[Editor’s note: This is the fifth excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others. They will run every Friday. The following is taken from the chapter on man of letters, oracle, and ugly duckling, Robertson Davies.]
World of Wonders was the first book by Robertson Davies that ushered me, a young editor, into his world. Its title provides a neat summary for that world in 1975, where to me everything was a little brighter, a little more surprising, and much more interesting than the everyday world offstage. It was a larger-than-life place, fully floodlit, and Davies was at its centre, ideally cast for the role of Man of Letters.
For a start, he looked like Jehovah. Not since Alexander Graham Bell — or, a mischievous thought, Karl Marx — has there been a head where flowing white locks and well-shaped beard combined so artfully to produce a leonine look, perhaps the look of the bust of Mendelssohn that adorned the piano of the house where he grew up, learning how a true artist should appear. It is impossible to think of Robertson Davies without that trademark beard.
In private, Davies was a great storyteller, a collector of many pointed anecdotes. I was privileged to hear these stories in several venues: across the table in the semi-somnolent dining room at Toronto’s very traditional York Club (where he mischievously set an adulterous row in The Cunning Man); in the midtown apartment that he and Brenda, his devoted wife of fifty-five years, maintained for midweek visits from “Windhover,” their country home nestled among the Caledon Hills; and above all in the Victorian study that he created at Massey College, where the visitor sank gratefully into a comfortable chair surrounded by old theatrical prints and fresh, sometimes uproarious conversation until his secretary, Miss Whalon, intervened.
Miss Whalon, known to her friends as Moira Whalon, was half of a remarkable working relationship that speaks well of both parties. A native of Peterborough, she was working for the local Lock Company when word reached her that the editor of the Peterborough Examiner needed a secretary. She was hired by young Mr. Davies and remained his secretary as he moved on to be appointed as the founding Master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College in 1963, and in time to become a world-famous author.
Her dedication to duty became an affectionate joke between them. An American publisher once remarked that a just-arrived Davies manuscript was the most cleanly typed manuscript he had ever seen in a long career. This was a mistake. Miss Whalon’s passion for continuing excellence was aroused. In those days when typewritten errors could be erased only with great difficulty, she spent countless hours re-typing and re-re-typing thousands of pages, until the manuscript was indeed the cleanest in the world.
Miss Whalon kept a protective watch on the time of the man she affectionately called “R.D.” How to address Davies was a problem that afflicted almost everyone. “Professor Davies,” although safe and somehow appropriate, was very formal; “Master,” while he held that position at Massey College, seemed vaguely Oriental and undemocratic, even obsequious; “Doctor Davies” was appropriate, because his string of honorary degrees began in 1957, and late in his life was extended, to his great pleasure, by honorary degrees from Oxford and the University of Wales, yet the title was clearly formal; “Robertson” seemed a form of very formal informality; “Rob” seemed positively impertinent.
It took me many years to work up to “Rob.” This was a man who had been publishing books literally before I was born and somehow, despite his endless courtesy and kindness, it seemed presumptuous. So we worked away together on his books, he addressing me as “Doug” by phone and in person, and signing letters as “Rob,” while my letters went to “Professor Davies” and my phone calls began. “Hello . . . there.” I observed the same shyness in many others, including Peter Gzowski (“What the hell do I call him?”) over the years.
Of course, his public persona was based on the fact that he looked God-like, if God had condescended to wear what Val Ross at that 1991 meeting in our offices called “full Edwardian rig of blazer and flannels.” The fact that he also could speak in fully formed oracular paragraphs left people awestruck. I remember on one occasion, in 1986, inviting him to address the Banff Publishing Workshop.
Thirty-six bright, articulate young people who wanted a career in publishing formed the audience, their numbers swelled by Banff Centre administrators who wanted to hear Robertson Davies speak about author-publisher relations. Davies spoke wittily and well for half an hour. From the chair, I got the ball rolling by asking the first two questions, then threw the meeting open for questions. Suddenly, every one of these clamorous students, disrespectful rebels given to peppering all of our speakers with dozens of hard questions, fell silent, heads bent in shy study of their fingernails. When I complained later to them that this had turned me into an on-stage interviewer, which was damned hard work, the explanation was, “Yes, well [shuffle] but this was . . . Robertson Davies!”
Visit ECW Press to learn more about Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others. Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Roberston Davies.