Ubiquitous is the Word for Abbie
Abigail Amanda Lane, after eighteen years’ comfortable domesticity, launched a freewheeling career on a dare. Now one of the best-known women in the Maritimes she has warned a bemused Halifax that she intends to be the first woman mayor in the history of that ancient city
WHEN in Halifax, the first thing a stranger is likely to see or hear about is Citadel Hill, which sits up high and overlooks the harbor. The second is Abigail Amanda Lane, a fifty-four-year-old woman-about-town who overlooks nothing.
Ubiquitous is the word for Abbie. In a single day, maintaining a pace generally left to coolies, it is possible to catch her at the microphone of two of the city’s three radio stations, shopping at the corner grocer’s, addressing a service-club luncheon, pouring at a tea, rehearsing a stage play, hearing her fourteen-year-old daughter’s homework and arguing with the men at City Hall, where she is an alderman. She also manages eight hours’ sleep and breakfast in bed.
Mrs. Lane is a well-corseted pleasant-looking woman whose blond hair is liberally traced with grey. Her face is lined but youthful and her step is quick, almost jerky. She wears a hat as often as she wears shoes, which gives the constant impression that she’s about to be somewhere else. She usually is.
Five mornings a week she does a fifteen-minute radio commentary on women’s affairs, reading recipes, ironing out problems of etiquette, interviewing visiting celebrities and local do-gooders and generally lambasting people and things that annoy her.
An hour later the worldly wise society woman and fashion expert shrugs off her squirrel jacket, ties on a homespun apron and becomes Mary Gillan, all-Canadian farm wife, on the CBC’s Maritime Network daily farm broadcast. Mary Gillan is a household name on every farm on the Atlantic coast but Abbie Lane is still uncomfortable in the same county with a cow.
Positive is another word for her. She is variously described as the best alderman in the city and the worst, a conscientious citizen and a windy old busybody.
An inveterate club member and committee worker, she runs the gamut from school board to poker club. Her crammed wallet holds more than a dozen membership cards. She is proudest of the one issued by the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire, who last year made her their provincial president just a few months after she made a radio broadcast that some people branded high treason.
When the City of Halifax gave a luncheon at the Lord Nelson Hotel for the then Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at the fag end of their 1951 Canadian tour, Mrs. Lane was picked to present the official gift, partly because she was the only woman on the city council and partly because she’d helped to make the arrangements for the visit.
As soon as the presentation was over the royal tourists hurried on to their next stop, the Camp Hill military hospital. Coming through the doorway into one of the wards the Princess did a double-take. A few feet away, still wearing her blue-ribboned aldermanic medallion, stood Mrs. Lane, this time on the business end of a microphone describing the event for radio station CJCH.
As soon as Elizabeth and her consort had bowed out of the hotel ballroom Abbie had raced out the kitchen door, swung her one hundred and eighty pounds (now trimmed to a hundred and fifty) into a waiting car and shouted, “Let’s get going.”
A Toronto newspaper columnist, also a woman, described Abbie as the goingest concern in Halifax. Just where she is going next is the subject of some conjecture, not all of it flattering. She has often been told she should go back to the kitchen and stay there, but she’s aiming for nothing short of the mayor’s office.
Halifax has an unwritten rule that Catholics and non-Catholics must alternate as mayors, so Abbie, an Anglican, can’t run until the term of Mayor Richard Donahoe expires in the spring of 1955. At that time her stint as an alderman for Ward Two will also be up. She is the second woman alderman in the city’s two - hundred - and - three - year history. She hopes to become the first woman mayor.
What started it all? Abbie ascribes it to a dare.
During the Second World War women undertook a lot of jobs in Canada. Mrs. Lane, the mother of three and wife of the manager of a savings and loan company, was no exception. Among other things, she washed diapers in the port nursery, escorted the British wives and children of Canadian servicemen from Halifax to Montreal and acted as emcee of a camp show. She was also a St. John’s Ambulance first-aid worker and spent several nights a week dishing out cocoa and doughnuts at service canteens.
When a Halifax society woman who wasn’t exactly in the front lines herself phoned one night in 1944 and asked Abbie to take on another job, she said she didn’t think she had the time. “Well now, Mrs. Lane,” meowed her caller. “'You know there’s a war on.”
Fuming, Abbie hung up. She told her husband: “I’ve got a good mind to take the first full-time job I can find. Then I won’t be at the mercy of biddies like that.”
“I dare you,” he replied. “You couldn’t take orders from anyone. You wouldn’t last two weeks.”
A few weeks later she was hired as women’s editor of the now defunct Halifax Chronicle. The editor figured she would be a good contact with all the women’s organizations in the city; she belonged to most of them.
Once she was sent out to investigate a report that a woman had beaned her child with its own nursing bottle. The address turned out to be a ramshackle waterfront tenement. The police weren’t around so she climbed the dark stairs. She found the mother, the bandaged child and the nursing bottle—a gin bottle with a nipple on it.
She went out and called the office to send a photographer. When cameraman Roy Tidman and Abbie started up the stairs again the woman’s husband shouted down: “What in hell do you want?”
“We’re social workers,” she called back. “1 thought we might . . .”
“You come up and I’ll throw you right down again.”
At this Tidman stepped back behind Mrs. Lane. “You go first,” he said gallantly. “Women’s editors we can get but these cameras are hard to find.”
Both retreated, Abbie to her typewriter where she wrote a blistering and libelous story. When she was told the paper couldn’t print it she sat down again and typed out her resignation. She later tore it up.
In 1944 when the Chronicle opened its own small radio station, CJCH, Mrs. Lane was made women’s commentator. And when the Chronicle sponsored a yearly fashion show in hopes of building up its
steadily falling circulation she ran that too.
In December 1948 the Chronicle merged with the rival Herald and Mail and Abbie was out of the newspaper business. But she kept on in radio and other activities soon took up her slack time. She was a member of the civic planning committee which spent, two years drafting Halifax’s master plan and she was president of the Halifax Welfare Bureau for six years.
In 1951 she took her first fling at politics when a by-election was called in Ward Two. “I think women have a big role to play in t he community and 1 decided to play mine,” she explains.
Her campaign manager, Mrs. MacKenzie Watt, and most, of her campaign workers were housewives. In many cases they didn’t stir out of their kitchens. They looked up tu telephone numbers of every voter in the ward about five thousand — and kept phones ringing for weeks. Abbie won by more than five hundred votes. Elected to serve out a one-year term she was paid seven hundred and fifty dollars; her campaign expenses ran close to a thousand.
After her election there appeared a noticeal rift between Mrs. Lane and the Progressive Co servative Party, reportedly because the party organization hadn’t helped her. Party affiliations are usually left unmentioned in civic politics. “They took a strangely detached attitude toward my election,” she says today. She’s no longer active in PC affairs and claims that she turned down a Conservative nomination in a federal by-election.
Alderman Lane’s first project was a fearless drive for the appointment of a dogcatcher. Last November the city finally got a dogcatcher, a truck and all the trappings and Mrs. Lane got a barrage of calls from irate dog owners who had to pay two dollars to get their pups out of the pokey.
Early in the game she revealed her formula for getting things done. The aldermen were discussing a request to the provincial government for financial aid. One man reminded the others that the city had already made one attempt.
“Well, we didn’t get it, did we?” Mrs. Lane chimed in. “And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s that if you want anything you have to nag, nag, nag.”
“Sure, I’m persistent,” she says. “I don’t mind getting in anyone’s hair.”
One night when the council was about to discuss the qualifications of a would-be city manager (it had already decided to appoint a manager to streamline the business of running Halifax) Mrs. Lane suggested the aidermen interview the applicant privately in the mayor’s office. They voted to do so. But the then-mayor, Gordon Kinley, who opposed the whole scheme, refused to enter his office. He demanded that the interview be held in the council chambers.
Several aldermen shouted protests but Mrs. Lane was the first on her feet. She accused Kinley of trying to veto the council. One by one the aldermen got up and walked into the mayor’s office, leaving him behind. The applicant was hired.
Later Mrs. Lane told a couple of aldermen, “It took the poor lone woman to carry the ball for all you big husky men.”
“God help the man who tried to grab it before you,” said Donahoe, then an alderman.
At first Abbie was inclined to speak as though she was the Voice of Womankind. It chafed many of the aldermen and in time she dropped it. But sarcasm is still one of her big guns.
The night last April when the council was scheduled to debate the Willow Park Amateur Athletic Club’s liquor license, a highly partisan crowd of four hundred jammed the dingy council chambers and filled the corridor outside. Though it does have taverns and hotels where beer and wine are sold Halifax has no cocktail lounges. However some private clubs are licensed by the city to sell liquor to members. Mrs. Lane moved that the Willow Park club’s license be canceled, as the club rooms were above a store frequented by women and children.
She asked the club’s lawyer, “What kind of athletics are practiced in this club?” The lawyer admitted he didn’t know, but it wasn’t hockey, football or baseball.
“Then athletics don’t enter into it?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
The spectators roared and the license was laughed out of council.
That same month Abbie was reelected by acclamation for three years.
On a checkup visit to the city jail she noticed five French-speaking inmates from one of the city’s bawdy houses busy knitting diamond socks. In halting French she chatted through the bars with them and learned that when night fell they had to put their knitting aside—there were no lights in the cells. The alderman suggested the prison provide lights.
When a young electrician told her it was impossible to put wiring through four feet of concrete she snapped back at him: “I’ve lived longer than you have and nothing is impossible.” To date, possible or not, the wiring hasn’t gone through.
Abbie’s radio show is a relaxed piece ! of business right from the time she starts jotting down ideas on the back of an envelope. She usually arrives at I CJCH about five minutes before she’s due to go on the air. She has a cigarette, swaps wisecracks with the announcers and heads for a two-by-four studio when the clock indicates 10.45. Her theme, the Emperor Waltz, is played and an announcer plugs a potion guaranteed to relieve asthma.
She pulls the notes from her purse (she seldom has a script) and starts in. Her subject may be anything from sex education to the origin of the Christmas card, household hints for homemakers to Sonja Henie’s late morning sleeps (the skater once stood her up on an interview date).
Her fan mail consists mostly of requests for recipes, advice or assistance. A prisoner in the city jail wrote asking her to send him a shaving kit, comb, shoes and a shirt and would she please take up his case with the attorney-general. He explained he was just a young chap who had been led astray. Abbie checked his record and j found he had twenty-eight previous convictions.
The Thing Scared Abigail
One Friday after she had given out a recipe for lemon snow she got a call from an angry listener. “How do you expect me to copy all that down? T missed the Coventry tartlets last week too . . .” It was a man. On another occasion the phone by her bed woke her at two a.m. “We have a terrible predicament,” a woman told her. “You’ve got to help us. We just bid six no trump, and went down two, vulnerable and doubled. What do we count?”
Sometimes the problems are real. A distraught woman had a touchy legal tangle involving her husband’s illegitimate child. Abbie told her to hold onto the phone while she ran next door and asked her neighbor, a Supreme Court judge. She was back three minutes later with his opinion.
Abbie gives freely of her own opinions on a lot of subjects, movies among them. She once stormed into the manager’s office of a downtown theatre and demanded that The Thing, a piece of interplanetary horror, be taken off the screen. It stayed. She slammed it on the radio next morning. “It was just too fantastic for children,” she recalls. “I saw them in a state of hysteria.” Her broadcast brought quick results: radio listeners beat a path to the box office.
Finlay MacDonald, CJCH’s thirtyyear-old manager, calls Abbie “the most prominent woman in the public life of the Maritimes.”
There was one occasion, however, when MacDonald and Mrs. Lane would have been happy if everyone in Halifax had been listening to their rival, CHNS. That was Nov. 9, 1951, the day Elizabeth and Philip left Halifax. Abbie went on the air with a few candid after-the-ball remarks and the resulting rumpus went on for days.
She had no script and no recording of her broadcast was made, so it is difficult to obtain her exact words. But there are many versions of what she said. One credits her with the comment that the Princess showed her grandmother’s austerity and lacked the friendliness and smile of her own mother. According to this version, Abbie said the people of Halifax felt let down after standing in the rain for two days. The conclusion was that she felt the young Elizabeth was no shucks compared to her mother.
“It wasn’t so much what Mrs. Lane said but the wav she said it,” one woman recalls. “Her voice was com-
pletely cold and disinterested, like cotton wool. But, personally, I agreed with her.”
Another version again is that she commented icily, “So this is the fairy princess . . .”
Abbie denies these stories but admits the broadcast was an error—in timing, not contents. If it had been made a few weeks after the visit, she believes, there would have been no fuss. “I merely said what everybody else was saying and thinking,” she adds. “I suppose that was wrong.”
Her account is that she said the weather had spoiled things, that the Princess appeared tired and still a bit scared after her long trip and that she didn’t seem to be too sure of herself. Reporters and radio commentators across Canada had been saying as much for weeks. However, she admits she did mention the 1939 visit of the late King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and referred to the Queen’s poise and her warm smile. “No comparison was made,” she says, “and none was intended.”
Before her broadcast was finished enraged listeners, mostly anonymous, demanded by phone that she be taken off the air. The pay-off came a few hours later when the afternoon MailStar came out with a picture of the previous day’s presentation of Halifax’s official gift. The Princess was wearing her biggest smile and it was aimed right at Abbie.
There was talk that Mrs. Lane would be drummed out of the IODE. Instead, five months later they madf her provincial president and she became a national vice-president of the superloyal organization.
Abbie has some pretty definite ideas about woman’s role in the world. “Hei place is in the home if her children need her,” she says. “But if she has no children, or if they’ve reached an independent age, she owes it to her community to get out and do something.
“Women learned during the war years that they could spare time away from the kitchen for other jobs. Now we shouldn’t allow ourselves to slip back into complete domesticity. Outside interests make a woman more attractive to her husband and they keep her from becoming lonely in old age.”
Abbie was born fifty-four years ago in Halifax. Her father, Dr. Hartley Jacques, died when she was a child and her mother took her to live in Brooklyn, N.Y. In grade eight Abbie was expelled from P.S. 47 for refusing to salute the Stars and Stripes, a fitting start for any Daughter of the Empire. Her mother marched her right back.
She went to high school in Truro, N.S In her spare time she went to the Agricultural College there and taught the intricacies of the waltz. She met Fred Lane at a tea dance, a preoccupation of the Twenties, and they were married when she was twenty-six. She spent the next eighteen years as a mother and housewife, before plunging into the business world.
The Lanes have three children. Jean, fourteen, is at high school; Ted, twenty, is articled to an accountant; and Margaret, twenty-seven, lives with her husband and three-year-old daughter in Montreal. Fred Lane now takes an encouraging go-to-it view of his wife’s public life. He shrugs off the inevitable whispered references to “Mr. Abbie Lane” but finds it a bit palling being
included in groups of “aldermen and their wives.”
The family lives in a large, comfortable grey-shingle house in the west end of Halifax. A colored maid does the housework and most of the cooking. Abbie is a good cook but can’t sew a stitch. She still does all her own shopping. She has been active in amateur theatricals for years and appears in plays put on by the Theatre Arts Guild. Her forte is what she terms “bitchy parts”—acidulous old maids or sophisticated women of the world.
On radio and stage and at City Hall she insists on being called Abbie Lane. At home and at the IODE she’s Mrs. F. A. Lane. She’s also meticulous about the spelling of her Christian name. She doesn’t like to be confused with Abbe Lane, the voluptuous wife of bandleader Xavier Cugat.
She has always been outspoken and therefore it came as no great surprise when, several years ago, she had a genealogist trace back her family’s history and he discovered she was a descendant of Priscilla (“Speak for yourself, John”) Alden.