In 1958 I was an intern at the Montreal General Hospital. One Sunday I treated a young lady who had an ankle injury. Her friend, Cathy (‘Cate’) Breslin was with her. Both women were friendly and Cathy, a journalist, invited me to join an informal weekly gathering at her apartment. This was in an oddly furnished basement on de Maisonneuve, a block or so from the Montreal Children’s Hospital where I later worked. The Friday evening event was a combination of soiree and salon mostly dedicated to drink and gossip.
Over the years that followed Cathy and I became close friends. We gradually lost contact some time after 1975 when I moved back to Montreal from Rochester. I decided to write this bog to underscore how often losing contact happens — equally with special friendships as with casual ones. As well I wanted to acknowledge how one person could surround herself with such a wide circle of friends, most of whom were unusual, bordering on the eccentric. I felt a desire to pay homage to this dear friend who brought so much joy to so many for so long.
What prompted me to write about the salon was that I had come across some of the many letters she wrote to me. I did not know if she was still alive and repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to find her using google. A few days ago I read part of the draft of this blog to my daughter, Tamara, who googled Cathy while we were talking. Tamara found Cathy’s obituary which included this lovely photo. She died in 2016, age 80. From the obit I was reminded she graduated with honours from the University of Toronto, where she was an editor of the student newspaper. After her Montreal days she returned to the US and then lived in Hong Kong.
Cathy was an exceptional character who, it was said, had had a fling with Pierre Trudeau or Jack Kennedy. I can’t be sure which — if either. She was a great raconteur and excellent journalist, In Canada she wrote for many leading magazines and newspapers. In the US for Ms Magazine, the Village Voice, and the New York Magazine. She also published three novels. One, Unholy Child, was based on a true case that occurred in Rochester where we lived at the time. It was made into a movie, Agnes of God, but somehow she failed to get rich as a result. The other novels were The Mistress Condition and First Ladies.
Her salon consisted mostly of lefty ‘intellectuals’ who Cath (aka Cate), usually referred to as ‘dearie’. It included two Sams — ‘Black Sam’ and ‘Red Sam’. The former was an Indian photographer, and the latter a red-headed South African paediatrician. Among the many other ‘characters’ in the entourage was a talented violinist who founded the Orford String Quartet. Another was a strange guy from Manilla. Then there was a promising eccentric Russian psychiatrist, a lady wrestler, and a physician named Gomez from Latin America. Among the hangers-on was someone’s supposed 20 year-old lover who turned out to be 17! And a Jewish Jamaican political scientist and broadcaster who was educated by the Jesuits. And, Oscar.. no idea who he was but who was involved in a battle with red Sam over ski poles. Cathy was constantly matchmaking e.g. between the ‘irrepressible’ Cooky and Bob S. There were also four ‘ghastly women and a sexy social worker’ involved in a later event that she described as ‘delightfully sordid’. A wedding was ‘fantastic, other-worldly and weird.”
Her letters were delightful. The were filled with witty phrases, clever bon mots, and amusing descriptions. Every once in a while she switched to French. I was always addressed in an amusing manner and many of the letters included a paragraph or more about me… usually things I did not remember or didn’t want to remember. Below I offer an example of her lively and witty style. Unfortunately, all the letters were written on a typewriter whose ribbons needed inking so the print was light. See below.
As you see, the news was mostly gossip. I learned about all sorts of strange affairs and peculiar relationships. From what I had written to Cath while I was Charlotte, North Carolina as part of my internship, I was reminded that I delivered a baby in the aisle of a movie theatre, removed a rifle from a maniac (heavily drunk), and sutured a patient without novocaine, thanks to ‘white lightning’ — North Carolina’s favourite home-distilled brew.
Our circle of friends skied together, went to pubs, and often visited a Boîtes à Chanson in downtown Montreal. We went there to hear a singer from Marseille, Clarette. Her pianist, who she called Chopin, was charming. I saved his career after he had a fall and I concluded he had fractured his wrist. I insisted it be x-rayed to confirm my diagnosis. I was correct; he was forever grateful.
These Friday evening gatherings were the closest I would ever get to emulating Hemingway’s experiences in Paris. Not quite as artistic, perhaps, but undoubtedly, nonetheless, a salon. Why Hemingway, you may ask. Simply because I just finished watching a Burns and Novick bio about him on PBS and then rushed off to find For Whom the Bell Tolls to see if it was there that the earth moved. Check for yourself.