The Mayor and the Miser
Meet Claude-Henri Grignon, Mayor of Ste. Adèle and creator of Quebec’s most hated radio character. He’s a character himself
MONSIEUR Claude-Henri Grignon is one of the more provocative figures of French Canada. He’s a turbulent, self-conscious character who, as mayor of the Laurentian village of Ste. Adèle, serves a constituency of 1,200 mountain folk. He’s also the writer of an extremely popular radio serial listened to eagerly every Monday to Friday evening by nearly one third of all the people in Quebec.
He works as hard and as successfully at being a character as he does at writing or being a mayor. He could play himself on the stage with greater effectiveness than did Alexander Woollcott, whose posturing he duplicates in many ways.
Physically, he is a shorter, bushier, fiercer reproduction of Prime Minister King. Like Mr. King, he has the smile of a small boy contemplating some great mischief. And there the resemblance ends. Where Mr. King’s gestures are small and concise, Monsieur Grignon’s are vast and hammy. He sits at his desk and shakes a warning finger at you. He flings himself backward in his desk chair and strikes a John L. Lewis pose. “I have but one friend in all this world,” he says in a low gravelly tone. He spreads his arms to encompass his study. “This
is my refuge. This is my solitude. If you want strength, you must live alone. The real ‘puissance’ . . . the real force comes from having no friends.” This, of course, is nonsense, but it makes for excellent publicity.
As author of the radio serial, Un Homme et Son Péché (A Man and His Sin), which in Quebec attracts relatively more listeners than did Amos and Andy in their American heyday, 52-year-old Monsieur Grignon has attained the stature of a folk-philosopher; an interpreter of life in Quebec province. To radio people his broadcast is a phenomenon. At seven o’clock, five nights a week, it practically stops life in Quebec. Eleven stations carry the show, and from listener surveys it is estimated that one million people listen to it— about a third of Quebec’s population.
What they hear is not great literature, though it is often strong drama. And it is as French Canadian as the words of Alouette. As such, it is as different from ordinary soap opera as pea soup is from a banana split. There are no young or old lovers moaning at each other. There are no triangles; no divorces. There has never been a murder. The doctor in the serial is never urgently summoned to call surgery.
The setting is Grignon’s native parish of Ste. Adèle; the time 50 years Continued on page 50
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The Mayor and The Miser
Continued from page 13
ago. The principals are an old miser, Seraphim Poudrier, and his submissive wife, Donalda. The story, which focuses around the connivingsof the old miser (a traditional character in French literature), reflects, as well, many of the actual national and local issues of the nineties. Federal and provincial elections are fought again, with great fidelity to detail, and Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Louis Riel pass through the script, life-size.
Parish life in Quebec has changed so little in 50 years that listeners often consider the story contemporary, except when some historical figure appears. The long-suffering Donalda once received an expensive dress from a farm woman who had saved a year to buy it.
Apart from Seraphim’s miserly doings, the central issue in the serial is the battle between the modernists in the village and the conservative farmers in the parish. Typical problem: the villagers want running water, but the farmers feel it would be too dear. They fight it out in the municipal council.
There are 45 characters in Un Homme et Son Péché. Grignon keeps a list of their names, ages and occupations in a school exercise book. Some of them enter the story only three or four times a year; about a dozen appear constantly. Unlike soap opera characters, who invariably are called something like Smith, Jones, Bill or Mary, Grignon’s people rejoice in unusual names.
There’s Seraphim Poudrier, the old miser. He’s worth $70,000, which was big business in 1896. He’s not even aware of his avarice, never mentions it at confession. He considers himself a good Catholic, and is quite taken aback when Donalda, usually a meek fearful little wife, quotes the priest against him. He conducts his conversations with Donalda in a snarl.
There’s Mayor Alexis Labranche, embodiment of most of the Catholic virtues that Grignon crusades for, a jolly, hard-working rural good fellow. There’s Caroline Malterre, the merry widow who runs the village taverneccentric, curious, a great liar and a gossip. Notary Lepo tirón is a key character, who gets deeply involved in all of Seraphim’s sly deals.
A Serious Matter
One of the characters who crops up three or four times a year is Bill Wabo, a no-good half-breed. Once he set fire to Seraphim’s wood lot and escaped. The audience reacted to this by forming posses through rural Quebec and going after the rascal. In one parish they caught a lad who fitted the description, and held him till the police came.
The story owes much to a set of journals kept by Claude-Henri’s father, who was the first physician in Ste. Adèle, and quite a skilled recorder of his times. In Ste. Adèle it’s believed that the characters, in spite of the historical setting, are based on local contemporaries. Actually, the character of the miser is drawn from a figure in the doctor’s journals, who lived not far from the village. And Grignon admits to utilizing a good many characteristics of present villagers.
Both Seraphim and Donalda have been embodied into the idiom of Quebec, where the expressions, “as saintly as Donalda,” and “as miserly as Seraphim,” are in common usage. The program gets tremendous fan mail, and an extraordinary number of gifts, which are generally addressed to Donalda.
The outstanding success of Seraphim and Donalda brought province-wide fame (and fortune) to their creator when he was in his late forties. Up till then he’d had a smaller but more select following as an original, quarrelsome, witty free-lance journalist and publisher.,
Grignon sprang from a sort of rural aristocracy, his family having been among the early settlers in Ste. Adèle. Claude-Henri was born in the village, went through primary school there and then went to the College duSt.Laurent, near Montreal, for a two-year course in classic literature.
Dr. Grignon wanted Claude-Henri to follow in his professional footsteps. The young man was in definite opposition. A compromise resulted in his being sent off to the Ecole d’Agriculture at Oka. This fine establishment, run by the Trappists, was ideal for Claude’s purpose. He went right ahead with his reading failed completely at agriculture. Following that, he returned to Saint Adèle, where he was tutored privately in the classic novel, drama and verse by a 65-year-old Belgian count.
On to Montreal
The death of his father left Grignon without income to pursue his studies. At the age of 18 he went to the M >ntreal of 1912, to a job in the Customs Department of the Federal Government. He was both miserable and unsuccessful there, but he remained through the war and into the midtwenties.
When he was 24 he began to write literary criticisms for the Laurentian newspaper, L'Avenir du Nord, published at Saint Jerome. He took the pen name Valdombre, which he still uses for some of his more caustic work. Roughly translated, Valdombre means “Valley of Shadows.” From L'Avenir he graduated to the metropolitan papers. This brought him wider recognition but little money. He spent freely and was always broke.
His first book was published in 1927, when he was 33. This oddly dissociated work was called “Le Secret de Lindbergh," and was a hero-worshipping commentary on Lindy’s hop, compiled from newspaper clippings and from Lindbergh’s own book “We.” It was quite a bad book; which sold 3,000 copies and left Grignon only a couple of hundred dollars richer.
In 1928 he decided that “for me the end had come to city life.” If he had to be broke, he might as well be broke in Ste. Adèle, where the scenery at least was better. He returned to the village then and has remained there since, except for a two-year period between 1934 and 1936, when he worked as publicity officer for the Colonization Minister in Quebec.
From the time of his return to Ste. Adèle, Grignon’s fortunes, both literary and financial, increased steadily. He wrote for Quebec’s literary and political newspapers. From 1936 to 1942 he produced his own controversial “Les Pamphlets de Valdombre," a 48-page monthly, for which he wrote the entire contents, planned the layout, and read proof. In “Les Pamphlets" Grignon set forth his personal attitudes toward religion, politics, literature, famous personalities, history, money and any special issues of the day. At one time or another he managed to offend almost everyone of importance in Quebec.
Between these assignments he squeezed a book of medium-popular short stories, two books of essays, and a short novel called “Un Homme et Son Péché."
In 1939 he struck pure gold for the first time in his career with a radio adaptation of the novel. Then many tilings became possible, including a fine
$500 campaign for the mayoralty of Ste. Adèle, which he won, but not by a $500 margin.
The year before, Grignon had submitted a serial called “Le Déserteur” to CBC. It was a sustaining show, and proved only moderately popular. CBC asked him for another serial next year, and that was when “ Un Homme et Son Péché” was born. For four years it ran steadily as a sustaining program, three nights a week. In 1942 a coffee company sponsored it on a five-a-week basis, and it has appeared with that frequency ever since. A tooth paste manufacturer pays the bills now.
Mayor Grignon lives on the main street of Ste. Adèle, in a large white house which was built in 1851, and has a solidity and respectability about it that will probably not be duplicated by the builders of 1951. The interior has been done over to include twentieth century plumbing, but not twentieth century design. If it has one outstanding characteristic, it is that glistening spotlessness which may be found in so many French-Canadian farm kitchens.
Upstairs Claude-Henri Grignon has his own study. His window, at the back of the house, overlooks a clear little mountain lake, and beyond that, smack in his view, is a magnificent resort hotel which suggests nothing so much as the word “Tyrolese.”
Three of the study walls are almost obscured by his collection of books. Over the years Grignon has acquired a library worth more than $10,000, which Caesar-like, he plans to will to the children of the village upon his death. In addition to the approved texts he has a small collection of far-Left literature, which found its way to a very obscure cupboard during the time of Quebec’s “padlock law,” which made possession of such material a crime.
Grignon’s working day varies with the season. In winter he gets up between eight and nine o’clock, and works till shortly after noon. In summer he prefers to get up between five and six o’clock and work through until about 10. The script of his broadcast takes about three hours. Another three hours a day is devoted to reading five Paris newspapers.
In addition, every month for the last four years he has written a column, “Le Père Bougonneux,” in Le Bulletin des Agricultures—a farm paper with a circulation of 125,000—for which he gets the high rate of eight cents a word. And he turns out the occasional 15minute or half-hour fantasy for radio.
He has tried out five secretaries since
his rise to wealth, but has not found one whose work he did not have to correct. The secretaries feel that the fault is not all on one side. The Grignon method of dictating consists of leaping about the room, acting out all the parts of a play, with extravagant gestures, facial contortions and dialogue in dialect. Today, secretariless, he pound^ it all out on a typewriter in his study, a cigarette drooping eternally from his mouth.
The author-mayor always works in collarless pyjamas of a solid color, which button high at the neck and have a gentle toga air about them. His walking-out suits are those of an old country doctor. In winter he wears an enormous coon coat and a fur hat. He claims to be the only man of his station of life in Quebec province who has no dress clothes. Of the “white tie and tails genre of man,” Grignon says, with measured contempt, “that is a comedian. I am not a comedian.”
Friday nights are devoted to poker, usually with his friends Emil Marin, a village hotelman, and F. X. Moisan, a retired restaurateur. He stands up to deal the cards, talks constantly. Nature has endowed him with the exact opposite of a poker face, but he wins consistently, and interprets this as a fine skill with cards.
Grignon is happily married; has no children. His wife, Therese, is a big gracious Frenchwoman with the roughhewn, self-pitiless features of a pioneer. She manages the household and guards the finances as much as that is possible.
Part of Claude-Henri’s very real respect for his wife is inspired by her ability in a kitchen. “I have a great opinion of my wife . . . she is very cordon bleu. She knows real FrenchCanadian kitchen, and that is very great art.” He shakes a finger of warning, “Don’t forget never, my friend, we go to the table three times a day and sometimes four. And it is not for the fun. . .it is not just for bacon and eggs.”
In his younger days Grignon was an able athlete of the bulldozer type; did average-well at hockey and baseball. When he was 33 he took up tennis, and played a cracking good game till his late forties. Now he is president of the local hockey team, and sparks players and spectators alike with his roaring. He is also president of the club Pays d’en Haut (Country Up Above), a fishing club for the sporting families of the village. This club is farther north in the mountains. He gets to and from the camp in his own car, which he
refuses to drive himself. He owns a new Oldsmobile; employs a girl chauffeur.
The village of Ste. Adèle divides on the question of its mayor, and to appreciate the division one must know a little of the village.
Ste. Adèle is in the Laurentian mountains north of Monteal. Twenty years ago it was a slow-moving, poor, isolated hamlet which lived off rocky farm lands. Today it is a thriving winter and summer resort, which lives handsomely off the holiday and weekend crowds, and which boasts several truly fancy-pants resort hotels and a number of fine big city-suburb homes.
Generally the new customs and influences are resented by the old and temperate mountain families. The newer and the younger families find the prosperity hard to argue against. There are better homes now, and better stores, and better jobs and better schools.
Problems of Leadership
In the midst of the conflict stands Mayor Grignon. He believes that the village can have its cake and eat it too. He would sacrifice much to preserve traditional French-Canadian life, but he would be very reluctant to give up the money that the holiday makers bring.
Grignon’s idea is that the village should develop and exploit its own traditional character for the entertainment and enchantment of its visitors. In preference to electric lights, he would like candles on the table; instead of the music of Lower Basin Street, he would have French folk songs and dances; rather than chromium-plated cocktail bars, there would be the hand-carved furniture of local artisans.
Grignon loves to crusade for the improbable, and the large hotel owners and real-estate dealers make wonderfully impregnable windmills against which to crash his wooden sword of authority. His chief complaint is that they draw heavily upon the services of the village—water, roads, sewage, etc.— yet contribute very little to the support of the village. “Everybody has money in Ste. Adèle,” he cries. “Everybody except the council!”
Monsieur Grignon pointed up his argument quite dramatically last winter when one of the larger resorts caught fire. While the flames were still small the village fire pump started out behind its volunteer crew; arrived on the scene only to discover that there were no hydrants nearby. So the crew stood by while the hotel blazed away. Leaving the scene of the fire, where he had been acting as fire chief, Mayor Grignon proceeded to the head of the main street, and there flung out his arms and bellowed: “See . . . what can we do? We have no money, we have nothing at all! We cannot even put out a fire in Ste. Adèle.”
The following day the fire was reported in the Montreal papers, and one enterprising reporter included the comments of the mayor. Within several hours insurance underwriters were in the village to cancel the fire policy of the largest resort hotel. In this manner Grignon keeps life interesting for the English syndicates, and inspires the dislike of the village progressives who are all out for commercial tourism.
City life is now far behind Grignon, and he hates the memory of his Montreal days. He only goes to town now when the program demands his presence, and then he never stays more than a couple of hours. His city-office behavior involves a great routine of suffering. He flings open all windows; lolls in chairs, apparently in the final stages of exhaustion, fighting for breath.
When the business is done he staggers v away like a wounded animal heading n for £ mountain lair.
Around the Montreal radio studios he C
is known as “The Lion of the North,” d but he prefers the self-bestowed title of f “The Bear of Saint Adèle.” This latter £ title he derived from his strong, stubby hands, which he claims are like paws. ii
Underneath all of the hoopla and the c pantomime the mayor of Ste. Adèle is j deeply a conformist. He feuds with the j local curé, but he is a good French t Catholic, and he emphasizes that his 1 broadcasts are the only ones on the air t in which the characters regularly disg cuss God. The parish church plays a a continuing part in “Un Homme et c Son Péché.” Grignon is particularly a proud of the fact that his program is e listened to in the household of Cardinal s Villeneuve.
Ir. his earnest moments he could be c the parisn priest in “Two Solitudes” 1 talking: “The place for young Canag dians is on the land. There is nothing of i good for them in the cities.” r
“What need is there to know two r languages? Let us both stay where we 1 belong. We can get along better that r way.” i
“We speak too much of money. In the nation, in the village, it is the same, a
we think only of money, money, money.”
This last view did not prevent Grignon from making a very excellent deal with the tooth paste manufacturer for the sponsorship of “ Un Homme et Son Péché.”
In his broadcasts he employs the idiom of farm and factory, and he is quite scornful of the cultivated European accents affected by many radio people of French Canada. Yet, despite this attitude, he shares with many of his province a deep yearning to visit the Motherland of France before he grows too old. He has never been abroad, but from his constant perusing of books and maps he is familiar with almost every street in Paris, and with every building and square of historical significance.
Add to this homeland yearning one other desire, which may or may not have its origin in whimsy. He wants to go to Russia. The ostensible motive is to investigate the liberalizing of religion in that country, but his intimates say that he is really spurred on by a suspicion that Soviet village mayors don’t have to put up with any nonsense from resort hotel owners.
The mayor of Ste Adèle would like a dossier on that.