RIP

05.31.13

My Eulogy for My Father, Murray Frum

My name is David Frum. As you hear me speak, please add in your minds the counterpoint of a second voice, that of my sister Linda, who cut all the spiciest material. In our mourning for our father, we are joined as one. I speak for our children too, Miranda, Nathaniel and Beatrice; Barbara, Sam and Ellie; and for our spouses, Danielle and Howard, who loved Murray as we did, and whom he loved in return.

The rules of this beautiful hall did not permit us to bring my father's body with us for this ceremony. Let no one be disappointed. My father hated funerals. He seldom attended them. Why break the habits of a lifetime now?

My father avoided funerals not because of a lack of empathy, but because of his surplus of optimism. He always saw the world sunny side up. On the day he had his lung biopsy – an invasive and uncomfortable procedure – Linda asked whether it had bothered him very much. He gave that optimistic shrug and smile we loved so well. “It wasn't so bad."

That shrug and smile carried my father further in one lifetime than you might think it possible for any human being to go. His optimism always made the best of everything … even a looming nuclear war. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, my father purchased a painting he could not then prudently afford. He thought, "If we're going to die, let's at least die with great art on the walls."

Yet his optimism never overstepped his analytic rigor. In my father’s memoir, he tells a story of finding an exotic mask at an antique store in China. My father knew little about Chinese art. But he said the mask looked old. Its edges were oxidized in the right way. The holes in the earlobes were punched, not drilled, and the jade earrings that hung from those lobes appeared to have been carved by stone, not metal. He gambled and made the purchase. When he brought the mask home to show the experts at the Royal Ontario Museum, they pronounced it a Mongolian funerary mask, more than 1,000 years old, and a finer example than in the ROM’s own collection.

My father could see things that most of us would never have seen without him: the one authentic antiquity in a stall cluttered with junk … a business opportunity at a bleak intersection … a future for a poor boy from College Street.

My father's father and mother departed Europe barely in advance of the great Holocaust of our people, emigrating to Canada in 1930. Their journey removed them from their families, their language, their culture. Yet had they stayed in their native place, my father would almost certainly have been murdered before he saw his twelfth birthday. Their courage and sacrifice made possible all we honor and celebrate at this solemn service.

In 1938, a loan from relatives enabled Saul and Rivka Frum to buy the property at 488 College Street that would become their store and their home. My father and his beloved grandmother slept on two sofas in a room directly behind the store. Bedding cost money, and so instead of pillowcases, the Frum family laid their heads upon the soft sacks in which sugar was shipped in those days. The elder grandchildren have each received one of those sacks framed for display. Bea and Ellie will each receive a sack of their own at their bat mitvzahs – a message never to forget where you came from, and who carried you there.

Never, ever did my father forget. At an auction, my father got into a furious – and costly – duel over a pair of Solomon Island combs. The man bidding against my father had been Lord Sainsbury, heir to the largest grocery chain in the United Kingdom. As my father explained afterward to my mother: “That grocer’s son isn’t going to beat this grocer’s son.”

My father was certain both of who he was – and of where he was going. I’ll not forget the night he wandered blearily out of his bedroom to discover me sitting at his dining room table in intense midnight conversation with a deeply depressed friend. My father absorbed a few fragments of the conversation, and then impatiently declared: “It’s not complicated. You just have to decide what you want, and then go get it.”

It’s still good advice.

As a university student, my father took a part-time job selling Fuller brushes. The Canadian-born entrepreneur who had founded the Fuller Brush company dictated to his salesforce a three-step formula for success. First, visit the home and leave a flyer at the door. Then return to the home to demonstrate the products and book the sale. Then return a third time to deliver the products and collect the money. These methods would be inculcated at lively revival-style sales conventions. My father quickly decided these methods made no sense. He'd instead omit the flyers, stuff his pockets with as many brushes as they could hold, and sell them at the very first call.

My father earned so much money this way - and in those days, earning money meant bringing home wads of paper and rolls of coins - that his parents became frightened that he'd got mixed up with organized crime. He soon ranked as one of Ontario's top Fuller Brush salesmen, and he himself was invited to speak at one of the revival-style sales conference. He’d only get into trouble if he told the truth. So he dutifully concocted a story of how he'd succeeded the Fuller Brush way: leaving the catalogue, returning for the demonstration, etcetera and etcetera. It must have been a magnificent performance – because nobody told a story better than my father.

Few things are as hard to recapture after death as a man's humor. My father made a hilarious anecdote of every adverse experience. Hearing from his friend Robert Fulford that the best place to stay at the 1967 Montreal Expo was the Marina, my father rented a houseboat in Kingston and boldly sailed down the St. Lawrence with my mother, her father, my uncle Gerry, two kids, and a family friend recruited because his father had once captained a vessel on the Great Lakes. They ended by getting lost, something you might think impossible to do on a river flowing toward your destination. For years after, dinner parties at my parents’ home would convulse as my father reprised his own bewildered shout to a passing barge: "Which way to Montreal?"

Yet while my father loved a good joke, he was at heart a serious man. My mother used to recall that on about their second date, my father brought her to his office to show the dental practice he was building. My mother might be willing to incur all kinds of crazy risks for love. My father was not willing to let her. When he did ask her to marry him, she answered with a formula that would guide my father’s family, friends, lenders, and investors for the next 65 years: “If you’re sure, I’m sure.”

When my father married my mother, he married into the remarkable Rosberg family. You heard my uncle Gerry speak of the impact Murray made on them – but even more profound was the impact they made on him: exemplars of culture, of intellect, of civic responsibility. How he loved them all! Florence and Harold as second parents; Gerald and Suzy, as the brother and sister he never had. Meanwhile, my mother Barbara showed my father the way to intoxicating new possibilities - like absenting himself from his fledgling dental practice for a three-month motor trip through Europe at the extravagant rate of $15 a day, or turning his back on Suburban Ranch to build a modernist house on Oxbow Road that would itself become as dazzling a work of art as anything it contained.

My father's dental practice flourished. And although my father quit dentistry for good in 1969, as with places in which George Washington slept, or fragments of the True Cross, my father's patient roll continues to grow longer every passing year. My sister Linda tells a story presenting a credit card in a shop in the old city of Jerusalem and having the owner stare at the name. “You’re from Canada?” Yes. “Toronto?” Yes. “Wait - your father was my dentist!”

My father completed the transition out of dentistry at almost exactly the same moment as my mother started at “As It Happens.” Two demanding careers in one family might have made for a stressful house, except for one thing: my father's amazing ability to substitute quality of intellect for quantity of time. He arrived at the office most days about 9:30 and seldom worked late. I don’t think he ever in his life attended a breakfast meeting. My father excelled in business above all by imagination and inventiveness. For him, a piece of property was a series of numbers in time, to be recombined in new patterns by the same supple and powerful mind that relaxed after hours by reading the most challenging works of history and sleuthing the most obscure mysteries of art.

Murray grew up in a hard school, and he learned every lesson that hard school had to teach, but he did not let that school make him hard. In business, he always cautioned against - his phrase - "reaching for the last nickel on the table." My father always believed that a good deal had to be good for everyone who shared its risks.

My father never succumbed to the temptation that has laid low so many real estate developers: monumentalism. He did not need to see his name blinking on a skyline. He contributed to his city and his country through his public service on the Toronto Sesquicentennial, and as chair of the Stratford Shakespeare festival and the Art Gallery of Ontario, His monument was his art collection - the beautiful gallery that bears his name at the AGO - and the great Bernini bronze crucifixion he brought to the people of this city.

My father was a self-made man as we use the term, but he was more than that – much more. He was a self-made man in the way we ought to use the term: to mean not just a man who has made a great deal of money, but a man who has remade his very self.

John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote that he must study politics so that his sons could study commerce, so that their sons could study art. The evolution to which Adams allotted three generations my father completed in only one.

"I just love the curve of that back" said my father, in his last month, pointing to the non-working side of a royal African spoon. He judged a work of art by its unexpected side. "That's a pretty bureau," my wife Danielle once said to him as they walked together through the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. "Bad feet," replied my dad. Danielle never looked at a piece of furniture the same way again. “You see, but you do not observe,” remarked Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson, and so my father might have said to us. As Danielle learned from my mother to understand the beauty of a single flower in a shaded wood, so she learned from my father to appreciate the juxtaposition of Paris Deco and New Guinea spears, a Louis XV commode and a Fang figure. It was in the garden that my father and mother planted that Danielle and I were married in 1988, and he insisted defiantly to the end that he would host us there to celebrate our 25th anniversary this summer. It would be one of the very few times in his life that my father would make a promise he did not honor.

My father’s was a demanding eye. "This," he would say scathingly of a piece he did not like, "seems to be the work of that noted Italian master, Garbaggio." But when my father’s eye was pleased, his enthusiasm met no limit. He delighted in and celebrated the success of Bridget Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, apprentices of Ron Thom, who had got their start designing a mailbox for the house at 25 Oxbow, then built the pavilion in which my wife and I were married, then the magnificent pool house in the lower garden, then the two great new wings forward from the main house. In the study of one of those wings, my father would watch baseball and hockey, read books and newspapers, blast Verdi and Puccini at full volume, and exult in his latest acquisition.

Although my father could happily spend hours alone, he was not a solitary man. His warm heart poured affection into countless friendships. He adored old friends with whom he’d attended the University of Toronto and new friends half a century younger than himself. He delighted in his grandchildren, children, and - above all - his marriages. "A man who loves women" is a phrase often used to describe a man who loves many women a little bit each. My father was just the opposite: a man who loved a very few women with utmost intensity.

When my father remarried Nancy after my mother's death, many friends wondered how my mother's mother, Florence Rosberg, could so warmly welcome Nancy into Florence's own life. Florence answered, "Murray gave Barbara everything he had to give." And when Barbara was taken from us, it was no deprivation to Barbara when my father devoted that same ardor to Nancy. Murray and Nancy enjoyed almost nineteen joyful years together. Nancy invited Murray into her fascination with the unexplored areas of Asia, and together they toured India and Sri Lanka, Cambodia and then Burma. Murray in turn shared with Nancy his passion for primitive art. Where once it fell to my father to nurse my mother through her final illness, these last months it fell to Nancy to care for my father. She comforted his pain and sustained his spirit. She remained by his side 23 ½ hours a day, sleeping in his hospital room, stepping away only for short intervals to brush her hair and freshen her lipstick – not out of vanity, but because she knew it pleased him for her to be lovely in his eyes. He hated for her to leave his sight, and over those weeks she almost never did.

My mother's demanding career - and then her early illness and death - cast my father into a larger role as parent and grandparent than he can ever have expected. It was he with whom the children had family dinner while my mother recorded As It Happens and then The Journal. It was he who guided us through the travails of early adulthood. It was he who counseled us as we launched our careers and became parents ourselves.

My father was never one of those businessmen who demanded that his children follow in his own footsteps. He once upbraided a friend who made that mistake: "Which do you love better, your company or your children?" Yet he did love his business – and what a joy it was to him that my sister brought him Howard, with whom he would talk two and three times a day about everything from condo sales to their beloved sports teams. My sister and I might acknowledge my father’s business ability, but only Howard could fully appreciate the subtle ingenuity of his latest idea – and it was Howard and only Howard who had any hope of convincing him that maybe the idea was not so ingenious as it first seemed. This late-life relationship blossomed into a close friendship of true understanding for both men. In my father’s first night in the Intensive Care Unit of North York General Hospital, as the rest of us sat around him fearful and depressed, it was Howard who burst in with the only words that could cheer my father: “The Jays are winning ten to nothing!” Later, I congratulated Howard for this brilliant improvisation. Howard corrected me: “The Jays really were winning ten to nothing!”

My father was a strong believer in the rule that a successful man should share enough with his children to free them to do anything, but not so much as to allow them to do nothing. Wherever we went, we felt his pride in us. When we came under fire or criticism, we drew strength from the certainty that he stood behind us.

Murray's grandchildren knew their Zaydie as a man certain of his mind and giant in his self-assuredness. They all heard and adored the story of the college essay discovered by Nancy in an ancient family file folder. The paper was written on the topic, "Milton's Poetical Achievement." On the cover page was inscribed a big red "C." Inside were scrawled a professor's critical comments. Back on the front page, beside the "C," my father had slashed his own rebuttal. "These comments have no validity in my opinion. I consider this finest work to date!"

My father offered his grandchildren an entry into his world of art, intellect, ethics, and achievement. He sympathized with their difficulties, took pride in their triumphs, and foresaw with absolute confidence their ultimate success. They were to his mind the finest grandchildren to date.

The story goes that an interviewer once said to Cary Grant, "Everybody would love to be Cary Grant." The answer supposedly came, "So would I."

Murray loved being Murray. But long before there was the Murray we knew, there was the boy from College Street who imagined the role of Murray Frum, then created it, then magnificently filled it. My father rose above the doubts and fears and inadequacies that hobble the rest of us - and it will be his example that his descendants will emulate as we struggle with doubts and fears and inadequacies in the years to come. Murray was the earth and rock and oak we trusted to bear our weight when our own bone and muscle seemed unequal to the burden. This man of so few questions about himself leaves behind as his best legacy a question that all who knew and loved him will ask ourselves again and again: How can we be more like him?