ANDREW COHEN September 22 2008


ANDREW COHEN September 22 2008



At 50, in 1947, who was Mike Pearson? He was five foot ten, about 165 lb. His frame was taut yet supple, retaining the fitness of an athlete well into middle age. (In his early 40s, he beat a Canadian tennis champion, Georges LeClair, in two sets.) After almost two decades of cocktails and canapés, Pearson had neither the jowls, paunch, nor pallor of the diplomat. In fact, he remained youthful, often described as a “golden boy” until he was 60. His facial features were distinctive and mobile. His smile was easy and impish. A shock of auburn hair often hung over his forehead, barely hiding a receding hairline. In dress, he favoured double-breasted suits and polka-dot bow ties (which were deemed too professorial when

he became opposition leader), although in essence “he didn’t really care what he wore,” said his son, Geoffrey.

Among the fund of adjectives used to describe him—

“cherubic,” “informal,” “charming,” “energetic”—a favourite was “rumpled.” He had stamina, which is why, when necessary, he could get by on as little as two hours’ sleep. His pleasures were playing golf and tennis and, later, watching hockey or baseball on television. There was also reading, usually biography or history. He had little interest in food, although he loathed salads and loved pie.

Things mechanical exasperated him. He owned paintings (David Milnes, acquired at $25 apiece in the 1940s) but little else of value. As prime minister, he initially drove a humble Rambler; when the brakes disengaged at Harrington Lake, it rolled down the hill and crashed.

His homes were modest and he complained that he lost money buying and selling them. Although he was called an elitist, he protested that “my tastes aren’t very high.”

His manner was disarming and mild. Geoffrey never heard him swear; “damn” seemed to be the most emphatic, and he would apologize for his indiscretion. He never raised his voice and seldom became angry. He was able to see both sides of an argument, often to his detriment. He rarely felt despair, likely because there was little for him to despair about; his life was without illness, divorce, debt, or major disappointment. He wasn’t close to his brothers, one of whom, Vaughan, never recovered psychologically from the Great War. While he made friends easily (“You meet Mike Pearson two or three times and you begin to think of him as an old pal,” recalled journalist Blair Fraser), there were few intimates. “I think it is fair to say that he was my closest friend, but I cannot speak for him,” said Walter Gordon in the 1970s. Gordon had organized Pearson’s leadership campaign, assured his financial security, and served in his cabinet. “I doubt if he thought I was his closest friend. I just don’t know.”

Family mattered most. Pearson’s long absences and long hours were a strain that all bore cheerfully. One of the more aching


memories of this separation is Pearson’s recollection of a scratchy, two-minute telephone call he placed on Christmas 1940 from London to his family in Winnipeg, a war and an ocean between them. By 1947, his children had grown up. They had been raised by nannies and rarely saw their father. Yet both loved him deeply. Pearson worried whether he was as good to them as his father had been to him (“I am acutely conscious of my own failures as a father,” he confessed in 1951), but they gave him no reason. Patsy was 18. She went to university and eventually married a doctor. Geoffrey was 20. After a succession of boarding schools, he was at the University of Toronto. Like his father, he would go to Oxford and join the foreign service. Over the years, Pearson came to trust his son’s judgment more than most knew. After his father’s death, Geoffrey dutifully organized his papers, eulogized his diplomacy in an insightful book, and became the chief custodian of his memory.

In 1947, Mike and Maryon had been married 22 years. Their marriage wasn’t perfect. Maryon spared no one her withering judg-

ments. Patsy said her mother had little time for her. “There was no praise,” she told Heather Robertson in More Than a Rose in 1991.

“In letters, yes, but not to your face. She was a very, very critical person. I felt constrained at home. I was always backing away from her. She could cut you off at the knees. I was intimidated by my mother.” Maryon could, and did, pack the children off to relatives or boarding school; in a diary she kept when she accompanied Mike to the London Naval Conference in 1930, she scarcely mentions the two infants she left behind. Her daughter-in-law, Landon, who would have five children, become a champion of children’s rights, and serve ably in the Senate of Canada, was always reluctant to tell Maryon when she was pregnant: “She thought there was something vaguely obscene about it.”

Maryon’s distemper produced memorable bon mots. She was the smartest of the prime ministerial wives, as columnist Charles Lynch said, and she was also the sauciest. The euphemism of choice for Maryon was “tart.”

In public she could be snobbish, defensive, pugnacious, and aloof, wearing veils and > dark glasses and throwing off cheeky remarks, ¡L a tableau of cranky, artless frankness. “ Une p dame formidable,” sighed a Quebec MP. “She w was her own worst enemy,” says Landon | Pearson. In 1964, when Maryon read a pro$ file of herself written by the talented ChrisQ tina McCall Newman of Maclean’s, she telea phoned her with a string of unhappy rejoinders. “You’re just so young’’ she fumed, f “Only someone as young as you are could be g so indiscreet.” Yet indiscretion never inhib>; ited Maryon. “How does it feel to be back in d the West?” she was once asked. “Not very * good,” she replied. If her bluntness disturbed 1Mike, he never let on. She wisely handled £ their money (including investing the $38,500

Pearson received with his Nobel Prize in 1957), managed 22 different homes during their marriage, and was always loyal. She campaigned with her husband in the lean years and called Diefenbaker “that awful man.” Her advice was sometimes “very bad,” an associate of her husband says, but generally “no worse than most.”

In Political Wives, journalist Susan Riley calls the Pearsons’ relationship “conventional, patriarchal.” She twice suggests that this was because Maryon was “many years his junior.” In fact, the difference was less than five years. As for conventional, not necessarily. In their younger days, Mike and Maryon were part of Ottawa’s smart set. Both drank (she more heavily than he), both liked dancing (she much more than he), witty conversation, and gaiety. Both also enjoyed the attentions of the opposite sex. Maryon was close to Graham Towers, for 20 years the governor of the Bank of Canada. Handsome, wealthy, and elegant, Towers was austere and cool by day and flirtatious and bawdy (he was known for his off-colour jokes in mixed company) by night. His libido was notorious; by all accounts, Towers loved women. The Pearsons often joined Towers and his wife, Mollie, at their rambling home in Murray Bay, Que. Sometimes Maryon drove there alone with Towers, Heather Robertson wrote, or flew off with him to weekend parties in Toronto. Towers’s careful biographer, Douglas Fullerton, dares not ask but cites an anonymous friend who says, boldly, that Towers liked “Saturday nights.” So did Maryon.

If Pearson accepted his wife’s risqué relationship with Towers, it may have been because he had a liaison dangereuse of his own. In London, during the war, he had met Mary Greey and her sister, Elizabeth, who

were from Toronto. They were flatmates of Alison Grant, a niece of Vincent Massey, who would later marry George Ignatieff. Alison’s brother was George Grant, the philosopher, who was studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Mike began to see Mary. Alison said of her: “When she looks limpidly through her blue eyes people go absolutely weak.” John English calls Mary “a scintillating companion in the absence of his [Pearson’s] family during the ‘siren years.’ ” William Christian, George Grant’s biographer, calls their relationship an affair. In September 1941, Grant wrote his mother (under the warning “strictly confidential [not to be mentioned to a soul]”) of Mary’s wrenching departure from London and “all the love and affection that had brought her home.” Mary was returning to Canada to be with Pearson. “Mary will obviously turn more and more upon Mike,” Grant wrote. “All I want to say is, to understand and try and help. If you have ever seen Mary and Mike together you would know how absolutely suited they are for each other and how each adores the other. They are both far too fine to ever let it interfere with his children and wife, but please try to understand it and make it a natural easy thing.”

Grant was right; Pearson did not let the relationship interfere with his marriage. After less than a year in Ottawa, he went to Washington, where he remained until 1946. Mary Greey returned to Britain in 1945 and married the eminent historian Gerald Graham. Greey, now 92 and deaf, refuses to discuss these years; her daughter says that her mother says she regrets her conversations with historians. When Christian’s biography of George Grant appeared in 1993, Greey wrote Christian “a nasty letter” criti-

cizing his indiscretion. But the story of Pearson and Greey doesn’t end with their romance; in 1965, when Pearson was prime minister, George Grant published his venerated polemic, Lament for a Nation, in which he excoriated the Liberals for selling out Canada. He’d revealed his hostility to Pearson a year earlier in a harsh review of The Four Faces of Peace, a collection of Pearson’s speeches and statements. Grant wondered why the book was “allowed to be written,” ridden as it was with clichés, platitudes, and “attenuated pronouncements.” In diplomacy, he dismisses Pearson as “a good committee man,” an attribute that he thinks doesn’t produce a “profundity of political analysis or subtlety of literary style.” Privately, he called Pearson “the ambitious little bureaucrat.” Grant’s hostility was as much personal as intellectual: Mike was no longer the “nice person” he knew in London who had offered to help Grant find work when he returned from England as a student. According to Christian, Grant felt that Pearson was “a cad” in his relationship with Mary. Grant was angry that he “had strung Mary along, and treated her execrably” after she returned to Canada.

Whatever their diversions, Mike and Maryon survived, parting only upon his death. He rhapsodizes about her in his memoir, and at its end, is “gratified that she is relieved and happy” that he was no longer prime minister. When he died, she was disconsolate. The void he left, she told a friend, was so large that she couldn’t believe he was gone. She grew more demanding after Mike’s death; even her son found visiting her difficult. Three years later, Towers died. Now both men in her life were gone, and it was too much for her. In a rare public comment in 1974, Maryon said of Mike: “I was lucky to share 47 years of my life with this great man. Once, many years ago, I was asked by a press woman what I liked best about my husband—I said that he was never boring. She thought this was not much of a reply but I always envied the women who sat next to him at large formal dinners because I knew they would enjoy the occasion.” M

From Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson by Andrew Cohen. Copyright © Andrew Cohen, 2008. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).