Art for nobody's sake; The peculiar family saga of Canadian painter Max Maynard
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 16 October 2007)

In his Vancouver youth, Max Maynard was close to Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt, two excellent artists, but how good was his own painting? The question arises because bitterness over his failed art career dominated his life and the life of his family -- his wife Fredelle and his daughters Rona and Joyce.

All three women have written their memoirs and Max's anguish comes through each time. Their testimony shows he was an angry drunk for 50 years and a victim of the extravagant jealousy that torments those who believe fate has made them failures.

Rona Maynard's engrossing and eloquent account of her life, My Mother's Daughter (McClelland & Stewart), focuses on a sometimes loving, sometimes bitter contest for dominance with her mother. The editor of Chatelaine magazine for 10 years, Rona endured over several decades a mother who never left criticism unspoken and seldom passed up a chance to interfere with the raising of Rona's son. That struggle was crucial to both their lives, but it's the account of a family imprisoned by the father's alcoholism that animates Rona's narrative.

Max's fury set the tone of their house and magnified his wife's own resentments. He taught English at the University of New Hampshire but Fredelle's academic career never got started, despite her Harvard PhD in English. She settled for being a talented homemaker, the career Chatelaine traditionally championed, until Rona's most famous predecessor, the late Doris Anderson, proved that a women's magazine could contain both recipes and feminist ambitions. As a loyal wife, Fredelle also brought in some money performing down-market literary tasks such as ghosting the Good Housekeeping column of Dr. Joyce Brothers, a TV psychologist.

Eventually, as Fredelle Bruser Maynard, she wrote Raisins and Almonds (1972), a charming account of life as a Jewish girl in western Canada, and a second book drawn from her experiences as an adult, The Tree of Life (1989), which appeared seven years after Max's death and included Fredelle's judgment: "The alcoholic's family is always a nest of secrets and deceptions. Ours was perhaps worse than most."

Max was the son-in-law feared by Jewish mothers, and for good reason. He was not only a Gentile, he was a drunken Gentile, unhappily reared by severe Plymouth Brethren. If Fredelle set out to defy her mother, she hit the jackpot.

Max fancied himself as something of a philosopher and liked to fluster his daughters' boyfriends by asking them, "What is beauty?"

His alcoholism was the family's secret burden, the unmentionable subject at every dinnertime, a cauldron of rage that spilled onto everyone. He told them he could have been the most famous painter in Canada if only he hadn't been burdened by a family. When Rona showed the first signs of the depression that would follow her for decades, her parents took her to a psychiatrist. But even in that office, no one mentioned Max's addiction.

Art helped make him an embarrassment, particularly when he denounced his old friend Shadbolt, who had achieved the career Max desired. If Fredelle couldn't stop him, Max would phone Shadbolt and deliver an alcoholic's typical outburst: "You're a charlatan, Jack! All sound and fury signifying nothing!" But Shadbolt, who could have won a gold medal in kindness, remained Max's loyal friend to the last, a level of fidelity not endorsed by Doris Shadbolt, the curator and critic who was Jack's wife.

As a family, the Maynards could be glibly classified as dysfunctional, but that's a word we must use with care. The late Richard Needham used to tell the readers of his Globe and Mail column that he had shocking news: "The people in the house next door are just as crazy as the people in your house." A friend of mine has a standard reply when someone calls the royal Windsors "a dysfunctional family." He never fails to ask, "And yours isn't?"

He holds the hard-earned view that all families are dysfunctional. I tend to agree, never having known intimately a family the world would call "normal."

Max Beerbohm, that great English essayist, may have delivered the final word on dysfunctionalism: "A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?"

If we are all peculiar, the Maynards became flamboyantly peculiar in 1972, the year J.D. Salinger came calling, metaphorically. He was then 53. He had stopped publishing his fiction and transformed himself into a hermit. He was attracted by Joyce's New York Times Magazine article, "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life," and perhaps also by the gamin glance in her photograph. He wrote her ingratiating letters, the opening moves in a courtship, and eventually asked her to spend a weekend at his hideout in Cornish, N.H.

Astonishingly, Joyce's parents approved. Fredelle even helped make a dress that emphasized her girlishness.

Were they hoping for a connection with fame, a prominence that neither had achieved? Did they imagine intimacy with a renowned writer would enhance Joyce's abilities? Predictably, the affair was a painful, traumatic mistake, sexually and intellectually. Salinger banished Joyce after nine months. In 1998 she provided the details in her memoir, At Home in the World.

Meanwhile, her sister Rona built a reputation as a journalist. Today she has a son, a marriage that's lasted 37 years and (as her book demonstrates) a future as a writer. Fredelle divorced Max, moved to Toronto and died in 1989. Joyce married, had three children, divorced and lives in California. And Max? After the divorce, when he was 70, his drinking grew worse. But six years later he returned to British Columbia for a fresh start, bringing his vast collection of unsold paintings. He found a gallery in Victoria, had his first one-man show in 50 years, and sold a few pictures. He lived just four more years and never became altogether sober, despite the best efforts of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would be a pleasure to say his paintings show signs of serious talent, but they don't. So far as one can tell by viewing them on the Web, they look like generic Canadian paintings of some decades ago, the sort that once filled the exhibitions of Canadian art societies, work you couldn't remember 10 minutes after seeing it. After all the sound and fury, he's taken his place among all those would-be artists Mordecai Richler once described as the justly ignored.

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