Metcalfe Street (officially Rue Metcalfe) is a main street in downtown Montreal, linking Sherbrooke Street in the north and René Lévesque Boulevard in the south. Opened in the mid-nineteenth century, the street owes its name to British colonial adminstrator, Sir Charles Metcalfe, the sixteenth Governor General of Canada. The street is famous for one particular building which is located at no. 1155. Sun Life Building was completed in 1931. It was built exclusively for the Sun Life Insurance Company. At the time, it was the largest building in square footage anywhere in the British Empire.
Montreal-born John ‘Buffy’ Glassco was the author of a fascinating (fictionalized) memoir; the bisexual writer of erotica at a time when obscenity laws were a major impediment to publication; a poet whose career overlapped with that of Leonard Cohen’s and Irving Layton’s; and a literary translator whose 1970 collection of Poetry of French Canada was a groundbreaking attempt to put French Canadian poetry on the literary map. Glassco gained a strong reputation as a poet. His Selected Poems won Canada’s highest honour for poetry, the Governor General’s’ Award in 1970. Apart from his own erotic poems such as the 1967 privately published ‘Squire Hardman’ (on flagellation) or ‘The Temple of Pederasty’ (on sado-masochism), Glassco also completed the unfinished pornographic novel Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley. In 1959, the book was published in Paris by the Olympia Press in an unexpurgated version in a limited edition of 3,000 numbered copies, bound in green silk on BePegarde watermarked paper. It was reissued the same year as no. 105 of the ‘Traveller’s Companion Series’ in the famous green wraps. As a poetically inclined young man however, Glassco had but one ambition – to celebrate life in Paris and enjoy the ‘divine restlessness of youth’. Life after all is more important than literature, he suggested in the first chapter of his memoirs.
Once the madness of the Great War was behind them, Parisians rebounded in a carnival of cosmopolitan hedonism known as ‘les années folles’. There was a new aspect to this particular orgy of pleasure: the influx of American youngsters who were sick of prohibition and puritanical small-mindedness back home. The so-called New World was frustrating and inhibiting to them. The Old World promised (erotic) freedom, excitement and artistic renewal. The New World was stale and stifling, the Old World a full of life and seductive challenge. Some of these young men had plenty of dollars in their pockets taking advantage of the strong exchange rate, while others arrived with the sole ambition of making it as an artist.
One of those young ‘nomads’ who arrived in Paris with a ‘fuck all’ mentality and an intense hatred of his Brooklyn German-immigrant background was Henry Miller. He enjoyed to the full the prominence of eroticism in the city and the easy going sexual attitude towards cabaret and entertainment where African-American dancer Josephine Baker had become an overnight sex symbol with her 1925 ‘Revue Nègre’. It was in this period that Paris became known as the red hot centre of eroticism, pornography and naughtiness. To these young Americans life was a cabaret. Paris was bar, bedroom and brothel at the same time. Miller caught the atmosphere in his novel Tropic of Cancer (the original working title had been ‘Crazy Cock’). The book was published in 1934 by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press in Paris and wrapped in the explicit warning that the book must ‘not be taken into Great Britain or USA’. The novel set a new standard for graphic language and explicit sexuality which shook Anglo-American censorship to the core. It remained banned for a generation, by which time it had become part of post-war cultural folklore. Miller added a new epitaph to the conception of the artist’s place and status in society. He saw himself as one of the Renegade Apaches organizing his raids not from the borders of Mexico but from the Parisian frontiers of seedy desperation – a renegade in pursuit of a new aesthetic.
Seventeen year old John Glassco belonged to that restless young generation longing to get away. In early February 1928 he and his friend Graeme Taylor left Montreal for Paris, crossing the Atlantic on a government cargo bound from Saint John, New Brunswick, for Antwerp. The two settled in the Montparnasse district of Paris which was then popular amongst the literary intelligentsia. Their three-year stay formed the basis of Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse (1970), a description of expatriate life in Paris during the 1920s. The book is presented as a genuine memoir, although Glassco did fictionalize aspects of the work. In his account, he describes meeting various authors and celebrities who were living in or staying in Paris at the time, such as Joyce, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Lord Alfred Douglas, and others. Most of the memoir deals with Glassco’s Parisian adventures. The first two chapters however set the rumbustious tone that pervades much of the story. Disillusioned with student life at McGill University, young Duffy decided in his third year to give up study. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, his mother hoped he would enter the church and end up a bishop – but John Glassco was set on a literary career. In his (homoerotic) relationship with Graeme Taylor they shared a ‘despisal of everything represented by the business world, the city of Montreal and the Canadian scene, and a desire to get away’. They moved into a run-down apartment in Metcalfe Street and found employment in the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada. Buffy’s dreary task consisted in posting up the premiums for burial insurance paid by Chinese labourers in Hong Kong.
The dream of Paris kept them going. To add to their income, they periodically rented out their apartment to friends who were in need of a place to entertain a girl for the night. When Glassco Sr. found out that his son was running something ‘close to a house of ill-fame’, he promised him an allowance of a hundred dollar a month, if John would change his ways. The money made it possible for Duffy and Graeme to leave Metcalfe Street and begin their journey towards Montparnasse. The adventure ends with the author’s repatriation to Montreal because he was suffering from tubercolosis. Glassco’s account of his stay in Paris was first published in 1970 by the Canadian branch of Oxford University Press.
No. 990 Maisonneuve Boulevard, on the southeast corner of the intersection with Metcalfe Street, was the location of Ben’s De Luxe Delicatessen and Restaurant (simply known as Ben’s deli). With its famous wrap-around illuminated corner sign this Art Deco landmark was famed for its smoked meat sandwich. The business was started by Latvian immigrants Ben and Fanny Kravitz and remained open for nearly a century, from 1908 to 2006. At the height of its popularity, from the 1950s to the early 1980s, it had seventy-five employees. Its famous interior remained unchanged over the years. Columns and walls were painted in bright greens and yellows with chrome siding. The restaurant had a stainless steel edged counter lined with rows of chrome stools. The chairs on the terrazzo floor were bright yellow, orange and green. Waiters wore a black bow tie, a white buttoned shirt, black trousers and a waist apron. Ben’s deli was popular with McGill students. Walls were covered in framed photographs of celebrities – politicians, artists, sportsmen and entertainers – who had dined at the restaurant; one spot was dubbed ‘Poets’ Corner/Le Cour des Poètes’. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, poets Hugh MacLennan and Irving Layton, entertainers Ed Sullivan, Bette Midler, Jack Benny and Liberace, and many others were proud to be seen at the famous deli. It was at Ben’s that Leonard Cohen gave one of his early interviews and in a short black-and-white documentary, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen’, produced in 1965 by the National Film Board of Canada, the poet and songwriter wanders around his snow-covered Montreal neighbourhood, entertains audiences with stories about visits to the mental hospital and hangs out in the middle of the night at Ben’s Delicatessen. For that reason alone, the deli deserves a place in history.