Bitter Fred turned red; Lazy communism and E.P. Taylor's little brother
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 April 2008)

On May Day, 1951, as Joseph Stalin watched a parade of military equipment clunking across Red Square in Moscow, an unusual Canadian, Fred Taylor, sat among those on the reviewing stand. He was a communist, invited by the Canadian-Soviet Friendship Society, his expenses paid by the Soviet government. What made him unusual was his family connection. He was the brother of E.P. Taylor, then by far the most famous capitalist in Canada.

Fred's presence in Moscow as a communist symbolized his rivalry with his older brother, a lifelong enmity based on mutual contempt occasionally tempered by affection.

They were children of a prosperous businessman in Ottawa. Edward, five years older, was aggressive and ambitious, eager to make money. Fred tried to prove he could beat Edward at something and managed to win skiing championships. Later, after graduating in architecture from McGill, he became a painter in Montreal. And as Edward rose in business, Fred embraced communism. His melancholy story has now been told in a thorough and sympathetic biography, Fred Taylor: Brother in the Shadows (McGill-Queen's University Press), by John Virtue.

Fred was 46 the year he went to Moscow. He had been receiving a parental allowance all his life, but his mother cut him off when he returned home and began giving lectures on Stalinism's virtues. She had known about his politics, but this public embarrassment was too much. She promised "no more money from me" for a communist.

As it turned out, his political commitment was less than robust. In fact, he seems to have found communism too much trouble: "I resent the telephoning involved in political work." He struggled for almost three years to live without mom's help, then left the party. His allowance was restored and with his mother's death in 1956, he gained access to the trust fund she had set up for him. His financial worries were over.

He said later he was duped by Stalinism but admitted that he wanted to believe in it. He seems never to have lost his theoretical affection for communism. Certainly he despised capitalism, though he used his brother's influence and investment advice whenever he could. Edward, meanwhile, was trying to forget Fred.

There were people who knew E.P. Taylor for decades without ever learning he had a brother.

One man, an assistant who became a family friend, didn't hear of Fred's existence till he was interviewed for Virtue's book.

In the late 1950s, after Fred's first marriage collapsed, he decided to leave Montreal for a new life with his second wife in Mexico. Like many Canadian artists, they settled in the mountainside art colony of San Miguel de Allende.

There he found it hard to live by his political principles. E.P. was famously a caricature capitalist, a cartoonist's gift, always appearing in a top hat to receive prizes won by his racehorses. Fred was his left-wing equivalent, a parody communist. Workers drove him crazy, particularly the Mexican workers he considered lazy and incompetent.

With servants he was ungenerous. A friend commented, "No matter how socialist he was, Fred would never pay the regular wage to anybody." He argued fiercely with his wife when she wanted to increase the cook's salary. Other expatriates, leaving San Miguel on a trip, would give the servants the perishables in their kitchens. Not Fred. He tried his best to sell any food he couldn't use. Once, left with a red snapper he and his wife wouldn't need, he went from friend to friend, trying to get the right price. Everyone thought him a cheapskate. John Virtue tells us he left an estate worth more than $1-million, mostly inherited money.

In choosing San Miguel as home for the last 25 or so years of his life, Fred apparently made a serious error. It was very cheap and the weather was pleasant, but in social terms it was no paradise.

Fred was pathetically eager for respect and sensitive to any slight. He once wrote that he was a fifth-rate painter; nevertheless, he expected wives and friends to take his work seriously. San Miguel did not oblige. An old Montreal friend, after a few brief visits, reported that the atmosphere among the painters was jealous and poisonous. Fred made some longtime enemies in the foreign community and provided them with good reasons for judging him harshly. When his second wife was dying of cancer, he was lining up her successor, choosing among several available women. Six weeks after she was buried, he remarried.

One painter, Leonard Brooks, was particularly cruel to Fred. A commanding figure in that tiny artistic world, Brooks socialized with Fred but didn't admire his work and sometimes teased him. Their prickly relationship coloured the incident that occurred when they were quail hunting together in 1969. Fred, ostensibly aiming at birds, shot Brooks instead. A doctor counted eight shotgun pellets in Brooks's face and a dozen more in his chest and arm. Everyone involved agreed on one thing: The police must not be informed. Even then, the Canadian community's relationship with Mexican officials was nervous at best and the police might have complicated things. Several friends who knew Fred's anger suggested that the shooting wasn't entirely an accident, an idea Virtue takes seriously. Fred was out hunting soon after, but Brooks never again touched a gun.

As a painter Fred turned out street scenes in Canada and Mexico and some not-bad portraits. He made a number of pictures of workers, in the socialist realism mode. These won him a place in The History of Painting in Canada: Towards a People's Art, written by Barry Lord from a Maoist position in 1974. That book introduced me to Fred's art but the reproductions Lord included did not make me want to see more. In 1979, when the Roberts Gallery in Toronto showed some of Fred's paintings, they left the impression that he was struggling to catch up with the latest fads of 1945.

As early as 1968, Fred was so displeased by his life that he considered, as he wrote, "blowing off the back of my head." In 1987, he committed suicide by that method. John Virtue, who knew him, quotes several people who imagine that one day, after E.P. is forgotten, Fred will be famous. Stranger things have happened, though not often.

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