Ian Tyson’s affair to remember

Evinia Pulos explains why, after 55 years, they are still inextricably linked

An affair to remember

The strains of the song are there in his letter. Ambivalence. Regret. Above all, longing. “I’m not coming back,” Ian Tyson wrote to Evinia Pulos in September 1960, two years before he penned the folk classic Four Strong Winds. “This is where I’ll make my mark if I’m to make it at all.” She could come join him in Toronto, he ventures, where he is carving out a creditable career in the city’s nascent coffee-house scene. “If you loved me, you could [make it here] too,” he writes. He cajoles, lectures and eventually pleads. But ultimately, he bows to the improbability of their shared future, signing off with a half-formed invitation: “Maybe I’ll see you down here some time.”

A more lyrical formulation of that thought—“I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way”—would become the rueful coda to Four Strong Winds, which CBC Radio listeners in 2005 voted the greatest Canadian song of the 20th century. It is a phrase imprinted on the nation’s soul. But for Pulos its meaning is personal. She was, after all, the dark-eyed beauty Tyson had in mind when he hunched over a guitar in his manager’s New York apartment and put his thoughts to music. The two had met in art college in Vancouver in the mid-1950s. She was 18 and he was 22. Their chemistry was instantaneous, but complications ensued. In 1957, they parted company.

Now, 50 years after the song was written, Pulos reveals a stunning corollary. Through nearly six decades and a combined six marriages, across thousands of kilometres that until recently separated them, she and Tyson have been carrying on an epic love affair—a physical and emotional bond that lasts to this day. “Basically, we’ve come full circle,” she says in an interview from her home in Kelowna, B.C. “We’re in each other’s lives for whatever we have left. He’ll embark on various relationships or affairs, but they don’t last. He always comes back and calls me.”

Tyson, now 78, declined interview requests for this story. But in a recently released book, he describes Pulos as his “soulmate” and acknowledged that their emotional connection continued after they went separate ways. “We’ve been lovers for 55 years,” he told John Einarson, author of Four Strong Winds: Ian & Sylvia. “How many people can say that?”

Their attachment has caused others pain. The letters, the phone calls and the furtive hotel trysts that went on over decades were not the secret they thought. Ian’s ex-wife and former musical partner Sylvia Tyson described Pulos as “the third person in our marriage,” borrowing a phrase from Princess Di. Yet Pulos, now 74, says the depth of this attachment cannot be understood outside the story of their troubled early days in B.C.—and their mutual belief they would never feel as strongly for anyone as they do for each other. “Without sounding maudlin,” she says, “it really is a love story.”

Vancouver in 1955 would be unrecognizable to its current inhabitants. You could drink at a beer parlour but not dance or sing—activities seen as gateways to dissolution. The beatnik movement was a rumour, and the term “hippie” was not yet in use. So the free-spirited students of the Vancouver School of Art tended to stand out, and keep to themselves. “We went everywhere together,” says Mary Spain, one of the students. “We were all very close friends. We had a lot of parties together and there were a few couples who got together.”

Not long after Pulos arrived that fall, Spain pointed out a sleepy-eyed boy in the year ahead of them. A few weeks later, as the gang piled into Pulos’s Chevy Impala for an afternoon outing, he slid in next to her and introduced himself. “I can’t say why, but it was just a given that we were going to be together from then on,” she recalls. “We just clicked.”

Pulos had left behind a traditional Greek family in her hometown of Vernon, B.C. Her father Curly, a successful restaurateur, had sent her off with a sobering admonition: “If you get into trouble, don’t come back. You will no longer be my daughter.” And get into trouble she did. The following year she got pregnant, and she and Tyson began frantically searching for a way to terminate the pregnancy. “It was a terrible, terrible time,” she recalls. “Where would we find the money? How do you find a doctor? How do you go about getting an abortion in Vancouver in the 1950s, for Christ’s sake?”

Tyson bought a ring in case they couldn’t find a willing physician. Pulos wore it and the pair took out a marriage licence. But in the end, her gynecologist took pity, giving Pulos the name of a doctor who had lost his medical credentials years earlier for performing abortions. He was running a proverbial “back alley” practice out of his Vancouver home, and she spent two days there before returning to her rented room to await Tyson. “I remember him coming in, taking three and four stairs at a time,” she says. “When he saw me, he just threw himself on the bed and cried.”

They emerged shell-shocked—too rattled, perhaps, to navigate the normal shoals of a young relationship. By then, Tyson had taken an interest in music, bashing out guitar chords at late-night parties and channelling the sounds of Johnny Cash. He drank heavily, says Pulos, and in time his attention swung toward a redhead named Elaine Smith, another student at the art college. “When Evinia found out about my shenanigans [with Smith], she broke it off and split for California without finishing art school,” Tyson recalls in his 2010 memoir The Long Trail, which contains a brief section on the period. “She was very hurt.”

Tyson hitchhiked to Los Angeles in the spring of 1958 in a vain attempt to win her back. Two summers later, they met again at a hotel in Vancouver, where he implored her to come join him in Toronto. By then, he had all but abandoned his aspirations to work as a graphic artist, and was making a healthy $250 a week playing folk songs in the coffeehouses of Toronto’s bohemian Yorkville district. “You might just love [Toronto], but you’d have to give it a fair trial,” he urged Pulos in his letter of September 1960. “Just think what it might be like if you actually take to it.”

Pulos, however, had embarked on a life that would lead over the next three years to California, then back to B.C. and the first of her four marriages. Yet both carried around a sense of loss. In the fall of 1962, Tyson holed up in his manager Albert Grossman’s New York flat and—as he put it in his memoirs—let his mind drift “back west to open country and my beautiful Greek girl from the Okanagan Valley.” He had for the past three years been singing alongside Sylvia Fricker, a masterful harmonizer from Chatham, Ont. They became Canada’s celebrity duo, appearing together on the cover of Maclean’s in August 1965. Sylvia’s vocal part on the much-covered Four Strong Winds would make theirs the definitive version. They married in 1964, but Pulos was never far from Ian’s mind.

In 1966, Tyson invited Evinia to visit him in New York, where she met the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary. “He and Sylvia had this unbelievably horrible apartment in New York,” she recalls. “There was an old clawfoot bathtub in the living room, with a piece of plywood on top of it. They used it for a table. They were that poor. But Ian and I would meet there all the time.”

Today, Pulos ponders the effect of the unwanted pregnancy on her and Tyson’s lives. It unleashed emotions they couldn’t control, scuttling a potentially viable marriage, she says. But she’s not sure any live-in arrangement between the two of them would have lasted. In its stead, they had mutual sorrow, which can be a powerful emotional glue. “Maybe the experience is what has bound us together all these years,” she says.

At her home near Kelowna—an expanded lakeshore cabin less than an hour’s drive from where she grew up—Pulos curates the mementos of that life, and others that followed. There are dozens of Tyson’s letters. There is a photo of Jack Bruce, a former roommate of Tyson’s from Calgary whom she married on a whim in 1963. They’d had a summer fling that turned serious, and Tyson, she says, had phoned from Toronto the day of the wedding, begging her to back out. He told her that Bruce, an engineer and downhill ski star, was the wrong person for her. “I’ll see,” she recalls telling Tyson. “But I went ahead with the wedding, and I didn’t see Ian again for years.”

Her life then became a whirlwind: during her years in California, she had found her way onto the periphery of the Hollywood crowd, and got a bit part in a Frankie Avalon vehicle, Beach Blanket Bingo. She met stars like Vincent Price, Yul Brynner and John Wayne. She and Bruce moved briefly to Toronto, where Pulos had her only child, a son, but the relationship soured and he took a job in Houston. She moved there to ensure Bruce would have access to the boy, and was soon drawn into the city’s oil-fuelled social whorl. She divorced in 1969, and did a photo shoot around that time for Playboy—only to persuade the magazine at the last minute not to publish the images. “My friends in Houston told me I’d be ostracized,” she says. “I didn’t see the big deal.”

She has never had a great affinity for Tyson’s music—her tastes lean more to progressive rock. But she could never stay away from the man himself. Sometime in the late 1960s, the pair re-established contact, and began to meet. “We were both cheating on whoever we were with,” Pulos says matter-of-factly. “We always did.” In 1975, the Tysons divorced, and Ian began reinventing himself as a cowboy singer. He moved to Alberta, bought a ranch near the foothills town of Longview, and set about becoming a serious horseman. On trips to Texas, whether shopping for horses or playing music, he would meet up with Pulos in hotels. Even after he married Twylla Biblow, a younger woman he met at Ranchman’s cabaret in Calgary, the affair went on.

Pulos tells these stories with neither regret nor triumphalism. Through three more of her own marriages, she says, she felt locked in a “wicked game” with Tyson, where one would tempt the other, and they’d wait to see who buckled first. Pulos’s cousin and lifelong confidant, Pauline Boone, says Pulos was no homewrecker. “I don’t think any of her marriages ended because of infidelity,” she says. Yet Evinia was strangely stubborn where her relationship with Tyson was concerned, adds Boone. “Even at games like Scrabble, she hated to lose or fail, and it was as if she felt the same way about Ian. She didn’t want to give up on the relationship.”

Certainly more elemental forces lay behind the mind games. “With us, it was always a very physical thing,” Pulos says. “Ian will make reference to this very day to the great attraction we had.” There was also admiration. “He’s very funny, very clever and he speaks very well,” she says. “When he goes on concert tours he brings himself down to do the cowboy talk. But he has a great command of the English language. He reads all the time. He has a huge library.”

Why, then, don’t they simply move in together? Why spend the rest of their lives sublimating what had all the hallmarks of true love? One reason is Pulos’s distaste for country living. Tyson, who divorced again in 2008, has invited her several times to come live with him on his 640-acre spread, she says. But, in keeping with the spirit of Four Strong Winds, she always declined. “I was never meant for that life—a house in the middle of nowhere with nothing on the horizon.” Another explanation lies in Tyson’s well-publicized struggles with the bottle. About that, too, Pulos doesn’t mince words: “He’s a mean drunk, and he always has been.”

So these days they’ll go months without seeing one another (they last met more than a year ago). Yet they speak once a week or more by phone, and few subjects are off limits. When Tyson took an interest a few years back in a woman from Denver, Pulos acted as a sounding board. Around the same time, she spoke to him about a man she’d met and admired. He got terse with her, but eventually admitted that he was feeling jealous. By the end of the conversation, he was laughing at himself.

Neither romance came to much, and last week it occurred to Pulos that, outside of her family, Tyson is the person she has known longest. Their stories are now inextricably linked—in music and in life—and when she hears Four Strong Winds it elicits a response familiar to anyone haunted by a love they thought they’d left behind. “It can make me melancholy and, depending on my mood, even depressed,” she says. “It just brings back so many memories.”

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