MASTER OF THE DARK
The serene Sutton Place pad of Stephen Williams - Bernardo biographer and self-styled Hemingway
By Anne O' Hagan
Stephen Williams knows what you want to know. And guess what'? You're not alone. People call him constantly, ask him for updates, lunch him for details. He wears dark shades at all hours of the day - “No photos please” - yet he attracts attention. It must he something in his aura, and that aura must be black. Jean-Paul Gaultier glasses, neo-Japanese threads from head to toe (and that’s a lot of territory), black wheels, dark thoughts. Dark indeed, given that his current consuming interest is that deep, saturated darkness we call the Homolke/Bernardo/Teale cases. He's writing the book, he's living the back story, he's reflecting full-time on the nature of evil. "An apocalyptic story,” he calls it, “set in a landscape of suburban deviance.”
Meanwhile, twenty-nine floors above the city in his elegantly, moody little pad just under the huge, glowing red E of Sutton Place. Williams lives out his own drama of decor. It's cocktail hour chez the doctor of the dark. Big man, big talk, big gulp: This is Stephen Williams at home, a real piece of work.
And it's not all black. Furniture. yes. .Appliances, yes. Clothing, yes. Cocktails, no. We drink martinis. We drink red wine. We are, above all. comfortable. What is confounding to discover is that in a space with such a dark aura. lightness abounds. There is blonde sisal matting under foot, walls are painted a rich, indulgent butterscotch. The north wall is a new take on knotty pine: ruler-sized pieces of bleached-out wood are stacked in panels. As for the actual light. it's tentative, a sort of moon glow cast by a combination of subtle halogen and natural light trying in vain to penetrate the rice paper shoji screens that cover every window. Light and dark, that is Williams, a man with his work cut out for him.
More than just a certain resilience of spirit is requircd to spend two years in the company of extreme psychosis. But that is what Williams has been contracted to do by Little Brown Canada to do: to research and write the definitive account of what everyone desperately and equally wants and doesn’t want to know: the odious story of Canada's alleged Ken and Barbie sex criminals. At last count. Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo/Teale were the focus of three other hooks but Williams has the only hardcover deal. All signs indicate that he is right for the job: a poet at heart, an occasional journalist, Williams made his living in advertising and public relations during the 80's, skills that still seem to stand him in good stead. Resourceful, if anything, he is also bouyant, pesistent and funny. At the moment though, we're serious.
"I think this city's response to crime is naive and immature,” he says. The book due until 1995. Right now it's December and the publication ban is the big thing.
"People aren't addressing the issues of the late twentieth century - politically or socially - it's not possible to ban information today! It's not feasible or responsible - and it's antidemocratic.”
One thing is certain: it would be hard to ban information from Williams. Enter his apartment and you enter Control. Electronic signals hum and flash in this serene inner sanctum that worships the gizmo. Computers dominate sleek steel surfaces; their screens, like animated canvases, flashing cosmic patterns. A television monitor (always lit, usually muted) is artfully suspended by wire in the study. Overhead, Italian lighting performs a high wire trapeze act. Fax, modem, Wizard, Internet, micro this and that, remote control everything.
“Limiting freedom of expression is not the solution," rumbles Williams, who has the ability to bowl a sentence like rolling thunder. In the course of last summer, when the much-hyped story broke, the 44-year-old writer became an incidental celebrity with his high-profile lobbying against the ban and in favor of a public trial. No surprise to those who know, him. People don't forget Williams. He thinks big. He is outspoken. And he loves the limelight, baby.
Hold on - his agent is calling from New York. British and American journalists are requesting interviews. Now that The Washington Post is covering the story, it seems the ban is good for his book, legitimizing the subject for audiences beyond The Toronto Sun and A Current Affair. He is a direct descendant of Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Film producers are calling from LA., treatments are in the works. His friend Tom Hedley wrote Flashdance. Leonard Cohen used to say....
It seems fitting that he lives In the hotel of the stars. Recent random sightings at Williams' place of residence include Lisa Minnelli. Jane Fonda. Dennis Hopper, Kirstie Alley, Bono and Armand Assante. Yes, it seems they all stay at the recently re-christened Sutton Place Grande Hotel Le Meridien, Toronto, in spite of the fact it is not the most luxurious hotel in the city. What is it then? It's charming and it's home. And not just to the stars.
From the nineteenth floor up to Stop 33, the eponymous, ultra glitter-ball penthouse function room, the Sutton Place Hotel gives way to apartments that vary considerably in both size and quality. Over the years, countless characters have called it home, from Queen's Park heavyweights and literati glitterati to righteously independent grandmothers. Some residents have walked these less than-chic brown corridors and checked their lipstick in the ubiquitous gilded elevator mirrors for almost thirty years. And while it's a long way away from the most legendary of the genre, the Chelsea Hotel in New York, Sutton Place Apartments has its own particular quirkiness - tenants not excluded.
"You look for a haven in a heartless world," says Williams, explaining his choice of locations. "Hotel culture makes me feel like I'm passing through. moving on." It doesn't look like he's moving on anytime soon. Fully ensconced here for several years now. Williams' taste is rich minimalism. He favors heavy, simple, streamlined design and tends to mix cultural influences. The bedroom is rouge absolu, as deep and lacquered as fantasy fingernails. African kilims line the floor. The bed, designed by William’s old friend, commercial director John Lloyd, is an Asian interpretation of vintage Americana - a four-poster made of massive, rough hewn pieces of deep black Taiwanese bamboo that he refers to as a “nod to the black arts.” Across the far wall, a huge tank of exotic fish gurgles and radiates an unearthly light. Lying there at night, Williams must feel like he’s sleeping in the early Eastern civilizations wing of the ROM. In the living room, however, Williams should feel right at home. There he can lounge I what he refers to as the “recliner,” a beautiful, sculptural, black leather chaise lounge - Porsche designed, ergonomically perfect, twenty years old. “It’s my roots. Everybody in Leaside has a La-Z-Boy.
But not everybody from Leaside has Williams’ perspective, on the diseased condition of modern society. Sniffing around the Golden Horseshoe, researching his subjects in classic suburban spots like St. Catharines (where Homolka and Bernardo/Teale are alleged to have done their dirty work), lends a tragic irony to a seemingly benign landscape. Moreover, from his true-crime writer’s point-of-view, he see Toronto the Good has transmuted before his eyes into “a seething cauldron with a veneer of respectability.” The city and society, as it has evolved, is “the horror” says Williams, “and it has to be confronted.” Presumably, if it must be confronted, it is best to do so from an address with a little cachet. “Besides” Williams adds, passing to less existential concerns, “when you get tired of lonely stir-fry, there’s always room service.”
And there’s always Bistro 990 across the street. Since “the bistro” opened, Williams has been a regular. Indeed, his place is reverentially marked at the bar with a little brass plaque that reads: RESERVED FOR STEPHEN WILLIAMS MON.-FRI. 12-8 P.M. Hey, Toronto isn’t Paris, Bistro 990 isn’t La Closerie des Lilas, but every decent bar deserves its own self-styled Hemingway, and Williams is doing a good job, a Lost Generation of one. “When they see an original bohemian, they acknowledge him,” he says with weary resignation.
Finally I have to ask: “Is this apartment a reflection of your fantasies?”
“I don’t have a fantasy life,” he replies. “Reality is already too fantastic.” But somehow this is hard to believe as I watch him unsheathe one of his desk accessories, an antique Kuwaiti Bedouin knife, curved and menacing. At least he’s armed as he faces the blank screen and starts to write.