Curl Up with the Voyages of a bear
and his boy
"From In The Hills magazine, Fall
by Signe Ball
On the walls of Laurie McGaw's studio
in Mulmur hang copies of her portraits of such Canadian luminaries as Olympic
rower Silken Laumann, long-distance runner Terry Fox, CBC morning man Peter
Gzowski, and environmentalist David Suzuki. Added recently to these are several
paintings of a small American boy. His name is Douglas Spedden and in 1912, when
he was seven years old, Douglas, his nanny, his parents and their maid survived
the most famous shipwreck of all time, the sinking of the Titanic.
For Christmas in 1913, Douglas's mother
Daisy, an avid diarist, made him a little storybook. It recounted the family's
adventure from the viewpoint of her son's favorite toy, Polar, his white mohair
bear. The story documents Polar's birth at a German toy factory, his arrival at
the famous FAO Schwarz toy store in New York city, his happy adoption by
Douglas, his travels around the world with the wealthy family, and finally his
harrowing separation from Douglas amid the confusion of the Titanic disaster and
their joyful reunion aboard the rescue ship Carpathia.
In 1994, some eight decades later,
Daisy Spedden's endearing gift to her only child has been published as Polar,
the Titanic Bear, a beautifully illustrated volume that promises to fascinate
children and adults alike.
Laurie McGaw describes the opportunity
to illustrate Daisy Spedden's manuscript as an "absolute joy". To
accompany the text, she meticulously researched and produced 26 watercolor
illustrations in four months. It was an extraordinarily demanding schedule, she
says but "it was more fun than any job I've done, ever." Not only was
the story itself both remarkable and compelling, but the research allowed her to
indulge her fascination with period photography, and she had a wonderful working
relationship with the project developers at Madison Press in Toronto.
Hugh Brewster, Madison's editorial
director and a Mulmur weekender, had received Daisy Spedden's story among a
packet of her diaries, photo's and letters, during research for Madison's
Titanic: An Illustrated History. The manuscript had been unearthed by a family
relative, Leighton Coleman III, who suggested it might be worth publishing. In
the rush to produce the big, historical pictorial, Hugh ignored the little
manuscript for several months, but when he finally settled down with it, he was
captivated. However, others were not so easily persuaded. How could the story of
a horrifying sea disaster work as a children's story?
Hugh was convinced it would. He felt it
could be known in the trade as a "crossover" book, appealing to both
children and adults. What he and his colleagues envisioned was a book within a
book: Daisy Spedden's manuscript, with its unusual perspective on an event that
has lost none of its human intrigue, bracketed by an introduction and epilogue
that would provide a snapshot of social history of one family, a family whose
lifestyle typified a refined and privileged class of an era long gone. But the
excellent collection of Daisy Spedden's photographs still told only part of the
story. To give the story its full dramatic and personal dimension, something
more was needed, so Hugh called Laurie for help.
Laurie has a distinguished 20-year
career as a commercial and portrait artist, but she had only illustrated one
other book, about the eruption of Vesuvius, for Madison Press. Hugh knew that
Laurie's particular skill at drawing people, her empathy for her subject and her
attention to historical detail would help others visualise the real potential of
Polar. She didn't let him down. Armed with three of her sample drawings to
accompany the text, they easily persuaded publisher Little, Brown and Company to
Once the project was approved, Laurie
set to work in earnest. For reference material, she mined the photo archives;
she rented A Night To Remember, the classic film about the Titanic, and
photographed frames in stop action; she haunted antique stores, vintage clothing
stores and toy museums, uncovering such treasures as an ornate brass cash
register from a nearby antique dealer, which she used in her drawing of toy shop
where Polar was was purchased. She even reconstructed Titanic Life jackets from
bits of foam and old t-shirts.
Asked why she was so intent on
historical accuracy, Laurie seems puzzled, even impatient, with the question.
"It had to be very accurate. It's a true story," she flatly declares.
She called her friends and neighbours
as models for various adult characters in the book, so Mulmur natives will
recognize many a familiar face peering at them from the deck and staterooms of
the great ocean liner. But one of Laurie's biggest challenges was to find models
for Douglas and Polar. Douglas it turned out, proved the easier of the two. She
had a good idea of what he looked like from photos in the Spedden albums and a
small, excellently detailed old portrait of Douglas. She found her model in
eight-year-old Anthony Facciolo of Shelburne.
"I walked into my daughter's class
and there he was. The likeness, even to the little bow lips was
unbelievable." Anthony was a willing model - it would have been hard not to
enjoy such a jolly, prolonged and parentally-sanctioned game of dress up. And he
found a new friend in Laurie's daughter Gwynne, who joined in the fun of staging
a July 4th tea party and huddling down in a mock lifeboat scene. The two of them
joined Laurie at her book launch , repressing giggles as they printed their
names alongside hers on the flyleaf.
The model for Polar took longer to
find. The original manufacturers, the famous Steiff Company of Germany, said the
bear was long since out of production. Laurie finally settled for an expensive
and less-than-satisfactory facsimile from an exclusive store for Teddy Bear
collectors in Toronto. A few weeks later, she walked into the Shelburne I.D.A.
drugstore and found the very likeness of Polar sitting on the shelf, with a
modest $20 price tag around his neck. Dressed up in costumes made by Pat Billard
of Shelburne, it was Polar incarnate.
Little, Brown has published an
astounding first-run of 75,000 copies of Polar, the Titanic Bear, for
distribution in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. If local sales
are any indication, they haven't over-estimated the books appeal. Within the two
weeks or so of publication, Booklore had sold 145 copies, well above their
initial order of 100 books. The book had a national promotional boost when
Laurie and Hugh were interviewed by Peter Gzowski on CBC Radio's Morningside.
Its success was clinched by Laurie's nomination for a Governor General's Award
for Children's Book Illustration.
Like the story of another famous bear
and his boy, Pooh and Christopher Robin, Daisy Spedden's story ends with
reflections on growing up. "Though I realize I will see less and less of
him as the years go by, I shall always feel, no matter what happens, that I
occupy a large corner of his true and tender heart,' says Polar, and he wishes
his master "a long and happy life."
But the epilogue recounts a more tragic
outcome. Just three years after the Titanic disaster, young Douglas was killed
in a car accident in Maine, one of the first such accidents in the state. Though
his heartbroken mother lived until 1950, she never kept another diary. She might
now have been pleased to know that her little book with it's new and wonderful
illustrations, will ensure her son a special corner in the hearts of thousands.