Some Final Words On Lou Skuce

Photo of Lou Skuce's grave

A lot of people have asked me how I came to write about Lou Skuce, so I thought I’d give a quick backstory, and use it as an opportunity to thank all the people who helped make my biography of Lou come together.

In 2006, the poet and longtime Taddle Creek contributor Patrick Rawley loaned me a copy of Corcoran’s Wrestling Guide, a 1935 program for the Queensbury Athletic Club, in Toronto, run by the infamous Jack Corcoran. Patrick’s great grandfather, J. P. Fitzgerald, was the sports editor for the Toronto Telegram, and wrote the book’s foreword. The guide contained about two dozen full-page illustrated biographies of Corcoran’s stars, and, as Patrick predicted, I was taken by the artist’s playful sense of humour, and his ability to alternate between fine art and brilliant cartoons. I did a cursory search and discovered that Lou Skuce had been a famous newspaper and advertising artist in the early twentieth century, noted for a stage show he toured featuring an overhead projector. Considering how well known Lou seemed to have been, I was surprised there wasn’t a lot of information out there on him beyond the basics. I wrote a short piece about the wrestling guide that year for Taddle Creek, with the idea that I’d keep looking into Lou and see if I could piece together more of his life for a longer story later—not expecting I’d spend the next decade fostering an obsession.

Researching the life of someone long dead isn’t easy. Lou died in 1951, meaning pretty much everyone who knew him also was dead. My first major break came three years in, when I received an e-mail from Valerie Harbour, who had seen my original story on-line. She told me her cousin Trevor Howell was the son of Lou’s daughter Nancy. Valerie put me in touch, and Trevor and his wife, Paula, had me up to their home in Caledon. Trevor hadn’t known Lou, though he was well aware of him. Still, even Trevor didn’t know a lot about Lou’s life. Both Trevor’s mother and grandmother—Lou’s wife Kip—had died, and all he had were a few of Lou’s paintings and two large red scrapbooks of clippings and other mementos, which he kindly allowed me to borrow.

I managed to find a few other sources who knew or met Lou. I got to have a delightful conversation with Barbara Ann Scott, the legendary Canadian figure skater, who had met Lou once in 1951. (I can report Ms. Scott remained every bit as girlish and sweet in her eighties as she was known to be in her youth.) I also met Evelyn Holstein and her husband, Jack: Evelyn’s father had been a friend of Lou’s, and hired him to create a series of safety posters for the General Engineering Company of Canada munitions factory, in Scarborough, during the Second World War. Evelyn and Jack had both seen Lou perform at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1941, and Jack still seemed pretty impressed by Lou’s show when I spoke to him, in 2009. One of my happiest finds came at the very end of my research, when I met Margaret Johnson, Lou’s niece, who had known Lou for the last twenty years of his life. Margaret is an amazing woman, and, as the only person left who really knew Lou, was able to confirm a lot of my assumptions of his being a jovial, generous man.

I recently read Vanity Fair’s profile of the cartoonist Peter Arno, and felt a little frustrated that Arno had obviously had the stature, background, and success that led to his life being well archived. This was not the case with Lou. As I dug it became clear that not only was there was no deposit of Skuce “papers” anywhere, but also that no one place had much information on Lou. Over the years, I searched every database, library, archive, gallery, university, club, hall of fame, and arts organization across North America that felt like a relevant lead. I searched all the Toronto newspapers of Lou’s era, as well as several others from across Canada and the U.S. And I spoke to dozens of potential sources, most of who apologized for not having much, if anything to offer. As such, my story may be a bit spotty, but I hope that the elements of Lou’s life I’ve pieced together somewhat represent it as a whole.

I’m indebted to many people and organizations. I don’t know the name of every librarian who helped me, but I want to thank the staffs of Library and Archives Canada, the Archives of Ontario, the Toronto Archives, the Toronto Reference Library, Robarts Library and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, at the University of Toronto, and the National Gallery. In particular I’d like to thank: Alexandra Kordoski, at Fisher; Rebecca Murray and Meaghan Scanlon, at Library and Archives Canada; Amy Furness, at the Art Gallery of Ontario; Audrey Borges, at the C.N.E. archives; Ed Patrick, at the Toronto Press and Media Club; Scott James at the Arts and Letters Club; Lauraine Woods at the National Newspaper Awards; the staffs of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum and the Hockey Hall of Fame, Rita Ellas-Faria, at the Boulevard Club; the Britannia Club staff; Susan Liberator, at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum; Doug Reside, at the New York Public Library; and Mike Scott and the Canadian Canoe Association. Also, for knowledge, ideas, background, and general assistance, thanks to the late Carl Mollins, Conrad Skuce, Warren Clements, Tommy Stathes, Laurel Hubber, Arthur Zimmerman, John Bell, Ivan Kocmarek, Betty Pratt, Emma Brown, Chris Murphy, Patricia Treble, Paul Moore, Jennifer Ditchburn, Eric Veillette, Stephen Lipson, Brian Walker, Kim Storey, Frank Cosentinio, John Edwards, Pierre Bedard, John Little, Lloyd Johnson, Louis Pelletier, Alan Holtz, Lisa Sooley, Iain Fyffe, Brad Mackay, Meredith Karcher, John Adcock, Jack Holstein, Mark Fox, Terry Mosher, Eric Zweig, Jeet Heer, Seth, and Al Stencil. Barbara Ann Scott and Evelyn Holstein did not live to see the publication of this piece, but I thank them posthumously for their time.

Thanks to Suzanne Isaacs, Lynda Hamilton, and Richard Reid, of the Valleyview Artist Retreat, for giving me a place to hide for a week and start writing.

Thanks to Jared Bland, Barry Hertz, and Mason Wright, at the Globe and Mail, for excerpting my piece. Thanks to the Toronto Comics Art Festival, for giving me a platform to ramble about Lou in public. And thanks, as always, to John Englar and the Jet Fuel Coffee Shop, for giving up their walls for two months to showcase work of Lou’s that hadn’t been seen in public for decades, if ever.

Thanks to Broken Pencil, Coach House Books, Insomniac Press, Palimpsest, Hamilton Arts and Letters, and Biblioasis for recommending me to the Ontario Art Council’s Writers’ Reserve Program, whose funding contributed to the completion of my story.

Thanks to Derek DeCloet and Rogers Publishing for giving me a lot of money to go away, without which I might still be working on this story now and may never have had the time to finish it.

Thanks to my research, editorial, art, and production team: Alfred Holden, Terry Murray, Roxe Murray, Andrea Schlecht, Sue Carter, Gare Joyce, David Hayes, Kevin Connolly, Joyce Byrne, John Montgomery, Adrian Doran, Tom Hicken, and Jason Kieffer.

Terry Murray is a wonderful, supportive friend—and an excellent researcher and writer in her own right—who constantly encouraged me on this project. The unexpected addition of her sister, Roxy Murray, to the research team, proved invaluable.

Alfred Holden is also a supportive and talented friend and writer, as well as my longtime sounding board, first reader, and occasional chauffeur. Even though we’ve never shared a byline, I feel each of our individual stories is in some way a collaboration.

I can’t thank Trevor Howell and Margaret Johnson enough—this story is for them and any other members of Lou’s family who might be out there.

It’s strange to get to know so much about someone’s life and not be able to meet them, so the last thing I did in my research was visit Lou’s grave, in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery. Of course, this piece is dedicated to him as well.

Finally, I must especially thank my friend Patrick Rawley for introducing me to Lou’s work so many years ago. This project cost me a great deal of time and money, but I really enjoyed it, and am happy to finally be an expert on something. Thanks, pal. What the hell—this piece is dedicated to you too!

I can’t believe I just wrote another thousand words on Lou Skuce . . .