from The Toronto Star, March 13, 2006, Byline: Catherine Dunphy
She was born into Toronto royalty, certainly its establishment, a statement that would not have made her wince because it honours her father.
And Hilary Kilbourn worshipped her father.
When Bill Kilbourn died in 1995, "it was as if the history of our lives was passing in front of us," Rosedale MP Bill Graham said at the time. It meant that and more to Kilbourn's second child, who was so grief-stricken she was hospitalized for two days.
Passionate about Toronto, Bill Kilbourn was a rebel alderman on city council in the '70s, David Crombie's time, when Toronto had an exciting future and its politicians the courage to fight developers to preserve its past.
Founding chair of York University's humanities department, author of 14 books, with friends and admirers in the usually disparate worlds of the arts, politics, academia and media, he was often dishevelled as he rode his bike through Toronto winter traffic without an overcoat. But at the same time, he helped stop the Spadina Expressway and the planned Pickering Airport.
He lived with his wife, Elizabeth, an Anglican minister, and five children in a rambling three-storey house in south Rosedale with a dining room painted a shocking black for a while, modern art on all the walls, wolf skins on the living room floor, singsongs round the piano, political discussions around the table and hockey on the rink in the backyard.
"It was magical," said Francesca Mallin Parker, whose family lived in the next block and who became fast friends with the Kilbourn sisters, Hilary and Philippa. "We were a gang of three."
Though she was the youngest, Hilary was their leader because she had the verve, the artistic passion and talent. There was always a painting on an easel set up in the bedroom and playroom on the third floor that she shared with her sister.
"Often her zeal for artistic expression was unable to be contained and spilled over onto the walls and ceilings of her house," recalled George Hathaway, who moved in across the street in 1976.
It was always understood within her family, and by her friends, that Hilary was - and was going to be - an artist. "Right from the beginning she was always drawing - princesses and witches. Dad kept a lot of them," said Philippa or Pippa, her sister. (There were also three sons: Nicholas, Timothy and Michael.)
Their father adored Hilary, taking her along to official functions if his wife was unavailable. An intellectual descended from prominent Toronto industrialists, he was thrilled to have an artist in his family. "They were very much soulmates," said Pippa.
Tall, lively and lovely - with dimples, fair hair and an entourage - Hilary was a sophisticated presence in the halls of Jarvis C.I., her poetry and art winning awards and filling the school magazine and yearbooks.
"I felt lucky that she accepted my friendship. I was in awe of her," said writer Ann Silversides. "It was all rather exotic to me, a kind of J.D. Salinger-ish household full of brilliant individuals."
Activists, politicians, artists, people were often in their living room - even Pierre Trudeau swung by on his first campaign to be prime minister.
Hilary thrived on the excitement on the home front as well as from her own social whirl of poetry readings and formal dances. There was every reason to believe a fine future lay ahead of her studying art and drama at York University's brand new fine arts program.
But Hilary's "incredibly fertile existence," as her sister described it, began to crumble when she was 22 and spending time in Findhorn Community, a religious retreat in Scotland. She came home and was hospitalized after experiencing her first episode of mania, now known as bipolar disorder.
It had been building for a while. Her friend Mallin Parker remembers seeing "an episode of misery like I've never seen" when Hilary, in university, sank to the floor, weeping. "She was crying and hysterical and in such emotional pain that literally she couldn't stand."
Her illness dogged her the rest of her life as she fought it and fought to retain her creativity. She gained a lot of weight as a result of her medications. She was in and out of many hospitals and almost as many apartments until 1983, when her father got her a house on the Toronto Islands.
There she found her place. Her home was one of the original island houses, a blue cottage with purple trim and a bathtub out back on Wyandot Ave. Typically, there were usually two or three other people living there with her. She was subsisting on a government disability pension, but she felt blessed to have her island home and therefore obligated to share it.
In a community of characters, everybody knew her - outgoing, friendly, bumming a cigarette, riding her bike, pointing her video camera anywhere she could record another moment of life in her community. In turn, they kept an eye out for her, knowing when she wasn't taking her medication, helping her during her ensuing mania and at times psychotic episodes.
In 1994, she produced a half-hour film with original music about life on the island, past and present. "She would come here, hands shaking, and video-film the old still photographs I had," said self-styled island archivist Albert Fulton. "And I was amazed at what a professional production it was."
Her father died Jan. 4, 1995, three days before her film was aired on a local cable channel.
She was always sketching, but she was extraordinarily modest about her art, often giving it away because she valued it so little. Her portraits were vivid, passionate. Pippa Kilbourn says Hilary's best work was a larger-than-life portrait of their father looking like rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie. "She could capture people. She had such sensitivity she could penetrate the personality," she said.
On Thursday, Feb. 2, she died in her sleep. She was 53.
Her funeral wasn't held at the island's church, St. Andrew-by-the-Lake. Instead her mother, Pippa and brothers, and several hundred of her friends gathered at St. James Cathedral. Hilary Kilbourn loved the island and that church, but it was too small and there was no doubt that the cathedral was really the appropriate place to say goodbye to her. For it was there that several hundred people had also gathered, back in 1995, to mourn the passing of her father.
- Catherine Dunphy can be reached at cdunphy @ thestar.ca
Hilary Kilbourn was well-known on the Toronto Islands, where she had lived since 1983. Community members looked out for Kilbourn, who suffered from bipolar disorder.