Articles

THE THREE LIVES OF FIORENZA

As socialite hostess at the Metropolitan Opera, as first lady of the Opposition and as a devoted wife and mother, Fiorenza Drew has had plenty of use for her great talent for getting along with people — especially other women

JUNE CALLWOOD June 15 1952
Articles

THE THREE LIVES OF FIORENZA

As socialite hostess at the Metropolitan Opera, as first lady of the Opposition and as a devoted wife and mother, Fiorenza Drew has had plenty of use for her great talent for getting along with people — especially other women

JUNE CALLWOOD June 15 1952

THE THREE LIVES OF FIORENZA

As socialite hostess at the Metropolitan Opera, as first lady of the Opposition and as a devoted wife and mother, Fiorenza Drew has had plenty of use for her great talent for getting along with people — especially other women

JUNE CALLWOOD

THE elegant. Fiorenza Drew, European-born socialite wife of the Progressive Conservative leader George Drew, was perched on the edge of a washbasin in the press room of her husband’s campaign train laughing helplessly as a reporter in the centre of the jammed compartment gave an imitation of a prominent politician— her husband.

“As my wife, who is here with me, has said many times . . .” boomed the reporter sternly. Mrs. Drew was convulsed.

Mrs. Drew is the kind of woman who convulses easily. Her lack of snobbishness leaves her free to laugh when other women would feel insulted. On this occasion, during the 1949 pre-election campaign which took the Drews and their accompanying reporters eighteen thousand miles across the country, Fiorenza rushed back to where her husband was working on a speech to tell him about the performance in the press car. The next day, when the train stopped to take on water and about thirty or forty people gathered around the rear platform to hear Drew speak, the Drews appeared with the hapless reporter between them and forced him to make the address in the Drew style. Mrs.

Drew stood by to fulfill her role as “my wife, who is here with me” and George stood in the crowd, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.

Another time, during the period when Drew was stirring up a rumpus in the House about the quality of the engines in TCA’s North Star aircraft, the Drews were waiting to take off at the Ottawa airport. Mrs. Drew peered out of her window at the offending engines then called out gaily to her husband: “Hey Drewsy, ten bucks we don’t get off the ground!”

She is fondly remembered by reporters on the 1949 campaign who were tired, aching and bored at the end of a cramped plane ride to a remote spot in the northern bush when she stood up brightly amid the grumblings, eyed the waiting crowd and slapped her hat on sideways. “Here we go again,” she told the astounded passengers, “this’ll wow ’em.”

“The sight of Fiorenza, who would be immaculate in a coal mine, with her hat on crooked struck us all so funny,” recalled a reporter, “that we climbed out of that plane beaming like politicians.”

The picture the public has of Mrs. Drew is

framed in servants, mink coats and trusty Cadillacs. Î 1rs. Drew has all of these, and occasionally eats caviar besides, but she also shops in Loblaws, whaled her two children with a hairbrush when they were small, and buys her clothes (which once led New Liberty magazine to list her among the best-dressed women in Canada) in department stores.

Daughter of a Portuguese countess and the Canadian tenor Edward Johnson who became general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Association in New York, Fiorenza Drew has a background of tutors and exclusive schools in Canada, Switzerland and Germany, a brief career as a concert singer, a few years as her father’s hostess in his box at the opera and a fling at acting in a stock company.

As a child she crossed the Atlantic dozens of times, picked up four languages and learned to understand two more, mixed with diplomats, bluebloods and the world’s finest musicians. She bought her clothes in London, Paris, Florence, Toronto and New York. Even her name, which is Italian for her birthplace Florence, is unusual. Tall, slender and slightly Spanish-looking, her greatest talent is with people. Singularly without enemies in a field that breeds feuds, Mrs. Drew is so constructed that she finds it impossible to be unkind.

Her trans-Canada tour with her husband during the 1949 campaign made her heart-shaped face, with its quick infectious smile, known to thousands. She addressed women’s groups in every principal city, visited hospitals, sipped tea in church basel lents and always spoke a few words when her husband had finished his main address. In German communities she spoke German, in Italian communities she spoke Italian (her first language) and in Quebec she spoke flawless French.

She always referred to her husband by his first name, an informal touch that won them both friends, and once, speaking in French, she enchanted her audience by calling him “my man” instead of “my husband.” Her devotion to her husband was evident. “I don’t suppose I would have chosen politics,” she told one interviewer, “but George chose it and I chose George— so here I am.” Fiorenza’s speeches never touched on the party line “that’s my husband’s job”-—but followed a pattern, urging women to “get the most for what you spend in government as in everything else” and not to leave the voting for the men. Her

poise and charm left a strong impression and it was felt, before election day, that she was an enormous asset to Drew and the party. The only bad moment of the entire campaign occurred at Sudbury when a few people scattered through a large crowd began to boo her feehly; they had been booing George lustily moments before. Fiorenza stopped speaking and smiled broadly. “Ah,” she said, “I have hit the big league. This is the first time I have been as highly honored as my husband and I am delighted.”

After the crushing defeat the Conservatives suffered in that general election (the party expected

to lose, but hold a much stronger position in the House than it did) second guessers began moaning that it was a mistake to have Fiorenza speak. In Quebec there seemed to he a strong reaction against a woman being permitted such a prominent role and one Drew supporter recalled hearing a lumberjack telling a friend in some disgust, “Imagine a woman in a mink coat telling me about liberty!” Drew’s critics in the party now maintain that Fiorenza who only spoke because the party wanted her to—lost them votes. Veteran political observers feel that she neither won nor lost votes.

The chief hardship of the four for Fiorenza was not the defeat, which some people suspect she expected all along, but being away from her children for two months. Both Drews are devoted to their family, set aside a part of every day and all of their holiday time to being with their children in as normal an atmosphere as can be managed amid the maelstrom of big-league politics.

The Drew children are handsome and healthy, with natural good manners. Edward, a tall and rangy fourteen-year-old in his first year at Ashbury College, and Alexandra, a twelve-year-old known as Sandy wrho attends Rockcliffe Public School in Ottawa, are both popular with the most critical audience of all: their fellow pupils. Both walk to school and come home for lunch. After classes Edward plays football or hockey and Sandy gets in an hour’s practice on the piano in her room. Her grandfather, a world-renowned judge of musical talent, tells his friends that Sandy has genius but Fiorenza describes her merely as “really good.”

Fiorenza helps the children with their lastminute homework in the morning before breakfast, gets them olf for school and then {dans the day’s menus and drives down to the nearest supermarket to get the groceries. She usually has lunch with the children and both Drews try to keep their evenings free so they can have dinner together in the candle-lit dining room. After dinner the parents help with homework, George taking the history and mathematics and Fiorenza the languages. Saturday afternoons in the winter the family listens to the opera broadcasts. Both children are fond of serious music and the Drews have a formidable record collection.

Fiorenza is a disciplinarian of the old school. One day a few years ago she arrived at a dinner party and sank down in a chair with a sigh. “I’m exhausted,” she exclaimed, “I’ve been spanking Sandy all day.” “Not really!” said her hostess. “Yes really,” replied Fiorenza grimly, “and with a hairbrush too.”

“We want our children to be our friends,” explained Mrs. Drew a few weeks ago. “We want to be able to travel with them and enjoy them but we can’t bear the kind of children who mon-

opolize the room the minute they walk in.”

The Drew children receive fifty cents a week allowance, which they recently had raised by making a deputation to their parents concerning the rising cost of living. Their allowance is impounded by their mother if they leave their rooms untidy or scatter their belongings around downstairs. They are expected to make their own beds on week ends.

When the Drews must be away they leave their children in the care of a Scottish cook named Agnes who has been with the family for fourteen years and a little gnarled Italian woman known as Tata, who was hired to he Fiorenza’s nanny five months before she was born and has been with her ever since. Tata speaks no language but Italian and both children speak Italian fluently because of her.

Tata actually had a great deal to do with raising Fiorenza, whom she still calls Fiorenzina— “little Fiorenza.” Fiorenza’s mother Beatrice, Viscountess d’Arneiro, beautiful and vivacious daughter of a Portuguese diplomat, met Edward Johnson, of Guelph, Ont., when he was in Europe studying opera. She was a gifted pianist and they met in Paris through their music, married in Lisbon and went to Florence to live. The young Canadian tenor was a great success in Italy, made his debut in Padua when Fiorenza was two, created Parsifal in Italian at La Scala Opera House, Milan, when his daughter was four. Fiorenza was eight when her mother died.

Fiorenza remembers her mother as being a gay vital woman, fond of people. Musicians, artists, diplomats and socialites mingled in the Johnson home. Mrs. Johnson spoke seven languages, but Italian was the language of the house because Edward was trying to master Italian operas. When his wife died Johnson sent his daughter to live with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Evans Johnson, merchants in Guelph. With her went Tata and a governess. The latter never adjusted to the Canadian town and returned to Italy a

year later but Tata loyally stayed on to raise Fiorenza in the pattern her mother had set.

While Fiorenza makes new friends readily she never loses an old one in the process. Her closest friend in Guelph, when she was ten years old, Amy Grace Howitt, is still her closest friend. The two girls took music lessons together and dreamed of the dramatic lives they would have. Fiorenza planned to be an actress.

When Fiorenza finished at the Guelph public school she went to the Bishop Strachan School for girls in Toronto. After a year she went to Les P’ougères in Lausanne, Switzerland, a girls’ finishing school. Her father was anxious that she learn several languages so she could take her mother’s place as his hostess, and she went from Lausanne to Dresden to improve her German. In the summers she studied acting and did Greek plays out of doors and for three or four months when she was eighteen she acted in a stock company in Illinois, under the rippling name Fiorenza Davega.

“Was I sultry!” she recalls fondly. “I wore my hair pulled back in a bun and penciled eyebrows and long earrings. I was too big to be an ingenue so I played second leads, like Meg in Little Women. Fortunately the company failed.”

Dr. Johnson had been keeping an apartment in Florence, where Tata stayed while Fiorenza was in school, so Fiorenza went back to Florence to study singing that winter to help her acting. Then she spent two years in Paris with her father and one in Germany. Her singing had eclipsed her acting and she decided to stay in Munich and study. Her light coloratura voice was well suited to lieder and Mozart and she had progressed as far as a concert in Munich when her father was made general manager of the Met.

“I knew I’d have to sing like the angels or else everyone would suspect I was being favored,” comments Fiorenza, “so I quit singing and went to New York to be daddy’s hostess.”

One of her duties was to see that her father’s box at the opera was filled for every performance — matinees included. “That meant eight or fen people sometimes twice a day. If isn’t difficult if you like people, and I do.” If the opening night opera was French, Fiorenza and her father would entertain the French ambassador; if it was Italian, they would invite the Italian ambassador and his party.

The spring of 1935 Fiorenza arrived in Venice and received a note from a lawyer she had met casually in Guelph. “I think you’re going to be in Venice this summer,” it read, as best she can recall, “and if you are would it be all right if I came to see you?” It was postmarked Berlin and signed George Drew. Drew visited her in

Continued on page 34

The Three Lives of Fiorenza

Continued from pope 24

Venice and the following spring, when they were both in Toronto, proposed. Fiorenza accepted, dashed off to Lisbon to keep a previous engagement with her father and returned in the fall to marry George at her father’s home in Guelph. She was twenty-six, strikingly beautiful in a slender white velvet gown, and he was forty-two, a handsome man considered the country’s most eligible bachelor. It was the

most important wedding of the season.

Until she married George Drew, Fiorenza had only a vague interest in politics but she had an uncommon antipathy to dictatorships. In 1936 she was more acutely aware of the advantages of democracy than most Canadians. She had lived in Italy during Fascism’s birth, when mobs ran the streets and it wasn’t safe to go to the corner store and she was in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. She was eager to learn about government and ten days after her wedding she attended her first political meeting.

Shortly after her marriage Fiorenza joined the Toronto Junior League and before she left she became the only Canadian to be appointed a regional director. Her region included nineteen Junior Leagues in New York State, seven in New Jersey and two in Ontario and she became a proficient speechmaker. In spite of her stage training she had to conquer a shattering nervousness when she spoke.

“I always have the feeling ‘Well, who cares what you have to say?’ when I speak,” she confesses. “My first speech after George was elected premier of

Ontario was a little four-minute thing to open a bazaar and 1 was so nervous my speech was rattling in my hand.” Now she uses small cards which she can cup in her palm. A friend recalls her during a Junior League annual meeting, sitting at the head table looking completely relaxed and composed, with the daisies on her new hat shaking convulsively.

For a woman in public life Fiorenza joins few organizations and none of them politicalbut her presence on a committee is more than ornamental. In Toronto she worked hard for the women’s committees of the Art Gallery, the Opera Festival and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and she arrived in Ottawa just in time to advise the Ottawa Philharmonic during its reorganizing.

The Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra women’s group was an indolent body of about forty-five women, mostly diplomats’ wives, who paid their dues and languidly skipped the meetings. Fiorenza insisted that an orchestra committee shouldn’t be a snooty affair and rewrote the constitution. She made no enemies but managed to enlarge the membership to include two hundred women from all over Ottawa.

She worked nearly every day for two years on the reorganizing. Weekly executive meetings started in the afternoons and sometimes ended at one or two in the morning. The association raised sixteen thousand dollars through a public auction in the Coliseum and Fiorenza canvassed Ottawa for contributions and picked them up in her grey Cadillac with its Y1 license plate.

She is also on the board of the LeDue Pallet School and is a conscientious member of both the llockcliffe Home and School Association and the Ashbury College Mothers’ Guild. Last Christmas the latter group decided to make surplices for the college choir and Fiorenza, who is handy with a needle, drew the job of making the ruffs for their necks. “I had them all looking like little lamb chops,” she says proudly.

Currently Fiorenza is publicity chairman of a fund to purchase a gift from Canadian women for Lady Alexander. Head of this campaign is Mrs. Douglas Abbott, wife of the Finance Minister, and Ottawa’s partitioned society was dumbfounded when Mary Abbott and Fiorenza Drew became close friends. Fiorenza has several friends now among the Liberal cabinet ministers’ wives and there is a story in Ottawa that when some of these wives once criticized Mrs. G. D. Howe, Fiorenza flew to her defense. George Drew and C. D. Howe have one of the bitterest feuds on Parliament Hill.

The Drews live in a seventy-fivethousand-dollar fifteen-room grey st ucco house bought as a permanent home for the national leader of the party by the Progressive Conservatives. During the war it was Queen Juliana’s home. The house has turquoise rugs, handsome satin drapes, fragile eighteenth-century inlaid rosewood furniture and tall gilt candlesticks. The effect is elegant and restful without the museumlike formality that distinguishes many homes devoted to antique furniture.

By Ottawa standards the Drews entertain infrequently, though last year about nine hundred people visited the home for functions ranging from tea to elaborate formal dinners. A young Italian couple live over the Drews’ garage and help when they have time, but he is a full-time carpenter and his wife has a small baby. Much of the Drews’ entertaining is spontaneous, like the morning at breakfast when George decided the executive of a group meeting in Ottawa should be invited over for tea. Fiorenza notified Tata and Agnes to expect about fifty and worked out the hors d’oeuvres and did the shopping. Seventy-five came, and twenty stayed on for dinner. “That was no trouble at all,” recalls Fiorenza “We’d had plenty of warning.”

Fiorenza endeared herself to a young secretary from Winnipeg who came to Ottawa to take notes during a political meeting. She wistfully expressed a wish to see the Drew home before she left and Fiorenza heard of it. “Come right over,” she insisted and when the girl arrived she showed her through herself, including the cupboard with fifteen cubbyholes where Fiorenza keeps her hats.

Fashion writers don’t regard Fiorenza as the last word in fashion because her clothes almost invariably are classic and plain. She has a tendency, to the horror of the clothes industry, to wear the same suit for five or six years and her evening dresses, with an alteration here and there, last her for ten years. Her clothes are distinguished by their neatness and good fit. Her suits are custom-made but the rest of her wardrobe and her children’s is purchased in an Ottawa department store.

Besides being an exceptionally handsome couple, the Drews are obviously in love. Together they make a lasting impression of perfect domestic felicity of the lived-happily-ever-after variety. “I rely on her opinion more than on anyone else I know,” George Drew says. “We discuss everything I do and I can’t begin to describe her importance to me in public life or privately.”

Ken MacTaggart, of the Toronto Globe and Mail, remembers a time Fiorenza saved George from what would have been a serious blunder. It was during the bitter 1943 Ontario election campaign when the CCF rose in startling strength. George was driving to a meeting with Fiorenza and MacTaggart and was dictating sections of the speech he was to give so that the reporter could make the early edition of his paper.

“This is no time for Canadians to accept the dogmas of socialism,” Drew

dictated, “when free men of the world are showing what they can do against the forces of regimentation . . .”

“Particularly,” interrupted Fiorenza in a sweet voice, “our allies, the people of the Soviet.”

There was a sudden silence. George cleared his throat. “Better strike that out, Ken,” he said.

George and Fiorenza share several hobbies, golf and painting, and she reciprocates his attempts to appreciate her favorite Mozart operas with an interest in his photography. Drew was delighted when a British United Press

poll in 1949 named Fiorenza “Woman of the Year,” over Barbara Ann Scott, Senator Cairine Wilson, Kate Ait ken and Donna Grescoe, and when she was asked how her husband took his defeat that year she replied: “I don’t know anyone who discourages harder than George does. He takes them as they come. I am very proud of him.” Probably the most self-revealing remark Fiorenza Drew has ever made occurred during a plane trip into the bush during the 1949 campaign. Fiorenza and Dorothy Howarth. Toronto Telegram reporter, were squashed into

the tail of the plane, talking idly, when the engine suddenly cut out completely and the plane sailed along in deafening silence. Both women looked at one another in horror, and then the engine started again. They learned later the pilot had been simply switching over his fuel supply.

After she had recovered her voice Dorothy leaned over and asked Fiorenza what she had been thinking of in that moment of terror. “1 thought of my children,” answered Mrs. Drew in a shaking voice. “1 thought I’d never see them again.” -k