Montreal Mirror features Harry Mayerovitch on cover

“Wild about Harry” / Montreal Mirror / Sarah Musgrave / April 19, 2004

If nothing else, aging earns us some cred. It may be small recompense for rotting teeth and arthritis aches, but the words "I was there, man!" still carry a certain weight in our cooler than thou, youth-obsessed culture - particularly, say, at an '80s revival night, while watching kids bop to hits from a decade they don't even remember the first time around.

Celebrating his 94th birthday next week, Harry Mayerovitch has an edge on most of us when it comes to having "been there," considering he was here before cement sidewalks. The slickest senior in the city can boast a compelling creative career that spans almost a century, encompassing successful architect, WWII poster designer, newspaper caricaturist during the Duplessis era and accomplished painter whose works hang in the National Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. An all-around arty guy, he's even published books of finger-snappin' poetry with lines like "what life is sweeta than la Dolce Vita?"

And he just gets groovier. In his nineties, Harry became a hot new talent at comic art publication Drawn & Quarterly. He's got a book of cartoons and sketches coming out next month called Way to Go, the title of which refers to "elegant ways to be buried." Not content to merely challenge the reaper with cigareets and whusky, in it he pokes his pen at death in a series of line drawings. "I think life is serious, I value it, I'm very glad I'm alive," he says. "But naturally, you feel things keenly, and one of the ways you can face it is by laughing at it."

At this point, it's a good thing he's laughing. Harry has outlived his loves and his lifelong friends. He's the last surviving member of his McGill graduating class, which just celebrated its 70th anniversary. That his eldest son is 62 puts it in perspective. "When you see your children's hair turning grey, well, you have to think about that," he says.

Still, he's at his easel every day, and has started taking creative writing classes at the university twice a week. Young at heart, definitely. But it adds to his charm that his apartment smells nothing like boiled cauliflower. And the dude is 100 per cent cardigan-free, rocking a green suit jacket with pre-Haringesque striated motif. He's even paired it with a pink collar shirt. To say his outfit is jaunty would only sound patronizing, much as it would to describe his step as sprightly.

"I don't feel hidebound by fashion," he says, taking a seat next to an ad hoc arrangement of pipe cleaners and a vase of ostrich feathers. "I don't feel I have to wear a grey suit. I suppose it's a recognition that I'm an individual. Partly it may be that I'm a bit of a showoff. But since I'm not breaking any laws, I can afford to indulge my idiosyncrasies."

Bon and still vivant

I tell Harry the news: he's Montreal's oldest hipster.

Like any self-respecting hep cat, he doesn't spazz out at the announcement. In fact, he feigns surprise, insisting that he missed out on the Beatles "until recently." The very word takes him aback, as well it should. "I mean, how would you define a hipster? A freewheeler?" he wonders aloud. "I think, if you're applying it to an older man, it suggests he's trying to act young. And I'm not trying to act young, I'm just being young!" He shrugs nonchallantly.

"I find people over 70 are old. Most of the friends I have tend to be younger people. I feel I can contribute something, partly because of my age, but that I don't do it as an outsider. I feel part of the scene, so to speak. This is a lot of luck on my part, to have all my marbles, I still do the things I want to do." He gives me a smile that almost makes me blush. "I have a greater respect for my urges than I used to."

He goes on to marvel at having recently been labelled a "bon vivant" in a McGill newspaper. "I don't know, I mean, I lead a fairly conservative life. I don't go to nightclubs. I don't chase ladies - visibly. The way I try to explain it is that I'm usually quite cheerful, I get along with people and I'm still bouncing around at my age. I guess that's why I get such a bad name - or maybe it's a good name."

Bachelor pad royale

Harry's exuberance spills out into all facets of his life. He doesn't just have one bachelor pad, he's got two, across the hall from each other. To describe one of them as jam-packed with curios wouldn't be entirely accurate - they both are.

Besides being living vintage item himself, Harry is a self-proclaimed garage sale aficionado. Its hard to imagine these boxes, canvases, frames, books, sculptures, collectibles, not to mention brushes, other artistic necessities and assorted tools loosely filed in a dentist's storage chest, fitting into less space. Harry admits it was tight with just one flat. "I was okay as long as I didn't gain any weight," he jokes.

Glancing around at walls decked out with seven decades of his original posters, paintings and prints, I wonder if he's ever stared a woman in the eye and invited her back to his place to see his etchings? "Look," he answers dapperly, "you meet a woman, and chances are you want to be physically close to her. You use whatever subterfuge you can think of, usually in the moment."

Failing that, this classically trained violinist could always serenade her with a heart-tugging solo on one of his five accordions. "I appreciate how each has different tones. I guess you could say I'm a bit of a vulgarian."

Political poster boy

Born here in 1910, Harry spent his early childhood in Rockland, Ontario, where the Mayerovitches were the only Jewish family in a whitebread town - long before we celebrated multiculturalism with the same enthusiasm as curry at a potluck. Returning to Montreal to attend university in the 1920s, he parlayed a newfound aptitude for drawing into an architecture business.

During WWII, Harry's career took a serendipitous turn that brought his talent to wider public attention. Concerned about complacency in Canada's commitment to the war, he produced a painting called "Home Front" that caught the eye of the founder of the National Film Board. "Two weeks later I get a call: 'This is John Grierson speaking. Would you come up to see me?' What the hell, I did!" Harry recalls. That same afternoon he was hired as art director of the graphics department of the NFB. Grierson was looking for authenticity and attitude at a time when most campaigns were handled by ad agencies, explaining, "The truth is you can't sell the war effort as though it were Cornflakes."

The posters still stand up, jumping from frames in Harry's living room as they do from a 2000 Drawn & Quarterly retrospective. Signed simply "Mayo," the bold, stylized silkscreens reflect a strong social conscience developed during a visit to Europe in the early 1930s, "when things were getting really hot in Europe and Hitler was making his presence felt." During a 1939 trip to Mexico, he got involved in lithography and met with great muralists like Orozco and Siqueiros, cementing his feeling that art should be not just an individual form of expression but about wider social needs and political implications.

"It doesn't mean I'm not into individual 'angst,' if you like," he says, raising an eyebrow. "Here I am doing strips without words. I'm not giving anything away - except that the pictures give me away completely!"

Harry Mayerovitch launches way to go at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival, Sat., April 3, 2pm. at the Hyatt Regency Hotel (1255 Jeanne-Mance). 
 

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