1915 - 1995
She lay dying in Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto, wearing a paper crown, attended by a family of whores. There were girls in tight skirts and heels, girls in sweaters with plunging necklines, a girl in a black sheath dress that winked out just a hint of tattoo. One of the whores brought her kids along. Another brought her hubby. It felt very family.
The dying woman's name was Elizabeth Spedding. The girls, though, addressed her as Contessa. They were celebrating her 80th birthday, and everyone knew it would be her last. She had cancer and not many weeks later, on Aug. 28, she died.
Elizabeth Spedding was probably Canada's oldest whore, and undoubtedly the country's most famous madam.
She achieved a certain notoriety in Toronto in the late seventies, when police busted her call-girl service and the story played the papers. But Toronto was really just the last chapter in a story that began in Regina when she was 17, with modelling gigs that brought extra cash for doing, as she put it, "personal favours."
She didn't stay in Canada for long. She was very beautiful. She was poised, aristocratic and ambitious, and soon there was an apartment in New York's Fifth Avenue, the champagne parties and trysts with the likes of Miguel Aleman, president of Mexico. She says American president Harry Truman wanted into her bed, and she says she turned him down. She received postcards from Elizabeth Taylor. Cherished an autographed photograph from Richard Burton. She made a lot of money. In 1951 she married a Romanian count, and though the marriage ended only a few years later, the "Contessa" she remained until the day she died.
She also spent time in American jails -- once for two years on what were then called "white slavery transportation" charges. After she was released, she returned to Canada, headed for Toronto ("it was a good choice," she wrote later, "it's a wealthy city") and started right back into the business. She would eventually remarry (her husband died in 1984), and though she was busted, convicted and fined in 1979, she continued to work and madam well into her seventies.
For most people, it's the tales of presidents and movie stars that enthrall. The family of whores know all the glamorous stories, but there are others they cherish more. They talk of the Elizabeth Spedding who always had room for a girl in trouble. Who helped out with money. Who kept a smaller percentage of the take than any other madam. Who was proud of her profession, and who taught her girls to take the same pride in their work as she did.
Some of them made it to that hospital room for her 80th birthday party. They brought champagne, and balloons, and streamers, and the hospital looked the other way. The girls teased her, and she teased right back. She took a particular shine to me that afternoon, and wouldn't let me leave until I'd signed her guest book and given her my phone number. Some people thought she was a little ga-ga by then, but I like to think she could still spot raw talent.
Gerald Hannon, writer, prostitute, university instructor
Reprinted from the Focus section of The Globe and Mail,
entitled "Larger Lives: Canadians who made a difference"
Saturday, December 23, 1995.