My surmise is that I was asked to write this because the editor thought that I knew Fraser Johns better than anyone else alive. The truth is that I did not know Fraser Johns very well. I am not sure that anyone did.
He was not married and he had no known partner or heirs. I asked around, but none of us could remember ever having been to his home in Shaughnessy. Nor did he golf or keep a boat. He was too young to have served in the Second World War, and too old for Korea. If he had a nickname, it was never used here at the firm.
Oh, many of us had met him in the course of our practice of law in Vancouver. He was always civil and incredibly well-prepared, with an astonishing familiarity for the details of the complex files that often left opposing counsel flummoxed and fumbling through their papers. Not that Fraser Johns would ever gloat. But neither was he above rising, adjusting his silks with a casual but altogether unnecessary flourish, and saying to the court, with only the barest detectable note of irony, “Perhaps I can provide some assistance to my learned friend.” Lawyers seated in the gallery would guffaw and many a judge had to cover their mouth to suppress a more genteel giggle or conceal a wry smile.
Fraser had attended Harvard for both his undergraduate, (Classics), and law degrees, graduating Summa Cum Laude and editing the law review. As an undergraduate, he had played hard to win a varsity letter in tennis, of which he was inordinately proud. He had it framed and it occupied a place of prominence on the wall of his corner office at Delby Boyle Pittegarn. However, he had not really liked the game and after Harvard he never again lifted a tennis racket, not even, although he would always attend in whites, at the summer tournaments sponsored by the firm at the athletic club in Point Grey.
Fraser arrived in Vancouver with a single secondhand suitcase of excellent quality and a letter of introduction from a justice of the United States Supreme Court, where he had clerked. He articled at Delby Boyle Pittegarn at the time when Arthur Delby, Q.C., Bertram Boyle, Q.C. and Joshua Pittegarn, Q.C., all still strode the halls of the firm’s crowded old offices on Georgia, a block from the old Rattenbury courthouse. Fraser stayed on as an associate in estate law, and was invited to join the partnership in a reasonably short period of time.
His phenomenal success in building his practice was, in part, but not entirely, as a result of his conduct of the litigation in The Matter of the Selmuck Estate. He had been handed off the dog file by Bertram Boyle, who, firm legend has it, actually got down on all fours and barked when he delivered the eighteen dusty boxes to the then very young Fraser Johns’ small windowless office, on an ancient iron-wheeled flat wooden trolley that rumbled noisily along the wooden corridor floors.
For those of us who studied wills or estates after Selmuck Estate, Fraser Johns’ unexpected triumph at the Court of Appeal appeared in a question on every final examination since, and I am advised by our young associates, does to this day. Today, most remember Selmuck Estate simply because Fraser Johns had acted successfully for a trustee who was said to have squandered two million dollars in Millennium Petroleum shares. Bear in mind, this was at a time when two million dollars was real money and could buy just about any home in West Vancouver or the Properties, and not, as it would today, barely cover the cost of a Vancouver Special on the east side of town for a teardown. However, Selmuck Estate established the principle of law that a trustee was insulated when acting in good faith, albeit unwisely and, as for the impoverished Widow Selmuck and her six children, most unfortunately. And it is for that reason that it is still cited as a leading case to this day.
Yes, Fraser Johns, Q.C. was as establishment as humanly possible. The poor, he was wont to explain, had no significant estates and hence, no real need for his services. He did not do pro bono work. His clientele were, almost exclusively, Vancouver society’s wealthy elite. For this, he would say, “I make no apologies and ask no pardon”. And no one can say that he did not look the part, with his impeccably-trimmed prematurely white hair, his hand-tailored shirts and suits, his Harvard University Lowell House ring on his right ring finger, and his Phi Beta Kappa key hanging from the quiet gold chain that linked his vest pockets.
There were a few of us that Fraser Johns would ask to come by on a Friday afternoon to sip his Talisker whiskey from Steuben crystal whiskey glasses etched with the tales of Greek mythology. When I started my practice in the 1970’s, it was considered a rare honour in Vancouver’s legal community to be offered a glass of Fraser Johns’ expensive whiskey.
We would sit on his big brown leather chairs. Those young lawyers who had had the temerity to sprawl were never again invited. I can still smell the beeswax in the saddle-soap. Does anyone except the Queen have their leather furniture saddle-soaped anymore?
Fraser would regale his guests with the provenance and pedigree of the whiskey, explaining that it was thirty years old and from one of the hogshead barrels he had put up at the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye, from which the master distiller bottled ten cases of it for him every year. He shared with only a few of us how disappointed he was that the master distiller had not acquiesced to his repeated requests to affix a private label on the bottles for him. Nothing gauche, mind you, something simple and dignified, such as, “Bottled for Fraser Johns, Q.C.”. No matter how many times he asked, the dour master would not relent. It was remarkable whiskey.
It came as a surprise, when I was invited that first time. I had been involved in a noisy office love affair with a woman partner and there had been a bit of a stir. As a first year associate, I was in the doghouse at the firm and did not much expect to be kept on.
The glass Fraser handed me on that occasion was etched with the sad tale of Actaeon, the Greek “Peeping Tom”, who was transformed into a stag by the Goddess, Diana, and then chased down and devoured by his own hunting dogs while Diana finished her naked bathe undisturbed by his unwanted gaze. I often wondered if he meant it as a word to the wise. In any event, the love affair soon ended when the partner was appointed to the Court of Appeal. I am told that she had a claw-footed tub installed in her office loo at the new courthouse.
On Fraser Johns’ glass was a depiction of a somewhat cranky-looking, Charon, ferrying the newly dead across the river Styx, but only if they had a coin to pay the fare. He always drank from that cup and I soon gathered that it was his crystal signature tune.
Some have tried to divine in his will the reason for Fraser Johns’ decision to end his life. He had left no other note. Many were surprised to learn that Fraser had bequeathed the entirety of his considerable estate, including his stately home in Shaughnessy, to Morgensterne, a small circulation Yiddish language literary quarterly published in New York City. Yiddish, as you may know, was the language spoken for a thousand years by the vanished Jews of Europe. A lot like German, I’m told.
As executor of his estate, I learned that Fraser Johns had been a subscriber and patron to Morgensterne for many years. The publisher told me that the magazine could not have hoped to have stayed afloat without Fraser’s sustaining donations.
I asked the publisher if Fraser had shared his reasons for ending his life. The publisher said that he had not, but that for many years, Morgensterne had published poems written in Yiddish by Fraser Johns, under the pen name of Baruch Jacobowitz, and that there had recently been some unpleasant controversy over their authorship.
For a terrible instant, the ugly word, “plagiarism”, flashed through my mind, but the publisher quickly assured me that the issue was not a question of their originality, but rather, of their literary merit, or lack of it. Many of Morgensterne’s loyal readers had objected and questioned whether Fraser’s poems should have graced the pages of such an esteemed albeit very small circulation journal. Of late, he added, there had been unpleasant questions raised as to the literary background and personal identity of Baruch Jacobowitz, who, except for the short poems in the quarterly, was otherwise, completely unknown. However, the publisher assured me that the matter was not one that should have warranted Fraser having to, as he put it, “do the right thing”.
I asked the publisher of Morgensterne if there was a short poem of Fraser’s that would be suitable for this remembrance which he could translate to English for me. He confided that he didn’t think that Fraser’s poems were very good. I assured him that it would not matter to the editor or readers of the Advocate, who would appreciate it as a remembrance of Fraser Johns, Q.C. However, as my deadline for this piece arrived, he had not sent me anything of Fraser’s for publication here.
So, I hoped that I might find something to share with you among Fraser Johns’ papers. In one of the boxes of his belongings, I found a set of several years of Morgensterne. I leafed through them, but the Yiddish, which, as you may know, is written in the Hebrew alphabet, may as well have been Greek to me. To my surprise, in one issue, an envelope fell out as I fanned the pages. The envelope was addressed to me.
“Robert”, Fraser wrote me, “I am sorry this unhappy work has fallen to you to do.” In the letter, Fraser explained that his paternal grandfather had been Chaim Jacobowitz, a ragman in Minsk, in Czarist Russia, whom a blue uniformed immigration official in America had later renamed, Charles Johns.
I have considered the facts that I know, and which I have shared with you here. I have tried not to make any assumptions. However, I am unable to reach any conclusion other than that Fraser Johns, Q.C. ended his life because he dreaded being exposed as a Jew. But, of course, everyone always knew that he was a Jew. Everyone who mattered.
Born in New York City, Robert N. Friedland has been the Sheriff of a Judicial District; an investigator for the United States Treasury Department; a Regional Director of the Alberta Human Rights Commission; Human Rights Advisor for Malaspina University‑College; a two-term City Councillor in Victoria, British Columbia; and, Chief Lawyer for a group of seven First Nations in the Interior of British Columbia. He currently practices human rights and administrative law in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is a widely published commentator on the international, Canadian, and British Columbian political scene. His fiction has been published in Canada, the United States, England, and Japan.