|Toni Lawson and her husband F. Wyatt Lawson,|
flank Groucho Marx.
Toni Lawson, vibrant personality and 50 year resident of Coconut Grove, who stirred things up from her birth in 1922, died in her home last Wednesday. She was 93.
Mix the hard grit of Bette Davis with the sophisticated pizzazz of Rosalind Russell and the madcap hilarity of Lucille Ball and you might approximate, but never reproduce, the complex cocktail that was Toni Lawson. A child of the Depression determined to make a banquet of life, and a churchgoer with a healthy respect for a good martini, her career included the roles of mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, wife, pre-feminism feminist, secretary, biology teacher, artist’s model and so many more.
She never quite made it to Broadway, but she had all the instincts.
Her laughter was brash, loud, unstoppable and infectious. Her laugh enlisted and contorted every possible known facial muscle. Once triggered, the laughter would grow on itself, each wave mounting on the last until she ran out of breath and she finally wound down, panting and exhausted, helplessly wiping tears from her eyes.
A captivating beauty in her twenties, she enjoyed the swirl of Washington DC social life, falling eventually for handsome submarine lieutenant commander, Francis Wyatt Lawson. They married in 1943 whereupon Wyatt was immediately called into duty while Toni raised her first two children, Jennifer Darby Finlay and Christopher Wyatt Lawson. His return at the end of WWII triggered an arduous series of family moves along the east coast, during which Toni gave birth to son, Gregory Wyatt Lawson. They eventually settled in Coconut Grove, Fl in 1966, with the exception of an exotic two year move to Kingston, Jamaica.
She loved and was proud of her children, and raised them with all the finesse of a pit bull terrier. She licked kleenexes to dab the dirt from their faces, and forced them to church in white shirts and fresh pressed skirts. She herded them to museums, drove them to emergency rooms, and forced them to drive miles to admire Christmas light displays against their will. She was not above having an indoor snowball fight to the death. At times, she could become genuinely ferocious, but somehow all three children, despite everything - the traveling and the tantrums - survived.
Her move into the infamous pink house on Solana Road (whose design was based on an Italian palace) was a crowning achievement. It was here she found stability and flourished, hosting local civic, church and charity events, and developing friendships with, among others, Marjory Stoneman Douglas of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden fame. Here she fought for abortion rights and did charity work for unwed mothers and ventured into the community to do her considerable work for Plymouth Congregational church’s “This ’N That Shop”.
This, along with her penchant for the venerable art of trash-picking, informed her unique decorating style. The house was a gothic masterpiece, integrating years of carved family furniture (replete with gargoyles) re-varnished and re-upholstered “found” treasures, myriad bottles of every shape and size in skilful arrangement (jammed with sweet potato sprouts and peacock feathers), punctuated with ornate, vaguely sinister family portraits and framed collections of everything from mollusks to butterflies, antique clocks of every description and, at one point, an actual working player piano.
In addition to Wyatt and the children, she loved her pets, giving her dogs memorable names such as “Beauregard”, and “Dulcinea” and memorably dubbed a cat “Piewacket”. She had a squirrel monkey called “Squeeky” that she frequently had to chase out of rose apple trees or off curtain boxes, to the neighbors’ amusement.
Her language was colorful, though she never swore. She referred to soy sauce as “dragon’s blood”, or, pointing out a hot young thing she’d cluck and say “catch THAT hot patootie!” Things were never “just fine”; they were “ginger peachy”, “copacetic”, “simpatico”, “comme si, comme ca” or, more ironically, she’d judge that things were “just James Dandy”, when they were obviously anything but. And if, in the course of one of her comedic monologues, one mistakenly assumed one had been referred to, she’d blurt out, “Not you, pieface!”.
Such verbal mannerisms peppered her ongoing cocktail party chatter, parties memorable for the never-ending rivers of laughter bubbling forth, bouncing off the pink walls and reflecting off the pool’s surface, while jasmine and gardenias filled the air, and candles burned. As the night wore on, as the guests thinned to a privileged few, Toni developed deep and lasting friendships dispensing heartfelt advice over the final dregs.
Though adept at grabbing a good time when it was there to be had, Toni also suffered through the Great Depression, raised her children with a husband at war, battled her own internal demons and at times lashed out through the scars. During such periods she would ruminate, “I guess you can’t have the highs without the lows”.
Toni Lawson decided to go for the whole enchilada and ran the gamut.
The house, large as it was, could barely contain the Toni-and-Wyatt relationship, which was both fiercely loving and fiercely contentious. Their strong wills and differing personality types clashed grandly but, as is so often the case, this led to mutual admiration even in the midst of battle. To the end they deeply supported each other.
Dominating the largest wall in the house was a huge formal museum portrait of Toni Lawson, matriarch, Wyatt's lasting gift to his beloved wife.
Her final years were devastated first by the loss of her husband to cancer, after which, still in the process of grieving, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
The disease may have changed Toni’s ball game, but her shining blue intelligent eyes lingered as long as possible.
She didn’t want to miss a thing.
Toni Lawson is survived by her daughter, Jennifer Darby Lawson Finlay, and her two sons, Christopher Wyatt Lawson and Gregory Wyatt Lawson, as well as her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.