the pulse of French Canada
In the heyday of razzle-dazzle newspapers Montreal’s La Presse became the biggest paper in Canada with stunts like inciting a mutiny and sneaking into death cells. Now it blushes at its past and concentrates on its solid reputation as
HMH URING THE days of its flaming youth La Presse of Montreal burgeoned into Canada’s biggest newspaper on a policy of sensational news and spectacular stunts. At various times reporters stole a bloodstained murder axe, persuaded a condemned man to pose for pictures in his death cell while playing a violin, and dragged a corpse into the newsroom before they wrote about its discovery. The bizarre pages of La Presse once prompted the late Henri Bourassa, editor of the rival Le Devoir, to describe it as “la putain de la Rue St. Jacques” — “the harlot of St. James Street.”
Now running second only to the Toronto Star in circulation, La Presse, over the past thirty years, has shown an increasing decorum but its greatest appeal still is that it is unique. Most French Canadians love a lawsuit so La Presse gives detailed coverage to court proceedings. There are up to two columns every day in small type of the most minor legal decisions and even a man whose car is seized for nonpayment of debts cannot avoid its attention. The widespread family connections of most French Canadians give news value to numerous obituaries, printed free, of obscure citizens and the paper prints long lists of mourners.
These La Presse stunts sent its circulation soaring
Every week between five hundred and a thousand distressed La Presse readers seek advice from a column known as Le Courrier de Colette, conducted for fifty-one years by a frail septuagenarian spinster named Edouardina Lesage. So familiar is her pseudonym that now even the three elderly sisters with whom she lives in a quiet Montreal suburb address her as Colette.
In her answers to problems on love, children, cooking, dress and etiquette Colette is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes stern and sometimes tart, but always within the limits of good Catholic doctrine. Her readers seem more concerned than correspondents of similar English-language columns with matters of good manners, dress and taste and less concerned with the suspected infidelities of husbands, wives and sweethearts.
One girl wrote recently asking whether she ought to buy her fiance’s father a birthday gift. “No,” replied Colette. “You may buy your future motherin-law a gift but it is not customary in such cases for a young girl to give presents to her future fatherin-law.”
When a country girl asked Colette’s advice about getting a job in Montreal the columnist replied: “Stay with your parents. Do not seek adventure. You will only lose some feathers and make your mother weep.”
A boy of twenty complained that he lacked friends. Colette advised him to seek in himself the cause of his loneliness. “Perhaps you have a difficult character,” she wrote. “Friendship may only be won, never demanded. But take heart. You are young enough to change shoulders with your rifle.”
Anywhere in Quebec province La Presse men are usually first on the scene of a story because of tips from more than a thousand district correspondents, many of them tillage priests, postmasters, schoolteachers and civil servants. And although La Presse is published in Canada’s most highly urbanized territory, a Saturday agricultural page—on which recently the first and second stomachs of a cow were discussed with solemn authority—reflects the newspaper’s bid for the farmers’ attention.
There is such heavy coverage of Catholic news that even La Presse men tell the legend of the woman who telephoned Cardinal Léger’s palace to enquire if he was ill. When told no, and asked to explain her question, she replied, “Well, I didn’t see his picture in La Presse today.”
Even off the news pages, the contents of La Presse set in bold relief the temperamental differences of its readers from those of English-speaking Canada. A phenomenon curious to English-speaking readers is a column of doctor’s advertisements. Most French-Canadian doctors, like their Englishspeaking colleagues, regard advertising as a breach of professional etiquette.
But some doctors cling to traditions obtaining in France, where medical advertising is not taboo.
Nine out of ten French-speaking Montrealers read La Presse—its daily circulation is more than a quarter of a million. Throughout the rural areas of the upper St. Lawrence it is passed
around an average of four families before it is used for lighting the Quebec heater. La Presse has French-Canadian subscribers in the Maritimes, Ontario and the prairies, and every evening a special edition of six thousand is dispatched to Franco-Americans in the New England Stiltes. Nearer home, La Presse so reflects the French-Canadian outlook that many politicians regard it as the eyes, the ears, the voice and the mind of French Canada.
In Canadian politics the paper has always supported the Liberal Party. But its editorials are explanatory
rather than polemical and their tone is mild. During World War I La Presst? opposed conscriptions In World War II its conscription policy was neutral. Two years ago the paper was largely responsible for persuading the government, to establish at St. Jean, Que., a new bilingual military college to increase the number of French-Canadian officers. In recent months La Presse has reiterated its support of the movement for a distinctive Canadian flag and pressed the importance of a Quebec royal commission which is weighing the validity of widespread claims that certain federal taxes weaken the province’s ability to preserve its culture.
The driving force behind La Presse is Hervé Major, a tall pink-cheeked soft-spoken man in his fifties who works long hours under a green eye shade. In the Twenties when the paper was under fire from the Catholic Church for its gaudy reporting, Major grad ually changed its character without sapping its enterprise. After thirty years with La Presse he still ranks as city editor but assumes the responsibilities of managing editor, news editor, features editor and even photo editor. His name is listed in the telephone book below that of the La Presse editorial department and off duly he is beset by callers, at all hours of the night, tipping him off on stories.
In 1950 Major was president of the Canadian Press and helped establish a French-language teletype news service. He was influential in getting La Presse’s directors to recognize the Syndicat des Journalistes, a union which gave reporters of five years’ experience a minimum of ninety-two dollars a week. Most La Presse men receive more.
On the paper, Major takes the big press association news and then adds Gallic flavor with dispatches from the French news agency, France Presse. La Presse, which is the biggest French newspaper outside of France, carries more news from France than any paper in North America.
Major’s first lieutenant is the lively Romeo Le Blanc who assigns reporters from the city desk and delivers a daily news summary over La Presse’s radio station CKAC.
Eugene Lamarche, the elderly editor in chief, is usually described as “the hyphen between the owners and the editorial staff.” This brings him into contact with the heirs of Trefilé Berthiaume, a poor printer who founded the paper seventy years ago. La Compagnie de Publication de La Presse is a family concern whose annual profits are not published. They are reputedly high. Although the paper’s building on St. James Street is old-fashioned and some of the printing machinery has been running for more than forty years the owners recently refused a purchase offer of twenty million dollars.
Founder Berthiaume was a stocky man with a thick mane of hair and a beard. He was born in 1848 in the Quebec village of St. Hugues and at the age of twelve he was working in a print shop. In 1884, when he was thirty-six, he became foreman printer of a new Montreal paper called Le Nouveau Monde. Its finances were shaky and soon after its founding it was bought by Sir Adolphe Chapleau who had been Secretary of State in the cabinet of Sir John A. Macdonald. Associated with Chapleau was Arthur (Boss) Dansereau, a noted journalist who was an adviser to Sir Wilfrid Laurier. But neither Chapleau nor Dansereau could make Le Nouveau Monde pay. Trefilé Berthiaume, who was the printers’ spokesman, encouraged them to hang on in the conviction the paper could find its feet.
Chapleau was touched by Berthiaume’s loyalty. In 1889, when Le Nouveau Monde was still in the red, Chapleau made a gift of the paper to Berthiaume on condition the latter accept responsibility for its debts. Berthiaume jumped at the chance. He had been studying new techniques of popular journalism then developing in England and the United States and he decided to try them out himself. He changed the paper’s name to La Presse.
News and opinion were separated. Sports and entertainment took space previously occupied by political diatribes. Alongside world news of im-
portance there were stories of crime and punishment, of disaster and rescue, of infidelity and retribution. To the amazement of rival editors still printing the rhetorical diapasons of their favorite politicians, La Presse reared up among them like a giant Pied Piper and lured most of their readers away.
In 1900 the editors of La Presse moved into a new building on St. Janies Street. Every night for the first twenty years of his presidency Trefilé Berthiaume stood at the bottom of the stairs and as the staff departed for home shook each by the hand and thanked him.
Boss Dansereau, who constantly had the ear of Laurier, continued to direct the paper’s pro-Liberal policy and opened doors to many political scoops. On the news side were some of the most colorful characters who ever set pen to paper. The city editor was Auguste Marion, an eccentric bachelor who scorned overshoes and, in winter, wrapped his feet in a thick swath of old blueprints. And he fizzed with ideas.
When an Italian-Canadian was sentenced to death for murder Marion printed a huge picture of the prospective widow and her wide-eyed infant daughter holding out their arms in a pose of heart-rending supplication. The minister of justice commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Pulled Strings Did The Job
A keen young reporter on the staff was Léon Trepanier, today the venerable and sprightly secretary of the Health League of Canada. Marion sent Trepanier to get a death-cell interview with a murderer in Ontario. Provincial law barred such proceedings but Trepanier got into the death cell by posing as a lawyer.
Next day the Ontario attorney general was so furious he revoked Trepanier’s permit to witness the execution. Through Boss Dansereau, Trepanier pulled a string to Laurier and on the fateful day had a front-row seat below the gallows, attorney general or no attorney general.
In March 1901 Marion had a theory which La Presse has espoused ever since-—that the St. Lawrence, below Quebec City, is navigable all the year round. Volunteers were raised to man a ship rechristened La Presse. Aboard was the news editor Lorenzo Prince. As the ship sailed La Presse came out with a special edition headlined:
MAY COD PROTECT THEM.
The ship bashed its way through the ice to the Atlantic and returned six weeks later. Even though many thought the point might have been better proven by a voyage in January or February there were triumphant scenes.
During the same year Le Matin of Paris issued a challenge to take on all comers in a race round the world. Marion was first to pick up the glove. Others who entered the lists were Le Journal of Paris, the Chicago American, the New York Journal and the San Francisco Examiner. Marion went on the trip himself, taking as his running mate Lorenzo Prince. The journey was via Europe, Asia and the Pacific and the competitors were limited to the use of orthodox commercial transport. At Haak in Manchuria Marion had trouble with his passport and was flung into jail. Prince arrived back at Montreal’s Windsor Station in sixty-six days to be met by cheering crowds.
The Chicago-American reporter completed his trip in sixty days but was disqualified because at two points he hired a special train and chartered a boat. La Presse was declared the winner. Prince was entertained by the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce. La Presse printed readers’ poems in his praise. A month later Marion turned up shaggy, broke and furious at having missed the celebrations. He began to drive his reporters harder than ever.
Star among them was Septime Laferrière, a human gimlet of a newsman, a Bohemian of the old school and, by Catholic standards, a heretic. He delighted in embarrassing priests on the public street by kneeling before them, placing their hands on his head and solemnly demanding their benediction.
On his way to work early one winter morning Laferrière found a corpse in a back alley. Nonchalantly, he dragged it through the snow and into the newsroom. There he went through its pockets and in a story announced its identity. Then he called the police and ordered them to take the body away.
Laferrière also stole a bloodstained axe from the scene of a murder near Ottawa. With police hot on his heels he succeeded in getting it to the office in time for photographing before it was wrested back by the law and carried off as Exhibit A.
Consulting his must? for a new angle to a death-cell story Laferrière was inspired to buy a violin at a pawnshop and hurry with it to a prison on the eve of an execution. There the murderer who had never played a violin obliged with a valiant attempt at Handel’s Largo while Laferrière’s photographer shot soulful pictures.
Laferrière got his biggest story in 1904 when, according to La Presse veterans, he deliberately provoked a mutiny at sea. He was covering the voyage from Bremen to Quebec City of the polar exploration ship Gauss which had been sold by Germany to the Canadian government. Her master was J.E. Bernier, the celebrated French-Canadian explorer. Bernier was a martinet and the crew smarted under his discipline. Laferrière dined with Bernier every night but sided secretly with the crew. At every opportunity he inflamed their grievances with snatches of conversation from the captain’s table and imaginative descriptions of the delicacies upon it. In mid-ocean Laferrière gleefully watched the crew rise in open mutiny. On reaching Quebec City he wrote a series of sensational articles in which he pictured Bernier as a modern Captain Bligh. This precipitated a prolonged row in the House of Commons which La Presse played up in headlines and embellished with Laferrière’s backlog of inside information.
In those days rival newspapers could never understand how La Presse was able to grab so many photographs of people killed and injured in disasters. La Presse editors themselves attributed their success to a bonus paid to reporters for each picture they could borrow from stricken relatives.
After a disastrous fire in which more than a score of people died a reporter called Marcel Bernard produced a picture for every casualty and pocketed a fat reward. For days afterward however La Presse received phone calls from subjects of the portraits. When confronted, Bernard admitted his pictures were of his own relatives lifted from an old family album. The editors knew better than to ask for the bonus money back. Some of them had helped Bernard dispose of it at the nearest tavern.
Ernest Tremblay was another vivid character at La Presse. Once when Henri Bourassa was attacking La Presse in the streets for what he called its yellow journalism Tremblay set up a rival soap box nearby. His stentorian voice and sumptuous language, his waving arms and flying mane, drew crowds
away from Bourassa. Although Tremblay had never been introduced to Bourassa he referred to him as “my old friend Henri” and indicated with gestures toward his skull that the nationalist leader was slightly whacky.
Tremblay once had thousands of Montrealers making a pilgrimage to a small house in the suburbs where he swore he had seen a miracle. At certain times, he said, a crucifix on a wall was bathed in glorious light. The plodding La Patrie discovered that the crucifix had been dipped by somebody— hinting darkly at Tremblay—in phosphorus.
In 1904 Trefilé Berthiaume suddenly and inexplicably sold La Presse. The official announcement said it had been bought by Hugh Graham, later Lord Atholstan, publisher of the Montreal Star, and Sir Roger Forget. Later it transpired that a controlling interest had been acquired by Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann, the rail-
road pioneers who were Toronto Tories. There was an outcry among Liberals who said the deal was part of a Tory plot to unseat the Laurier government.
Mackenzie and Mann had persuaded Berthiaume to sell after a good dinner at the Windsor Hotel. Next day Berthiaume regretted his act and tried to buy back his paper. But he was stalled.
If La Presse under its new owners had turned Tory it might have had a profound effect on the elections of 1904. But to the astonishment of many it remained Liberal and the Laurier government was re-elected. Laurier summoned Mackenzie and Mann to Ottawa. What occurred at the interview none but the participants ever knew. But soon afterward Mackenzie and Mann sold La Presse back to Berthiaume. For years after, they received from the Liberal government a large volume of subsidies and guarantees which enabled them to stretch their Canadian Northern Railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific and to found a major part of what is today the Canadian National Railways.
Throughout the years before World War 1 Berthiaume used La Presse as an instrument for reform. He campaigned successfully for the institution of employment exchanges, night schools, children’s aid societies, a house of refuge for the destitute and for the recognition of trade unionism. In 1912 IK* was campaigning for better roads to attract automobile tourist traffic from the United States. At a cost of thirty thousand dollars out of its own funds La Presse paved the first ten miles of a new highway in the direction of the border. This shamed the province I government into completing the task and road improvements followed on a huge scale.
Another stunt was a fight between Louis Cyr, a French Canadian rated as the strongest man in the world, and a freak eight feet tall known as Giant Beaupré. Nearly a hundred thousand people turned out to watch. In a mixture of boxing and wrestling the contestants became so exhausted that it was impossible to determine the winner.
One of La Presse’s last adventures in sensational journalism centred on the Delorme case in 1922. Three times the Abbé Alfred Delorme was tried for the murder of his half-brother and finally was acquitted. Because the accused was a priest every angle of the story was explored and “splashed.” La Presse got one big scoop from Fernand Roby, a reporter who was hiding in a cupboard in a room where Delorme was being questioned by police. Roby was eventually called as a witness. Because of his close contacts with the whole affair he scored many beats and La Presse put on eighteen thousand circulation.
After this story there were rumors the Catholic Church was preparing to issue a proclamation forbidding congregations to read La Presse. That was when the accomplished city editor Hervé Major arrived on the scene, and steadily the tenor of the news pages changed.
Paradise For Pseudonyms
’The last of the old brigade to retire from La Presse was Albert Laberge, the sports editor, now in his eighties. For thirty years he ran the sports page although his hatred of all forms of sports was notorious. He amazed one junior reporter at a big fight in which a Canadian had a good chance to win the world’s middleweight championship by leaning over with a bored yawn and asking, “What is the name of that man?” Laberge preferred his library of classical literature, his collection of fine paintings, and the company of scholars. He wrote three highbrow novels which were so frank in their love scenes that it was decided to limit the copies to private circulation.
On La Presse’s week end art pages the old-fashi..ned pseudonym is still in style. Roger Champoux writes movie reviews under the name Léon Franque; Jean Dufresne, Quebec’s foremost authority on the French writer Marcel Proust, writes music notes under the pen name Marcel Valois; and Jacques La Roche, the drama critic, hides modestly behind the nom de plume Jean Béraud.
The nearest French-language Canadian rival to La Presse is L’Evenement Journal, of Quebec City, with a circulation of just under a hundred and twenty-five thousand. The circulations of La Presse’s Montreal contemporaries, Montreal Matin (forty-three thousand), Le Devoir (thirty thousand), and La Patrie (sixteen thousand) are relatively Lilliputian. In fact, La Presse regards the English-language Montreal Star, with a circulation of one hundred and fifty-two thousand, as its only serious threat. The Star is gradually building up a following of bilingual French Canadians. La Presse’s policies get a further airing over the French-language radio station CKAC, which it has owned since the earliest days of broadcasting, and CHLP, which it acquired in 1933 when it bought and continued to publish the rival evening paper, La Patrie.
La Presse is chided occasionally by Le Devoir for failing to take a stronger line in Quebec’s squabbles with the federal government and the Englishspeaking provinces. La Presse never answers Le Devoir in its editorial
columns. Lucien Dansereau, one of the directors, says: “If Le Devoir climbed up to a hundred thousand circulation we might be tempted to take some notice of it. But as things are what is the point of giving it free publicity?”
Behind the scenes on La Presse there has been an almost continuous struggle for power. When Trefilé Berthiaume died in 1915 he left the paper in trust to his three sons and three daughters and decreed that when the children were all dead La Presse would become the outright property of the grandchildren. He named his son Artur as sole trustee of the property and then, eight days before he died, he named two more trustees, Joseph R. Mainville, a notary, and Zenon Fontaine, an advocate.
His last-minute change created legal wrangles that still are going on. Second son Eugene bitterly opposed the principle of two outsiders sharing the trusteeship and, as president (older brother Artur was chairman of the board) he dominated the management of the paper. Things reached a head in 1921 when Mainville died, leaving a vacancy among the three trustees. Artur proposed his brother-in-law, Pamphile Real DuTremblay, as successor and the courts upheld him over counterclaims by Eugene.
Full details of what followed are a family secret. It is known that Eugene was ordered to keep away from the La Presse building and that police were empowered to enforce the decision. For three or four days Eugene locked himself in the building and defiantly continued to turn out the paper. Meals were brought in by messenger. Outside, police waited to deny him readmission if he left the building. Finally Eugene capitulated. He was persuaded by the family to go to Paris and become the paper’s European correspondent and he lived a lavish life. Once when crossing the Atlantic he booked a whole deck of cabins. On a visit to Montreal he once took a suite and then ordered all the locks changed. Visitors were admitted only after careful scrutiny by a Parisian manservant who answered the door.
Eugene outlived both his brothers and when Artur died in 1932 the presidency went to Eugene’s brother-inlaw, DuTremblay, who in 1942 was appointed to the Canadian Senate. In 1945 Eugene went to the courts, accusing DuTremblay of fraud, and once more the courts ruled against him. Suddenly in 1946 Eugene died in New York.
But La Presse’s legal difficulties haven’t ended. Recently legal proceedings were taken against the paper’s board of directors by the founder’s great-grandchildren. Their case, which at this writing is proceeding, is that under DuTremblay’s presidency the board has declared such large annual dividends that insufficient funds have been laid aside for necessary capital improvements at the La Presse plant. The petitioners are demanding the restitution of more than a million dollars and the resignation of DuTremblay.
Even if Trefilé Berthiaume’s family inherited a contentious legacy, however, the editorial staff of La Presse inherited a fine professional tradition. The squabbles over La Presse’s profits have never impaired its progress. Indeed, they’ve served to typify one of the traditional characteristics of the paper’s vast audience, who love nothing so much as a lawsuit.
One person close to La Presse’s affairs explains with a smile, “We are of Norman stock and to us arguments about legacies are the breath of life.”
By those standards, there’s plenty of life left in La Presse—both in its columns and behind them, ir