Horace Austin Bingham was born in 1859 and earned his undertaking papers in Toronto in 1897. An enterprising man, he soon established himself as the most successful mortician in Orillia, Ont., cutting a figure that left a definite impression on Stephen Leacock—one so powerful that Bingham later appeared in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock’s comic masterpiece about the foibles of small-town folk, set in a thinly disguised stand-in for Orillia called Mariposa. Leacock’s Golgotha Gingham, his surname a single letter in the alphabet from libel, is a “quiet, sallow looking man dressed in black, with black gloves and with black silk hat heavily craped.” He goes on: “such words as ‘funeral’ or ‘coffin’ or ‘hearse’ never passed his lips. He spoke always of ‘internments,’ of ‘caskets,’ and ‘coaches,’ using terms that were calculated rather to bring out the majesty and sublimity of death rather than to parade its horrors . . . I have often heard him explain that to associate with the living, uninteresting though they appear, is the only way to secure the custom of the dead.”
Bingham left no record of what he thought of this alter ego; perhaps the depiction contributed to his decision, late in life, to leave undertaking and become a gold prospector in Timmins, Ont. (his descendents still own one of his claims). His son Griffith, a prominent Orillia lawyer for most of the last century, later said his father felt Gingham “was too preoccupied with the undertaking business,” writes Carl Spadoni, editor of a scholarly edition of Sunshine Sketches. But his younger wife, Annie, and daughter Bessie were horrified by the portrayal of Bingham “rubbing his hands together looking for the next piece of business,” says his granddaughter, Elaine Peterson, 55. “They thought Leacock was poking fun at the greedy undertaker.” Peterson, a legal assistant, believes hers is the last remaining family in Orillia that can still find portraits of its members in Leacock’s gently mocking stories, which legend says split the town when they first appeared in 1912. Though he denied modelling Mariposa on Orillia, no one believed him (a lawyer persuaded Leacock, a McGill University economics professor whom colleagues urged not to publish humour, to further modify some names when the sketches appeared in book form). “We fear that no amount of asseveration on Dr. Leacock’s part will convince Orillians that they do not ‘recognize’ some of the characters,” wrote a reviewer in the Orillia Packet, edited by a Leacock pal, which accounts for the forgiving tone.
Not everyone was as accepting. “Leacock was a figure of controversy in Orillia for his portraits of the aptly named Rev. Drone and Judge Pepperleigh—people saw themselves in these characters,” says Malcolm MacRury, who has written and produced a film adaptation as part of centenary celebrations around the book. (The film, starring such contemporary Canadian comedians as Caroline Rhea and Seán Cullen, airs Feb. 12 on CBC.) MacRury, whose credits include Hemingway vs. Callaghan and a stint writing for the HBO cult hit Deadwood, very subtly incorporates Orillia’s ambivalence into the script along with Leacock’s own rough boyhood (he was one of 11 children raised by a single mother after his father left). “I make Leacock the narrator”—played by Gordon Pinsent—“so you’ve got this old man’s maybe unreliable recollections and the real people of his childhood moving within this world of his own creation,” he says. “If there’s any justification for this approach, Leacock himself got in trouble for drawing on the people of Orillia. Now, of course, Orillia loves him.”
Love didn’t come easy. It had yet to take hold as late as 1953, when a debate broke out over what Orillia should send Queen Elizabeth in honour of her coronation. One camp supported giving her a leather-bound copy of Sunshine Sketches. Back then there were still those who remembered Leacock, the wealthy swell with strange, permissive ways, who had no sooner bought his land in 1908 before he’d begun throwing uproarious parties and looking the scamp—“always a good inch of whisker on him, ya know,” one man recalled. Above all, in the days when Orillia remained dry (and it was still largely dry in 1953), Orillians looked askance at his drinking. “Does the guy bathe in this,” a delivery boy once asked as he dropped off yet more rye, shipped in by rail, at his idyllic property on Old Brewery Bay. Soon, the debate turned ugly. Why send the new Queen the musings of an old drunk, some asked, especially one who got rich and famous skewering honest Orillians?
The extent of that fame is often forgotten: Groucho Marx was a fan, F. Scott Fitzgerald sent an adoring letter, and at his Montreal home Leacock entertained the likes of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the Brangelina of the 1920s. That glory came on the backs, many said, of those he’d ridiculed. Jeff Shortt, a barber he rechristened Jeff Thorpe, told a newspaper: “I didn’t know he was going to put all these things in the book.” Josh Smith, the 280-lb. Mariposa hotelier—“He was never drunk and, as a point of chivalry to his customers, never quite sober”—was inspired by hotelier Jim Smith, who weighed over 300 lb. and whose wife weighed less than 100. “These were old Orillians who lived fairly staid lives and, when he put them into print . . . You could easily tell who they were,” a Leacock acquaintance says in Allan Anderson’s Remembering Leacock: An Oral History.
On July 6, 1953, weeks after the Queen’s coronation, a motion to set aside $125 for a copy of Sunshine Sketches was put before town hall and lost six to two. “It’s nice to hobnob with royalty, but some flunky in Buckingham Palace will put the book away and I doubt if Sunshine Sketches would see much sunshine,” an alderman said. It was the kind of civic rumpus that could have come directly from the book in question. Yet Stephen Jr., as eccentric as his father and living in the ruin Leacock’s Old Brewery Bay home had become after his 1944 death, missed the irony. For this and other breaches, Stevie Jr. vowed Orillia would never get his father’s land, though there was a movement afoot to preserve the home. Instead, he sold all 40 acres dead cheap to Lou Ruby, publisher of a trashy Toronto tabloid (and father of Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby).
Despite Stevie’s pledge, the old place, sold by Ruby, now belongs to the city of Orillia (“the Sunshine Town is now the Sunshine City!” exclaimed the mayor in 1969), and has been the Stephen Leacock Museum since 1958. The stately home is now hemmed in by the Villages of Leacock Point retirement homes. There is Sunshine Carpet and Flooring, even Mariposa Homes, a development firm of which the current mayor is a principal. And far from being ambivalent, Orillians now are protective of Leacock. Twenty years ago, when Steve Clarke arrived wanting to open a Leacock-themed pub, he sought the blessing of a group of town fathers. These established Orillians weren’t immediately fond of the idea—an earlier Leacock joint had gone to seed—but Clarke, an amiable man with a craggy, honest face, won them over. Today a spinning mechanical rack above the bar at the Brewery Bay Food Co. conveys dozens of mugs engraved with the names of regulars, and Fred Addis, the curator of the Leacock museum, likes bringing visitors in to introduce Clarke, 52, as the “modern embodiment of Jim Smith”—that enormous barman with a slender wife. “As you can see, he’s very svelte and vegetarian,” Addis says, gesturing at Clarke. “Which disqualifies him on two counts.”