Montreal's Morgan-Powell

Critic, editor and actor’s haven; he explodes—and writes poetry; has memories enough to last a lifetime

THELMA LECOCQ September 15 1943

Montreal's Morgan-Powell

Critic, editor and actor’s haven; he explodes—and writes poetry; has memories enough to last a lifetime

THELMA LECOCQ September 15 1943

Montreal's Morgan-Powell



Critic, editor and actor’s haven; he explodes—and writes poetry; has memories enough to last a lifetime

S. MORGAN-POWELL is one of the few newspapermen left in Canada—probably on the continent — whom movie-goers would recognize as the real thing. Something between a legend and an oracle he overfills the editorial chair of the Montreal Star like a large pink Buddha with his hands folded over his wellcushioned front.

Even if he had never written a line worth printing, Morgan-Powell would be a personage.

He is a man about whom countless stories are told—fabulous stories about his tremendous strength, his strange oaths, his gargantuan conviviality and a generosity that kept him halfway up the hill to the poorhouse till he reached his sixties. Most of these stories he describes as “entirely disrespectful, slanderous and blasphemous.” The only ones he takes the trouble to deny are those concerning his generosity. The rest, true or false, he accepts as part of the Morgan-Powell legend.

His position is an august one—editor of the Montreal Star. Although he has held the title for four years there are people, even in Montreal, who do not know that he’s the editor. This bothers Morgan-Powell only momentarily. The reason he doesn’t mind too much is that his fame is as a critic—rather than an editor—and is nearer 40 than four years’ standing. For more than a generation artists and their managers would turn handsprings to obtain a favorable literary or dramatic review from MorganPowell. They knew it was Critic Morgan-Powell who decided whether Montreal would put on its best clothes and go to a theatre or whether it would sit at home with a good book.

His life is still books and the theatre. “Reading has always been my chief pleasure and recreation,” he says. From the theatre he has drawn his memories. “I have met most of the theatrical people since Henry Irving’s time,” he recalls. In his editor’s office—an ancient shabby office in the old newspaper tradition—war maps are interspersed with photographs of actors; copies of Hansard are heaped beside books of poetry.

On the wall opposite him is a large framed portrait of Sir^Martin Harvey as Richard the Third. Over his right shoulder is a picture of C. Aubrey Smith and Morgan-Powell’s favorite photograph of himself, taken with Norma Shearer. Closer to hand are his books, clippings and heaps of newspapers. These are piled a foot and a half deep—like a parapet—along the outside edges of his aged desk. Behind this barricade sits Editor Morgan-Powell, leaning well back in his swivel chair so that only his head and crooked bow tie are visible from the other side.

At one time his hair probably had a ginger tinge. Now the hair is gone from the top, is greyed and thinning at the back, and the red shows only at the centre of his short-clipped

mustache. His age might be anybody’s guess. He looks 60, is rumored to be 74 and prefers not to discuss the matter. Above the deep folds of his chin is a bright plump face with a small full mouth. His nose which gives him a noble profile is what novelists call “buttonlike” from the front. His eyes are small and blue, topped by a pair of surprised eyebrows and a deep forehead that wrinkles in the same arched curves.

Because of his sloping shoulders one doesn’t realize till Morgan-Powell stands up that he is a large man—five feet 11 inches and well over 200 pounds. His friends say that at one time he was a

very powerful man. Rumor has it that he once swam eight miles as a method of resting up after a full day. Another rumor is that in a fit of temper he picked up an old double-keyboard typewriter with his little finger and threw it on the floor.

Today, say some, he appears to be the laziest man in creation; never gets up from his chair except when courtesy or a fit of fury lifts him out of it. Others say appearances are deceptive; that he still has an amazing amount of energy, but controls it more than in his younger days. His courtesy, particularly to a woman and more

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especially they say to a good-looking woman, has an air of the green room and dressing room about it. This isn’t surprising from a man who held Duse’s hand.

Explosive Temper

EVEN more than for his gallantry MorganPowell is famous for his temper. When angered his favorite trick used to be to take off his glasses and fling them at the wall. The fact that the glasses never broke is regarded by most people as part of the Powell magic. “You know as well as I do,” Morgan-Powell smiles at this, “that you can’t break horn rims.”

After he had thrown the glasses Morgan-Powell used to sit down to an unfaltering 10 minutes of unrepetitious explosive utterances. It is said the only man who ever added anything to his expletives came to the Star from a North Sea freighter. Instead of firing him Powell took him out and bought him a drink.

Morgan-Powell in print is something else again. His writing is a rare combination of modern clarity and directness with an almost Victorian elegance and richness of vocabulary. Phrases such as “the beauty-laden hour,” “the encumbrance of the flesh” and “the thin, impalpable mists” stream from his typewriter ribbon. But Morgan-Powell is no mere writer of purple patches. He’s never been afraid to rip Canadians up the back for failing to appreciate their own country and the artists it produced.

As an editor his writings are simple rather than profound, interpretative rather than partisan. In this Morgan-Powell reflects the policy of his paper which is to steer a middle course. Morgan-Powell’s qualifications for the position are his background as news editor in which capacity he joined the paper in 1908 and his years as associate editor to the late Dr. A. R. Carman whom he succeeded. It is a help, too, that he is thoroughly familiar with the bilingual complexities of Montreal, believes in keeping up to date on the news and to quote himself, “endeavors to maintain a policy as consistent as possible in this most inconsistent of all possible worlds.”

Having a tremendous capacity for work Editor Morgan-Powell continues as literary and dramatic editor though most of the drama is now handled by his assistant.

Morgan-Powell has several books to his credit. One, “Memories That Live,” is a collection of prose pieces published in 1929 and winner of the $600 Derby prize. “A sum not to be sneezed at,” he says.

The other books are poetry—a poetry so full of youth and freshness and lustrous words that, but for its excellent craftsmanship, one would think of the writer as perpetually 21. These books are the inch of cream from the top of a terrific daily flow of words that has been coming from MorganPowell for close on 60 years. He is probably the most prolific writer in Canada. “Since I joined the staff of the Star in 1908,” he says, “I have written all criticisms on art, literature, the theatre and the movies.”

The review which people like to ascribe to him is one which dates back 30 years when he is supposed to have dismissed a performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with the brief comment that “the hounds were poorly supported.”

“Real Cockney’’

DURING the last war Morgan-Powell was news editor of The Star and in 1940, after Dr. Carman’s death, he was made editor. “I write with consummate ease,” he says, “and never make more than two or three changes in a column.” Of late years he has dictated all his writings. “Now,” he says, “I only write to sign cheques.” Criticisms of Critic Morgan-Powell are rarely on his style of writing but frequently on his views. He is said to load the dice in favor of English writers and actors against those of the United States. Because of his

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family had moved from London to Harrogate and young Samuel went through another strange phase of education. “I had lashings and lashings of girl cousins,” he tells. “There were 70 of them in Leeds alone and my mother sent me to spend my summers with the largest family of them.” Instead of being embittered by such an experience Morgan-Powell looks back on it as a good idea. “It was a sort of finishing school,” he believes. “It did me a lot of good.”

Of formal education MorganPowell had little and having added a course in shorthand to a background of Dickens, Balzac and girl cousins, he was apprenticed to the Yorkshire Post at the age of fourteen and a half.

“My father paid £350 to have me apprenticed,” he says. “The apprenticeship was to last three years and I was paid sixpence a week so it was impossible to earn back the money.”

For that sixpence young MorganPowell acted as office boy, stock market reporter, police court reporter, advertising clerk and general messenger. “From that time on,” he says proudly, “I never had another penny from my parents but made extra money by reporting cricket and football matches on Saturday afternoons.”

It was by way of these football matches that Morgan-Powell rose out of the sixpenny stage long before his three years were up. One of the teams went on strike and called a secret meeting in the dressing room. Young Morgan-Powell crawled under the fence to a spot where he could hear all. Lying flat on his stomach he made notes in shorthand on his starched linen cuffs, took the next train to Leeds, wrote the story and got his salary raised to eight shillings and sixpence.

That raise was all velvet. The next one to 27 shillings and sixpence was more in the nature of a liability.

“In keeping with my new position,” he recalls, “I had to buy a morning coat and top hat for weddings and funerals.”

Morgan - Powell’s apprenticeship, cut short though it was, sounds like an ordeal that not many young men would be willing to go through today.

“We worked for a whole year,” he remembers, “without getting a line in the paper. They sent us out with a seasoned reporter; each time we wrote a story and turned it in to the chief reporter who penciled it and sent it back to us.”

First Big Chance

IT WAS Morgan-Powell’s good fortune to be attached to C. E. Thompson, one of the most brilliant dramatic critics of the time. “We went everywhere,” he recalls, “to the big festivals at Salzburg, Paris and Berlin.”

Once Thompson missed the train. The occasion was Clara Butt’s debut at the Wakefield Festival where one of the first open-air concerts was

being held. Young Morgan-Powell had his chance. “I wired back three full columns, much better than anything Thompson ever wrote,” he laughs about it. “The paper ran one stick with not a word as I’d written it.”

Morgan-Powell tells these stories of himself with a good deal of enjoyment and not too much seriousness. He settles down to talk with the leisured assurance of a man who has more than half a century, almost a whole world and a gallery of famous people to draw on. His conversation is not so much conversation as an act he’s built up over the years. His voice is an actor’s voice with richness and a good deal of music in it. He speaks with an English accent in well-Chosen words and well-rounded sentences. Like a good play he begins calmly and works up to a climax. From an opening of almost complete immobility he tosses in an odd gesture, emphasizing a point by the lift of a little finger or adding to his words by a quirk of his mouth. When he frowns his wrinkles deepen. When he smiles a pair of long, lean dimples appear in his plump cheeks.

When that happens Morgan-Powell is warmed up. The gestures broaden and he thumps the desk with fist or palm, flings wide his arms or snaps his fingers in the air. When he’s finished you feel you’ve attended a performance in the best Martin Harvey tradition.

Probably because of his dramatic flair Morgan-Powell takes more interest in his clothes than newspapermen are said to do. He goes to a good tailor, pays $10 each for his shirts, dresses for the theatre and wears two rings—a star sapphire on one little finger and a signet on the other.

He is regarded as both cosmopolitan and bohemian and has probably worked hard at being both. “For 12 years,” he says, “I moved from paper to paper intentionally and spent four years free-lancing, making my way with a small grip as I went all over Europe.”

He prides himself that he has been in every European country except Russia. “I was refused entry there” —the experience still entertains him —“because I resembled a nihilist they were hunting for at the moment.” He adds that the officers of the Czar were very courteous and cheered him with cigarettes and liqueurs.

Highlights in Morgan - Powell’s career include a year in Paris when his beat took in the cafes and the cabarets; a trip to Egypt when he switched from syndicate writer to official guide for the famous Shepheard’s Hotel; and six months on the West Coast of Africa working on a paper whose owner dealt in cameras, hairpins, and gin on the side. To escape a smallpox epidemic he left Africa in a freighter and stoked his way home to England.

Back in England he had a chance of going to India to the Allahabad Pioneer, but chose instead to go to British Guiana to become subeditor of the Demerara Chronicle. While there he pretty well covered South America and made the decision to come to Montreal where he’s lived ever since.

“The only part of the world I haven’t seen,” he says—and MorganPowell figures it’s too late now—“is the Orient.”

Wanderings At An End

THESE wanderings came to an end in 1904 when MorganPowell joined the staff of the Montreal Witness which he describes as “a strange paper built on abstinence and the glorification of the Protestant religion.” From there he went to the Herald and in 1908 to the Montreal Star. Today his friends observe regretfully that “Morgan has become respectable.”

They like to talk of the good old times when, legend has it, he would top off a golf tournament with prodigious libations. They recall how he was always going to make a million by buying such-and-such a stock. They remember how he backed a show and was stuck for $3,000 when the other backers decamped.

Most of all they remember Morgan-Powell’s generosity in the days when none of them had a dime. “I’ve known him,” says a friend of 20 years’ standing, “to borrow $25 from one man and $25 from another so he could lend $50 to someone else.”

In those days young reporters worshipped at his shrine. If they showed promise he was always ready with help and encouragement. If they got drunk he would hire a taxi he could ill afford and drive them round the Mountain till their heads cooled off. If they wrote what he considered a good book he hounded publishers and critics till he got them on the map. But outside the privileged circle he was regarded as “pontifical, egotistical and bombastic.”

He will still argue on any subject “from social credit to how to bring up a baby.”

Today Morgan-Powell is missing a great many of his old-time pleasures. Montreal is no longer a theatrical city and to him Broadway looks too mediocre to be worth the trip. He has had to give up golf—a game he used to play with terrific enthusiasm, great expense and small skill.

Compensations are that he still works hard—the belief is that he won’t leave his desk till he’s carried away from it—and that he can still read one or two books from cover to cover in an evening. People argue that he doesn’t actually read these books but skips and skims over them. Morgan-Powell denies this.

“I follow a system I learned from Quiller-Couch,” he explains, “of concentrating on four lines at a time so they become imprinted on the memory.”

His own memory he says is fairly good. “I can’t remember names but I never forget a face, a hand or a voice.” He doesn’t pretend though to be the equal of his brother who memorized the whole of Shakespeare and used to go on tour giving scene and verse as the audience called for it.

When he reads, which he does almost every evening from eight until one, Morgan-Powell must be seated in his own brown leather chair with his specially built cylindrical reading lamp shining from exactly the same spot. If either the chair or the lamp

is out of place he roars. In other ways, too, he is a creature of habit. When riding in a car he insists on sitting in the front seat with his stick beside him. When he goes to his favorite Montreal night club he must be taken always to the same table.

People, including his wife, are undisturbed by his explosions of temper. Mrs. Morgan-Powell— whom he calls Dolly—he regards as the practical genius of the family. “She has the money sense,” he admits. “And the other common sense as well.”

Mrs. Morgan-Powell is very small, blonde, dresses smartly and thought by Montrealers to have been an actress. Actually she has never been on the stage and comes from Sherbrooke, Que. Her favorite pastime is bridge but her husband doesn’t share it. “Bridge!” he explodes. “I wouldn’t play it for $1,000!”

Picked Library

THE show place of the Powell apartment is Morgan-Powell’s library which contains some 4,000 books, each one carefully selected. “They are the pick of a quarter of a century,” he says proudly.

The Morgan-Powell’s are famous for their hospitality. When MorganPowell played golf and was a member at Summerlea he entertained everybody and with lavish generosity.

For most of his life his income didn’t rise to meeting that generosity. His friends used to worry about his future knowing he had no financial sense. At the age of 60 he astounded them by announcing that he’d discovered a new form of security •—the pension bond. Everyone else had known about pension bonds for years.

Today he does most of his entertaining at home and Christmas and New Year’s are special occasions with him. On those days he refuses to stir from the house but is offended if any friend fails to call. His friends are said to range from truck drivers up. “Morgan’s a snob,” admits one of his friends, “but it’s a snobbery of taste.” This snobbery of taste sets him apart from the times he lives in. He regrets the lost privacy of

Victorian days, says that now a man can find privacy only in two places. One of these is an abandoned cellar. He regrets too the passing of the art of conversation. The dialogue of Ernest Hemingway is to him typical of the bleakness of modern talk.

In writing lack of style is to Morgan-Powell a deadly sin and one of which Canadian writers are guilty. “There is too much imitation of things American,” he complains. “And there are hardly any distinctive Canadian books.” As exceptions to these he cites Hugh MacLennan’s novel, “Barometer Rising” and Frank McDowell’s “The Champlain Trail.”

“Canadians are best at the historical novel” is Morgan - Powell’s opinion. In the line of nonfiction he puts Bruce Hutchison at the top. “There’s a man whose writing can be recognized,” he says. Canadian poets, he believes, can stand up with any of them and he heads his list of favorites with Audrey Alexandra Brown, the two Scotts and Sir Charles G. D. Roberts.

Of the world today Morgan-Powell talks very little. He regards the Beveridge Plan as “a fantastic dream.” He hopes we’ll have a better world after the war but isn’t any too certain.

He doesn’t worry too much about this. The world he knows has been a good one and Morgan-Powell has memories to last a lifetime. Most of these have to do with footlights and grease paint, with the starlit names of Nazimova, Duse and Bernhardt. Of all these he likes best to recall an invitation to lunch with Sarah Bernhardt.

“I was late,” he remembers, “so I stopped at a florist’s and bought two dozen American Beauty roses. When I arrived the room was full of people and Bernhardt came toward me, blazing with fury, seized the roses and struck me across the face with them. The next moment she was charm itself and delighted to see me.”

If there were thorns in the roses Morgan-Powell doesn’t recall them. He probably didn’t feel them at the time. Being struck in the face by Sarah Bernhardt was good drama.

Nonmetal Screen

AN ENTIRELY newwindowscreen, L chemically made, and containing no metal, will be available to householders after the war, says the Scientific American.

It is made of nylon, now used exclusively for vital military purposes. Having all of the good characteristics of metal screening, and many qualities besides, it can be produced in any color, will not stain the sills, will not corrode, requires no painting, and has extraordinary durability.

Pencils or other sharp-pointed objects can be shoved through it without damage; the strength and elasticity of the strands are so great that they come back into place merely by rubbing them with the fingers.

In many cases the new screens will not even have to be put up in the spring and taken down in the fall. They will just be rolled up and down on tracks like a window shade.

The idea of making screens out of

nylon occurred to chemists and engineers several years ago, at the time the first nylon toothbrushes were being turned out—even before hosiery was introduced. But the new child of creative chemistry, derived from the hydrocarbons of coal, the nitrogen and oxygen of air, the hydrogen of water, made such a sensational hit in hosiery and brushes that the manufacturers were kept busy trying to supply a segment of the demand for those articles.

Meanwhile a few screens had been erected at various points for preliminary tests. They stood up well even along the seashore, where salt spray rusts or corrodes metal screens very rapidly. Tests also showed that the nylon screen was so strong and resilient that when something bumped into it no permanent bulge was left.

One of the outstanding advantages is the “ingrained” color, which does away .with painting.