GENERAL ARTICLES

"Montreal Is the Town for Me"

Paris . . . London . . . Rome . . . New York . . . This writer tried them all, but it’s Montreal she loves

ELIZABETH LEESE July 15 1947
GENERAL ARTICLES

"Montreal Is the Town for Me"

Paris . . . London . . . Rome . . . New York . . . This writer tried them all, but it’s Montreal she loves

ELIZABETH LEESE July 15 1947

"Montreal Is the Town for Me"

ELIZABETH LEESE

HUGH KEMP

MONTREAL is the town for me.

I have lived in many places—Hamburg, Paris, Berlin, London, Rome, Zurich, New York, Toronto and Ottawa among them—and Montreal is my city. I love it for many reasons: because it is a city on a hill; because there are soft undertones of Paris along its grey streets and ocean ships at anchor along miles of harbor, and because there are peasants and their wagons in a great market place. I love it for the liquid sound of French which comes murmuring up to my ears in the theatres and cafes.

If you can ascribe sex to a city, set down Montreal as male, and a very complex character indeed. It is mature; old enough to lie interesting to a grown-up woman but. not so old that it has to live in the past. It is cultured and loves good theatre and fine music; and it can go off on a wild Saturday night tear and end up a little pale in Child’s for coffee. It is as charming as the popular concept of the French seigneur; as worldly as Dorval Airport. It has elements of genius lying side by side with depths of crime equalled by few cities in this hemisphere.

It has the reputation of a gay dog among its American friends.

Montreal is not always rational but is unfailingly exciting.

From t he beginning I was comfortable in its atmosphere. Our psyches belonged together.

My muscles discovered it first they are the first thing about me to respond to the atmosphere of a city. In Toronto my shoulders ride up tens«1 and the back of my neck gets stiff. In Montreal I relax and go about with a kind of free swing.

The atmosphere of Montreal is a composite of many elements. Over-all it is cosmopolitan.

It is a port city and t here is an attitude common to port cities, a worldliness, a breadth of vision that results from the coming and going of men of many nations. You feel it in Montreal as you do in New York, San Francisco and Valparaiso, Chile.

Montreal has been a jrort city since the age of sails and muskets. Today it’s also an airport city and this too conditions its atmosphere. Wings of the world descend on Dorval Airport.

Certain institutions lend color and sharpness to the international character of the city. McGill University draws students from the length of the hemisphere. The International Labor Office and the International Civil Aviation Organization both have headquarters in the city. The CBC short wave studios employ a small but bright international set and half a hundred world trading Canadian firms do business through the city.

The atmosphere is also in the buildings, and particularly those of the old city; in them lurks Montreal’s eventful past. The flags of three countries have been raised here during three hundred years, and the ideas of a dozen nations expressed in the architecture.

Vermont in Your Window

LIKE what the eye sees of Montreal.

Cities have their colors. To me Rome is a red terra cotta and a reflected blue of the sky. Zurich is a kind of chocolate brown. Rio sparkles like a box of jewels. Havana is pure white. New York from above is pastel blocks of red and green and blue. Halifax is black.

Montreal is grey as an old convent. In summer it is grey and green, and in the wonderful Canadian autumn, grey and scarlet.

Too, Montreal is a hill city, and there is something Special about hill cities; a unique satisfaction of the eye’s longing for a third dimension. In the flat cities you live constantly in a close-up, limited

by I he walls of whatever street you may be on. In Montreal the broader horizon is ever with you. f rom almost any level you can see another part of the city spreading beneath you or soaring above you and, if you wish, your window can command the river and the green fields that roll to Vermont.

From the upper levels you can see Montreal whole—one of the big cities of the western hemisphere. You can see the mountainside mansions among the trees, twenty-room homes sustained on $50,000 a year; the sprawling shacks of St. Henri, where $20 a week is a good income; the vertical lines of the new commercial buildings; the factories of the east; the Catholic sky line of a thousand churches and convents; and the infinity of flats and apartments on the perimeter which could be suburbia anywhere in North America.

I am a ballet dancer by profession; an artist by inclination. I live with my husband in a small apartment at the head of University Street, in the shadow of the great Neurological Institute and rubbing shoulders with the fraternity houses of McGill. We are in what I guess you call the middleincome brackets, and we are neither café society, nor suburbanites. We love good theatre and good music and little art showings. We thrive on the occasional wing-ding in a good club with quiet service and crisp linen and, as I said, Montreal is the town for us.

Most of all we love Montreal’s people; individuals milling about our apartment and a whole million of them in the background. Continued on page 55

Paris . . . London . . . Rome . . . New York . . . This writer tried them all, but it’s Montreal she loves

Continued from page 12

There is a school of homespun philosophy which has it that people are pretty much the same anywhere. I repudiate that completely. Individuals are as varied and as complex as the mass which produces them. And in Montreal the mass is a complex pudding indeed.

Primarily it is French—Montreal is second only to Paris among the Frenchspeaking cities of the world. It was French from the beginning. The French wrested it from the wilderness; gave it religion and a warm emotional climate.

The English and the Scots were mixed in during the late 1700’s; cold

and shrewd; able to build and trade and manage.

The Irish came in tens of thousands just over a hundred years ago, running before the plague in “coffin ships,” bringing St. Patrick’s Day and the little people and a wonderful romanticism.

The Jews were added in the early 1900’s, refugees from the whips of the Cossacks and the brutal Black Hundreds; they became tailors and pawnbrokers and brilliant professional men.

The mass migrations of the 1920’s broughtPoles, Russians, Czechoslovaks, Greeks and Scandinavians.

And all of these, except for the Jews and two small groups of Chinese and negroes, have mixed and blended in many ways. They have merged race legends and temperaments and have fitted into the thousand occupations of Montreal. Now they eddy and swir

about us and constantly buoy us up.

From the million we have been able to borrow a hundred for our own; among them a French-Canadian novelist, a Spanish psychiatrist, a girl who designs fabrics, a French comedian, half a dozen journalists, a Jewish professor, several teachers and a sprinkling of business people.

They are our Montrealers, and partly because of them I like to live here.

The core of life to me is theatre and music. Without these I am starved. 1 am happy with Montreal because it permits me to feast on both. It has the theatres, it has the artists—domestic and imported—and it has audiences who know when to hoot and holler and when to applaud.

Montreal has been a theatre town from way back. Charles Dickens acted in its Theatre Royale on his visit to Canada and in the last century it enjoyed Sarah Bernhardt and Sir Henry Irving, as well as travelling companies from New Orleans and France. It was also a hot town for burlesque and the travelling circus.

Today it still gets the travelling companies and concert performers. This past season I saw the John Gielguid Company, the Wolfit Company, the Joos Ballet, Ruth Draper and a road company of “Oklahoma.” As well, I took in a number of fine productions by Montreal’s own English companies, notably a magnificent “King Lear” and a beautiful “Romeo and Juliet” done by the Shakespeare Society, and an exciting “Amphitryon 38” by the Montreal Repertory Theatre.

Audience Helps Performer

Most exciting of all to me, after four years in Toronto and one in Ottawa, has been to hear the French language spoken again across a stage. Montreal is the only city in Canada which straddles Canada’s two cultures.

And the French companies are good. I remember with a thrill of pleasure Les Compagnons du St. Laurent’s (this year’s Festival award winners) production of “Bal de Voleurs” and L’Equipe’s splendid “ Huis-Clos.” And gayest of all there is the roaring annual revue of Fridolin, the brilliant FrenchCanadian comedian. Where else in Canada is such wonderfully original satire done by a professional company?

Montreal has the usual motion picture theatres for Hollywood’s produce—but in addition it has the Cinema de Paris where the best of France’s films are shown. I am still hung-over from “Symphonie Pastorale,” a magnificent film made from a story of Andre Gide and featuring Michele Morgan and Pierre Blanchar.

Musically, Montreal is one of the foremost cities in the western hemisphere. There is rarely a night in the year in Montreal when you can’t find at least one concert by an orchestra or an outstanding soloist.

During the winter I enjoy the concerts of Les Concerts Symphoniques (seats now sold three years in advance), and through the summer I sit among 12,000 at the Chalet on top of Mount Royal mountain and hear a full symphony band conducted by such distinguished musicians as Rosario Bourdon, Sir Ernest MacMillan. Wilfrid Pelletier and Jean Marie Beaudet.

To me there is much more to a Montreal concert than just what takes place on stage. There is also a particularly pleasant rapport between stage and audience. It is nice to be part of an audience which knows its music; you are spared the embarrassment of misplaced applause or unjustified enthusiasms. Montreal’s bravos are given only when a performance truly merits

them and that is a highly satisfactory condition for both artist and connoisseur.

For this I thank the warm Latin temperament of Quebec’s French population, and the classical form of education which has been a distinction of this province and which has been too much berated by the “business is business” boys.

You Can Dine Well

The club, the good eating house and the small bar also have their place in my Montreal. In my Ontario years I tried my best to bounce good talk over the hard tables of glass-fronted restaurants, but to no avail. The bright, conversation and the intimate chat spring more readily from the joie de vivre inherent in several good cocktails. Particularly after a day’s work, and among new people.

Montreal knows this, so to the palate and the slightly bubbly head it dedicates a w'hole area of the city as well as many wonderful outlying oases. Along the side streets from Guy to Peel and from Sherbrooke down to Dorchester are rowr on row of old converted houses with grey stone fronts and crisp white linen and red leather and superb tables.

There are enough of them and that is important. You never have to repeat yourself unless you wish to, nor run the risk of banging into yesterday’s mood.

For myself I like the Embassy Club in the Windsor Hotel. It’s old enough and good enough and you don’t encounter too many Bright Young Things. The people there—particularly during the international conferences—all look as though they had business in a big hotel and ate and drank well because they knew the difference.

For a slap-happier mood I like Slitkin and Slotkin’s on Dorchester Street, where the waiters make a gag of badgering the customers, but still manage to get a good steak down in front of you. And then there’s Drury’s for steaks and roast supreme and for old English oak, and the Chop House on St. Catherine where the main course comes up to you on a wooden platter and the Samovar on Peel for the occasional dance act that I used to see around Europe. And so many others for so many different reasons.

Walk Through the Centuries

When I am not working, or going to the theatre, or being the gourmet in a downtown eatery, I love to walk. I am a browser by nature and Montreal is most rewarding to those who take it on foot.

On a Friday morning, when the big liners are sailing to “Auld Lang Syne,” the water front is my particular heaven. Ten miles of harbor here, of concrete and cobblestone and the wood and tin of the loading sheds. (This is the largest grain shipping port in the world, the book tells me, and the second busiest port on the continent.)

When I see the gulls wheeling over the Jacques Cartier Bridge, and smell the ropes that have dipped in the seven seas and hear the rattle of the donkey engines, some part of my soul is transported. Perhaps it’s because I am reminded of a happy childhccd around the free port of Hamburg—which city knew even better than Montreal the possibilities for pleasant living in a good harbor. There we had fine old shops and restaurants on the cpen squares just off the quays.

I love the whole area just back from Montreal’s water front, where the cld city stood and still stands in goed part; where the oldest building—the Chateau

de Ramezay—dates from the early seventeen hundreds. The Sailor’s Church is here with its candles in model ships and here too are the importer’s shops, tumbling along the narrow streets and smelling of spices and bearing names like the one that enchants me most, Aboosamra Kouri.

And Bonsecours Market is here with its sharp pleasant reminder of France. The hundred peasants with their highpiled wagons who come in from the surrounding farm lands could be right out of the old country. Here again I am assailed by nostalgia—in Paris we used to go down to the big market at four in the morning and eat onion soup and watch thecountry women going by with great cheeses on their heads.

Back to Montreal and my browsing.

I avoid St. James Street, and this is personal. The tycoons of the banks and the brokerage houses and their long black limousines depress me utterly. But I love Craig Street from the Champ de Mars along to McGill Street; the endless row of pawnshops and secondhand stores with their crazy windows of old watches and musical instruments.

For a change of mood sometimes I walk up Saint Lawrence Main, melodramatic street of painted and animated theatre signs (the monster devouring the terrified blonde), and dark doors that open onto long flights of stairs and drab one-room night clubs. Here begins the east end, and here the men are shorter and their suits are sharper.

I carefully skirt St. Catherine Street; meeting place of cigar stores, drug counters, movie houses and departmental stores. It was put together from the same design as every main street in the country and you have to look at a street sign to know which city you’re in.

In my more cosmopolitan moods I choose Sherbrooke Street from Guy to University, a broad thoroughfare which is rapidly becoming Montreal’s Fifth Avenue. Back from its sidewalks are yesterday’s fine old homes, now bankrupt and converted to swish little shops in very good taste. Here stroll the tailored ladies with their pointed dogs, and the young bucks from McGill dodge into the lounge of the Berkeley and the Ritz Bar. Here, too, is the row of bedside-manner specialists ( $10 a visit), and the most lavish of the downtown apartments (two stories, ten rooms, 400 a month and on up). And finally the churches of the rich, the Art Gallery, and the tranquil groundsof McGill.

The Exciting Past

Walking in Montreal, I am always conscious of the city’s past. It is written on the city’s face and it is interesting and is not essentially negative as I used to find it in many cities of Europe.

The history of Montreal is turbulent, contradictory, always dramatic.

First the Indians had it, and there is nothing left of them but the plaques which mark their massacres. Then in the 1640’s, the French missionaries and fur traders came, planting the fleurde-lis; and after them the merchants from New York and Boston who knew a good thing when they saw it. There were even some British in those days, soldiers mostly, who were ransomed from the Indians who had captured them south of the border.

In September of 1760 a British army, hot from victory at Quebec City, marched through the streets of Montreal and replaced the fleur-de-lis with the Union Jack. In the winter of ’75 and ’76 soldiers of the American Continental Congress took over the city; delivered its inhabitants from the

British yoke and replaced the Union Jack with the stripes (but no stars). But the inhabitants were indifferent to deliverance and the American Army went home mad—and with British regiments just behind them.

In the 1780’s English Montreal began to grow around a core of such respectable names as McGill, Frobisher, Mackenzie, McTavish. The men bearing these names married French girls, learned to think in both languages, and dominated half a continent with their trading genius.

The War of 1812 expanded the city as a commercial centre. The 1820’s brought prosperity, and the 30’s and 40’s ghastly plagues followed by depression and political riots. The authorities imposed martial law, and beatings, prison terms, exile and hangings. In 1849 angry crowds gathered on the Champ de Mars, marched on Parliament (Montreal was then the capital city), burned it to the ground and chased the governor out of town.

During the American Civil War the city took sides; some genteel Montrealers wore grey in sympathy with the old South, and well-bred refugees formedthenucleusesof Southern circles. In a water front hotel stayed John Wilkes Booth a few weeks before he went south to assassinate Lincoln.

The late 1800’s built Millionaire’s Row, the mansions of the railway builders, the brewers, the bankers and the merchants.

In the 1920’s came the 20-story buildings, and new factories spreading east along the river. The 30’s saw block-long bread lines near these factories, and the Fascist troops of Adrien Arcand marching through the east end, and padlocks on doors where books were suspect.

Now the 40’s and prosperity again and great yellow blocks of apartments going up in the suburbs for Montreal’s new cliff dwellers.

The Country Is Near

I like to live in Montreal because of the number of escapes to the country it permits.

Twenty-five minutes from Windsor Station by commuting train you can be on the shores of Lake St. Louis, with excellent golfing on one hand and freshwater sailing on the other. And along the shore of the lake is a winding road and a number of clubs for dining and dancing on a summer evening.

East from the city on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River are historic old villages like Boucherville and Varennes. Often on week ends we cycle there, stopping to explore the stone houses of the early settlers, many of them now abandoned and waiting for modern hands to revive them.

In winter we go north to the Laurentians—two hours by ski special—to the snow villages with their colorful pensions, and to the ski trails that wind through the hills between Ste. Agathe, Val Morin, Ste. Marguerite, Ste. Adèle, St. Sauveur and the others.

Finally, I love the city for its melodrama. Every noon I buy the tabloid Herald to get in on the doings of the gangsters and the crime busters.

The city never lets me down: gambler shoots night club owner and confesses in a newspaper office; police break into old barn and discover cockfighting ring; the Mayor announces appointment of a new vice squad chief who in turn announces a new antivice crusade; gangsters tremble before wrath of new commissioner.

It’s all kind of corny, and I should be ashamed of myself, but it is Montreal, and as I said, this is the town for me; not always rational but unfailingly exciting, it