Obituary: Tom Fidelo, American actor turned Edinburgh art dealer

Thomas Anthony Fidelo, art dealer. Born: October 22 1932 in New York City. Died: 31 August 2020, aged 87

Tom Fidelo was a popular art dealer
Tom Fidelo was a popular art dealer

Although he was 87, the death on 31 August this year of Tom Fidelo came as a deep shock to his network of friends throughout the arts world in Edinburgh and beyond. A second shock to many was the realisation that the Covid regulations meant they could not attend his funeral.

Tom had arrived in the Scottish capital from his native New York in 1964, after he and his wife, the actress Eileen McCallum, had been invited by Tom Fleming, the director of the city’s Lyceum theatre company, to join his repertory company. Tom Fleming had seen the couple performing in an off-Broadway production and recognised the talent in both. From the moment he set foot in Edinburgh, a place which he came to adore, Tom Fidelo began establishing himself as an integral part of its artistic infrastructure.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Edinburgh in the early 1960s was not the vibrant pre-Covid metropolitan city of today. Even the magnificent New Town was neglected and run down. Although not quite a burgh of commercial Calvinists of Hugh McDiarmid’s caricature, the law and the church were the pre-eminent institutions. Talent tended to be lured away to the bright lights of London, or America.

So it was refreshing that in Tom’s case, much needed talent was immigrating, not emigrating. Tom with his thick black wavy hair and Tony Curtis looks was invariably the most striking man in a room. He also brought with him an exotic past illuminated by an inexhaustible fund of amusing stories. Before being drafted into the military during the Korean War, Tom was well on his way to becoming a successful professional jazz player, the tenor saxophone being his weapon of choice. Playing in gigs in New York he had met most of the greats of the genre, including Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker. Although the military wrecked his jazz career, his experiences in the ranks only added to his cache of stories – stories about being sent to a boot camp in North Carolina because of perceived insolence, about jumping out of aeroplanes as a trainee paratrooper, about being inspected before one such jump by the legendary General William Westmoreland, who in 1964 was made commander of all US forces in Vietnam.

By the late 1960s Tom’s life seemed settled. He had trained as an actor in the Glasgow College of Dramatic Art, where he had first met his wife Eileen, a fellow student. Starting his professional acting career in the Lyceum, Tom enjoyed a good few years as a successful theatre and film actor, graduating eventually into directing for television and theatre. With three children, and a fourth just around the corner, Tom and Eileen were settled in a basement flat in his beloved Drummond Place and had a network of friends including Brian Cox, Tom Conti, William MacTaggart, Sir Compton Mackenzie, Sidney Goodsir Smith and a host of others.

However, unlike some, Tom was never a driven actor. He was not even that sure how he had become an actor. And he was certainly not impressed with the “Method” of Stanislavsky, which, by that time, seemed to have taken over acting on both sides of the Atlantic. Tom’s acting heroes were Laurence Olivier – very much an outside-in man, and on the other side of the Atlantic, the most versatile performer of them all, a Vaudeville-trained song and dance man and astonishingly powerful dramatic actor, James Cagney.

Perhaps it was an attempt to find again the aesthetic fulfilment he thought he had lost when he gave up playing jazz, but Tom decided to reinvent himself one more time in his late thirties. He had found a mystical enchantment in Edinburgh, which outsiders often intuit more than locals. This enchantment and a keen eye had made him increasingly aware of the beauty of the visual arts, leading him to immerse himself in the history and all the various philosophies of painting. Armed with this self-taught knowledge, Tom opened a Gallery at 49 Cumberland Street, which he had converted out of an old greengrocer’s shop.

There, for several decades, he dealt in art and antiques and put on exhibitions, making it a go-to place for collectors as well as the plain curious. Tom’s Gallery became a cornerstone of the art “quarter” in Edinburgh and Tom himself a pillar of that community.

But more than that, anyone who paid a visit to his Gallery was met not only with a warm welcome but by a plain-talking, down to earth yet educated, New Yorker with not a single deferential bone in his body.

Although financially precarious, Tom found his reinvented life deeply satisfying. All his intellectual, aesthetic and practical talents could come together with his prodigious social skills to maximum effect, allowing him to make a living while enjoying life. And of course, answering to no one!

Thomas Anthony Fidelo was born in Queens, New York on October 22 1932, to Italian and Irish parents.

Tom and Eileen divorced in 1997. He leaves four children, Mark, Neal, Sarah and Tim, and several grandchildren, as well as his partner for the last 12 years, Margo Cumming, and her family.

JOHN ST CLAIR