Vv Magazine’s Nicki Laborie gets a peek inside the fabulous life of international PR maven, Mary Symons.
It was a swelteringly hot day in the summer when I first met the fabulous Mary Symons. Just two weeks earlier, I received an invitation via email to have dinner at the PR maven’s house. It took a few sentences before I fully accepted that the message wasn’t a meticulously tailored press release personalized to sound like it was meant just for me – like many of the emails I’d already gone through that morning. This email was different – it was personally written to me. What a novelty in today’s media world.
In the message, Symons explained that she had wanted to meet me for some time, which made me wonder if she’d confused me for someone else, but she quickly mentioned the name of my good friend – a fellow editor – who gave her my contact information. I read on, excitedly. Over the years, I’d heard about her iconic events for her luxury brand clients but never attended one, so this invitation to come to her home for an intimate dinner with a small group of her friends was beyond humbling. The email went on to say that she wanted to connect great women with other great women. Very little shocks and confuses those of us who work in the media, but a gesture that seems both sincere and string-free is one of them.
Upon stepping into Symons’ beautiful home on that very hot day, I was nervous, to say the least. Before ringing the doorbell, it struck me was that I was nervous because, well, this wasn’t a media party – at least the kind I was used to. Inside some of Symons’ closest friends were already chatting – from edgy young writers currently shaking up the industry to media icons like Lisa Tant, Jeanne Beker, and Candy Signorini. When Symons mentioned in her email that she had a passion for connecting great women with each other, I didn’t expect her to attach this amount of sincerity to the sentiment. For the next six hours or so, the twelve of us enjoyed dinner and drank her wine cellar dry as we got to know each other without the need for a product launch or exclusive grand opening party to bring us together.
Fast-forward four months and I have invited Mary to join me for lunch at dbar. I want to pick her brain about life, love, and what motivates her to be so fabulous every day. I arrive five minutes late and scold myself for not anticipating terrible Toronto traffic no matter what the time of day – especially when I see Mary patiently waiting for me enjoying a glass of Sancerre. When she sees me she immediately gets up to give me a hug. I apologize profusely as she tells me she had to order wine right away because she just experienced a nightmare at the passport office. She says it in a way that automatically makes me smile and think there’s a hilarious story behind it.
As we sit down and get comfortable, she leans over and points out her very dear friend Nolan Bryant, who is sitting across from us having lunch with society doyen Catherine Nugent. Nolan is a fabulous 23-year-old that I would almost call a prodigy after recently dining with him and realizing he is more educated than most people I know. He also happens to be the Globe and Mail society writer. We both scour the menu to decide on what we want to eat and settle into conversation, which is so easy with this joyful personality.
Mary is the daughter of Thomas Henry Bull Symons. Being the founding president of Trent University is one among his many accomplishments here and abroad. It’s no surprise that his daughter has followed in his footsteps. A tall redhead with a classic look, at the tender age of 18, Mary was scouted by a French modeling agency while attending McGill University in Montreal. A few days later she was in Paris and within 24 hours, got her first job with the House of Dior. The hair was next… Yes, those famous red locks are thanks to Dior’s designer at the time, Marc Bohan, who was in desperate need of a redhead to round out his stable of models that season. 30 years later, Mary remains a loyal redhead.
I am quite fascinated as she explains that this Parisian move felt quite natural for her. “I loved being there. I had already had a life of interesting travel so it felt normal and I think I embraced it. The city and I just connected, then and now.” She credits her very interesting parents for initiating her global lifestyle. But while her life in Paris was spectacular, she flew home in summers to finish her studies at McGill.
It was during one of those summers that Mary met a significant force in her life, Jim Good. Jim was a Newfoundlander and at the time was the Chief of Staff to federal Cabinet Minister John Crosbie who served with the Mulroney government. Their love affair blossomed even though both lived very different lives on different continents. A trans-Atlantic romance unfolded.
As Mary speaks about Jim, who passed away almost a decade ago at the young age of 50, it’s very obvious that he was her soulmate and while she does emphasize that she hopes to find love again, the life she shared with Jim sounds like a great love story from the days of Casablanca. Listening to her speak about how Jim would fly to Paris or meet her in romantic cities as he courted her has me dreaming of an easier and more authentic time. She tells me about one of her most memorable days with him.
“One of my favourite memories of Jim was when he took me to Venice for the first time, leaving Marco Polo airport by vaporetto I stood to watch the city come into view, when we turned into the grand canal, I could feel him watching me take it all in…”
“One of my favourite memories of Jim was when he took me to Venice for the first time. Leaving Marco Polo Airport by vaporetto, I stood to watch the city come into view. When we turned into the Grand Canal, I could feel him watching me take it all in. He’d been many times, and so wanted me to share in his love of the city… I was mesmerized. It became our place — we returned almost every year. Same hotel, same table at Harry’s Bar, magical walks, and on it went.” Her eyes are romantic as she tells me the story and I’ve now added this experience to my own travel bucket list.
While love was leading her back to Canada, Mary’s passion for art delayed the process slightly. “We had a great love affair and I knew I was going to come home. And I sort of came home but not quite. I stopped off at Sotheby’s in London to study 17th and 18th century decorative arts — not exactly an immediately employable skill set,” she says, giggling.
“We really bought it to entertain, often hosting parties twice a week, casual to black tie. I still entertain as often as I can.”
Our conversation steers towards art and entertaining, as we talk about the beautiful home she and Jim purchased 15 years ago. “We really bought it to entertain, often hosting parties twice a week, casual to black tie. I still entertain as often as I can.” It’s no wonder this vivacious woman has so many great friends from all walks of life and organizes some of the city’s most prominently attended parties.
But while hosting the best parties, traveling, and connecting with people is her passion, another passion is art. I think back to being in her home last summer — wowed by the eclectic mix of styles of art throughout. Mary explains that there is a commonality in her art and decor style but ultimately she chooses it based on what she likes.
“I have to love it, to feel a connection to the art I live with. I’ve borrowed pieces from my family’s art foundation but Jim and I also purchased art that we loved and that meant something to us. A favourite is a large painting of a treacherous part of Newfoundland’s coast by tremendous local artist Gerry Squires. It hangs near another painting on loan from the foundation called A Storm off Cornwall, which was painted in the late 1800s by an artist who never returned from the First World War. Both mean the world to me and I never tire of looking at them every day.”
From throw pillows embroidered with quirky quotes like “I love champagne, caviar and cash” to impressive Renaissance paintings, it’s easy to get lost in each inch of her home.
As the lunch goes on, I want to know more and more. How did she get into the PR/events business is my next inquiry. “It’s all about hard work, attention to detail, and, above all, relationships. I’m very lucky as I’ve never sought out a client. People have come to me or I meet people and we determine if there’s a fit,” she says. “Public relations, events, sponsorships – it’s all personal relationships. I’m hired for the most part to put on a stellar event and bring great people and brands together.”
She adds, “I also think that giving back is so important, whether that is sitting on a board or taking up a cause — whether through time or financial support. Mentoring and helping the next generation of talent gives me great satisfaction. Again, it all comes back to relationships and taking the time to make connections between people.”
Friends play a critical role in Mary’s life, seeing her through great loss and celebrating many wonderful occasions and milestones. “I have a core group of friends that I call my chosen family. This group pulled together and threw me the soiree of a lifetime at The Shangri-La Penthouse. It was supposed to be a surprise and I really had to step back and let it unfold — not so easy when throwing parties are your stock in trade! It surpassed any dream I could have had for a 50th birthday celebration. I felt so much love that evening.”
“In a way I came full circle last year, seeing so many people who have meant so much to me and meeting so many new friends on my travels, revisiting special places and at the same time looking forward to so many new possibilities. Life is a fleeting and magical gift”
The celebrations carried onto Paris, where another set of friends, old and new, gathered to celebrate in the City of Light. “In a way I came full circle last year, seeing so many people who have meant so much to me and meeting so many new friends on my travels — revisiting special places and at the same time looking forward to so many new possibilities. Life is a fleeting and magical gift.”
I ask Mary who has influenced her. She tells me about Sonja Bata, founder of The Bata Shoe Museum, who is a dear and longtime family friend and someone she admires tremendously. “Sonja was the one who propelled me back to work after the tragic death of my husband. ‘Don’t wait,’ she said. ‘Come back to work right now with me at the museum,’ and I did.” As she says this I can see how much she cherishes this friendship. “I’ve got great respect for her and what she’s done and continues to do, a role model for so many.”
“Sonja was the one who propelled me back to work after the tragic death of my husband. ‘Don’t wait,’ she said. ‘Come back to work right now with me at the museum,’ and I did.”
Margaret Hayes, the President and CEO of Fashion Group International in NYC, is another. “Over many decades, Margaret gave me so many opportunities to expand my work with FGI, both in Canada and internationally. She gave me a lot of personal time as I was working my way forward as a publicist, and she is one of the many reasons I try to give as much back to others as I can. Plus, there is nothing like a great dinner with Margaret wherever we happen to be in the world!”
Mary is not only a pleasure to be around, but after our lunch, I see she also has an absolutely fascinating life – one that could be envied but her energy doesn’t allow that. Instead, I admire her. I admire the way she chooses to live her life – even after a tragic loss that could’ve made her play the victim in an industry that can easily turn a passionate, artistic person into a skeptic.
I see this again, the next day, when I open a message from her in my inbox – the 50 Musings she created for herself on her 50th birthday that she had told me about. I know they’ll be words to live by because, even before I read them, I realize how nice it really is to receive an email from a friend.
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