When Hell Freezes Over, Should I Bring My Skates?

by Toller Cranston with Martha Lowder Kimball
McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2000
reviewed by Lorrie Kim

Toller Cranston takes off his stage makeup in this "contrapuntal counterpart" to Zero Tollerance.

In ZT, he introduced himself as a changeling, not born of woman -- hiding his emotional wounds behind a wondrously elaborate screen, defying any readers' attempts to attribute his weirdness to the usual prosaic human causes. We were expected to believe that he was simply too rare a bird for his sufferings to be caused by the same old barren childhood, loneliness, and insecurities that afflict lesser beings. And it was easy to be bullied by his fantastical gifts into believing this, and going away.

At the same time, ZT contained the clue to the puzzle. The hero of the book was a friend (Robert Desrosiers) who accurately perceived how alienated Cranston was during his depression of the early 1990s -- who wasn't fooled by the screen. Cranston was telling us that he needs people to reach out this way, to be perceptive. That the reason he doesn't reach out is because he can't.

Very well -- I approached When Hell Freezes Over with this in mind. And I find that he is doing better -- with relapses, to be sure -- but better, in that maddeningly incremental way that is so prosaically true of average lives as well.

I was touched that he shares with us the house in San Miguel de Allende, which sounds like a true home that has served as a spiritual retreat for the artist. He offers a small glimpse of being raised in a disconnected, cold way by his parents, absolutely prosaic dysfunction that could absolutely produce the alienation that still haunts him. And he tells us with calm regret that he's never learned to combine love and sex.

I wanted to hit something more than once while reading this. He is still going on drug binges as anxiety-producing events approach -- why is there no one around him who knows this will inevitably happen, and help him cope? He is still so conflicted about money that he is broke, which outrages me. By all rights, this man should be rich. I wish I could wrest away 10% of his earnings and invest it for him.

But I also laughed aloud several times. I positively howled. Here's how he recalls a fellow competitor from the "Superstars" TV event: "A rather simple wrestler missed an entire event because he could not find clean underwear. In confusion, he locked himself in his bedroom. I have never known a figure skater to do that."

The dialectical relationship between his first-person voice, and co-author Martha Lowder Kimball's subheadings and divinely teasing footnotes, has developed from the wrestling over the truth of ZT to a more conspiratorial tone, as though the two of them are companions in yet another grand Cranston adventure. Check the footnote on p. 71; I would bet that was more to amuse Mr. Cranston than to edify the reader.

Oh -- you want to know if you should read this book? Why, yes, I think it is quite enjoyable and informative. First of all, Cranston finally explains about the strawberries (a recurring motif in both his paintings and his skating), and it is sublime. On p. 171, he reminds you that he is actually a shrewd and decent person, when he describes warning other artists about some crooked art dealers. He goes a little into his experiences with International Management Group as one of their "horseflesh" clients; sounds like there might be material for a third book there. And to my relief, this time, the endpapers do feature some of Cranston's artwork. I felt that had been a big wasted opportunity with ZT.

A few years ago, I was visiting Doug Mattis when I saw an original black-and-white Cranston on his wall, with one hyper-real strawberry in color. He told me he'd won the painting in an interpretive competition Cranston put together using bizarre music that included the barkings of a dog (which Doug interpreted on his hands and knees, of course). It was fun to read Cranston's account of the event, although he leaves out that Christopher Nolan tied Doug and won also.

In the book, Cranston says he invited Nolan (longtime student of Cranston's friend Thom Hayim) to be in his farewell show. What he doesn't mention (although Nolan does, in his June 1999 Flavor of the Month interview) is that Nolan actually invited himself, a gesture for which Cranston was probably grateful. In perhaps the achiest section of the book, "Just Don't Make Me Ask," Cranston discusses how many skaters were puzzled and hurt that he did not personally invite them to skate in his tribute. It is a little surprising, but it should not be, to realize that Cranston felt agonizingly unworthy of asking people to donate their work to benefit him. He could not bring himself to do it. This self-doubt caused him to avoid publicizing the show, which therefore ended up losing $200,000 for IMG. If I had any doubt that Cranston is broke because he does not feel worthy, this settled it for me.

He mentions here that something in his nature has caused him to throw in the towel without trying to win gold medals. I think for him, it happens with love even more. I wanted to hit something most when he described how he allowed a possessive friend to trick him into cutting short a rare week-long vacation with a lover.

But then I was stilled when, for the first time in the two books, Cranston wrote of a family love that brings him joy. In ZT, he mourned that he has no children. Here, he describes a cherished godson with awe. This made me happier for him than any of his skating triumphs. Even Toller Cranston is a person first, before he is a cultural treasure.

Mr. Cranston, I haven't the slightest doubt that you are le Patineur du Siècle. But perhaps when you doubt that the world realizes it, it is because your real doubts are elsewhere. Can you understand this most reductive and most heartfelt of sentiments?: I just want you to be happy. You do not have to pay for genius by sacrificing love. One hasn't to do with the other. Early fifties is not too late to learn love. A man as great as you was meant for love. Let the ice melt. Dive in. I promise you won't drown. You can bring your skates.

Lorrie Kim

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