THE GREAT McGEER
At 15 Gerry McGeer licked two enemies with one hand tied behind him. Vancouver's mayor/ senator and expert on Lincoln hasn't ducked a fight since
AMONG people in Vancouver who know Senator-Mayor Gerry McGeer best, and among others in Ottawa and elsewhere who know him only casually, the half-jocular opinion often is expressed that he should have been an actor instead of a lawyer and politician.
“Gerry could have been, at the very least, a great ham actor,” said one of McGeer’s political foes the other day. The man then smiled thinly, and added, “If I stress the word ‘ham’ unduly, there’s a reason. He’s not a real actor. No matter how big a show he puts on, he’s always Gerry.” Everything he does has its own Gerry flavor. No one in Vancouver was really astonished, one day last. December, when Senator McGeer suddenly popped into hospital with peritonitis and underwent a major operation which interrupted his comeback campaign for the mayoralty. Things couldn’t have worked out better for Gerry if he had planned them that way. Two days after he left the surgery he was barking into a telephone at his bedside. He posed happily for photographs with pretty nurses. He hurled wisecracks at callers. Twice-daily bulletins were issued on his condition.
Candidate McGeer received twice as much newspaper space as his two opponents together. He almost certainly would have won the election even without this extra publicity, but it helped. Gerry swept the polls with an all-time record vote of 29,000 out of 58,000 ballots cast, 12,000 ahead of his nearest rival.
Today, at. 59, His Worship Senator the Honorable Gerald Grattan McGeer, King’s Counsel, mayor of Canada’s third-largest community, can look back with excusable satisfaction over a razzle-dazzle career of more than 30 years in public life. For a lad who started out as a milk boy and quit school at 14 to become an iron moldar, Gerry has done all right.
He Scorns Tradition
IN MANY respects his political record is unique JL in Canadian history. No other man in public office has ever held the following succession of posts: 1. M.L.A.; 2. M.L.A.-mayor; 3. Mayor-
M.P.; 4. Senator; 5. Senator-mayor. Oddly enough, he has never been an alderman. Otherwise his political education has been encyclopedic.
Blandly and with impunity, McGeer again and again has broken precedent and thumbed his bulbous Irish nose at tradition.
In Vancouver, a labor stronghold, he once read the Riot Act to disperse a mob of unemployed. Yet labor votes helj>ed him win his next election a few months later.
As a Liberal member of the House of Commons he summoned Churchillian invective to accuse the Liberal Government of breaking its election pledges. His punishment; appointment to the Senate.
Hardly was he installed in the Red Chamber before he branded it, with a snort of contempt, “the finest old-age pension club in the world.”
McGeer is probubly the only mayor in Canada who wears a silken robe, a grandiose cocked hat and a gold chain around his neck—in a city priding itself on its breezy informality. And so far as can be learned, no other Canadian politician has ever become an internationally accepted authority on the life and utterances of Abraham Lincoln.
The mayor-senator’s ancestry and background are ideally suited to the creation of legends that
pay off at the polls. His grandfather was an Irish cattle drover. His father, James McGeer, was born at Crookstown, County Kildare, in 1855, but moved to Canada as a young man and settled in Winnipeg with his Lancashire-born wife, Emily. Gerry was bom there on Jan. 6, 1888. He was one of 13 children, 10 of whom are still living.
Big Jim McGeer moved the family to Vancouver when Gerry was two years old, and became a milk farmer on the outskirts of town. Gerry and all his brothers and sisters delivered milk and cream from door to door while most youngsters still slept.
From his father young Gerry inherited a natural eloquence, a gregarious but combative nature, and a feeling for words. Jim McGeer was a big openfaced Irishman who laughed his way through life
behind an enormous white mustache. He read Greek and Latin and wrote spare-time poetry of considerable elegance for elite British publications. At one time he had been a reporter on the Manchester Guardian under his idol and compatriot, “Tay Pay” O’Connor.
The McGeer house on Eighteenth Avenue was in a part of Vancouver known as Dog Town. Mongrels fought raucously in the streets and often resumed the struggle indoors. William J. McGuigan, Vancouver market commissioner who grew up in the same alley as Gerry, recalls that the kids “had lots of fun but few comforts and no extravagances, such as interior plumbing.” Any boy who couldn’t use his fists became a target for tougher lads. Red-faced,
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cocky Gerry McGeer early established himself among the most formidable of these back-yard battlers.
One day disturbing news swept Dog Town. A new family of snooty “rich people” had arrived from—of all places—Oshkosh, Wis. Included were two imperious-looking sons, aged 15 and 16. Gerry McGeer, 15, took one look at them mincing past in their new corduroy suits. Then, the boy being father to the man, he did something which foreshadowed the grown-up Gerry who later made front-page headlines all over Canada by tackling, single-handed, the high-priced lawyers of the big railways and the whole Banking Committee of the House of Commons. Gerry challenged both new boys to fight him—simultaneously. What’s more, he would do it with one hand tied behind his back. And, said publicity-smart Gerry, the epic joust would be staged, not behind some obscure stable, but right jpang in front of the fire hall, so everybody “on the hill” could enjoy it.
The One-armed Battle
Several hundred persons, including scores of adults, assembled a full hour before the fight began. Gerry, chesty and sneering, let his opponents’ manager tie his left arm behind his back. But he also arranged to have Bill McGuigan standing by with a concealed knife, ready to slash the bonds at a nod from Gerry in case the battle went poorly. By some master stroke of persuasion, McGuigan not only handled and managed Gerry, but refereed the bout.
He didn’t have to cut Gerry’s ropes. Young McGeer, toughened by his years of scrapping and his daybreak rigors on the milk route, fought with a zest and abandon which quickly demoralized his two adversaries.
Gerry was pretty good in school, but not outstanding. After three months in high school he suddenly quit, denouncing as “medieval” the educational system of the day. McGeer Senior then arranged to have Gerry apprenticed as an iron molder, hoping he would soon tire of that arduous life and return to school. Instead Gerry stuck with it for five years. Said one of his old shopmates recently, “He was a cocky little squirt, but the hardest-working guy you ever saw.”
Gerry first drank the exhilarating wine of oratorical acclaim as a laborhall firebrand. While still in his teens, he took a leading role in union activities and became an executive member of Local 268, Iron Molders’ Union (AFL). Years later he proudly flashed his dog-eared union card at many a campaign rally.
McGeer represented the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council at a meeting in Quebec, at which he first met
William Lyon Mackenzie King, at that time Dominion Minister of Labor. Today King’s is one of three sculptured busts adorning Senator McGeer’s basement den. The others are Abraham Lincoln—and Gerry McGeer.
He Wore Churchill’s Collar
In 1907, when Gerry was 19, he suddenly decided the law was his future. He went back to school, studied furiously for five months, crammed his memory with a thousand exam-passing facts and figures, and breezed through his matriculation tests with an average of 86.
To reward himself before buckling down to the unexciting tasks of a law student, young McGeer dipped into his savings for a trip to his ancestral Ireland. He inspected his grandfather’s homestead, hobnobbed with labor radicals like Will Crooks and Michael Collins, then made a quick visit to Paris and Berlin. In London he attended the House of Commons and began a lifelong admiration for a silver-tongued young soldier-politicianjournalist named Winston Churchill. Gerry even fell in love with Churchill’s wide wing collars and succeeded in obtaining some from the London haberdasher who handled them, although they were supposed to be exclusively for the mighty Winnie. “Their inspiration,” said Gerry many years later, “carried me through some of my greatest defeats.”
Back in Vancouver, within five years, McGeer was earning $175 a month as highest-salaried law student in the city. He became president and No. 1 orator of the Law Students’ Society. “Once Gerry had the floor,” an old colleague has since been quoted as saying, “God Almighty couldn’t snare it away from him.”
At Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, Gerry studied constitutional and commercial law. His professors considered him quite promising. He also campaigned lustily for Sir Wilfrid Laurier and sharpened his young claws for the political battles he knew were coming.
In 1915, at the age of 27, McGeer was admitted to the bar of British Columbia. He went into partnership with his brother James, now a County Court judge, and Gordon Wismer, now attorney-general of the province.
Gerry’s first venture into politics was successful. In 1916 he was elected to the provincial house as Liberal member for Richmond. In tribute to him, the Point Grey Gazette published an article entitled “Sketch of a Rising Politician,” which contained one of the most gloriously mixed metaphors in the history of Canadian journalism:
“His unusual success at the bar and in politics will not tum his head, for that same head is screwed on right, and through the sweat of his brow he cut his eyeteeth years ago.”
As an M.L.A., fiery Gerry and his Churchill collars didn’t wait more than
a few days before busting into the headlines. He became noted for what older solons called “speaking out of turn.” One contemporary editorial referred to him as “a burr in the blanket, a pin in the balloon, and dynamite in the axle grease.”
In 1917 McGeer married Charlotte Emma Spencer, daughter of David Spencer of Victoria, a pioneer B. C. merchant. They have a son, Mike, 24, who was shot down and captured in Germany while flying for the RCAF, and a daughter, Patsy, 25, studying music in New York and Vancouver.
During World War I Gerry joined the army as a private and was in uniform, 'still in Canada, when armistice came.
During his early years in the B. C. legislature he attracted the attention of Premier “Honest John” Oliver. Soon, working as a sort of junior partner, McGeer became an immensely successful crusader for reduced west-coast freight rates on prairie grain, which at that time flowed mainly to Fort William. The railways employed some of the most expensive counsel in Canada in the ensuing battle, but McGeer won. Vancouver’s water front doubled and redoubled itself almost overnight, and today the port ships more than 100 million bushels of grain a year to the Orient and the United Kingdom.
The McGeer Money Theory
Despite this success McGeer was defeated in 1920 in his first attempt to enter the House of Commons. Next year he was appointed a King’s Counsel and went right on building a solid reputation as a lawyer. But his heart was still in Ottawa. Twice more, in 1926 and 1930, he was beaten in federal contests. Cartoonists began depicting him as a pathetically gallant clown, surviving defeat after defeat and still grinning cockily.
Finally McGeer again won a seat in the provincial assembly, in 1933. Meanwhile he had been soaking up every scrap of information he could find on banking, currency and economics. He became convinced that Canada needed a nationally owned central bank and that the country could beat the depression by issuing “costless national currency.” This was to be backed, not by a gold reserve, but solely by “the going-concern activity of the government and the stability of the nation.”
In the spring of 1934 McGeer was summoned to Ottawa by the Commons Banking Committee to give his views a full-dress national airing. The result was an extraordinary, one-man, twoday display of marathon oratory and dialectic skill. Pointer in hand, charts on all sides of him, Gerry lectured his audience of bankers, economists and parliamentarians as if they were a class of backward freshmen. There were no interruptions, no heckling, and only a few respectful questions. Ultimately Canada got its central bank, but it has seldom behaved the way Gerry thinks it should.
A few months later Gerry was campaigning vigorously for Vancouver’s mayoralty. He polled 25,000 out of 35,000 votes and began his two-year term in an almost circuslike atmosphere of drama and excitement. During his first week in office he fired the police chief and two magistrates, declared war on gambling and confiscated 1,000 slot machines, and announced a plan for reducing the city’s debt by slashing bond interest in half.
He didn’t succeed in cutting the interest rates. But he did sell enough low-interest 10-year “baby bonds” to pay for an edifice which will remain
as a monument to himself long after his other achievements are forgotten. This is Vancouver’s glittering, 12-story, million-dollar, white sandstone City Hall, the finest in Canada and (according to Gerry), the most beautiful in North America. He built it—with his name on its cornerstone—on a sports field miles from the main business district, a field where Gerry himself had often played lacrosse in his younger days.
In 1935 Gerry again ran for the House of Commons in VancouverBurrard. On the first count he was beaten by four votes. He demanded a recount, and was declared elected by six votes. First he had resigned his seat in the provincial house, but he stayed on as mayor. Soon he was in the thick of plans for the 1936 celebration of Vancouver’s 50th birthday. All his publicity sense and flair for the spectacular surged to the fore, and Mayor McGeer gave the folks a show which now is enshrined among the fondest legends of the city.
Gerry Buys a Robe
At Gerry’s invitation, the Lord Mayor of London, the late Sir Percy Vincent, came from England. He bore a princely gift—a five-foot replica of London’s ancient civic mace. To greet Sir Percy decently, McGeer dug up from a jeweller’s vault Vancouver’s own $1,500 gold chain of mayoralty (previous mayors had been too selfconscious to wear it), and bought with his own funds a gorgeous black silk robe, lined in purple and gold, and a cocked hat to go with it. The outfit cost Gerry $527.
Ten years later Senator McGeer tartly reminded Mayor J. W. Cornett that the robe, which Cornett had been donning at official functions, was Still the Senator’s personal property. Cornett, embarrassed, sent the garment out to the McGeer residence by special messenger. Gerry blandly signed a receipt for it, and wears it today.
In the House of Commons McGeer soon was thundering anew in behalf of government control of credit and the removal of the country’s financial administration from the hands of the private banks. He opposed “mere inflation” and all suggestions for a national dividend or dole, but he argued that Canada could create all the credit she needed without borrowing outside the country, that she didn’t need a gold reserve behind her money, and that the nation did not depend on export trade for its prosperity.
Says McGeer today: “All these
things were conclusively proven in the recent war. We financed a huge war effort and lent money abroad—get that, lent money, not borrowed it—and reduced our debt and even gave away huge surpluses to Britain. Canadians have in their own economy all the capital required for expansion in both public and private enterprise . . . We have the power to raise immeasurably our own standard of living, just by working together clearheadedly.”
Once, when the late Charles Dunning was minister of finance, McGeer harried him with one of the most stupendous formal questions ever filed in the House of Commons. It contained 24 sections and 69 subsections, and demanded wholesale information regarding bullion, currency, banking, public debts, and so forth. Dunning answered it, too, but he continued to run into clashes with the gentleman from Vancouver-Burrard.
McGeer carried on his crusade for monetary reform both in and out of Parliament. He found time to appear in pulpits occasionally as a lay preacher discussing “Christian Economics,” and
to write a 359-page book, “The Conquest of Poverty” (1935), the final chapter of which was an imaginary dialogue between Abe Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
One of McGeer’s most widely quoted bursts of purple rhetoric was delivered in the Commons in 1936, with his own Liberal party as target. Accusing the government of ignoring many of its sacred election oaths, Gerry bellowed that the party was “putting its footsteps on that trail of broken promises that leads, not only through the valley of humiliation, but down deep to the abysmal depths of eternal oblivion.”
Now and then the robust McGeer satire got him into trouble, although not seriously. In a speech at St. Thomas, Ont., in the spring of 1939, when the RCMP were becoming visibly jittery over the threat of pre-war saboteurs, Gerry happened to refer to the late Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the British House of Parliament in 1605. Fawkes, said Gerry, “was the only man who ever went to Parliament in the right frame of mind.” A few days later the remark was quoted in the Commons by the leader of the CCF, M. J. Coldwell, who said plaintively, “If one of our professors had said that, he would be given a good combing over.”
Senator by Surprise
Gerry openly admits that he was almost read out of the Liberal party. For a long time he ignored the caucus, although he was never barred from it. Despite his insurrections, the unpredictable McGeer sometimes defended the government with great skill and warmth, only a few days after his latest show of independence. Party whips had nightmares in which three-headed McGeers by the dozen kept storming into the committee rooms, ungovernable and cobra-tongued.
McGeer’s appointment to the Senate by Mackenzie King in June of 1945 was a political sensation. True, Gerry had been chosen by Mr. King to represent him in greeting President Roosevelt at Victoria in 1938, two years after Gerry’s “valley of humiliation” speech. And true, McGeer was in the very act of campaigning for Mr. King in his neglected riding of Prince Albert when the Senate appointment was announced. Still, the news was a thunderbolt to many, within and without the party, including the then Finance Minister, J. L. Ilsley, who had been under McGeer’s lash for almost three months in Banking Committee the year before. The story in Ottawa is that Mr. Ilsley used violent language when he returned to the capital from the hustings and learned that his tormentor had been elevated to the Red Chamber.
Senator McGeer’s maiden speech in the upper house was a somewhat muted effort, much to the disappointment of a capacity crowd. It was not long, however, before his harangues on constitutional reform and other matters were monopolizing the Senate’s time to such an extent that a “Muzzle McGeer” movement sprang up among a group of his colleagues. It failed.
Meanwhile, Vancouver’s McGeer began gazing at City Hall with a fatherly and nostalgic eye. Although for a long time he merely grinned and shook his head when newsmen asked him if he intended to run for mayor, he made speeches all over Vancouver and kept hammering home his own concept of civic expansion.
Many of his barbed remarks were widely quoted, amid chuckles. The retiring mayor and aldermen, he snorted, were so useless they should be charged rent for using the City Hall. That building itself, Gerry told a service club, was fast becoming “a
sarcophagus of embalmed mediocrity,” the Vancouver Board of Trade “a museum of congealed plutocracy.”
When he finally did throw his hat in the ring he announced his prime purpose was to beat the CCF. McGeer was endorsed by the powerful Civic Non-Partisan Association, originally an anti-CCF coalition of Liberals, Conservatives and general business interests. The outcome was never in doubt.
His Worship in Action
Soon afterward things began to pop. In office only a few days, Mayor Gerry returned to hospital for a rest and checkup, but from his bed he stagemanaged another dramatic shake-up of the police force, including the ousting of the chief and other top officials.
Gerry McGeer’s latter-day love of pomp and splendor in public office is a bit disconcerting to old-timers who remember him delivering milk in Dog Town. On the ruddy Philippine mahogany dais in his magnificent city council chamber, wearing his gold chain and the deathless McGeer robe and an immaculate Churchill collar, Gerry comes into his full glory. The aldermen enter the room first, and rise when he comes in, preceded by the mace-bearing sergeant-at-arms who thunders, “His Worship the Mayor!” The aldermen remain standing until His Worship nods austerely to them, one row at a time, like a chief justice at the Privy Council.
McGeer is an excellent chairman. He keeps things moving briskly, and he knows how to cut corners without any sacrifice of parliamentary dignity.
Gerry doesn’t carry his love of pomp into his private life. He dresses rather loudly but inexpensively. His hat is usually battered and shapeless, and he strides around with his overcoat unbuttoned. The McGeers live in a rambling, comfortable house in West Point Grey. Gerry’s neighbors are accustomed to the spectacle of their mayor-senator puffing along at daybreak in baggy pants and three Old sweat shirts, keeping fit for the tasks and battles still ahead.
Gerry says he smokes much too much but drinks very little, and never keeps liquor at home.
The senator’s basement den contains more than a thousand books, half of them dealing with Abraham Lincoln, Gerry’s idol since boyhood. Says he, “Lincoln started out in life with nothing, much the same as myself.
Years ago I decided to find out what lessons his career could teach me. This is one of them, and it applies to Churchill, too: If you can express
simple truths in simple words, you can go to the hearts of the masses of the common people with both understanding and sympathy.”
McGeer has frequently appeared as guest speaker at Lincoln Day dinners in the United States—an unusual honor for a Canadian. He has a typically McGeerian theory about Lincoln’s assassination. He says it had nothing to do with slavery or North versus South, but was “a mercenary murder, engineered by international bankers who hated Lincoln because he was using greenback currency and getting away with it.”
There has been some criticism of McGeer for “holding down two jobs,” as mayor and senator (his combined yearly salary: $13,500). But the more general view seems to be that if Gerry thinks he can handle both jobs, and handle them right, then more power to him. He’ll commute by air between Ottawa and Vancouver, losing only a day’s work in transit each time.
When asked about his own future, Gerald Grattan McGeer shrugs and gives a smile that is almost ruefully noncommittal. What does he want? Where does he go from here? No one seems to know—perhaps not even Gerry. At the same time, hardly anyone denies that the man has broad and stirring visions for the future of Vancouver — new superhighways, a downtown union terminal, an opera house, a civic auditorium, a combined police centre, a vast open-air amphitheatre below Little Mountain. Already in the works are a 10-year, 50million-dollar program of public projects and a nine-million-dollar civic centre development.
The other day one old enemy, a man who has said many harsh things about McGeer in the past, mulled over the. question of Gerry’s future.
“Well, I never thought the day would come when I’d admit this,” he said, “but I honestly believe the old so-andso is determined to spend the rest of his life working unselfishly for the city he loves.
“Last week I heard him make a speech about the things he wants done here before he dies, and I watched his face closely as he spoke. So help me, I found myself getting all tingly. I think he means it—almost every word of it!” ★