Friday, February 14, 2014

Boschka Layton (Betty Sutherland) 1921 - 1984

Boschka Layton (nee Betty Sutherland) 14 May 1921 - 14 Feb. 1984 ©Maureen Hurley
A dear friend, Boschka Layton, who left us far too soon—is being discovered in Canada. I can't say "re-discovered," because she was largely ignored during her lifetime—especially during her Canada years with her husband, Canadian Poet Laureate and Nobel Prize nominee, Irving Layton. (WikiThey had two children Max, and Naomi.

Boschka (nee Betty Sutherland), half-sister of actor Donald Sutherland, and second wife of Irving Layton, left Canada to raise her daughter in California—in an anarchist commune on the bohemian shores of Big Sur during the 1960s. Then she moved to the Russian River in the 1970s. (I think). Somewhere along the way, she went to India and got hepatitis.

When Betty left Irving for good, she changed her name from Bashka (the Rusisan-Jewish equivalent to Elizabeth—as she had converted to Judaism when she married Irving) to Boschka—after the painter, Hieronymus Bosch.

After the sheer hell of living in Montreál with Irving Layton, a formidable debater, who bombastically described himself as "a quiet madman, never far from tears", for Boschka, California was the promised land—a garden of earthly delights. She never let us call her anything but Boschka. Betty/Baschka was dead and buried in Montreál.

Boschka suffered from an enlarged heart, a result of having had rheumatic fever as a child in Nova Scotia, and when she gave birth to her daughter Naomi in 1950 in Montreál, she had heart trouble, the valves of her heart were damaged— followed by a bacterial infection, or virus (when? ca. 1970s?), which left her stricken with Bell's Palsy.

Boschka had a funny poem, Is There Hope for the Future, Cry the Loud Bells of Palsy? in her first, and only book of poems, stories, and drawings, The Prodigal Sun (1982), about scaring all the small children half to death when she smiled at them.
If I don't survive the next San Francisco earthquake
don't live to see the second coming of Christ in two thousand and twenty
I may be remembered for a line in Layton's poem to this third wife… 
from Is There Hope for the Future, Cry the Loud Bells of Palsy?
Boschka Layton, The Prodigal Sun
It was almost impossible to find any information on Betty-Boschka on the internet. In the notoriety of Irving's wake, she's been reduced to a footmark, a modernist muse, a second wife.

Someone described Betty as statuesque—she wasn't tall. Irivng's sister-in-law Eckie, who worked with Betty at Gallagher's Grill in Montreál, and introduced her to Irving in November of 1942, described Betty as crazy as a loon, always drawing, and having movie star looks: "a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Greer Garson." Maybe, but I never saw photos of her when she was young. She had great cheekbones. But most people only saw how Bell's Palsy had ravaged her looks.

Boschka was a gentle, kind person, both quiet and unassuming. She moved carefully, almost shuffling to conserve energy because she had heart trouble. But she had a razor sharp intellect—and wit—to match.

Naomi came to California with Boschka, Naomi was a brilliant guitarist, and like her older brother Max, she learned chords at the knee of Leonard Cohen, and she later studied with Segovia. We kept in touch for a few years after Boschka died. But we lost touch. Naomi was a fragile being. I know Boshcka worried about her. I would also love to know how she is as well.

Boschka lived in Guerneville, CA, in a basement flat/studio. Just before she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she moved to an amazing cabin at Goat Rock, near Jenner-by-the-Sea, a lifelong dream, but she didn't live there long. Several of us took turns caring for her in a hospice situation in Santa Rosa. She kept insisting that her jaundice was a relapse of hepatitis. At any rate, she was very orange—which made her grey-green eyes startling to see. Like an orange Celtic Krishna come alive.

A misdiagnosis—but from what I understand of pancreatic cancer, it's swift. Steve Jobs managed to live several years with his diagnosis. Boschka was gone within two months. On Valentines Day.,I had strange prophetic dreams with metaphors of horses, and hearts beating like a drum just before she died—as if I was with her on the journey to that country from which no traveler returns. I also was running a high fever—bronchitis.

We all said Boschka died of a big heart. And her heart was big, she was an amazing, generous, witty multi-talented woman.

I hand-calligraphed posters—cheaper than typesetting. 1980
Boschka was a poet-painter, like me and we were great friends. I produced many events at Sonoma State, and curated gallery shows there for the Student Union and the InterCultural Center. Her art show was the first time she had a retrospective with sculptures, paintings, drawings, poetry reading, etc., together—Naomi played guitar. It was a wonderful event.

Pre-desktop publishing, black mimeograph 8.5 x12" 11/1980

We belonged to a weekly writing group, the Russian River Women Writers. But I was kicked out of the group because I hand-calligraphed Margaret Ellingson's very long name on one line for a poetry poster for the Russian RIver Writers' Guild, so it was smaller than the other names. This was during the pre-desktop publishing days, hand-calligraphed because no one could afford typesetting. I was the default (free) calligrapher because no one else wanted to do it. I was a sitting duck.

Barbara Baer and Peggy Ellingson were the ringleaders, they were bullies out for blood, the others were sheep: with Mary Ellen O'Banion, Laura del Fuego—even my friend Marianne Ware—taking sides. Grown women acting like a gang of vicious schoolgirls. I was devastated. Only Boschka stood up for me. But that was later. I was supposed to accompany Boschka to Nova Scotia to visit her father, their petty brouhaha nearly cost us our friendship.

Boschka took a perverse delight hearing of my tales of love gone bad, it cemented our friendship. She likened her relationship with Irving Layton to that of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. For both of us, at one point or another, the siren call of a (dirty) oven beckoned. What probably saved us was that we were both casual housekeepers. Was Sylvia's oven spotlessly clean, I wonder?
Sticking your head
in the oven
you thought you were terribly clever—
guest editor from Mademoiselle
brilliant author of first novel
up to your neck in poems 
In my dream you rolled
all over the bed with me.
Put one long dark
cloth red leg over mine.
We flashed together
under yellow silk
of sari, red
If you didn’t make it
how can i?
You outwrote me
ten times over
before thirty 
In the long evening
I piece together
a novel
like crocheting
or knitting twenty rows
before bed-time. 
Boschka Layton, The Prodigal Sun
Boschka spent the remainder of her years processing that once-in-a-lifetime relationship that gave her joy, two children, whom she loved deeply—and ended with a lifetime of pain. Boschka's stories of day-to-day living with Irving for 15 years, left me shaken—I never could read his work, except with a jaundiced eye. After all that he had done to her. Left her to starve. Literally.

But when I finally met him after hearing horror stories for five years, I understood the attraction, his leonine charisma was still evident—even after all those years.

A poem I remember Boschka reading at one of our poetry workshops: 

I open your latest book
of eighty-two poems
another blitzkreig
and see you're taking up the cudgels
against another wife:
I wonder how she's taking it?
I see. She's leaking headaches
trembling in corners
and she's only had two years of you.
The reason, perhaps, appears on page 75
you squirm over your neighbour's crotch. . . .
After twenty years I am still angry
I will say it for us all
Faye, Aviva, Harriet, myself:
We're not, Irving, merely strumpets
for your pleasure;
we're almost numerous enough
your wives
to unionize, vote you out
if you think that makes poetry
you've got another wife coming....

                 Boschka Layton, ca 1983

The irony is, that Irving had cast Boschka aside for Aviva, Wife No. 3, but when Boschka had an affair with one of their friends, Irving instinctively knew of her infidelity. Boschka said he reached up under her dress, felt her wetness, and began to beat his head against the wall, raging and crying. The old double standard. The cock at half-mast. And yet, decades later, Irving sent Boschka a copy of his latest book. I think this poem was in response to The Gucci Bag. The publication date's right—1983. I remember the cover. And I clearly remember her outrage.

In Waiting for the Messiah, Irving Layton wrote:
I was attracted to Betty, but not only physically. There was something about her personality that I knew with certainty fated me to know her beyond this brief moment…her light brown hair blowing wildly in all directions. Now a strange thing impelled me. I stepped over to her and took her in my arms as if we were going to start a dance. We did in fact do a few steps, then I embraced her more closely. "Betty," I said softly, "you and I are going to have beautiful children."
That part was at least true. I hear Boschka repeat it more than once.

Layton remained legally married to Betty during his 20-year relationship with Aviva. Layton finally divorced Boschka to marry a former student, Harriet Bernstein, only to divorce her too. But Boschka kept his name to the very end.

We held Boschka's wake and memorial at her snug house overlooking Goat Rock. Irving, Naomi, Max and Donny—that's what Boschka called her famous actor brother—all came to the event. Plus the poetry community of Sonoma County.

At her memorial service at Goat Rock, I remember Irving read:

BOSCHKA LAYTON: 1921*-1984
Because each act of creation is a miracle
that happens again and again
until it becomes familiar as an autumn leaf
or a ripening apple tree in full sail 
I shall remember you not as charred bone and ash
to be given to earth's mad alchemy
but as the full-bosomed women whose lips
mouthed my awed whisper "We shall make handsome children." 
Your heart's vital joy in the eyes of friends,
in children's smiles and the smiles of old women,
it is presumptuous to speak now of your crazy defiance
idlde to praise the harsh devotions of your life 
Ordinary miracles to pry open the eyes of the blind
happen every day. Yet my deep faith holds:
sun, wind, rain, and the dark nights will change
my Boschka's cinders to deathless apples and poems. 
     Irving Layton
     Santa Rosa,
     Feb 17, 1984
"Everything except writing poems and making love ends up by finally boring me." Irving said goodbye to one love of his life, the muse that brought him to the knees of poetry, and then, like Diana, escaped the ruthless hunter.

And yes, we did spread Boschka's ashes under apple trees in a Sebastopol orchard. And yes, we did eat them in the form of pies the following fall. Only I wasn't invited.

*Differing birthdates 1919, 1920, 1921—Irving wasn't beyond changing facts.

A drawing I made of Boschka as she lay dying.
In Memoriam Boschka Layton, Valentine's Day, 1984

Hard to believe that it's been 30 years since Boschka died on Valentine's Day, and harder still to believe that I never wrote a blog about her. Even after three decades, her passing is still raw, I can remember snippets, but no stories. It's as if I hermetically sealed it all away, never to return.

And then there was the family to consider, but Irving is dead (2006), and I found Max's website online—I had no idea Max could sing. Boschka would be so proud to hear his CD. A first CD at the age of 60, when he found his eyesight failing. Max's candor about the relationship was liberating. Maybe now, thirty years after her death, I can finally write about her.

Boschka Layton (Betty Sutherland) 14 May 1921 - 14 Feb. 1984 ©Maureen Hurley
What spurred this blog into being was an email that was forwarded onto me as I had arranged Boschka's first, and only retrospective art show at the InterCultural Center at Sonoma State University—paintings, drawings, sculpture, mixed media, and poetry. Naomi playing Segovia on the guitar. I would love to have a copy of that brochure now.
Hi Maureen,
A woman named Erica Claus from Ottawa called me today. She is doing research on an artist named Betty Sutherland (aka Boschka Layton). She said she found a brochure for an exhibition here at SSU in the early 80's that featured this artist's work-—your name was on the brochure as coordinator. Anyway, Erica is looking for information about this artist.
Carla Stone,
Sonoma State Art Gallery

Anyway, here's Erica Claus's letter—if you have any info on Betty-Boschka Sutherland-Layton, please leave a comment below and if you don't want it publicly posted, I will delete it:
Dear Maureen,

How kind of you to take all the time you have to fill provide information on Betty Sutherland.

I am preparing an appraisal of a painting by Betty Sutherland for a client. In the course of this work I am interested in finding out if there are any of her works in public or private collections in the San Francisco area, or if there might be a market or interest in her paintings.

A good friend of Betty's recently passed away and has left a body of her work in an Estate. The trustees of the Estate are trying to determine the market value of the works, in the preparation of an eventual art center that may be established near Montreal which could house some of her works. There are some early paintings of hers from the 40s and 50s, her time in Montreal, that are in public collections in Canada.

So, my questions to you are:

Are there paintings by Betty Sutherland in private or public collections that you are aware of? If so, where?
Is there someone else you are aware of who may know her work? If so, who?
Is there an interest in her art work now?
What was the interest in her work at the time you did the exhibition?
Was there a catalogue of the exhibition?
I am attaching an image of the painting I am researching, in the event you might have some insight into this work.

May I share your email below with my clients, who I am sure would be very interested in hearing more about the history of this remarkable artist.

In case you would like to read a Master's thesis recently written about Betty Sutherland, and an interview about some illustrations she did early on for a poetry magazine, you will find them at these links:

Erica Claus
73 Marlowe Crescent
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1S 1H7
011 613 233 0880
011 613 716 7373

Courtesy of Erica Claus—if you have any information on this painting, please contact her.

I read the paper on Betty Sutherland and her work on Canadian publications. An attempt to repatriate all her hard work designing book covers, illustrating and laying out books, and well as editing them. She, like so many women, was written entirely out of history by megalomaniacs. here's the full title:

Reforming Montreal Modernisms: a Biographical study on Betty Sutherland and her Work with First Statement, First Statement Press, Contact, Contact Press, and CIV/n. Michelle Rackham, 2006. 

The author Michelle natters on about whether or not Boschka's role in the founding of these presses was peripheral, or not—based on mastheads. Drove me crazy reading it. I wanted to smack her silly. 

Betty and her brother "Jamie" John Sutherland (who died of TB/cancer), founded those magazines. I have it from the horse's mouth. I've seen her book covers, her layouts. I've heard her stories. In fact it was one of the things that united us—if anything, I was an unofficial adopted artist-daughter-friend, living a parallel life to hers. I was elbow-deep in producing samizdat publications from the late 1970s onward. Before Mac desktop publishing changed the publishing scene. 

They published poems in Nova Scotia—sometimes handwriting, or typing them up as broadsides, then they moved Montreal in 1942 and founded First Statement, a mimeographed journal typed and designed by Betty. She was also a reader (and proofreader). The magazine was first in that it was Montreal's first real English language poetry journal, and and first again because it featured modern avant-garde poetry, breaking away from the old narrative style. Betty, Irving, Jamie, and a young upstart poet-musician, Leonard Cohen were all part of the artist-cooperative press, First Statement, and a modernist writers' circle.

"Jamie" John Sutherland (1919-1956) was sickly as child and had contracted TB which settled in the kidneys and testicles, he died of cancer. During his teens, he spent a lot of time in convalescing at home in Nova Scotia, and in sanatorium. It was probably because of his enforced confinement that he turned to poetry, and Betty was there to help manifest the dream of creating a literary magazine—after he had trouble getting poems published.

Betty was Jamie's ear, his sword, his staff, his typist. Betty was the visionary artist and avenging angel behind First Statement (1942), Canada’s first truly avant-garde literary magazine. Her literary talents were finely honed—why do people automatically assume that artists aren't literate? Betty was a proofreader for the Montreal Star. Contributor, Raymond Souster said: "Irving wasn’t much for printing. John and Louis [and Betty] were the ones who got stuck with that."

Reading the biographies of Irving, you get the distinct impression that Irving co-founded the magazines. If anything, Betty brought Irving ("of the oppressive ego") into the new poetry scene. Layton didn't even begin to write poetry until he was in his 30s. Betty thought his first attempts at poetry was awful and she told him so. She and her brother Jamie were on the pulse of the new Canadian poetry wave. Irving never would have become famous, nor penned more than 50 books, without the initial support and encouragement from both Jamie and Betty Sutherland.

Irving Layton's first collection of poetry, Here and Now, was published by First Statement Press in 1945.

Nota bene: This is the second post I've written. Blogger is far from perfect. It stalled, crashed, and wiped out my entire post without saving it. This is a reconstruction. So I'm saving it early and often. Warts and all. Grrr. Because the first iteration was wiped clean by Blogger, there is no order to this post, merely organic, and it will remain stet for now, until I figure out what I want to do with it. Having to reconstruct it from memory was so exhausting, I don't think i can assemble all the pieces.

I need to plug in dates. her summers in Lockeport, Nova Scotia, my letters to her about our escapades. Skinnydipping in the river, the punks who attacked her, my kickboxing defense (albeit nude), dinners, poetry readings, hot tub stories, George Englander. Boschka had an avid interest in some of my love quests gone wrong. She was lonely—one personal want ad brought poet AD Winans to her door. She was not interested. Awkward moments ensued. 

There is very little on the internet about Boschka—and certainly nothing by those of us who knew her well. The same tired paltry footnote sentences repeated over and over again by those who came to worship at Irving's feet. 

My poetry student Glenn Ingersoll posted this on his blog:

Dare I read?: Dead Poets: "Boschka Layton was the poet I supposedly disrespected by Writing during Creative Writing Class. It was her poem I was to say something about, or, if I had nothing to say, to sit quietly on my hands while no one else did either. I googled Boschka and found a poem of hers heading a profile of her ex-husband, the Canadian poet Irving Layton. First I’ve heard of Irving Layton and the most biographical information about Boschka I’ve yet seen. Boschka half scared me because she had some sort of nerve or muscle damage in her face that caused one side of her mouth to droop. This made her face limited in its expressions and not pretty. I would say she was nice enough but what do I know? I think we exchanged three words."  —Glenn Ingersoll, March 4, 1985

You can still find used copies of The Prodigal Sun: Poems, Stories, and Drawings online. Mosaic Press/Valley Editions, Oakville, ON, 1982.  A winner of the Fred Manelli Award for Creative Writing, (Santa Rosa Junior College? Can't find it online) Layton's work has appeard in many journals. Her paintings and drawings are well-known as in her book designs. This collection brings together, for the first time, her poetry, prose and drawings. 71pp.

3/5&6/2014 Still very much in progress. I'm about 15 hours into it—a lot of reading and research. Yeah, I backposted this piece as I was thinking of her lots lately—not realizing that the Feb. 14th date is what set it off. Then, when the emails came, I took it as a sign from the gawds—a new writing assignment. I deliberated whether or not to post it on her actual death date. But then I realized I might have something I wrote stashed away—if I can access it, that is.

What's missing here was that Betty and Jamie were First Statement! She's reduced to the status of sister of Donald Sutherland...not even a footnote.

Irving Layton, Great Canadian Poet: Montreal Gazette article Jan 5"Layton's first collection of poetry, Here and Now, was published by First Statement Press in 1945.  In 1946, Layton married Betty Sutherland, a sister of actor Donald Sutherland. The couple had a son, Max, and a daughter, Naomi. He and Sutherland parted amicably several years later when Layton became involved with an Australian expatriate, Aviva Cantor..."

At least here she's given some credit as a cover artist, not as editor and printer....
The Poetic Achievement of Contact Press (1952-1967) | Historical ..."Appearing in mimeograph format, paper editions, and occasionally in cloth, Contact Books were utilitarian in design and typography. During the 1950s, many Contact publications included minimalist, abstract-inspired cover designs by Betty Sutherland, Irving Layton’s first wife. . ... Contact authors included Phyllis Webb, Eli Mandel, Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen & Irving Layton..."

"Cohen’s apprenticeship was in letters. As a teen-ager, his idols were Yeats and Lorca (he named his daughter after Lorca). At McGill, Leonard Cohen read Tolstoy, Proust, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound, and he fell in with a circle of poets, particularly Irving Layton. Cohen, who published his first poem, “Satan in Westmount,” when he was nineteen, once said of Layton, “I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever.” Cohen has never stopped writing verse; the poem “Steer Your Way” was published in this magazine in June."  —from Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker, The New Yorker, Oct 2016

See how Betty was completely completely written out of the picture?

Irving Layton & Cohen - The Leonard Cohen Files
Written after Irving's funeral. "Layton was Cohen’s teacher and friend, helping Leonard to get his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, published at McGill University in 1956. I first came upon Layton’s name in one of Cohen’s poem, in the form of a complaint: “You always have blood on your apple” writes Leonard, perhaps a reference to Eden and the deep humanity that continually comes through in Irving’s verse."
Celebrity and the Poetic Dialogue of Irving Layton and Leonar...
"At the beginning of Leonard Cohen’s career as a poet, he met Irving Layton, the most controversial mentor he could have chosen among Canadian writers. They soon began writing poems for and about each other, often with reference to each other’s works. "
Irving Layton: "Do you know what the problem with Leonard
Irving Layton Archives - Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Cons...
lots of memorabilia at this site.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I took an evening SRJC Creative Writing class taught by Gerrye Payne at Analy. Boschka was one of the others in the class. I got in trouble for writing while she was presenting a poem. I still remember blushing as I was being called out on it. I was actually writing something off of what she was reading. Not that that led to us being friends.

Thanks for posting this. I learned things.

temporary said...

I met Boschka at Santa Rosa Junior College in 1975. I admired her greatly, was in love with her for a time, partied with her, 7 of us a Rainbow one Halloween, she was Yellow, i was Green, hot springs, creative writing class where she worked on some of the poems and stories she later published; i housesat for her 2 Summers in Guerneville while she went by Greyhound back to Nova Scotia, took care of her cats, JackSpicer and Irving(a nearly feral, muscular male, thick, unruly black&white fur, he adored Boschka). While housesitting i studied her paintings, she had stacks of them, i switched which were hanging every few days, constantly new exhibit surrounding me. I was young and ignorant. She was mostly patient with me. She did talk to me some of her worries for her Daughter, she felt guilt/remorse for some of their past, she was afraid her Daughter could not forgive her. I moved away in '79. We stayed in touch for a couple of years. She sent me my copy of The Prodigal Sun. I love her. I would love to see her paintings again.
love to all

Unknown said...

Hello Maureen:

My name is Collett Tracey and I am organizing a conference on Betty Sutherland on November 1, 2018 in the Special Collections and Archives at Carleton University in Ottawa. I wonder if you can possibly attend?

I began "The Modernist Revival Collective" about a year ago, whose mandate is to shed light on people such as Betty, who have been overshadowed by others and by their time and generation. We plan to organize a conference every year. Betty is the first person we turned to in terms of giving her a rightful place both in terms of her art and in terms of her poetry.

I read your piece with a great deal of pleasure and would like your permission to read excerpts from it at the conference. Would that be ok? Or, if you can possibly attend, perhaps you could read from it?

My email is My phone is 613-291-8678. I hope to hear from you very soon.