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Thursday, 29 January 2009

Eulogy For Jack Swift

Jack Swift was a Montreal lawyer and art collector, who died over Christmas, in the Eastern Townships, at the age of 72. He was also my father's brother, and my closest family friend. He was more than an uncle, but also my mentor, introducing me to many of the key interests of my life so far: Ireland, literature, theatre, music, film, and the genius of queer culture. Below is the eulogy I wrote for his funeral, edited a little, as some of the comments are too personal for a blog.

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Those who knew Jack Swift will know that, in his dying, the world has lost an extraordinary figure. We are so often informed by the media that X or Y is charismatic or larger than life that we sometimes forget to test such claims against our own experience. John A. A. Swift was truly larger than life - the sort of brilliant, compelling enthusiast, bon vivant and interlocutor who instantly dominated - no other word will do - almost any situation he found himself in. In his modes of personal and public conduct (which had its tragic dimensions, to be sure) there was something of genius.

Jack Swift did nothing by halves - but always with grandiose intent, and extravagant style. In many ways Jack was an heir to Oscar Wilde - with the intriguing addition - suitably paradoxical - of that killer legal mind of his that made Jack equally enjoy reading Carson's masterful prosecution of Saint Oscar during his trial; in this way, exemplifying the fusion of Walter Pater's 19th century aestheticism and a more 18th century Swiftian approach to rhetorical style.

I wish to place Jack in such a literary context because that is what he himself did - and how he lived his own richly-imagined, complex and complicated life. Jack Swift lived the life that Pater inspired Wilde to, when he wrote that life should be lived as if a work of art, beyond moral utility, sufficient unto itself for justification:

Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

In this way, Jack Swift's life was a success. I can think of few other people who have so consistently, throughout their life, pursued beauty with such desire. As a child, I recall Jack's wonderful gifts (wonderful being one of his key words) - he loved giving people lovely things and was often superbly generous (he had a tender heart as we know). In my case, the gift was books. At Christmas, he'd sign the book with the year, and his name. So it is, I still treasure Irish Fairytales - Christmas 1972. Jack was fascinated by Ireland and its myths.

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Jack would have enjoyed being a Sultan or Asiatic potentate one imagines, if only for the Byzantine patterns on the tiles, and the golden pillows. Jack had a definite genius as an interior decorator, of course - who can forget his various impeccably, if exotically furnished homes, in Point Claire, in Westmount, and so on - all decked out with the style and pomp of Kane's Xanadu. His taste in antiques, and art objects, was impeccable. Jack once explained to me, driving back from the Shaw Festival, the philosophy behind his seemingly wilful extravagance: Otto Preminger.

As the possibly apocryphal story goes, Preminger, a young man over from Europe, arrived in America an unknown quantity. He promptly checked himself in to the best room at the best hotel in New York, without the means to foot the bill. Within days, word had circulated that he was there. Soon, the cream of New York's show biz world was seeking him out. Suddenly, the penniless man had work.

Jack loved the idea of such self-created importance - the perfomativity, the event, that declares a person's wonderful difference, indeed, their panache. In Jack's impressively decorated Montreal office of Swift & Associates, there hangs a solemn portrait of a bald, round-faced gentleman, dressed in the manner of a mid-Victorian solicitor. Visitors arriving at the offices might be forgiven for assuming that the portrait was the founder of an august, longstanding law firm. But no.

Jack had simply spotted the portrait, and the uncanny resemblance to himself. Jack was the first in his family to go to university (though thanks to him not the last) - and was the first lawyer in his family, starting the firm himself, after graduating with superb grades from McGill, where he'd studied with, among others, Professor F.R. Scott, law scholar and modernist poet.

This portrait therefore doubles as both mirror of anxiety, and sly sense of showmanship - the Wildean mask that tells a truth. Jack loved illusion, drama, theatre - how artifice can reveal depths, how the surface is also in itself profound. Jack loved plays, playwrights, actresses, and actors.

He once invited the entire starring cast of a major motion picture to dinner at Montreal's then most-expensive restaurant, providing limousine service to and from the private party, and ended up having to deal with a very drunk, unruly Oliver Reed. Since he had no script to peddle, and no urge to be an actor himself, there was no cynical reason to spend thousands on such a blow-out, except his urge to create, and then participate in, a marvellous event.

Jack enjoyed the full delights of the theatre - as a true connoisseur - its sensuous, emotional, and intellectual offerings. He knew plays by Shaw, Shakespeare, Maxwell Anderson, and O'Neill - and the names of the players who had premiered them in London and New York - sometimes because he had been there himself. He was proud to have sat through all of Man and Superman. He loved, most of all, perhaps, the poignant, erotic, gothic family dramas of Tennessee Williams.

If one were seeking for the quintessential act of Jack's life, consider his three-day Odyssey across America, upon learning of the death of Williams (who he had once spent an afternoon with in a bar in Key West), to place a Maple Leaf on the great writer's descending coffin - thereby perfectly symbolizing his kind heart, his love of the plays, and of his homeland, and its great natural beauty.

Jack was a great patriot - he loved Montreal, he loved Quebec, and he loved Canada. Arguably, his fondness for hockey, and the Montreal Canadiens summed all these loves up in one form. One of his favourite musicals was Nelligan, which tells of the tortured life of the half-francophone, half-Irish-Canadian, poet. Jack loved to follow the careers of Canadians abroad, in music, film, theatre - like Norman Jewison, or Rufus Wainwright. He was immensely proud of the creative potential, not only of his own family, but of our home and native land.

It remains a mystery why Jack never completed his cleverly-titled play Atwater Square Dancers, about a sensitive young man seeking love. After all, his sense of drama, of language, and of occasion (as anyone on the receiving end of one of his eloquent tirades or legal letters will recall) was certainly masterful, even, at times, unparalleled. He was, though, at heart, modest. He'd come so far in life, and gotten past a few societal prejudices along the way.

Still, his enthusiastic engagement with great songs, and entertainment across decades meant his friends and close family were generously included in his appreciation of what his excellent taste early discovered. Jack was not, then, a selfish aesthete, but a critic who enlarged appreciation of things by his notice of them.

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Though his brother Tom had the music recording career, Jack himself had a beautiful singing voice. Jack was always open to celebrating, even swooning over, delicious, delightful new talent - forever sensing when someone's artistry was both stylish and true. What Jack loved most - aside from his family and loyal friends was the idea of ceremony itself - indeed, ceremonies of experience - often consummated in courtship, or communion. This is the metaphysical tradition, that tension between the world of the sacred and sensual.

Jack helped us all to see the poetry in life. He made us believe that the dream of art and beauty is no dream at all for one with a writer's vocation, or artist's soul. Instead, it is a reality, painfully made of experience and artifice. In my case, this helped inspire me to become a poet. His encouragement and love and friendship was ongoing, from the moment I could talk, to the last time we spoke, a few weeks back.

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No longer can we look forward to having steak tartare, a bloody Caesar, and a brilliantly bitchy, funny conversation with him. Jack admired men like Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Truman Capote - men of glittering words and flamboyant creativity. Such writers, in a sense, enabled him to find a place in the world, and he was, to a degree, their creation. However, Jack with his exceptionally stylish, kind, fierce manner - his unique face, voice, perspective, and bearing - was a true original. His legacy is our memory of him, and, indeed, our great sorrow at his passing - for nothing great leaves the world without a wounding.

I think it is apt to end with a quote from Blanche DuBois:

Maybe we are a long way from being made in God's image, but Stella, my sister, there has been some progress since then! Such things as art - as poetry and music - such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! In some kinds of people some tenderer feelings have had some little beginning! That we have got to make grow! And cling to, and hold as our flag! In this dark march toward whatever it is we're approaching. Don't, don't hang back with the brutes!

In Jack Swift's heart, the tenderer feelings were flown as a flag at high mast.
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