THE PRIME OF MS. JUDY LAMARSH
At 50, the bird in a gilded cage is flying freer than ever
Judy LaMarsh leans forward in her armchair blinking slightly in the glare of the TV studio lights. “You are known as a manure distributor.” she says, fixing her male guest with an eye blurred and magnified by glasses thick as the bottoms of pop bottles. “What makes you tick?” The man squirms, blushes coyly and makes goldfish motions with his mouth. Judy waits, silent. She fills the armchair, still fat but slimmer now' than the obese woman who quit the Pearson government in 1968; her face is pale, moon-like, her glasses owlish hornrims, her hair, the bane of her existence, cropped short. When the man finally answers she beams on him with her radiant smile, the ear-to-ear smile which transforms her suddenly into a beautiful woman. “I always smile for pictures,” she says, “because my face in repose looks like Pm going to tear the head off somebody.”
At 50, she is still the familiar figure of the newspaper photographs and cartoons, but older, mature, relaxed. She radiates confidence, goodwill and control, a far different woman from the tense, hostile mountain of green brocade in black fishnet stockings I met during the election campaign of 1965. She is stripped down now, bereft of the blond wigs and three-inch dangling earrings, the feathered hats and strings of clunky beads that made her a grotesque parakeet, devoid of the silver lamé stockings and red vinyl boots in which she used to show off her shapely legs. Instead there’s a cartoon on the door of her office at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto showing a man with his trousers rolled up over his knobby knees and a female executive saying, “Hire him, he’s got great legs.” Five years as the only woman in the Liberal cabinet made Judy LaMarsh into one of Canada’s most ardent advocates for women’s rights.
“Most ministers who leave government go on to half-a-dozen boards and their friends rally around,” she says. “That certainly didn’t happen to me. I’ve never even been offered an appointment
by the government. I looked for a job in Toronto and was rebuffed because I was a woman. Oh, I’ve had lots of frustration but I always thought it was limited to myself. It came as one of the biggest surprises to find there were others who had the same frustrations. I always used to think, well, there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s the way things are. I found out there are lots of things that can be changed. I’ve been very lucky in having opportunities to put to work some of the things I’ve learned. I’ve been able to grow.”
Instead of fading into genteel retirement when she left the government after five years as Minister of National Health and Welfare and Secretary of State, Judy wrote her autobiography. Memoirs Of A Bird In A Gilded Cage, an explosive account of her years as a Liberal MP, which established her as a merciless political critic and literary celebrity. She had her own TV shows in Ottawa and took a job as host of a radio hotline program in Vancouver, the most brutally competitive market in Canada, where she quickly topped the king, Jack Webster, in the ratings. In 1974 she returned to the east to teach law at Osgoode Hall, the quiet, respectable school from which she had graduated as president of her class in 1950. Her schedule is staggering: she is a director of Unity Bank and a member of a dozen committees; the phone-in television show takes two hours every Sunday night; she writes a weekly column for the Toronto Star and appears as a political commentator on CBC radio. Judy frequently turns up at meetings for reform in family and divorce law, attends think-ins and hires herself out as guest speaker for everything from the Canadian Bar Association to the manufacturers of frozen foods. “The speeches and kinds of things I’m being asked to do are more establishment now,” she says with satisfaction. “I’m much more respectable.” “Judy is everywhere,” says a magazine editor. “What’s she up to?”
Her phone rings. She haggles about money: “Call me back when you find
out how much you can pay.” Judy is very hard-nosed about money. It shocks some people. “Some people think an excabinet minister should just sit on her honorable behind and starve.” she says. She earns a lot and spends a lot, but for things she believes in her time is free.
“What makes you tick?” I ask. She grins. “Momentum, I guess.”
The telephone is almost an extension of her arm. Judy is engaged in a continuous conversation. She talks in a slangy vernacular, slurring words, dropping her gs, a tough-kid street language liberally laced with mild profanity which tends to conceal her intelligence and identify her with the common man.
Trying to see her I felt I was hacking my way through the Enchanted Forest toward the Sleeping Beauty. Even at the end, after weeks of dogged perseverance, the final encounter remains dubious, uncertain. “You want to see me?” she says casually, brushing by as I sit patiently by her office door. I am cast in the role of humble supplicant, courtier, lover; my voice is small, almost apologetic, my manner diffident. I seek to please. I find myself down on my knees plugging in the coffee pot. There is no doubt about who is the stronger woman. There is an intimate, almost sensual tension in the air; we are sniffing each other out. There is a ruthless, egocentric, theatrical quality to her, a quality represented by her real name — Julia Verlyn LaMarsh (“My name,” she said once, “sounds like something that should be up in lights over a striptease theatre”). I am Alice before the Queen of Hearts. I can understand now why men are fascinated by her power and terrified of her sting, and how this ambivalent relationship first made her outstandingly successful in politics and then almost destroyed her.
She was elected to the House of Com-
Heather Robertson is a contributing editor of Maclean’s. This article is excerpted from the book, Her Own Woman; Profiles of 10 Canadian Women, to be published by Macmillan in April.
She was our No. 1 Spinster in 1964
mons on Hallowe’en, 1960. She was 35 and one of the “nice people” of Niagara Falls, as she puts it. She had practised law with her father, W. C. LaMarsh, a died-in-the-wool Liberal, for seven years (“We fought like cats and dogs all the time”) and belonged to just about every civic and charitable organization in Niagara Falls. She organized her constituency thoroughly, starting with the women, and campaigned aggressively in the factories. “I was,” she says, “no namby-pamby female afraid to speak up for her constituents.” She won by 5.000 votes; her opponent just saved his deposit, the only one who has. When she got to Ottawa, she learned, bitterly, that she was alone.
“No one on the Liberal side gave less of a damn whether 1 was there or not. I sat there for a month and then I started to talk. They were a little surprised. In this men’s club they thought women were there on sufferance, that it was a freak election that I got there and I ought to be modestly pleased with that and not try to contribute.”
Judy had enthusiasm, a passionate devotion to the Liberal party and the gift of all great politicians, an unerring instinct for a hot political issue: an army veteran and hawk on military matters, she was aware of the Diefenbaker government’s weakness on defense long before the Liberal hierarchy. She and Paul Hellyer urged Pearson to take a stand in favor of nuclear arms for Canada’s NATO forces, the issue that would hurl the Liberals back into power in 1963.
When the Liberals formed the government after that election, Judy was appointed to the health and welfare ministry. She was strong, intelligent, with 17 years of service to the Liberal Party, and she was the only woman.
“The No. 1 Spinster in Canada,” Weekend magazine hailed her in 1964. Columnists such as Doug Fisher, a former classmate from the University of Toronto, described her as “an odd bod,” a drill sergeant in jackboots, “a dreadnought-sized Charlotte Whitton.” No one knew how to deal with Judy outside the conventional stereotypes — she was a twittering old maid or she was butch. She was socially ostracized by her cabinet colleagues and other MPs (“I doubt that I had lunch with one or another of my colleagues in an informal way more than a handful of times. They simply didn’t think of calling me and I hestitated to call them”), she was cut off from contact with people, isolated by her position from normal relationships with men.
“It was sexual hostility, a feeling that I was a bull in a china shop, not only that but it was a male china shop and I should just not draw attention to my presence. The wives were hostile too. I was a lot better looking in those days and I think I let myself get fat as much as anything to do something about that. I’ve noticed since I’ve looked like this that there’s practically no hostility from women. I guess they don’t think I’m any kind of challenge.
“Women made me uncomfortable. I really didn’t know women until I got out of government. I had school friends but I had never formed any female friendships in my adult years. I had a great friend in college and she lived in Ottawa. We had lunch together one day and never saw each other after that. Maybe they felt diminished and threatened by me. I haven’t any idea. I was scared of them, because my life had been so different. I had lived in a male world since I was 18, in the army, in college, as a lawyer.”
Judy was the second of three children. Her youth in Chatham, Ont., and Niagara Falls was in every way respectable. She was a good student but did better at athletics than she did at exams. She read movie magazines, kept a diary in French, which she spoke as a secret language with her girl friends (“In Niagara Falls it was a secret language”) and worried about boys.
“I didn’t date very much at high school. I was, I suppose, late in coming to any awareness of boys in that way. I was always everybody’s friend, taught them all how to dance, and popular, popular in things like elected office and stuff. I would have two or three male friends and I always had a date for a dance or something but they weren’t the football heroes or anything else. I’m sure I was about the third or fourth person they’d asked. And that distressed me when I was in high school. My mother said. ‘You’re the kind of person who’ll be more popular when you're older.’ I wasn’t experimental about sex. God, I think I was a virgin until I was about 27! And that’s after I was in the army from 18 to 21!
“I always wanted to be a lawyer. 1 don’t think my father ever accepted that I was going to be a lawyer until I left college and went to Osgoode. I had never discussed it with him. I had always planned to go to university. I had assumed it. When I graduated from high school my dad said, ‘No. I can’t do that, I don’t have the money and your brother is coming along.’ He came first. It was the biggest shock of my life, to be told I couldn’t go to university.”
She was turned down by the airforce when she couldn’t see the eye chart
“I don’t think I was an easy person to be with or work for. People tell tales to me now that make my hair stand on end”
without her glasses and spent a year at teachers’ college; at 18 she enlisted in the army. “The army was good to me. I was a girl from a parochial family living with one class of people all my life — I sure got to learn all sorts of things.” As it was for many women, war was a tremendously liberating experience. “It was the biggest thing happening in the world,” she says, “and I didn’t want to be out of it!”
The army paid her way to university and it was at the University of Toronto that she became a Liberal. “My grandfather had been a passionate Grit and my dad turned the riding Liberal for the first time. I remember my grandfather sitting with tears running down his cheeks when Mitch Hepburn was elected. It impressed me that something about politics was very important.”
Her father died in 1957, her mother in 1960. Politics became her life.
“I was never any intellectual giant. When I was going to run I went to a thinkers’ conference to find out if I really was a Liberal. I enjoyed it and I got at what the party is. Same thing as being a Presbyterian. I’ve always been a Presbyterian. When I was at teachers’ college we had to take lectures in religious instruction and I was quite astonished to find out what a Presbyterian was!"
And to be a woman, she discovered, was not necessarily to be a lady. Responsible for steering the complex and controversial Canada Pension Plan through the House, Judy found herself embroiled in bitter public warfare with the insurance industry and with provincial premiers anxious for a little public grandstanding and muscle-flexing. With a quick, precise and logical mind and absolutely no tolerance for bombast or bullshit, Judy found all the wheeling and dealing tedious and frustrating; she found too that a well-timed fit of rage could speed the ponderous progress of the ship of state.
“Perhaps because they were sorry for me (a hateful thing to me, to be an object of pity, but sometimes useful) or perhaps because they were afraid of me (I was mad and moody and didn’t hide what I thought of the whole damned Quebec compromise, which left me looking like an ass) they went along with two things I’d been trying to get included . . . But it took the shine off politics for me, and in the minds of many stamped me as a quarrelsome, stubborn, heavy-handed fighter. That’s an unpleasant public image for anyone, especially a woman, and I resented it. I suppose, as
a politician. I should be content, for the Canada Pension Plan certainly put my name in Canada’s history books, and in italics.” For Judy the distinction between “woman” and “politician” was to disappear.
In 1965, when she had just completed the spadework for the medicare legislation, Judy was peremptorily transferred to Secretary of State. She saw it as a demotion. Pearson was desperate for someone strong enough to pull the Centennial out of the ashcan, or he was using her as a pawn, a commando unit who would charge in and get things moving and who, if things did not go
well, could be left holding the bag. “I don’t think Pearson thought the Centennial was going to be a success. I don’t think any of them thought Expo was going to be a success. They were all waiting for the financial bricks to fall.”
Exhausted by the multifarious details of the Centennial, depressed and outraged by the political destruction of her closest friends in the cabinet, Walter Gordon and Guy Favreau, Judy had another can of worms dumped in her lap; the CBC abruptly canceled the popular and controversial television show. This Hour Has Seven Days. Judy didn’t like the show but the decision offended her respect for free speech and she sided firmly with the producers. A year later her casual reference to “rotten management” once more blew the lid off the corporation.
“I told Mike to stay out of it. I got into it on my own and if I can’t get out of it, you know what you can do. Let me handle it. The first two or three days I took absolute shit in the House. And then the cards and letters and phone calls started coming in and they shifted right around. Then I was afraid it was going to be a 100% attack on the CBC and destroy the corporation and I’m a
great believer in public broadcasting.”
In a government rocked by scandal, Judy acquired a reputation for uncompromising honesty; in a parliament littered with the victims of political assassinations and suicides, she emerged as a survivor and a winner. At the peak of her power and celebrity, she decided to leave politics.
“I got so tired of fighting.” The ceaseless grind of work, the loneliness, the glare of publicity, the constant scrape of controversy wearied her and sapped her confidence. She had no one to draw strength from. “There’s no one to talk to about things,” she said, “and, when you come right down to facts, nobody really cares if you live or die.”
Photographs taken in 1967 show a tired, obese, frumpy woman who looks years older than 43. She had won, but at what price?
“It warped my personality. I was really bitchy and always tired and shorttempered. God, I remember things —I’d throw things around. I fired my executive assistant once. He got out the door and I went after him and said, ‘Christ, I’m not going to cut off both arms and legs. Come back here!’ And he was big enough to come back. I don’t think I was an easy person to be with or to work for.
I know I wasn’t. People tell tales to me now that make my hair stand on end. Which I’d mercifully forgotten. Surely I never did that, but it must be true.”
Like many women in a male world Judy felt she had to prove she was tough, that she could take it like a man; she became, as the sign on the door of her Vancouver radio studio read, “a steel-jacketed marshmallow.” She adopted super-feminine wigs and bizarre costumes as camouflage; they only increased the publicity and ridicule. By the time of her hysterical performance at the Liberal leadership convention in 1968 when she called Trudeau a “bastard” on national TV, Judy had become a caricature of herself.
Listening to her talk and remembering the pain of a similar period in my own experience, I am impressed by her exposure, her vulnerability. How many of us have been through that kind of fire, alone, unshielded by convention, testing ourselves, pushing ourselves to the limits of our endurance and then beyond? Most of us cower on the sidelines. Few of us who dare survive unbroken or unmaimed. Yet it has made Judy stronger; it has not hardened her but opened her.
Judy has no public self and private self; in every encounter she is personally
committed. Every person she meets is a potential friend or enemy. The decision is made very quickly and is usually irrevocable. She is emotionally and psychically on the line. It’s a dangerous way to live. 1 think, strangely, of Marilyn Monroe, another star who lived entirely in the public eye and was destroyed by it. Judy survived and survived on her own terms.
“I’ve always stood up for myself,” she says. “I don’t think I picked any fights in parliament. I didn’t back down from any either. I probably blew up more than anyone in cabinet, but when it’s over I hold no grudges and carry no chips.”
She has gone underground now, biding her time, confronting her prejudices (“I can’t get over that I believe men who rape-murder small children should hang. And it’s just sheer native vindictiveness, that’s all. As primitive a feeling as anyone can get, and I can’t get past it”), and thinking more deeply about political ideology.
“As I get older I have more streaks of conservatism, but I’m more left than right. I am left of the Liberal Party in most things. Trudeau is more Tory than Stanfield. My party has left me. I didn't leave it.” She is more politicized than 10 years ago, more realistic, cynical even, but she is still a Liberal and absolutely devoted to the game of politics.
In 1974 she teetered on the verge of running once more in her old Niagara Falls seat. One main consideration held her back: “Pierre would not promise that I would be in the cabinet.” Yet she still spends every free weekend in Niagara Falls, mending fences. What’s she up to? Prime minister?
“Pooh,” she shrugs. “I don’t think that’s very likely. And I don't really know that I would like it. I think I have practically no qualities to be prime minister, qualities like not being stampeded, and being long-headed and calm as well as responsible. I have never had any difficulty making up my mind, but I have had difficulty being right, and I still do.”
She is intensely aware of her enormous popular appeal, her ability to reach people intimately and to understand their concerns — everyone naturally calls her “Judy.” She is a powerful presence. People respond to her viscerally: they fear and respect her, love her and hate her. “People see something reflected in me.” she says. “They see in me what they want to see.” It is this ambivalent quality that makes the public want to possess her, to worship and destroy her, a quality that becomes more irresistible the more she proclaims her independence.
“I don’t belong to the party, nor the people,” she says. “I am my own woman now.”A?