There are many whose deaths signal the end of an era but none so much as Florence Mary McEachren (nee Eaton) who died this week. Florence was the last of the children of Sir John and Lady Eaton. Sir John was the merchant prince of Eaton’s, the son of Timothy, founder of that great institution. Sir John died in 1922, when Florence was just a toddler. Lady Eaton carried on as the family’s public face for almost 50 years before dying in 1970.
Florence lived a life of privilege of the sort that no longer exists. Her mother adopted an English child, Evlyn, so Florence would have company. The two attended finishing schools in England and Italy, were presented at the court of King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1938, and regularly sojourned to Cannes and Fiesole accompanied by a chauffer and a Rolls-Royce shipped to Europe for their conveyance.
Despite an upbringing that should have created a spoiled brat, Florence grew into a wise, witty and independent woman whom everyone admired. During the Second World War, she tried to enlist but in those days women needed their husband’s permission and Frank McEachren refused. So Florence signed on as a volunteer truck driver for the Canadian Red Cross and served her country at home.
There were those who said Florence was brighter than any of her four brothers and should have run Eaton’s. Sir John’s will said she could be president, but only if no brother was able. John David Eaton was eventually designated and she told me she was not unhappy with the choice. She was not, however, pleased with what occurred during the sad regime of John David’s four sons, John Craig, Fred, Thor and George when Eaton’s went bankrupt.
When I interviewed Florence in 1997 while researching my book, The Eatons, she talked first about John David’s brothers, saying, “The others didn’t have the talent.” She then continued on to talk about the trouble the modern-day Eaton’s had gotten into by saying, “You need a certain talent; look what’s happening now.”
Florence was also able to see the lighter side of life. When I asked about John David’s propensity for drink, she talked about the family’s pleasure in fast cars and fast times. “We’ve all got gasoline in our veins. And alcohol.”
I won’t attend the memorial service next month. The family doesn’t like me much and no one deserves such a person around on an occasion like that. But I’ll be celebrating Florence’s life in my own way and wondering what would have become of Eaton’s if she and her progeny had taken charge.