Muskoka

THIS is a very deceptive picture. You can see a beautiful young woman on a chaise lounge, a towel around her neck and a dock. Now, here’s what you can’t see. The summer sun is shining down on the dock so that the wood smells hot and the wavelets of the lake behind her are flashing like diamonds. The towel is thick pastel yellow in colour, her darkly tanned skin is shiny from a coating of Bain de Soleil, her eyes are brown, and she has pink lipstick. The lake behind her is Lake Joseph in the Muskokas, the most expensive cottage lake in the country.

You can’t see much of the dock, but it’s over sixty feet long and is attached to a substantial stone boathouse with room for four powerboats and six overnight guests. Two of the berths are occupied by Duke inboard runabouts, all shiny mahogany, that seem to float on air because of the way the sunshine turns the water a transparent pale yellow-green as you enter the boathouse from the rear.

Behind the boathouse is a hill and, on the top, nestled in the trees with a commanding view over the lake, is the cottage. More a mansion than a cottage, it has stone arches over a big porch, leading into a large, dark room beyond with its bees waxed pine floor, Indian rugs, leather chesterfield, and large stone fireplace. Moose and deer antlers look down on rustic chairs and old prints. Behind the cottage is the tennis court surrounded by trees, a garage and there, parked in the shade, a new, red Pontiac convertible. Walk back through the house and onto the porch. Look out past the wildflowers, the stone steps and the boathouse to the dock and the lake beyond.

She is still there, Penny Elizabeth Peace.

I fell in love with her before I knew any of this, before I got the picture I’m showing you, before we’d even kissed. Penny had that effect on you even when you knew nothing about her. She was beautiful, sophisticated, and worldly. The fact she was also rich was hardly worth mentioning. Or, at least, that’s what I thought at the time.

This picture was taken in June 1961 when her life stretched out in front of her like an unbroken string of pearls. She had gone to Havergal College with the cream of Toronto’s upper-class girls, then Meisterschaft College, then Oakwood Collegiate to finish her Grade 13. She had survived a tumultuous love affair with Charlie Shields and she had found a way to mingle with the financial elite by becoming a research analyst with a stock brokerage house.

 

A Duke mahagany runabout at the 2016 Muskoka Lakes antique boat show.

She did not know when this picture was taken she would almost die within feet of this spot the following year. Penny and her boyfriend were refueling the larger of the two Dukes, a 21-foot model, even more sleek and powerful than the 19-footer still in the boathouse. They failed to open the engine compartment to let the fumes out when they started the motor and the gasoline vapour ignited, blowing off the hatch covers. The fireball started a raging inferno that burned the expensive runabout to the waterline.

It was a foretaste of what was to come for Penny herself—a life that exploded and burned to the waterline, not once, but three times. She would lose the cottage and her family home on Ardwold Gate at the top of the hill beside Casa Loma, she would lose everything I had to offer, and she would lose her home at the bottom of the hill with her second husband, Hugh Lawson.

A compelling question in my mind is the role the cottage itself had in what followed. Penny found out she’d lost the cottage when she was in England in 1964 in a letter from her brother Don. He had to sell it to pay off losses in the Windfall stock scandal. In one stroke, everything represented in the picture above disappeared. Most of all, the security of wealth vanished, burned to the waterline by the Toronto Stock Exchange. She couldn’t blame her brother because she loved him, and she couldn’t discuss what the loss meant with me, because I couldn’t possibly understand.

What did she do? What did she feel she had to do, to recapture the serenity of financial independence?