Harvey Sobel who died last month wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in this mouth but his family was better off than most Jewish families in Hamilton in the 1930’s and as a result he was able to develop a sense of style and taste that set him apart from his peers; although arguably Harvey Sobel had no peers. Harvey was not much of a student—one of his friends said he didn’t finish high school. As a teen he told his father that he wanted to work his way over to Europe on a steamer; but his dad, a sometime prosperous clothier who made and lost three fortunes due to gambling, said “no, the only way would be to go first class on the Queen Elizabeth.” The passage ended up being on the Empress of Australia, but once in London, Harvey headed for the Kensington Palace Hotel in the middle of London’s art gallery district. This was the beginning of a career in home design and antiques that would make Harvey Sobel a sought-after consultant in North America and Europe. On the first of what would be numerous trips to Europe, young Harvey went n a buying spree for antiques and textiles—all of which were charged to his father back home. Harvey brought his new taste for all things French back to Hamilton. For the rest of his life Harvey would surround himself with French Empire furniture, textiles, porcelain and art works. Harvey’s fancies were indulged by his parents. When they went away on holidays they would return to find parts of the house unrecognizable after Harvey had finished decorating them. One story goes that his parents purchased a piano hoping Harvey would take lessons; something Sobel had no intention of doing. When the senior Sobel’s went away on another holiday, they returned to find the piano gone (Harvey had sold it) and instead a staircase had been installed where the instrument had been.
In the mid 1950’s homosexuality was unacceptable virtually everywhere and, to put it mildly, Hamilton was no exception. As many gay men did in that era and much later, Harvey tried marriage and he and his wife had two sons. But the union ended and Harvey found himself starting over again, essentially broke. He had started his working life as a florist and later he opened an antique store on Augusta Street. Soon the store became a Mecca for the matrons of wealthy Hamilton families. Harvey believed that a group of them helped kick-start his business by engaging in a sympathetic buying spree shortly after he opened.
The antiques, though, were a sideline to his career as a decorator. “He was a terrific businessman,” remembers Roger Inglis, a friend, one-time next door neighbour and who is co-executor of the estate. “He used his world travels intelligently. He would find people in India who would manufacture rugs to his design, or furniture –makers in Europe who would create period pieces that were more affordable to his clients.”
In his career, Harvey Sobel developed an elite clientele, mostly by word of mouth; designing homes for the wealthy in Hamilton, but also in Toronto, Montreal, New York, the south of France and Florida. Harvey wryly described himself as a “social worker for the rich and the very rich.” As his business prospered, it enabled him to create a lavish home in a converted carriage house on Chilton Place in Hamilton’s fashionable South end and fill it with exquisite furniture, artwork silver and porcelain. In the winter months the house was decked out in rich colours—burnt orange and royal blue, but when spring arrived, Harvey would drape the interiors with white linen and fill the house with glass and crystal. The house became the site of some of the most extravagant parties Hamilton has seen or is likely to ever see again. “He used to throw a dinner party at the end of the Opera Hamilton season (a favorite occasion with Harvey),” said Roger Inglis. “You’ve never seen anything like it—a tent in the back yard, everything catered with more serving staff that you’d normally see at these kind of events, unbelievable food and drink for 120 people—but those opera get-togethers ended after Harvey had gone to bed on an occasion and woke up to find that his wine cellar had been looted.” Still there were countless other dinner parties on Chilton. Roger Inglis recalls one intimate party of that Harvey staged for a prominent Canadian Art historian. “There were only 12 of us and Harvey ordered 5 kilos of beluga caviar,” (one of Harvey’s several gastronomic weaknesses, another being the chocolate souffle that could only be obtained in a certain restaurant on the French Riviera). “We couldn’t finish it off so the next morning Harvey had us all back for scrambled eggs and caviar.”
Long time friend Sondi Goldblatt remembers the many exotic trips she and her husband took with Harvey. “They were wonderful trips—India, Russia…Thailand,” she recalls. When Harvey and his spouse Michael Sahakian married it was at Sondi’s house in Dundas and was presided over by Rabbi Bernard Baskin.
Harvey was the personification of extravagance. There was a legendary story about Harvey renting a villa in Nice France through an agent. When he got to the villa he immediately declared, “I’m not going to stay in that dump,” and promptly found another villa. Barry Sobel was on hand and recalls his uncle pulling up to the house in a station wagon that was completely full of flowers intended to brighten the place up. Dissatisfied with the blinds in the rented villa Harvey paid to have them replaced to his taste, even though he would only be spending a few weeks there. On his 50th birthday Harvey chartered a plane to take a group of friends to Detroit, whence they were all flown to the Riviera for a celebration at Harvey’s favourite restaurant in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Harvey loved cushions. When Barry got married Harvey offered to decorate his nephew’s first home. He presented the newlyweds with an estimate that was almost double their budget. Barry recalls that when they eliminated the myriad of cushions that Harvey proposed, they were back on budget. Harvey would think nothing of spending $400 on a snifter of Armagnac brandy, yet his favourite Scotch was the everyman’s Bells. On a trip to Turkey Harvey came across more than a hundred children who were shoeless and in an act of Tzedakah (loosely translated as an act of anonymous charity), bought shoes for them all.
Harvey generously supported many charities and arts endeavours. In addition to Opera Hamilton, Harvey was also a major booster of the Art Gallery of Hamilton. He was a staunch supporter of heritage building preservation. A close friend said there were only about six people in Hamilton who had given more to charities and the arts over the years.
With his high visibility in Hamilton it came as something of a surprise in 1996, when Harvey abruptly announced he would sell his home on Chilton and his Augusta House store (now on Main Street West), auction off all his treasures and move to Palm Beach Florida to what was supposed to be semi retirement. Sondi Goldblatt recalls that Harvey used to chide her and her husband for going to “flat, drab” Florida every winter. But when he eventually relocated there himself Harvey easily blended in with Palm Beach society including the many wealthy Canadians who had homes there. Spouse Michael Sahakian, a dealer in high end antiques, says he was able to entice Harvey to join the Palm Beach Yacht Club only because Harvey loved the steak tartare served there. In his first years in Florida he also continued his work as a designer and according to friends made a lot of money after leaving Canada.
As fun as he was, Barry recalls, Harvey could be a stickler about manners. As a child, nephew Barry Sobel recalls being forced to sit at Harvey’s dinner table decked out in jacket and tie—an apparent tribute to Harvey’s father who also insisted on formal dining attire. Harvey never forgot losing out on a decorating job early in his career because he was a few minutes late for the appointment. Similarly Harvey would refuse to receive latecomers. As generous as he was, Harvey would nonetheless expect a hand-written thank you note in return—nothing less. A phone call or even a reciprocal gift wouldn’t cut it.
In his final ten years Harvey Sobel, spent most of his time travelling the world with Michael, sometimes returning to Hamilton for visits. Always a Francophile, Harvey popped up in the New York society pages, now affiliated with a group of Americans who raised money to restore the Trois Fontaines Bosquet at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. Michael Sahakian recalls a 7 day movable feast in the French Capital—one day of cocktails at the US embassy, another day of cocktails at the French embassy, then a day of private viewing in Versailles and dinner, followed by a day at the castle of some wealthy benefactors, a brunch at the Petite Trianon and finally a day for the plaque dedication at the fountains. “They had shut the place down, and served us dinner in (the 17th century) L’orangerie, and afterwards we had fireworks over the Palace grounds,” Michael recalled.
In something of an understatement, Harvey Sobel lived life to the fullest. “There is no second act,” he told friends. Whether it was cooking (he was described as cutting edge—one of Canada’s best a friend said), decorating—“one of the most refined senses of beauty that I ever met,” said Inglis, or travelling to Mexico to try out hallucigens as a younger man; reading palms and tarot cards–Harvey Sobel lived on the edge. He was one of the first prominent Hamiltonians to be openly gay; and because of his incredible talent, wit and forceful personality, and because, as a friend put it, “Harvey didn’t take s..t from anybody,” he generated a level of acceptance that would still take years to evolve in other communities. Martin Tosoian, who as a student photographer, took Harvey Sobel’s portrait in 1977 said, “Harvey Sobel was very kind, very generous, a man of exquisite taste who went for the spectacular.” Echoing that sentiment was David Vukmanich who worked in Harvey’s shop, sometimes as a driver, from his teens onward. “There was no bucket list for Harvey. He lived life on his own terms—he probably packed two lifetimes into one.” But David who got to watch Harvey work, also recalled a thoroughly professional consultant and a generous mentor. “If Harvey saw the least bit of talent (in a person) he would take time to…share his knowledge”. On a more practical level “Harvey was the kind of guy who could tell you where to find the best restaurants in any city in the world, and if you tried them you would agree that Harvey was right.” “He was out of a movie, said Barry of his uncle, “when people would come and visit from far away, instead to showing them Niagara Falls, I would take them to see Uncle Harvey.”
In declining health over the past three years Harvey Sobel celebrated his 80th birthday with a serving of steak tartare at the Palm Beach Yacht club. He died a few weeks later in his home. His ashes will be scattered in Palm Beach, Versailles and in Hamilton…a place Harvey Sobel– despite decades of travel to some of the most glamorous places in the world– never forgot. “He was proud to be from Hamilton,” said Barry Sobel.
Written by: John Best