What started as a casual extramarital affair in the summer of 1960, between Farley Mowat and Claire Wheeler, would last for decades. Theirs wasn’t a lusty cyclone that swept everyone around them into a storm of public drama, akin to the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton scandal that erupted three years later. It was more stiff upper lip and get on with it. Even Mowat’s first wife, Frances, behaved reasonably between the time she learned of the relationship (knowing everyone else knew too) and their eventual divorce in 1965. Back then, there was no internet mob to accuse Farley of abusing Claire because of their age difference, of exploiting a power imbalance (he was well known, and she wasn’t), or of abandoning his wife and children. Artists like him were still given more moral leeway — and were not necessarily expected to behave in a conventional manner. And no one accused Claire of using a man to get ahead.
Claire was twenty-seven when her affair with a thirty-nine-year-old paramour began. The lovestruck duo weren’t exactly discreet: Farley started introducing her to his Toronto friends soon after they got together, even as his wife and two children were living in his log cabin in Palgrave, just sixty kilometres north of town. Still, the poetic letters Farley and Claire sent each other reflect a determined reason-over-passion approach to sex as much as they do the sensibilities of literary-minded lovers.
Love stories, or the interesting parts of them, are often suspended between the lives of the couple before they met and the point when their passion is domesticated into a sustainable if more mundane arrangement. So it is in Michael Harris’s Farley and Claire. Harris begins his book when the flamboyant author meets the well-bred retail office worker on Saint-Pierre, the French territory twenty kilometres from the island of Newfoundland. It takes two-thirds of Farley and Claire to get from that moment to their wedding.
Truly bad behaviour or tragic circumstances would have been necessary to continue the intensity of their premarital adventures, but that didn’t happen. It seems that married life was relatively smooth sailing, though many readers will want to know more about what happened to Frances, how or whether the children reconciled with their philandering father, and why the Canadian establishment didn’t blink as Farley and Claire effortlessly became part of the great and the good.
The relationship started with a Hollywood-perfect meet‑cute. Farley was living on his boat in Saint-Pierre, while Claire was attending the inaugural year of a French summer school established by University of Toronto professors who vacationed on the island. The writer noticed “a girl quietly sketching the Sandy Point, a large Newfoundland schooner,” which was next to his own Happy Adventure. “He dimly recognized her as a member of the French school.” He would later say that he was “so heartened by her silence that I gruffly invited her to have a drink and see the boat when she had time.” The “quiet one,” as he thought of her, was the “beautiful young woman with the dazzling eyes and golden hair.”
Claire, who had attended the Ontario College of Art and briefly worked in publishing, was not initially as smitten with Farley as he was with her. Harris describes her recollections of him: “He was funny and interesting, though he smelled awful because he worked hard on the boat and hadn’t had a bath in ages.” But he did have other attributes, including “mesmerizing blue eyes.” Most importantly, Harris writes, he “was unlike anyone Claire had ever met.” A connection didn’t take long to form: “Farley and Claire became lovers, five days after their fateful meeting. For Farley ‘it meant an end and a beginning, and that’s enough to say.’ ”
Claire returned to Toronto, where Farley stopped before continuing on to Palgrave. He simply couldn’t resist seeing her again: “Years later, when asked what was the most surprising thing Farley had ever done, Claire replied, ‘He called me at Simpsons-Sears.’ ” Their relationship had a co-conspirator in those early days: Farley’s publisher, Jack McClelland, whose parents were on vacation. With their home sitting empty, McClelland handed Farley a set of keys.
After many trysts over the next few months, most of them brief, and numerous letters and clandestine phone conversations, the next phase of their romance began in December. In a six-page missive, Farley gave Claire the “shocking news” that Frances was well aware of the affair, having heard about it within a week of her husband’s return to Ontario. “They had played the game of secret love,” Harris writes of the two. “Now it was time for the game of public consequences.”
More than four years later, Farley divorced Frances and married Claire in Mexico — following a rather tedious series of extended stays in varied and not always convivial circumstances. It’s not that Farley and Claire shared a bland existence after that, but Harris’s book doesn’t cover much of their forty-nine-year marriage, which ended with his death at ninety-two. One incident that does warrant a chapter, though, is an infamous article from Saturday Night.
In May 1996, Farley appeared on the cover of the magazine in a photograph manipulated to make his nose comically long, like Pinocchio’s, next to a large “Oops!” Inside, under the headline “A Real Whopper,” the journalist John Goddard accused Farley of lying about starving Inuit and wolves in his early books about the North — the books that had catapulted him to international fame and fortune. Perhaps, Harris suggests, the piece was part of a right-wing conspiracy to compromise the notoriously left-leaning Farley, with the magazine’s owner, Conrad Black, pulling the strings. Claire, for her part, wasn’t that bothered, though she did worry about the story’s impact on Farley. “When Claire finally read the article,” Harris writes, “she realized it wasn’t all that bad, ‘just a catalogue of minor, nit-picking insinuations.’ ” For her, the cover was the worst and most damaging part. And she was right that more people would recall the Pinocchio image than would ever read the words inside.
The Saturday Night episode is a testament to how a supportive person can help their partner, even one with a strong ego, get through a rough patch. But Harris doesn’t dwell on the bad stuff, whether the article or the “dalliances” that Claire suspected Farley might have had during their marriage. Harris seems to defer to those who defended Farley, remaining oddly inconclusive about whether the author had been telling the truth in those books. A catalogue of Goddard’s accusations with corresponding rebuttals would have been a more convincing way of exonerating Farley. It’s doubly strange that Harris quotes Farley on his belief that facts conceal more than they reveal. “My battle cry has been: Never Let the Facts Interfere With the Truth.”
Farley and Claire is most beguiling when Harris draws from his subjects’ diaries and correspondence, as well as from interviews with Claire. Perhaps one day the complete primary material will be published; the letters and journal entries that Harris quotes are certainly lyrical. Indeed, this book comes alive with such material. It is less successful in other aspects. It doesn’t give much backstory, for example: Farley appears as a fully formed personality with little sense of how he became the iconic figure he was when Claire met him. Claire’s proper upbringing, aside from issues with her father, isn’t described, so it can’t enlighten us about her enduring attraction to Farley or explain why a young woman from a good family was still living with her parents at twenty-seven. While Harris makes mention of public, private, and secret lives — especially of famous people — he doesn’t fully grapple with the complexities of either personality. Farley was obviously more sensitive than his public bravado advertised, and Claire had more of a “steel spine” than she often let on.
Some readers may be left wondering how Claire dealt with such a mercurial and domineering husband. And more could have been said about her relationship with his kids. Harris does quote David Mowat, who left Claire a letter in 2014. “Thank you so much for all these years of uncompromising care which you extended to my father and the hospitality you always extended to me,” he wrote. “Call if you ever need me.” But did the children ever fully reconcile with their stepmother? Considering how Farley treated Frances, was that even possible? Perhaps such questions are best left for novelists to ponder. Regardless, Farley and Claire made their relationship work. Theirs is an endearing and truly Canadian tale.