Bob Ramsay is one of Toronto’s most prominent connectors, a man with 5,000 personal email addresses on his computer. The communications professional writes opinion pieces for the media and speeches for CEOs, and leads a speaker series that regularly features thinkers from Niall Ferguson to Malcolm Gladwell. Husband of prominent MAiD (medical aid to die) physician Jean Marmoreo, Ramsay is also the author of the captivating memoirs. Love or die trying: how I lost everything, died and came back for love.
In it, she writes about her childhood in Edmonton, the cocaine addiction that destroyed her business and changed her life in her 40s, how her relationship with Marmoreo began in harrowing phone conversations from an Atlanta treatment center, and their life transformed together. after: mountain climbing, marathon and circumnavigation of the island of Manhattan by kayak in 2019, when Ramsay was 70 years old and Marmoreo, 77. And also about the serious health problems he has had in the last decade, since he died, albeit briefly, during open heart surgery to strokes and bladder cancer. Love or die trying It is a story of (near) death, cleverly conveyed in a funny way, and a love story, described with much more seriousness, with a large cast of well-known Toronto residents passing through both sides.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There is much of your life in this book, but a question that arises very early is, how many times did you “die”?
TO: Several, several, but better is the way – after I was saved from my bladder cancer – that a great friend of mine asked that question: how many times has that woman saved your life? For now, both Jean and I are holding on, triply vaccinated and for the most part staying in the north.
That first brush with death was a decade ago, so what was the genesis of writing your book now?
In fact, it started in 2011 after I had open heart surgery and died. I wanted to write a book about it and I prepared a proposal. Michael Levine, my agent, sent it to all publishers, and I deal with publishers all the time, sending all these writers through my speaking agency, and they all turned it down. Of course, I was deeply insulted. So Michael convinced me to get off the ledge and I finally managed to put the story on Maclean’s. Then all these other things happened. And I thought I’d like to give the idea for this book another shot, this time not just the story of my heart, but the things since then and the things before, the old days and the drugs. Then Michael said, “I don’t think it should be a death story, because people make death stories all the time, but anyone who has known you for 30 seconds will know of your love for Jean. Why don’t you write a love story?
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How much did the story change in writing, now that it’s a death? Y love story?
It changed because it became more continuous. I wouldn’t call it a late love story; Like many people, Jean and I see older people as those who are five to ten years older than us. So call it a middle-aged / old age love story that started 31 or 32 years ago. Then, during the writing, COVID came, which changed everything: the book did not end where and how I thought it would end. Like it ends and then it ends again and it ends again and it ends again.
Yes, very much an “Oh, and by the way” book.
Yes Yes. I wanted to include the gigantic fight that Jean and I had in the early days of the pandemic because it shows how different we are. Jean is an MAiD doctor and believes in the system and that she has led a full life, and that when it is time to go, it is time to go. I mean, she grew up on a farm. So she thought, at the beginning of the pandemic, that if there was a shortage of ventilators and she got sick, she would reject one, she should go to someone younger. She has a completely different ethic than mine. Mine is the rules go out the window when your life is at stake, it’s “Shit, if I don’t get to the front of the line, I’m going to die.” So I said I had your POA. [power of attorney] for the health and I’ll tell them to put a fan on you. So he fired me as a POA and passed it on to his doctor. I felt quite marginalized when my wife fired me.
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Dedicate a few pages to iconic Toronto designer Robert Burns, whose addictions led to homelessness and premature death. Was your destination a “There, but by the grace of God and Jean” experience for you?
Oh God yeah The reason I talk about him is that I adored him. He was everything I wanted to be. Robert Burns, Heather Cooper and Jim Donahue took over the world of graphic design in Toronto in the late 1960s and 1970s and put it on the world stage. They had a fantastic talent. And they led a kind of life that I think very few people had then. It was about parties and interesting people and then it was about drugs. There were two drug spells in my life, the one in 1990-91 that I talk about in the book, which sent me to Atlanta, and one around 1980, when Robert and I started using cocaine together. And it got really bad. I don’t really know the answer to why yet, but one day I woke up and said, I can’t do this anymore. I stopped. Robert went ahead and brought down his business, brought down his marriage, brought down the people around him, and ended up living on the streets. That’s why I put it in the book: I stopped and he didn’t, he died and I didn’t, and I don’t know why.
Tell me about being a connector.
Looking back, I think I have always been one. Years ago I had Malcolm Gladwell as a speaker after he finished Inflection point, and he was one of the first to popularize the word. And he called me connector. The thing is, I got Gladwell to come because his friend, [Globe and Mail journalist] Ian Brown, he was also my friend. At my book launch event, we had 600 people and Ian interviewed me. “So you have four or five thousand people on your email list,” he asked me. How many are friends? “And I said, 4,500 and I meant it. And you could see everyone’s faces go that… What my answer tells me is that I work very hard to maintain and deepen my friendships, even when that becomes too much for my friends and for me too. My inner drive to bring people together is insistent, based on the idea that since I like A and I like B, they will like each other. It’s just who I am.