HOW JESSICA WON WINNIPEG
The woman four hundred mayors call “The Duchess” now shines as the political side-kick of the mayor she married. Good-looking Jessica Coulter sometimes makes three speeches a night, attends eight functions a day and may have her eye on a gold chain of office of her own
WHEN the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities held its annual convention in London, Ont., last June, about one hundred wives of civic politicians and officials tagged along for the ride.
All their husbands had to say about industrial development, town planning, traffic control, assessment problems and municipal finance must have been familiar supper-time rhetoric to them for years. Leaving the mayors, aldermen and bureaucrats to their humdrum affairs the women flocked to pre-arranged luncheons, teas, cocktail parties and sight-seeing trips. One of them, however, scorning such flippant diversions, sat through every conference with the city elders and seemed to find their deliberations more engrossing than a June wedding.
She was Jessica Coulter, pert, plump, forty-fiveyear-old wife of Garnet Coulter, the septuagenarian Mayor of Winnipeg.
Jessica is probably the most glamorous civic hostess in Canada. Certainly she is the best informed on civic matters. Alderman C. E. Simonite of Winnipeg once said: “She is the sort of wife every mayor would wish to have.” Jessica gets more kick out of a dehate on city garbage disposal than she does out of neighborly gossip and devotes as much vigor, diplomacy and feminine guile to keeping her husband in office as Argentina’s Eva Perón.
Mayors were her business long before she married one. In eleven years, first as secretary and later as executive director, she nursed the Montreal-based Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities from birth to a lusty maturity. From remote corners of Canada she drew four hundred mayors together, incited them to corporate action against the apathy of voters for local government, and welded them, through a process of conventions, official delegations, committees and skillful publicity, into a body that could no longer be given the brush-off by federal and provincial parliaments.
“Anyone who looks down his nose at municipal politics,” she cried, “is looking down his nose at democracy.”
She got to know the Christian name of every mayor in Canada. She became the model for every mayor’s “Girl Friday.” Affectionately, she was called by every mayor “the Duchess.” Once, when she was the only woman at a banquet of mayors, four hundred of them rose as she entered the dining room and sang: Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Three years ago, when she married the serene
homespun Mayor of Winnipeg, who for four decades had been regarded as an impregnable bachelor, four thousand people met the couple at the station and gave them a reception worthy of royalty. She always refers to her husband as “the Boss,” but she is a power behind his mayoral chair. Garnet Coulter says: “I place a lot of confidence in her
The elaborate debut in Winnipeg of this petite, curvaceous, radiant brunette who dresses with Gallic chic, smokes innumerable cigarettes, relishes cocktails and enjoys the flirtatious badinage of middle-aged politicians might have led to an ominous sharpening of long daggers among the prairie city’s foremost wives. Yet today, three years after the event, Jessica Coulter seems to have hardly an enemy in the world. Verena Garrioch, a society editor on the Winnipeg Tribune, says: “I’ve never heard a catty word against her.” Jessica herself says: “The people could have made things difficult for me. But they were wonderful.”
Devoted to her seventy-year-old husband, Jessica accompanies him on a heavy round of public functions, yet still does all her own housework. In the last three years she has made more than three hundred speeches to groups ranging from twenty-five to six hundred people; poured enough cups of tea at women’s functions to float a ship; organized a provincial association of urban authorities; helped administer the nine - million - dollar Manitoba Flood Relief Fund; and endeared herself to the Negro, Jewish, Ukrainian and other ethnic groups in polyglot Winnipeg by attending all their “do’s” and crusading against racial discrimination.
One of her triumphs in social service was getting women volunteers to work at a mental hospital.
Last year her formal engagements averaged three a day, seven days a week. One day she went to eight functions. In one night she made three speeches in halls several miles apart.
Unashamedly thirsty for limelight, she cultivates the Press and knows most Winnipeg newspapermen well. On New Year’s Day 1950 a taxi load of reporters on a festive round called at her home just as she and the Mayor, in formal togs, were leaving to attend the Lieutenant-Governor’s reception. The Coulters invited the boys in for a drink and never got to the reception.
A few months ago after an appendectomy it was suggested she take life a little easier. “No!” she said. “I don’t want people to forget me.”
Jessica is one of Canada’s most-photographed women. At the last mayors’ convention in London she told Premier Leslie Frost of Ontario to “Wait
here a moment” while she got a photographer to shoot them together. She shines at political shindigs and sticks close to her quiet retiring husband, thereby keeping him in a spotlight that might otherwise pass over him. Coulter displays in public a restrained affection for her and gets restless if she leaves him for too long.
But he doesn’t grant her every wish. Recently when she asked him to switch on Winnipeg’s colored streetlights—normally reserved for special occasions—so that a visiting writer could see them, the Mayor refused.
Coulter is no great shakes as a speaker but Jessica is a colorful orator. At the same time she contrives never to obscure him. “I’m the Boss’s side-kick,” she says. “That’s my job and I stick to it.”
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How Jessica Won Winnipeg
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from the sober dignity and scrupulous fairness with which he presided in council. He has kept clear of party politics and always run as an independent. The only form of attack he ever launches against an opponent is never to mention him in election speeches. Jessica has given some glitter to his sombre personality and brought him a heavy female vote.
When Alderman Jack Blumberg ran against, him at the last election Mayor Coulter faced the highly organized campaign of the CCF party. “But,” says Percy Rowe, City Hall reporter for the Tribune, “Jessica is' a party in herself and was more than a match for the opposition. Mayor Coulter has been in office continuously since 1943 and Jessica is going to keep him there.”
The Coulter calendar is always in a rash of engagement notes. Once they went fourteen days and never ate a meal at home except breakfast.
Their eight-room house on affluent Wellington Crescent stands out from the others because it needs a coat of paint. Inside it is spotlessly clean but the furniture is a homely jumble of odd pieces, and some old-fashioned oleographs hang on the walls. It is the opposite of the swanky place the casual observer might expect Jessica to run. And this is one of the reasons housewives like her.
Although Mayor Coulter is a retired lawyer he is not wealthy. His mayoral salary is ten thousand dollars a year and his expenses twenty-three hundred. Much of the salary is spent on civic duty.
Jessica does her own housework each morning before getting dressed to go out. Occasionally she rises at 6 a.m. to get beds made and dishes washed in time for an engagement. Sometimes her hands are as red as a charwoman’s. Neither of the Coulters is an epicure in spite of the banqueting years. Jessica says she is a “rough and ready” cook and her husband grumpily agrees.
They have two Siamese cats, Koko and Mai Ling; recently the pair had a litter. Major, a big black Labrador, completes the family. Until recently Roberta Derby, Jessica’s daughter by a previous unhappy marriage, lived with them. But Roberta, now twenty, stopped off in Toronto on a visit to Montreal not long ago, was offered a job as a bookkeeper at radio station CKEY and has been there since. Mother and daughter have often been mistaken for sisters.
Jessica does her home chores scientiiically. She goes to the groceteria once a week and buys for seven days. One day when she was pushing her heavily loaded buggy two housewives noticed her. “I would have thought the Mayor’s wife would let the maid do the shopping How does she find time?” Jessica, who never had a maid, says: “I step on the gas -that’s all.”
Her wardrobe is simple and small. She goes heavily for black ensembles. She never minds being seen or photographed twice in the same dress. “Once,” she said, “I was at my wit’s end for something to wear to a ball. So I chose a fifteen-year-old formal my sister had given me.”
Recently at an Ontario Government reception Jessica wore a flowered hat which provoked many compliments. She took the head-band from a boy’s ear-muffs and covered it in fancy black velvet. Then she added a spray of artificial camellias. That’s all there was to it. “The big consolation about being a mayor’s wife,” she says, “is that you
do get wear out of your clothes before they go out of style.”
On their odd evenings at home Mayor Coulter takes off his coat and tie. He’s an easy-going man who enjoys duck hunting, a game of poker with the boys and a little light reading. “Sometimes,” says Jessica, “we just sit reading whodunits. Other times we play with the cats. We’re patrons of the Winnipeg Ballet, Symphony and the Little Theatre, but we don’t really know much about the arts.”
Several times each evening the telephone rings for her. Occasionally it’s some housewife complaining that her garbage hasn’t been removed.
Nearly everybody who calls her to open a tea or a bazaar or make a speech begins: “I know you’re really
much too busy. But this is a rather special occasion.”
Special occasions have taken Jessica in the past few months to address the Ratepayers’ Association, Women’s Institute, Ukrainian Catholic Women’s Association, Launderers’ Association, Chamber of Commerce Civic Bureau, Winnipeg Women’s Club, Provincial Council of Women, Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary, Optimists and a dozen of other groups.
“Don’t play hookey from your municipal responsibilities,” she urges. “Learn about the water system, your
parks, street cleaning. The great majority of politicians are sincerely trying to do a good job, but they need help, understanding, and constructive criticism.”
Another time she said in ringing tones: “Rights, like plants, dwindle
and decay without care. Your interest is needed. No family is safe in a corrupt community. No community or nation is safe except at the price of continual vigilance. Town councils are the training grounds of Communists. Therefore vote at all municipal elections, because intelligent use of the ballot at this level is the basic guarantee of freedom.”
She almost stomps around in her determination to invest the Mayor’s office with more importance. “In England and the States,” she keeps repeating, “people announce his entrance with the fine old words ‘His Worship The Mayor.’ In Canada everybody says ‘My God! Here comes the Mayor!’ ”
She speaks good French and once at a banquet in the U. S. she was unexpectedly asked to translate a speech by Lucien Borne, then Mayor of Quebec City. She hadn’t even been listening to it. So she said: “No words of English could adequately express the beautiful poetic French prose in which Monsieur Borne has just thanked our hosts for their hospitality.”
Jessica claims to be nervous until she gets going. The biggest shock she had was being asked to speak from the pulpit in Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg, on the National Day of Prayer. “But I’ve never spoken from a pulpit before,” she protested. “You’ll find the acoustics excellent,” she was
told. “That makes it worse,” she said. “Everybody will hear my knees knocking.” They didn’t.
Actually she’s got more fortitude than most male orators. Once, opening the Winnipeg Canoe Club regatta, she was caught in a rainstorm when she started to speak. She refused to step back under cover because this would have taken her from view. One man gave her his raincoat. Another gave her an enormous pair of men’s rubbers. She looked ridiculous but stuck it out. Then the microphone went dead. Jessica carried on at the top of her voice. When she was through—“soaked to the skin and croaky as a bullfrog”—she was cheered from the platform.
Scots in Ginger Ale
During the Winnipeg flood she waded miles around half-submerged homes and became honorary secretary of the Manitoba Relief Fund. More than nine million dollars was raised. Much of it remains for distribution. “It became big business,” she says. “It floored us when we had so much to manage. But it’s being well run.”
For years there had been an Association of Rural Municipalities in Manitoba. Jessica decided the farmers were dominating the province. In 1949 she organized an Association of Urban
Municipalities which is now going strong.
She was born in Montreal of Scots Presbyterian parents who owned a small ginger-ale business. She finished a routine schooling at the Convent of the Sisters of the Holy Name because “I knew if I wanted to eat in Quebec I’d have to talk French.”
At eighteen she was working for a law firm typing abstracts of land titles. Her boss, though she came to like him later, often irritated her. One day she burst out: “Why do you say such
things when you know they annoy me.” He replied: “When you are mad you work like hell!”
She went to relatives in Massachusetts and prolonged her stay for two years by working for an American optical company. At twenty she was employment manager and well aware of the jealousy of the rest of the staff. Returning to Canada she worked once more for lawyers, married, was divorced after a brief union, and took only a month off work to give birth to Roberta.
In the early Thirties she took a succession of temporary jobs. In 1935 local authorities were carrying a crippling load of unemployment relief. Mayor Camillien Houde of Montreal decided to call a Canada-wide conference of mayors to press the federal government to share the load. Houde’s secretary, Ted Bullock, a former newspapermen, employed Jessica to help with clerical work. About seventy mayors turned up.
A second conference of mayors was called in 1936 and its agenda widened. In 1937 the annual convention became an institution. “And by then,” says
Ù-‘risica, “I was part of the furniture. They couldn’t get rid of me.” The conference turned itself in to the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities.
Membership fees were slow in coming. “Often,” says Jessica, “I went without part of my salary. But it seemed to me that there would be a good job in this outfit one day and I wouldn’t quit.” Ted Bullock was the first executive director of the CMF, then he was succeeded by George Mooney. When Mooney went to UNRRA after the war Jessica became the boss. On her marriage in 1948 Mooney took over again.
During Jessica’s thirteen years with the CMF there was never more than three of a staff. In addition to their official duties, Jessica and her colleagues got baseball and theatre tickets for visiting mayors, reserved rooms, arranged introductions and sometimes dined with the delegates.
At the Vancouver convention in 1946 the delegates chartered a vessel to Victoria. Jack Lloyd, then Mayor of Halifax, failed to show up for the trip. Halfway across the straits delegates on the rail saw Lloyd in a small motor boat. As he came abeam he unfurled a huge banner. It was inscribed: “Hello Jessica!”
When Jessica first became interested in Garnet Coulter is a family secret. But friends say jokingly it started the day in 1947 she read a news story about the Winnipeg mayor. He was posing for his annual picture as “the most eligible bachelor of the year.” He told reporters he had received from Mrs. Clement Attlee a card inviting the Winnipeg mayor’s wife to attend a tea at 10 Downing Street in London on behalf of the British Empire Nurses War Memorial Fund. When reporters asked him what he was going to do about it Mayor Coulter smiled and said: “No comment.”
For years Coulter had lived quietly with a Winnipeg family. Early in J948 he bought No. 157 Wellington Crescent and there was considerable speculation about his intentions. Rumors reached Winnipeg that he was squiring a pretty woman whenever he went to Montreal. A surprise wedding at the United Church, Saint Thèrese, Que., a few months later disclosed the woman as Jessica.
The municipal wives at the official reception gasped when the mayor’s wife, aged forty-two but looking thirtytwo, stepped from the train. She was wearing a powder-blue gabardine suit, a jaunty straw hat with taffeta bow, a corsage of orchids and, when the photographer’s bulbs began to flash, a brilliant movie-star smile.
Receiving a bouquet of crimson roses, she dropped her handbag, spilled its dainty contents on the platform and cooed apologetically as portly civicdignitaries scrambled to retrieve them for her.
“You see,” said Alderman C. E. Simonite, who had been deputy mayor of Winnipeg during the honeymoon, “already you have them on their knees before you.” The Winnipeg Tribune announced: “The city immediately fell in love with its sparkling first lady and looked with new admiration on its chief magistrate who only eight days ago deserted the ranks of bachelorhood.”
Jessica doesn’t talk much about her future. But people close to Winnipeg City Hall suspect that Mayor Coulter married a possible successor to his gold chain of office.
“There are far too few women in Canadian municipal life,” says Jessica. “Local politics are nearest to the people, yet here the woman’s views are given the least expression. Somebody’s got to take a lead.” it