The odd thing about Louis Audette is that, as much time as we spent together over the twenty years or so I knew him (from about 1973 until his death around 1995 at the age of 87), I reckon that neither of us would, if pressed, have much to say about one another. It is rather like talking about one’s relatives at length – not normal or usual in the ordinary course. Certainly, after a couple of drinks, given the right stimuli from the current conversation, memories of him would surface, usually in a humourous vein, but I cannot honestly say that we had a “close” relationship. We just got along and more or less tolerated one another’s inadequacies which seemed to have been painfully obvious to each of us respectively, for at least as long as it took to have numerous drinks and dinner (and then more numerous drinks):
Stayed in Ottawa last night, following another marathon of alcoholic abuse at Uncle Louis’ – not to mention the venison which his steward (Jeffrey) managed successfully to convert into something resembling a Michelin product.
Jeffrey was really a great asset to Louis though his cooking left much to be desired. Grant Jameson once jokingly referred to one of Jeffrey’s dinners as “voodoo chicken”. When Jeffrey eventually quit Louis’ employ (as is the routine for domestics from abroad) to seek advancement, we all recognized how lucky Louis had been to have Jeffrey. Following the departure of Jeffrey (who, by the way, was the only one of Louis’ many stewards who attended his funeral), there was a string of stewards none of whom was very accomplished or otherwise endearing. One poor chap (who I recall as having been of East Indian descent) made a habit of coming home at night quite drunken; another spent most of his time in the servant’s quarters with young ladies; and another had no idea whatsoever about how to lay a table. By the time Louis’ years were advanced, he had totally lost interest in educating his staff about social niceties or household duties. The list of chores posted in the kitchen had become as tarnished and dirty as the drawing room silver. The meals became so uninviting that no amount of whiskey or porto could overcome the assault to the gut. The final disgrace was when a new staff member, who obviously knew nothing at all about Louis’ snobbishness, installed a television in Louis’ bedroom to which he had been confined during his last days.
While I am reluctant to say that Louis had any virtues, he certainly had a passion for (among other things of a less ostensibly desirable nature) promptness. I had learned years before I met Louis that promptness is not necessarily laudable. The lesson arose in the circumstances of a luncheon engagement I had with Mr. Kingsley Graham (a Toronto lawyer) who had been appointed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker as Ambassador to Stockholm, Sweden at the time my father was the Attaché to the same embassy. After we had all returned to Canada and I was pursuing the Bar courses at Osgoode Hall, my father arranged the luncheon with Mr. Graham who invited me to join him at a well known restaurant in downtown Toronto. When I arrived a few moments after the stipulated hour of noon no one was in sight in the reception area. Finally the mâitre d’ greeted me and informed me that Mr. Graham and his party were already seated at table. After I was escorted to the table, introduced to everyone and seated, I commented to Mr. Graham that his promptness was enviable to which he replied that it was nothing of the sort – it was only because the bar didn’t open until noon! Louis was rather like that. He always arrived for dinner within seconds of the appointed hour, and within as many seconds following his entry, he was demanding the first of what would be many highballs of whiskey and soda before going up to the trough. Louis always claimed that he liked drinking not being drunk. To a degree there was truth in this observation (though more than once, especially in his later years) he was caught nodding off in his wing chair. He did seem generally to preserve a good deal of his ability (which was substantial) even late into the evening. His success in this was largely (if not in fact exclusively) due to his control of the amount of whiskey he put into each of his numerous drinks. While he insisted on at least one and a half ounces of booze in each of his pre-dinner drinks, he was equally adamant that the post-dinner drinks (that is, the ones after the porto and coffee) would be no more than one-half ounce. So successful were these small drinks (not only for Louis but also for those of us who eventually had enough sense to follow suit) that we christened the drinks “Audettes” in his honour much the way modern American cocktails no doubt acquired their labels. It was not uncommon, whether in Louis’ company or not, to hear one of our crowd say, “I’ll have an Audette!” and the bar tender instantly knew what to prepare. I should also record that his former steward, Jeffrey, also became part of the language of Louis that we imitated. It was Jeffrey’s custom about ten minutes before dinner was to be served to poke his head round the heavy curtains into the drawing room where we were seated for our evening drinks and whisper something to Louis. As Jeffrey quietly evaporated Louis would take a gulp of his drink and announce, “Jeffrey says we have time for one more!” This very phrase became part of the language of those of us he knew Louis, and even some who did not. It even acquired a slight twist, in that others were sometimes heard to ask, “Does Jeffrey say we have time for one more?” Some of the people who had unwittingly cultivated this phrase over the years were in fact thrilled to finally meet Jeffrey at Louis’ funeral.
Though Louis’ command of language (both English and French), his control of booze, his writing ability and social adeptness were all well known and applauded, not so his automobile driving talents. As one of my friend’s put it, “It’s a white knuckle ride with Louis!” This condemnation hit its zenith one evening when Louis had been invited to my home in Almonte for dinner. Bearing in mind what I have said about him being so prompt, you can easily imagine my distress when, after all the other guests had arrived within ten or fifteen minutes of six o’clock, Louis was still not on the scene at six-thirty. Finally the telephone rang. I answered and was greeted with, “Bill, it’s Louis! I’m in the ditch!” He then went on to explain that his car had gone off the road (the weather conditions were in fairness not entirely favourable – snow and some ice), but fortunately he had landed in a bank of snow across the road from the home of people who turned out to have been clients of mine so they welcomed him into their home and made arrangements for a tow truck to pull his car back onto the highway. When he eventually arrived, he did of course more than require the usual sustenance. We all rejoiced in his triumph, and settled into the rest of the evening of dinner, etc. At one o’clock the next morning, all departed, including Louis. At about one-thirty o’clock the telephone rang, and upon answering, I was once again greeted by what now was becoming a familiar refrain, “Bill, it’s Louis! I’m in the ditch!” He had done it again. Fortunately for him, Grant Jameson had taken the precaution of following him home so it was but a relatively small inconvenience to arrange for the tow truck. Even in better weather conditions during the summer months Louis distinguished himself by leaving trails of rubber on the roadway upon departing from my residence. He seemed to know only two speeds, fast and stop. Which is pretty much a metaphor for his life style. Though he was by far senior in years to everyone who seemed to know him, he could keep up with, and surpass, most of us. Though one night (on one of his eighty-odd birthdays) he gave me reason to wonder how well he could hang in with the best of them.
We had begun our adventures by joining a number of other friends at Zoe’s bar at the Château Laurier hotel for drinks. The bar tender, in his mistaken exuberance to be kind to Louis on the “special day”, made the error of mixing several strong drinks for Louis; and Louis made the error of drinking them. When I noticed that he was becoming not only tipsy but also positively clumsy, I decided we should make a hasty retreat for the nearest eating establishment in the market area to get some food into him. This was an error on my part. Louis could, as he had so often said, “bear the deprivation of food”. He literally ate like a bird. You could give him a cracker with some cheese on it, and twenty minutes later (during which time, by the way, he had successfully drunk at least two highballs) he was still nibbling on the corners of the cracker, and even sharing some of it with the dog. So the possibility of bringing about sobriety through the infusion of food was more than remote. While I had ordered a fairly large meal for us (we went to a sushi bar), he really had little interest in the matter. So we settled the bill and left the place, and headed on our way out of the market. Regrettably his condition had not improved. He stumbled on an uneven piece of the sidewalk, went face first onto the pavement, and to the astonishment of us both, his teeth went flying out across the sidewalk in front of him! We retrieved the teeth, but noticed that he had a considerable gash on his face, and blood was all over his trench coat. When we finally got back to his place in Sandy Hill, I insisted that he remove his trench coat as well as his blooded dress shirt since if we did not wash them immediately the stains would never come out. Washing anything is something which is completely lost on Louis! For his entire life he had had a steward, and I discovered upon my examination of the subject that Louis hardly had an idea where the washing machine might be located. We concluded upon reflection that it was probably in the basement somewhere, so I left Louis swaying in his drawing room, incongruously poised on the huge Persian rug in front of the fireplace beneath the grand oil portrait of his grandmother, in his grey flannels, suspenders and undershirt, looking singularly lower class and miserable. When I returned from the depths below I had fully expected to find Louis passed out in his wing chair but to the contrary, there he was, still standing where I had left him, but having regained considerable composure. He greeted me with his usual “Ha!” conjoined with some disparaging remark about my appearance, or absence or general lack of strength (pusillanimity, as he preferred to call it) and then said, “Well, then, what about a drink!” So we carried on and I cannot now recall how the evening ended.
Louis was part of a larger circle of friends who congregated regularly, often to celebrate one another’s birthday but most often to celebrate Louis’ birthday. This was not because we all thought Louis would be dead the next year but rather because Louis was such a sport at a party. His incomparable cocktail conversation got everyone in the mood, sparring and jesting with one another. Often the parties were hosted by Ian Cowie and Pierre Pontbriand who had an equally successful social knack:
Celebrated Uncle Louis’ birthday on the weekend on Nelson Street, with the usual gang of idiots. There were eleven of us for dinner: Consommé, salmon, Chateaubriand and an amazing puff-ball cake covered in melted sugar, followed by cheese and fruit. The wine, Champagne and porto did us in though. We all died unattractively the next day from all reports.
In keeping with my affection for photographs as a record of our limited days on earth, I asked Louis for a photograph of himself (I learned from him that he had just recently been to a studio to have some shots taken). Little did I expect that, when he gave me a photograph of himself, it would be the size of a poster! He had written on it, “To Bill Chapman. With gratitude for friendship. Louis C. Audette.” I had it framed, and it covers the wall behind me as a write, he smiling and looking over my shoulder – as usual!
Not unexpectedly, as Louis got older, nature started to take its toll:
Talked to Louis today. He’s not able to drive for the time being. He has been passing out with increasing regularity, a habit which he said was quite undignified.
Whether fair or not, we used to quip about Louis’ fainting spells, which he at one time labelled “dumping syndrome”. What made us laugh about what should otherwise have been considered a serious affliction was that these spells usually followed a dining and drinking bout. But Louis always had the last laugh, because the next day, when the rest of us were complaining about hang- overs, he invariably dismissed the possibility of weakness by saying, “I never let the night before bother me the morning after!”
Louis had an unquenchable passion for life, which, by the way, he attributed to the fact that he was genuinely interested in other people. I always had my doubts about the authenticity of that rather noble statement, but aside from the reason, he did as I say have an obvious vitality about him. His vitality even extended so far as his wardrobe. Apart from the distinguished look he cultivated by wearing bow ties (I only once saw him sporting the usual cravat) he also engaged in such lavish adornment as a full-length racoon fur coat. I recall with amusement his account of the time he turned up at the door of his ancient lady friend, Miss Alice Dexter, whom he frequently escorted to the concert. When Alice saw him in his new fur coat she apparently exclaimed, “Louis, why would you do such a thing at your age! I wouldn’t consider buying eight rolls of toilet paper at once!”
Louis de la Chesnaye Audette, OC
Louis de la Chesnaye Audette était un avocat, un soldat et un domestique civil canadien. Né à Ottawa (Ontario), fils de Louis-Arthur Audette et de Mary-Grace Stuart, dixième enfant d’Andrew Stuart, il a étudié le droit à Montréal pendant les années 1930. Pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, il sert dans la Marine royale du Canada et plusieurs navires (HMCS Pictou, Amherst, Coaticook et St. Catharines) dans l’Atlantique Nord et la Méditerranée. Il a été mentionné dans les dépêches et a quitté la Marine avec le grade de Capitaine de corvette. En tant qu’officier de réserve, il a ensuite été promu au commandement. Après la guerre, de 1947 à 1959, membre de la Commission maritime canadienne. Il a aussi été président de 1954 à 1959. de 1959 à 1972, il a été président de la Commission du tarif du Canada.
En 1974, il a été nommé officier de l’Ordre du Canada.