying some pâté de foie gras.”
I waited weeks for the pâté, and then 1 looked up foi in a French dictionary.
F:ven the dog took lessons
She considers herself something of a psychoanalyst and reads Freud with diligence. When she heard that the Dr. A. A. Brill translation of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud was not too accurate because Brill apparently misunderstood some of Freud’s more subtle points, she wrote to her father, who is a philosophy professor at Hamburg I niversity, requesting him to send her Freud in the original German. She was determined not to fall into Brill’s errors. And she makes thumbnail analyses of backward pupils ai. the drop of a hat. When I remonstrated with her that psychoanalysis was somewhat more subtle than her methods, she replied: ‘‘Oh, I refer the really compli-
cated cases to a real analyst.”
She is a great believer in lessons and iji study. She spends her summers customarily in New York or in Europe studying dancing, every aspect from ballet to primitive dance. She finds that yoga exercises are excellent in dance training and she employs them
in her modern-dance classes. Fencing and judo she has also included in her own studies though I have seen no pierced or flying forms in the dance classes so far.
Her faith in lessons—any lesson on anything—is so powerful that she enrolled our poor bewildered boxer dog in an obedience class and didn’t relent with him until he had won. the first prize for advanced obedience. But around the dance studio he is thoroughly spoiled and specializes in hiding one of each pair of slippers that she possesses. He made that mistake only once with my shoes and now leaves them severely alone. Kindness and a good swift kick will work wonders with dogs, I find.
Some women like to spend money on clothes. My wife likes to get her clothes secondhand from friends who have good taste. She accepts them unblushingly and even gently hints that it is time they should freshen up their wardrobes. As a result she is probably one of the best-dressed women in Montreal. Instead of buying clothes she buys plants, usually on the dollar-down system, which I never before knew To be applied to plants. But she puts the dollar down and then watches the plant in the florist’s shop for weeks. When she is finally convinced that the plant has not been forced and therefore is likely to have a long life she parts, reluctantly, with the balance of the price, trying to cadge some other small item as a bonus for having returned to complete the purchase. Florists wince when they see her come in the door.
She is proudest of a couple of small plants which she brought back from Hamburg last summer, the gift of her mother, who had grown them from a slip which she had filched from a railway station flowerbed in Switzerland. They didn’t cost a cent.
She never throws anything away. When she considers a thing absolutely past all hope she sends it to her mother in Europe and in due course it comes back in good repair, ready for another couple of years’ use. There is a certain camel-hair coat which she liad when I first met her. She wore it. Her sister wore it. Her mother wore it. Her mother took it apart and turned it inside out. It is now in pieces, neatly wrapped away in mothballs awaiting some inspiration that will put it to good use. 11 have just been brought upto-date. She made it into a spring coat for one of her assistants.]
Alice Bradshaw, a very talented Toronto artist, moved to Montreal and my wife helped her pack. Alice collected a number of her old drawings and paintings that she didn’t like and dropped them in the ash bin. They have turned up on the walls of our country cottage and now Alice looks at them enviously.
Other artists have learned to their cost that to bargain with Elizabeth is like kicking an angry cobra with your bare feet. She bought a paint ing from Montreal artist Jori Smith, and a hit of the paint flaked off. Years passed. One day when the unsuspecting Jori was visiting, Elizabeth drew her attention to the blemish. Jori took it back and invited Elizabeth to choose another to replace it. In due course Elizabeth visited the artist at her studio and selected a replacement. But she liked the original painting, too. So she emerged, happy, with both. Never was the old flimflam executed in more masterly style.
Her bargaining with the villagers of St. Marc where we have our country cottage has gained their grudging admiration. Beautiful old handmade kitchen chairs, which sell for twenty dollars each when scraped and offered in Montreal antique shops, are offered
to her for a dollar each. She counters with fifty cents. After a month of haggling she gets them for sixty cents, and usually with an old pot or something thrown in. A friend of mine recently visited one house that had been the scene of this interminable bargaining and saw a bench that caught her eye. “How much is that?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s no good,” the housewife replied. “Or Mme Johnstone would have bought it long ago.”
I may add, bitterly, that it is only in St. Marc that she is “Madame Johnstone.” At her studio I am “Mr. Leese.” I have an office there and keep a vigilant eye on her accounts. But on the apartment directory in the lobby she gets top billing in letters an inch high, solid type. My name, in anaemic Gothic, is barely half an inch.
Like most people who pride themselves on their sound business sense she is actually a sucker for stray kittens
and humans. At night, when we walk through Montreal streets after a late rehearsal, I have to drag her forcibly past anything that mews plaintively in a doorway. And on one occasion 1 had to move to a hotel and threaten to stay there to make her find other lodgings for one old reprobate whom my wife has on occasion bailed out of jail and nursed through numerous emotional and financial depressions.
A program that includes dancing, teaching, acting, lecturing, creating dances, purchasing plants, haunting secondhand shops, reading, studying, practicing the piano and training the dog is one that causes a drain on the constitution, particularly mine. My wife herself finds no difficulty coping with her week. She has developed a Spartan diet of yogurt, wheat germ and honey which she consumes in appalling quantities. She is also good for about two quarts of coffee a day and the same
amount of orange juice, the latter laced with a couple of ounces of brandy when she has to face a rehearsal after her third evening class. She smokes too many cigarettes. In addition to about ! two packages that slv' buys daily herself she cadges mine, and no package of cigarettes left carelessly in view in the studio by some unwitting adult pupil is safe from a sudden raid. Right now she is engaged in a search for larger studio space to accommodate swelling classes. She confided to me: “1 want a place with two studios and lots of room so that I can open a little shop on the side. I’d like to sell old : things, and plants, and maybe coffee j j and milk shakes. A health bar would be nice, too.” All this I have endured with a cer; ! tain resignation. After all, I started the j chain of events back in Toronto twelve ; years ago. But there is one straw which ; is threatening to break the camel’s j i back. Since, during weekdays, there is | little time for the kind of meals that I once convinced me that I was the | luckiest of all mortals—soups and j stews are the staples at the studio i i apartment—I always look forward to our week ends in the country as occa; j sions for gastronomical orgies. And, I when my wife does not stay in town for j i Sunday rehearsals, they still are. But I who cooks them? You guessed it. Ido. ! How to Handle Husbands Last Christmas, with touching solij citude, she presented me with André i Simon’s encyclopedic treatise on all phases of cooking, together with some j excellent recipes. I feel, and I think with some justification, that I have developed a certain culinary skill. Like I all artists, I recognize that it is not merely the recipe, but the chef’s interpretation of the recipe that is allimportant. My soups are beyond reproach. My salads, she has admitted handsomely, are a triumph. But she j detests onions, and no matter how I ! disguise them, subtly blending them with other ingredients, she spots them in a flash and complains bitterly. I’m getting awfully sick of that. And, last week, she pulled the cheapest trick of all. I had prepared a really excellent Saturday evening dinner, with steaks broiled to perfection, mushrooms done gently in butter, and a crisp green j salad, the whole finished off simply with a nicely matured cheese which I keep in a crock in the cellar. It was washed down with a fine Liebfraumilch ! wine, her favorite. Then there was j coffee and a liqueur. I washed the ! dishes afterward, too, and tidied up the kitchen, scoured the pots and pans. When I retired that night I slept the sleep of the just and the full. Next morning, she nudged me: “It’s awfully late,” she complained. I glanced at the bedside clock, and it was past eleven. I roused quickly, scuttled downstairs and soon had a brisk fire in the old-fashioned range, the coffee percolating, and breakfast well under way. She had her coffee and orange juice, according to custom, in bed. Then, at the breakfast table, she complimented me unstintingly on the sausage and scrambled eggs. I mix the latter with water rather than milk, as she likes them better that way. Following breakfast, as I reached for the comics, she began bustling about, hauling the rugs out on the veranda, running the vacuum cleaner, waxing the floor. After some bitter protest, 1 joined in, and when I had finished polishing the last piece of peasant furniture she said to me brightly: “Wasn’t it such a good idea that I put the clock three hours ahead?”
Sometimes I feel like going straight home to mother, if