The First Lady
When Jeanne Renault met quiet Louis St. Laurent it was love at first sight. When Ottawa called him away, she wept
TIME WAS, and not so long ago, when Jeanne Renault St. Laurent would burst into tears at the mere thought of her husband taking any kind of a public job which might keep him away from the family.
Today he is Canada’s Prime Minister-presumptive and on his accession his wife will become the first First Lady Canada has had in some 22 years, (or, since the brief few months of Arthur Meighen’s premiership in 1926). It. is a position of representative responsibility which in our time has perhaps best been exemplified by Mrs. Roosevelt. While Louis St. Laurent may steer the wheel of state, Madame St. Laurent must set the gentler note of personalized state, which to many a visiting V.I.P. from abroad will be about the only picture of Canada-at-home he carries away with him.
Madame Jeanne St. Laurent is first and foremost a mother and a wife. According to statistics that’s precisely what the majority of Canadian women are, too. She is proud of her husband, remembers her first meeting with him, follows the careers of her children closely, fusses about her grandchildren and is an extremely good housekeeper. Take your nicest neighbor from Glace Bay to Prince Rupert and what do you find? Just about the same thing.
She is a small woman. But your first impression is completely subjugated by a pair of brilliant, huge, black-brown eyes which give you a serious, thorough regard. While she is still giving you a firm, friendly handshake, you realize Madame St. Inaurent has also formed her opinion of you. You watch it happen again and again as she meets others for the first time.
She moves so quickly, unobtrusively and unself-
consciously you could easily miss her in a crowd. Yet when you catch sight of her, her air is certain, of knowing where she is going, knowing precisely what she is going to do. There is also that, indefinable air of confidence which well-liked people have. Members of her family will say with a certain air of tender amusement, “You know, we think of Mother as the youngest of us. I’m afraid we’ve all spoiled her.” She herself will make no comment on this except to laugh and then say, her eyes flashing merriment, “You must also remember, I am the seventh child. Seventh of a family of 16!”
For all the early years of her marriage her husband and family came first. Louis St. Laurent was a prodigious worker. There was not much time for social life. Madame St. Laurent held herself ready at any time for the few moments of leisure he permitted himself. Since his Ottawa appointment seven years ago to succeed Ernest Lapointe, and the marriages of her children, she has found unexpected, unaccustomed time on her hands. And found also her own facility for making friends.
To Jeanne St. Laurent, her husband’s step into the premier position in the nation’s life was not necessarily hoped for. To her, life of family, home, friends, a well-loved city is good. But also, with typical directness, “even though he is my husband,” she acknowledges the necessity fo put aside personal preferences if her husband can perform a service Canada needs.
\Her life will not be as much changed by this new shift in proceedings as it was when, in December, 1941, Prime Minister King appointed Louis St. Laurent to succeed Ernest Lapointe as Minister of Justice. It was then the wrench was made from simple family life in the ancient St. Lawrence-side city of Quebec to the edged days of the capital. It was then she set her new pattern, little as she had wanted it. Continued on page 50
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The First Lady
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She had loved her days in Quebec City at the 15-room Grande Allée house she and her husband had built together when there was still a clear view lo the river behind it and sluggard cattle moved in the fields around at milking time. Now a large chunk of her year would be spent in a threeroom Roxborough Apartment flat, 10 minutes’ walk from the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.
Her daughter Marthe says, “When i iother is in Ottawa she misses us (the children). When she is in Quebec, she misses Dad. In Ottawa she finds there is nothing to do in a small apartment. She is used to her house. She has always had help hut even with it she is interested in cooking, she likes it. It tears her in two, these two places to live at.”
In Ottawa, while he was first Minister of Justice and then of External Affairs, Louis St. Laurent used to get up at about 8 a.m. and Madame St. Laurent prepared his breakfast for him. “She fusses over Dad,” the family says. “He says she makes him eat too much. She peels an apple for him every morning. He complains about it hut we know he would miss it if she didn’t do it.”
At about 9 a.m. Louis St. Laurent would leave to walk up to his office in
the Parliament Buildings and Madame St. Laurent straightened out the threeroom apartment, read the newspapers and clipped out articles she thought might interest her husband. “He is so busy sometimes he has not the time to read the papers as well as he would like to,” she explains. She follows closely the political trends, gets quite heated about what she considers an unfair piece of reporting.
About one o’clock she would walk up the Parliament Hill herself, greeting friends hut refusing their invitations. The St. Laurents practically always lunched at the Parliamentary Restaurant at the Buildings. She prefers to take all her meals with her husband. “It is the only time during the day 1 can see him,” she explains.
On the rare evenings when there were no night sessions of the House, St. Laurent preferred to stay at home reading and studying, unless he stayed on to work at the office. Madame St. Laurent, though she loves people and social contacts, never has been known to turn up at a social function when her husband could not accompany her. When they do attend a cocktail party she takes fruit juice or sherry.
“My life now is spent in waiting for him,” she says as though that were the most natural thing in the world. “Sometimes in Ottawa my husband doesn’t get home from work until one or two o’clock. Some of the other people on Parliament Hill have said to me, ‘When Mr. St. Laurent first came here and we saw him work we thought he was just showing off his energy. Now we realize there is not another as hard a working man in all of Canada.’ ”
Quite often Madame St. Laurent waits hours for her meals for her husband will not interrupt his work until the phase he is occupied with is finished. He works all through Saturdays as well and tries to do so Sundays, too, while in Ottawa. “That’s why I go to Ottawa,” Madame St. Laurent says. “I see to it he takes a rest at least once a week. I cannot help him, I know. He is so much cleverer, but 1 will be there with him. My ambition? I want to make my husband a good companion.”
The quick - moving, flashing - eyed Madame St. Laurent is a familiar sight in the Senate Gallery of the House of Commons, from where she can watch her husband on the Government side of the floor. As soon as the bell peals for opening of the House, or for a vote, among the hurrying members will be small Madame St. Laurent, her wellshaped dark head—greying just a little now at the temples—held high, her interest aroused. “I am very anxious to know how the vote will go,” she will confide seriously. “Whether it is against my husband or for him.”
All of the time St. Laurent is in the House, so is Jeanne St. Laurent. Her days in Ottawa are spent there rather than at the teas, bridges, or shopping expeditions many of the other members’ wives indulge in. She points out she prefers home and if she must come to Ottawa it is only to see her husband, so why not see him? Even if it must be across many feet of formal, parliamentary space.
When Louis St. Laurent spends an evening at home working she will sit in her chair, reading her newspapers. “I do not say I understand all of it,” she insists, “but very much of it I do get. My English, is not perfect.”
Her English is not as beautifully fluid as Louis St. Laurent’s, who probably has the most classically perfect, both in choice of words and in
pronunciation, usage of the language among Canadian politicians. However, she speaks it fluently, with a slight echo of an accent, her well-shaped hands ushering her words out, marshaling them into phrases, presenting them to you with expressive gestures. All the five St. Laurent children, as well as the 12 grandchildren (those who are old enough to talk at all) are equally fluent in English and French. When anyone stumbles over the pronunciation of “St. Laurent” Madame St. Laurent will suggest with a laugh you call it “St. Lawrence, like the River!”
Now, as the Prime Minister, Louis St. Laurent will need a house rather th in an apartment in Ottawa. Madame St. Laurent thinks they’ll rent one. The brown brick house on Quebec City’s Grande Allée, five minutes from the home of her daughter Marthe, four from that of her son Jean-Paul, not too far from Renault’s house, is still home. But as to Ottawa, “with a house to run I’ll have more to do,” she says happily. And one person who certainly will be there is François Dion, her chauffeur and general factotum whom she has employed for the past 26 years. She also has a maid, who has been in the family 12 years.
A Quebec friend, asked about Madame St. Laurent, quoted a classic saying, “les peuples heureux, les femmes honnêtes, les petits ruisseaux, n'ont pas d'histoire''—“a happy people, good women and small streams, there is no story to these.” But he misjudged Madame St. Laurent. From the very simplicity, goodness and happiness of her life one is able to construct a story. Because of her firm love for her family, Jeanne Renault St. Laurent owns not only her own life, but intimately part of her also are the experiences of her husband and children and of her own large parental family.
Jeanne Renault was born in Beauceville, Que. Her father was a well-to-do merchant, a staunch Conservative, a kindly man of great piety. From her own family she brings the heritage of a closely knit home unit where respect, affection and helpfulness were tenets strictly followed. While Louis St. Laurent was growing up at Compton, Que., son of an Irish mother and a French-Canadian father, Madame St. Laurent - to - be had a typically Canadienne bringing up.
9 O’clock Curfew
Each night after dinner Father Renault would gather his brood and the servants in the dining room where all would kneel to say their prayers. Then the children were allowed out until 9 p.m. but never any later. The curé of the village did not approve of boys and girls mixing, even on the skating rinks, but Madame St. Laurent recalls, her eyes laughing as they must have when slim, lovely Jeanne Renault was the belle of Beauceville, “we managed to meet, nevertheless.”
She was the seventh of 16 children, of whom only two were boys. There is among the French Canadians a firm belief in the mystic powers of a seventh child. Late one night while she was attending the Convent of Jesus-Marie in Sillery, outside QuebecCity, she was awakened by the Mother Superior. “Good sister, the cook, is suffering from a frightful toothache,” she was told. Would she come and touch her? “But I’ve not done anything like that since I was a child, and merely did it then as a game, because of being the seventh child,” young Jeanne protested. However, the sister had no relief from her toothache and couldn’t sleep—wouldn’t Jeanne try? Sleepy and embarrassed, she did.
Next morning at High Mass as the
students knelt and the sisters filed in two by two, the cook sister bent for a moment to whisper to young Jeanne Renault, “I slept all night. Thank you.”
Later, when Jeanne was about 13 years of age, she and her sisters, Eva and Laura, were sent to the Englishspeaking Mount St. Vincent Convent in Halifax. Good M. Renault said, “I never had the opportunity to learn English. I am going to spend money for those advantages for my children I myself did not have.” Her brothers were sent to the United States for the English part of their education.
Many a Quebecer will remember, in the early part of the century, the appearance of lovely, dark, young Jeanne Renault, in the gay, ancient city. Her lively good looks would cause strangers to turn and stare after her on the streets. Not so many recall studious, quiet Louis St. Laurent, a 24-year-old bachelor lawyer, who could seldom be dragged away from his books to meet people.
However, one night a good friend of his, now the well-known historian Marius Barbeau, dragged him off to a house party and introduced him to an equally good friend, 19-year-old Jeanne Renault of Beauceville. With no hesitation and with complete directness, Jeanne St. Laurent of today says, “As soon as 1 saw him, I knew. There was not the smallest doubt about it. There could be no one else in the world for me but this Louis St. Laurent.”
The brilliant, bookish young man seemed to have realized the fact, too. From a near recluse he started turning up at every party where Jeanne Renault was.
But the path of love didn’t run very easily in Quebec in those days. Even after t he two young people got engaged, they went nowhere without a cha perón. To the opening of the Capitol Theatre, to a family party, to a dance, to meet Louis St. Laurent’s grandmother, Jeanne’s mother, aunt or cousin would accompany her. “I do not know how we ever spoke to one another at all,” Madame St. Laurent, married since 1908, now recalls with a laugh.
However, when her first daughter, Marthe, grew up and got her first invitations to dances, what happened? Louis St. Laurent insisted on an escort for her, too. For a year or so Madame St. Laurent would sit in the lobby of the Chateau Frontenac, or at one of Quebec’s many old clubs, waiting for her daughter to come home. Now she says of it, “She was the best brought up of my children. After the others came along and grew up I said to my husband, ‘They’ll have to learn to look after themselves. I really can’t tag along with all of them—or, if you insist, you go with them.’ ”
The St. Laurents have five children, two boys and three girls, and 12 grandchildren. Marthe, married to Dr. Mathieu Samson, a leading radiologist, is the eldest. The two sons, Renault and Jean-Paul, are both married and members of their father’s law firm, St. Laurent, Taschereau and St. Laurent. Thérèse is the wife of chartered accountant Frank Lafferty and Madeleine, of Hugh O’Donnell, lawyer. The two younger daughters live in Montreal.
When you get Madame St. Laurent on the subject of her children, you finally find the touchstone to her character. Recently Marthe Samson said a trifle apologetically, “We have been so close, you see. It is difficult not to be fond of one another.” Marthe lives in Quebec and her three daughters and one small son are, according to their grandmother, the best brought-up children in the world. “Much better than .nine,” Madame St. Laurent will laugh. And Marthe
will say, “It is funny to see my eldest daughter and my mother together. They are both so alike. They both have minds of their own,” and then she’ll suddenly break into the affectionate St. Laurent-tribe smile. “Nice minds, mind you, but their own.” Renault St. Laurent, ex-Lieut. Commander of the RCN when he was commandant of the corvette Kincardine, is now practicing law as a member of his father’s firm. Whenever Louis St. Laurent arrives home for a brief rest from Ottawa, Renault brings his problems to the house and later, after hours of joint work, Louis St. Laurent will practically shine with pleasure, but still grumble, fooling no one, “I haven’t enough work in Ottawa, obviously. I must work in Quebec, too.”
Louis St. Laurent’s prominent position has in no way benefited his children. In fact, it somewhat handicaps them. As Madame St. Laurent points out, their father’s one difficulty in politics is integrity underlined. He would not at any time help any of his own. They would have to stand entirely on their own feet. Political favors, personal preferences, gratuities, are anathema to a man whose religion has always been law and justice by strict merit to each man. His children realized and accepted that when St. Laurent was called to Ottawa. Even his opponents admit it.
So during the war Renault rose from lieutenant to a commander on the strength of his own ability. Jean-Paul, who due to an old injury could not go on active service, served with notable success as the C.O. of the Montcalm Training School in Quebec. Madeleine, the youngest, “and very spoiled,” the family used to say before the war,
entered the CWAC’s and, while serving in English-speaking provinces, came out with the rank of major.
Madame St. Laurent says sometimes, “I don’t mind so much what people and the press say about my husband.
I suppose that is politics even when it isn’t true. But I do mind what they say about my children. They have had to fight hard against their father’s prominence, with even less help than they would have had in ordinary circumstances.”
Everything concerning the St. Laurents is a family matter. Everybody got together, Madame St. Laurent remembers, to discuss St. Laurent’s first appointment to Ottawa as Minister of Justice to succeed Ernest Lapointe. That was the time Madame St. Laurent wept, then considered the fact that it was a time of national crisis and wished
her husband bon voyage. However, that time he came back. Only to be asked to become the Minister of External Affairs.
She remembers the night well. They were at dinner, at home, at the Grande Allée house. It was around 8 p.m. when the maid came in to say, awe in her voice, “It’s Ottawa. The Prime Minister wishes to speak to M. St. Laurent.”
They looked at one another for a long, quiet moment. Finally Madame St. Laurent said, “If you can help it, don’t accept.” They were content, they had a good life, the family was about them, Louis St. Laurent was happy in his legal work, and his relaxations of golfing, fishing, a little bridge.
When Louis St. Laurent came back to the table he had an invitation to go up to Ottawa to talk to the Prime Minister.
That night all the St. Laurent children turned up at the house and the family sat together talking until one o’clock. They concluded, as often before, they were happy living as they were, close to one another, yet free to act as they wanted, with no undue prominence. The family consensus was, “We hope you won’t have to stay in Ottawa.”
The following night the phone rang from Ottawa again. This time it was Louis St. Laurent wanting to speak to his wife. She said, a trifle hesitantly, “Well, what kind of an impression did you make?” Louis St. Laurent took a long breath. “Unfortunately,” he said, “I think too good.”
So the St. Laurent tribe, in Quebec at that time, got together again and talked about it. “Whatever Dad feels he ought to do is all right by us,” they finally decided. They knew, as did Madame St. Laurent, it would be a difficult road. It was, for a time, the end of a close, quiet family corporation.
But every Christmas the family is together again. Then there are 24 to dinner. Last year Marthe took over Madame St. Laurent’s réveillon celebration, that is the supper and celebration after the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. She had all the traditional dishes there, served in FrenchCanadian homes for the past 300 years —the chicken bouillon, the créions, graisse de rôtie and tarte de la viande. On Christmas morning the children have their tree first, to get them out of their painful ecstasy of waiting. The grownups have a more leisurely meal. Then comes the present-giving for them. It is all in tradition of Quebec, tradition of family, tradition of close affection among members of one family. The St. Laurents, who get together—as many of them as can manage it—each Sunday for dinner, simply could not imagine missing Christmas together.
Somehow this family life bears out the very simple, direct philosophy Madame St. Laurent holds to. It is merely, “I think we should all agree.” Yet it does not apply only to her own immediate family. It applies, as far as she is concerned, on national and, ultimately, on international scale.
However, at times she speaks of it in terms of family. “When we have family discussions, in the end my husband wants us to agree, or at least to come to an amicable disagreement. He is a complete optimist, never a pessimist at all. Whenever anything untoward happens, he says, ‘In the end it will come out all right.’ ”
Madame St. Laurent, her dark eyes direct, her hands eloquent, shrugs a little, “You see,” she says, “there is not much to my life. My husband. My children. These are my interests.”
It is as much a statement of faith as of fact. ★