Man in the Middle
In the field of high-power publicity, Walter Thompson is a quiet, unhucksterish huckster who never cooked a deal to sell a story
THE LOBBY of Cleveland's Hotel Statler was a bustling corner of a busy city around 11 a.m. on the first of July, 1946, when the portly aracter with the face of a bland cherub accepted stful of telegrams from the mail clerk.
The guest retired to an armchair under a potted m and slit the top envelope with a thick foreger. As lie read he reached into a pocket and excted a large and immaculate white handkerchief, ,h which he dabbed his forehead precisely three íes, the only sign of inner disturbance the portly iracter’s friends have ever noted. Then, address; himself to the palm, he remarked softly that d be everlastingly damned. Whereupon he went >ut the business of inaugurating the MontrealnontoCleveland service of Trans-Canada Air íes.
What the wire said was:
‘MORNING PAPERS ANNOUNCE YOU RECIPIENT CBE IN DOMINION DAY CONORS LIST CONGRATULATIONS.’*
\.ny newspaperman who has ever known Walter >tt Thompson of the CNR and Trans-Canada Lines would call that C.B.E. belated recognition the smoothest operator this country, or maybe 3 continent, has ever known in the realm of public itions. After the Canadian visit of Their ijesties in 1939, B. K. Sandwell, who comes close being the dean of the writing trade hereabouts, ;gested that it might be a good idea to suspend rule about titles long enough to bestow one on ompson.
'»ince then his repute has grown even greater than vas on his return from nursemaiding a hundred iperamental and occasionally fractious writers 1 photographers through the mine field of a al tour. If this were Britain, an eminent pressn from those parts recently remarked, he’d have ;n dubbed long since. But it isn’t Britain, and uncouth newspaper folk who are his friends are temely content about the C.B.E. It rewards disfuished service without interfering with his idle, which is not even Mister Thompson, but Iter.
hirty years of service to what once was an remely frail client, a public-owned railroad with It-in deficits, have not changed the man who in ith relieved the tedium of being city editor of the illy virtuous Montreal Witness by consorting h employees of more ribald sheets in the •Xing atmosphere of Phil Brown’s, on Victoria tare. Brown’s was famed, among other boons, offering the most generous free lunch in the city, hompson has neither the jargon nor the outlook -he huckster. He wouldn’t know a consumer ïtion if he met one on McGill Street. If he ever rd of sales resistance, he has never mentioned the ; though he broke down the toughest case of it Canadian annals during the early days of the R. He never asks anybody to lay off a story. He er makes deals in which he will do this for a ier if the reporter will do that for him. He is as rgic to head-on collisions in human relations as railroad is to those between trains.
Thinks Best at Rest
IS FRIENDS consider him the most composed person they know, an assumption suggested by façade and confirmed by his conviction that ent exercise consists of getting into and out of "is, airplanes, ships, automobiles, office buildings,
Js and chairs. His weight scales around 300. •ody has paced off the Thompson perimeter in ■8.
rom this it must not be assumed that he is
sluggish, however. What he uses is a hair-trigger mind. Why complicate the processes of t hought by pacing floors, playing with rowing machines or taking long walks after dark? Thompson discovered long since that his mind works best when his body is bent into an armchair and requires no attention. Falstaflian in appearance, he has many of the engaging and lovable attributes of that other fabulous person.
Thompson is considerably more than a top-flight smoother-outer for a railroad and its airline, however. He is the specialist harassed Cabinet ministers send for when they need something done in a hurry they don’t know how to do themselves. C. D. Howe summoned him to Ottawa to be chief censor on the outbreak of war, feeling so sure of his man that the appointment was announced on the air even before the appointee had received a wire asking him to accept.
He has had in tow virtually every celebrity to visit Canada in the past quarter century who rated special train treatment—Their Majesties, the previous monarch on two occasions as Prince of Wales, Marie of Romania, the late Lloyd George, Field Marshal Montgomery and the present Governor-General, whom he escorted from Halifax to Rideau Hall, as always with the press holding his hand en route. Always he has been the man in the middle— between the CNR and public, between visiting firemen and the press and as chief censor between the newspapers and government.
Most ot what has been written and said of Walter Thompson has had to do with what may be called t he central area of his career, beginning with the Royal Tour of 1939 and continuing t hrough his days as chief censor and wartime information organizer. Yet his two biggest jobs came before and after this period of acclaim. The first
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was the task of selling the CNR to the Canadian people after their government had taken over every bankrupt streak of rust in the country and Sir Henry Thornton was trying to make a transportation system out of the hodgepodge. The second was to take the pre-war TCA and, while its operations staff built a system extending from Vancouver Island to the British Isles, sell it. to u population that was anything but air-minded.
But not Walter
Thompson’s job at CNR in the 1920'H was a strange mixture of selling the delights of travel and the great outdoors and ducking political brickbats. To a considerable and influential portion of the population the railroad represented the bogeyman of public ownership and was, therefore, anathema. After the components that had been the Grand Trunk, the Grand Trunk Pacific, the various Canadian Northerns, the Intercolonial, the National Transcontinental and a group of submarginal local lines had been me r get! under one corporate roof, deficits began to blow in the door until the occupants were knee-deep in losses.
As President Thornton saw it, the Government should have taken the old capital of all the roads and tossed it into the national debt, putting a respectable capitalization on its physical property, which would have given the public a better idea how they were doing. But no. The outcome was such famous literature as the Montreal Star’s “Whisper of Death” series, in which the paper’s then owner, the late Lord Atholstan, played the last solemn requiem over a Canada buried under a pyre of political railroad deficits. Others came up in Parliament with the idea of selling the whole issue for a dollar if we could find a buyer at the price. The circumstances were not conducive to snappy public relationeering.
Looking back it seems as if almost any other expert in the country would have gone off half-cocked in one, or several, directions. Probably the simplest trick would have been to become an evangelist and tour the country, making brilliant speeches apropos the blessings of rolling your own railroads. Not Walter. Another operator, estimating his role as being solely that of selling transportation, might have let the political dogfight proceed unattended. Not the calm and oollected Mr. Thompson.
He showed up at all theevents, argued with none of the spectators, was never heard to accuse anybody of hitting below the belt, always wore the mien of a contented onlooker. If the handkerchief came out more often than it does nowadays for Jffs habitual three dabs at his forehead—the sign that Walter needs a moment to think—it was in no way surprising. But then as now, he was always the smoother. Most of the nation’s newspapers were hostile to his railroad. Without exception the newspapermen were his pals. Editors, pacing their sanctums as they dictated screaming denunciations of public railway ownership, have been known to pause in rhetorical flight, bite their nails and tell their secretaries to throw the thing away and take a piece, please, Miss Smith, about the coming of the first robin. Most people just couldn’t bring themselves to play cloak-anddagger behind Walter’s well-covered shoulder blades.
Nor was much fun to be had out of pasting the gent and his railroad in print. He wouldn’t get mad. He wouldn’t even try to tell you how misguided you were. Chances are he’d ask you to lunch and never mention the scathing editorial you ran yesterday. What can you do with a guy like that? A number of editors would have paid good money for a workable answer.
Thompson had his own simple thesis of what the CNR is all about. By suggestion, never by frontal attack, he set out to sell the idea to the Canadian people that what they had was public ownership (forced on them by the woeful state of the taken-over roads) under private management and operation. No civil servants on the payroll. No ministers giving orders. No gravy train. It was not always easy to get this viewjjoint believed, particularly when private members of the House wanted branch lines built to bisect their constituencies.
When such matters hit the front pages, the great smoother-outer made neither press releases nor speeches to oppose or refute them. It is even reasonable to suggest that more than once he persuaded members of his board not to emit angry protestations of purity. Time, as his good friend Mackenzie King discovered early in life, will cure pretty nearly anything. If the Bayards of public ownership wanted to sound off in its defense, well and good. Nobody asked them to do so. It wasn’t necessary. When did an evangelist have to be urged to make a speech? You may gather Thompson is
a pretty cagey character. Correct.
It seems fair at this point to say that the Thompson thesis has worked and that Canadians now accept the CNR as a going concern. Die-hards may argue that what brought about this acceptance was the war and its tremendous payload of traffic. That would be talking right up Mr. Thompson’s alley. Given enough time something is bound to crop up. And where would the war effort, have been if the transportation system had been a bankrupt, rundown hodgepodge?
Over on the transportation side of his job Thompson was just as busy sawing wood as in the broader field. His
role, as he has always seen it, is to sell Canada, not just a lower berth. What benefits Canada benefits its railways. Well, how can you sell Canada better than through the medium of people who write to large audiences? In other days —to this day, in fact, in wrhat a newspaperman would call unenlightened quarters—writing people were often regarded as public nuisances, particularly by people to whom honest reporting could be highly embarrassing. If that atmosphere ever existed around Montreal’s McGill Street, where the CNR is at home from nine to five, it vanished immediately under the Thompson caliphate.
If a group of British or U. S. newspapermen came to Canada to cover a
story, he saw to it that they were wel looked after, in the social as well as the working aspects of their visits. Invariably they went home singing the praises of a country which, though chill in climate, was warm and friendly in spirit. Canadian National offices beyond these borders became unofficial embassies through wh ch big - name writers were cleared into the Dominion. Courtney Riley Cooper, who wrote piece after piece for the big U. S. magazines on the Canadian outdoors, was one; so was Rex Beach. The late Bob Davis put Canada between the covers of his books in lyric prose. From Britain came even a wildlife lover, Harper Corkhill, who, after touring the country under the Thompson aegis, went home and wrote a book about Canadian fauna called ‘‘Lovable Beasts.” If you were living in the U. S. in the later 1920’s and owned a portable typewriter and a yen to go north, someone in the publishing business was sure to say to you: “The smart trick is to go to Montreal and look up a guy called Walter Thompson.”
At the end of the royal tour the press train passengers presented their cicerone with a cigarette case, in 14-carat gold, on which was engraved a map of Canada and the route of the tour, with the affectionate respects of the donors etched within. It is Thompson’s most cherished treasure. It came from his own kind of people.
Air Travel Salesman
Next came a message from Buckingham Palace, as soon as Their Majesties reached home. It said:
“The King and Queen feel that in the rush of departure at Halifax they did not have a proper opportunity of telling you how highly they appreciate the work you did throughout their tour . . . it called for a combination of the qualities of a successful ambassador, a firm but just father of a large family and, at times, an efficient lion tamer. To us it seemed that you exhibited them all with unfailing tact and skill.”
Being the man in the middle had paid off in the coin Thompson likes best, the good will of the parties of the first and second parts. When that happens the course has been played in par.
Middlemanning for an airline called for a new approach. What had to be sold was a new form of transportation, not a new kind of ownership, and it had to be sold to a population still imbued with the idea of keeping at least one foot on the ground.
He sold it as safe and solid transportation, nothing else but. In the inter-
vening years TCA has built up what Americans call the practically crashproof airline. It flies when things are right to fly and no other time. It enjoys, moreover, ground services unexcelled anywhere in the world. All these items Mr. Thompson has used as capital in that quiet way he has of creating confidence.
The middle period of which much has been written—the royal tour and the early months of the war—almost killed him. The royal tour was a gruelling job with its split-second schedule.
A few hours after the outbreak of war Thompson was called to Ottawa to become chief censor. For three mont hs he rarely took his clothes off except to have a shower and go back to work, his associates relate.
An Unhappy Censor
Meanwhile he was busy setting up public information (WIB’s forerunner) as well. In December, 1939, life caught up with him. By actual count he hadn’t taken a full night’s sleep in six months. Yet, tired and with lines furrowing his face, he was imperturbable as ever. Maybe the handkerchief came out oftener than usual. But no jittery sign admitted to his fatigue. He was still the same suave person after the doctors told him that if he didn’t take the next train out of there he’d probably take the one after in a wooden box. Walter settled for the first train.
In his heart he was happy to be rid of the job. About as much of the spirit of the censor is to be found in his make-up as there is of the martinet. His colleagues on McGill Street tell of a night Chief Censor Thompson phoned from Ottawa. A troop train had run into trouble down East and a soldier had been killed. At the expiry of the normal security period an announcement would be made, and railroad publicists are extremely allergic to accident stories, particularly those involving sudden death. It would have been an easy spot for a CNR man turned censor to become devious. But Thompson phoned down and said to release the story.
Silence followed. Finally it was broken at the Montreal end. “Know what?” asked the voice of a 20-year colleague. Another considerable pause. “No. What?” asked Thompson. “You’re a hell of a censor!” said the colleague. “I know it,” said Walter, and hung up the phone. The story was released
He loathed censorship and everything associated with it, and out of his loathing came a system—self-censorship. Canadian newspapers censored themselves. On editors’ desks lay general outlines of what should be and shouldn’t be published, in relation to the national security, nothing else. If anything troubles you, call us up. In the final analysis, write your own ticket. Nobody outside the press realm had ever dreamed such a thing could happen, and the armed services
took a lot of convincing that it could. Newspapermen regard this as Thompson’s greatest achievement.
Broken in health, but certainly not in spirit, he handed public information over to his assistant, CNR’s Herb Lash, and censorship to Colonel Maurice Pope of Army. During the remaining war years, following a rest in the sun, he played the role of high-policy adviser, and as CNR-TCA man in the middle coaxed people to stay off the trains and planes he once had begged them to ride on. Now he’s ready to sell rides again.
A man in Thompson’s position enjoys the private life of a squatter in Eaton’s window. In 1939, for example, Thompson spent a total of less than 30 days in his Montreal office and home. His sights are now set on 100 days a year, but he keeps missing the target.
Home is a pleasant Dutch colonial house in the smoothly manicured Montreal suburb called Hampstead, where Mrs. Thompson spends most of her time waiting for Walter to come home from out of town. There, CNR and TCA permitting, he spends his evenings between the arms of a broad chair in a shelf-lined den, in which most of the books bear the affectionate autographs of the people who wrote them. Scattered around are the signed photos of railroad tycoons, political bigwigs and newspaper types. Beyond the windows are the flower beds he literally wouldn’t stoop to touch.
His major venture in personal social activity has been to become a 32nd Degree Mason. He neither golfs nor curls. He is not interested in money as such, a quirk he may have picked up from his first boss at CNR, the late Sir Henry Thornton, or vice versa. He reads omnivorously and with considerable catholicity of taste, is probably the neatest phrase turner north of Billy Rose. More than one magazine writer has won high praise for quips and similes lifted from Walter’s casual talk in the sundowner room of the Engineers’ Club. Walter is generous with them. There’s always plenty more where those came from . . .
Beyond all his other roles Walter Thompson remains primarily a newspaperman’s newspaperman, the guy who used to eat the free lunch in Phil Brown’s before the old Grand Trunk was looking around for a publicity man. They shower acclaim on the man, and they talk about knighthoods, an;| in due course the Governor-General he escorted from Halifax to Rideau Hall last April will pin theC.B.E. on him, if he hasn’t done so by the time this reaches print.
When that happens Walter will pull an immaculate handkerchief from his pocket, mop his brow three times and go back to the business of being the man in the middle between whatever parties of the first and second parts happen to he around at the time, if