The best of the boulevardiers

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 20 1998

The best of the boulevardiers

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 20 1998

The best of the boulevardiers

Backstage

Anthony WilsonSmith

The principles that carried Nick Auf der Maur through 55 years of life were, according to him, simple. “Deny everything,” he would cackle, flashing his enormous beaver-toothed grin, “and make wild accusations.” That seemed to make sense for a man whose occupations included sometime journalist, onetime Montreal city councillor, and full-time boulevardier. But, being Nick, he challenged all conventional wisdom—even his own—so that his wildest stories invariably featured himself. Did he really, as he claimed, once try to bring Conrad Black to a gay leather bar just to take the stuffing out of him? Maybe, maybe not: Black just smiles at the mention of Nick’s name.

Nick Auf der Maur challenged all conventional wisdom—even his own. His wildest stories were about himself.

And what of Nick’s eviction from the Kremlin? Several years after the Soviet Union’s 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia, Nick, then an ardent Marxist, was invited to a gathering that included Leonid Brezhnev. After toasts to countries “freed ” by Moscow, Nick raised his glass and shouted: “Long live free Czechoslovakia.” He was taken, chortling, to the airport at once, and told to never return.

Nick’s death last week of cancer, after a 16month battle, sparked an outpouring of emotion in Montreal of the sort normally reserved for heads of state, or beloved performers. Talk shows in English and French devoted hours to remembering him. His funeral service this week will be carried live on radio. All four newspapers put his passing on their front pages. The arch-nationalist daily Le Devoir— which seldom says nice things about any Quebecer who is federalist, non-francophone, or worse, both—called him a “legendary personality.”

No argument there. His great friend Brian Stewart, the CBC television journalist who covers major events around the world, calls Nick “the one larger-than-life character I ever met.” From his bar stool in Ziggy’s on Crescent Street, Nick held court with friends who included cabinet ministers, judges, journalists, undercover cops and underworld hard cases. “Hang around Nick long enough,” says Mordecai Ridder, another old friend, “and everyone showed up.” Bilingual and of Swiss ancestry, Nick lived all his life in downtown Montreal. After a brief stay in university, he became a reporter at The Gazette in the mid-1960s. Later, he worked for CBC TV and an underground publication called The Last Post. There, he acquired his taste for taking on city hall, provincial and federal governments, and anyone else he felt had too much power. Arrested as a dissident in 1970 under the War Measures Act, he later defended the act’s imposition. In 1974, he began a 20-year career on city council by joining a new party that almost derailed Mayor Jean Drapeau’s Civic Party. His exposés of malfeasance in preparing for the 1976 Summer Games caused an uproar—and helped Los Angeles, preparing for

the 1980 Games, to overhaul its funding practices. Nick and Drapeau—who was amused by his humor—became mutual admirers.

In 1984, Nick ran for Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives. To his later relief, he lost. When Tory cabinet minister Robert Coates was bounced for visiting a strip club, Nick observed that “there, but for the grace of voters, go I.” He wrote a column for The Gazette from the 1970s until near the end of his life and used everything that he did and saw as fodder. That included his fondness for raw onion sandwiches, the need for a good “napping blanket” and how to choose a perfect tomato. Not to mention his hatred for baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, white bread and any form of barbecue. Anyone who disagreed about that or anything else was pronounced (at top decibel level) a Lunatic! and Clearly Insane! His humor was often childish, but no less endearing. Two favorite jokes: “Hear about the wooden horse? Wooden sit.” And “what about the steel horse? Steel wooden sit.” He pinched the bottoms of females and males equally, and often.

For Nick, nothing succeeded like excess. He remembered everything and everyone. His trademark Borsalino hat and huge walrus mustache seemed to sweep into a room well ahead of the rest of him. He was, as someone once said of Bruce Springsteen, a “notorious heterosexual” who dated hundreds of women—and seemed to remain friends with them all. He ranted at everyone, but aroused no ill will, because, as another great friend, film-maker Brian McKenna, said: “There was no malice to him.” He was rarely without a drink, and never without a foul-smelling Gitanes or Gauloise cigarette. When he contracted hepatitis in the 1980s, he was told to stop drinking for six months. Instead, he changed doctors. An Irish journalist who went drinking with Nick finally slid off his stool, murmuring: “Jai-zus, this is like visiting all the stations of the Cross at once.”

Nick seemed indestructible, but his lifestyle killed him. When he was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1996, he wrote about it in a calm, reflective tone. On Dec. 28 last year, he wrote: “I sense the damp, humid presence of death. But my morale is such that I am not intimidated. I have had such an exceptionally good time in my life. I do not in any way feel cheated.”

He planned his funeral, stipulating that speakers wear Donald Duck ties. He slipped away during a nap—with his blanket on—last Tuesday, at home with his beloved daughter Melissa. Now, friends plan a book of Nick’s columns and tributes to him, with proceeds to charity, and a fund to benefit cancer research.

One other gesture remains, if city officials have any sense, to commemorate a man who loved Montreal—and served it—so well. If so, forget the name Crescent Street: raise a glass to Nick at Ziggy’s— on the properly renamed Rue Auf der Maur.