Mike Wardell’s tempestuous love affa with the Maritimes

Lawrence Earl February 28 1959

Mike Wardell’s tempestuous love affa with the Maritimes

Lawrence Earl February 28 1959

Mike Warden’s tempestuous love affa with the Maritimes

It’s only eight years since this one-eyed British brigadier gave up hobnobbing with London’s social set to start building a publishing empire in New Brunswick. But soon all of Canada will know about


Lawrence Earl

Recently in Fredericton, N.B., a prominent native son dropped into the offices of The Daily Gleaner for a friendly chat with a comparative newcomer — publisher John Michael Stewart Wardell, a transplanted, one-eyed, exmilitary landed gentleman from Britain, who looks and is a person of many distinctions. Among these is Brig. Wardell's reputation of having a hair-trigger temper capable-— like Leacock’s horseman—of riding off simultaneously in all directions.

It was smack in the midst of a scene illustrating this remarkable talent that the embarrassed visitor found the publisher: shouting, red-faced, into a phone regarding a sin of omission by an editor of the Atlantic Advocate, Wardell’s growing monthly magazine; snapping asides at a sweating employee of his book-publishing company who stood with a fistful of galleys beside the boss's desk; glaring in Cyclopean outrage through an open door into the Gleaner's normally cluttered newsroom. That Wardell did not at the same time have a staffer from his job-printing business on the carpet seemed but a niggling oversight, soon to be corrected.

The friend had heard of but never witnessed one of Wardell’s tantrums. Awestruck, he wondered what harm such emotional storms might wreak on a man who, after all, would never see sixty again. When calm settled, the friend cleared his throat.

“Mike,” he ventured, “for the sake of your health, don’t you think you should start taking tranquilizing pills?”

Wardell. momentarily relaxed in his chair to beam lazy charm at his caller, bounced to his feet. Office lights refieeted jerkily in the opaque black monocle he wears over his blind eye as he banged his fist hard against his desk-top.

“Damn it, man!” he shouted, almost loud enough to carry two flights down to bustling Queen Street. “What makes you think I need to be tranquilized?"

In much the same way. Wardell — who keeps New Brunswick in a tizzy and the remaining Atlantic provinces wondering what wild controversy he will stir up next—disclaims any intent to arouse or to annoy.

“I’m trying to plant cohesive fighting thought in the people of the Maritimes, so they can decide rationally how to get what’s coming to them from Ottawa and the rest of Canada,” he said, revealingly, not long ago.

He was referring largely to the down-east cries that freight rates must be adjusted to enable Atlantic-province goods to compete in the central Canadian marketplace; that industrial decentralization from Ontario and Quebec is needed; that a program of federal capital aid be aimed at expanding the basic economy of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

Wardell does appear to do his best to get the people of the Maritimes speaking in one loud voice. He was a strong supporter of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council from its inception. He helped see to it that H. Watson Jamer was made agent-general for the Atlantic provinces in London last June; and even organized a grand dinner there in honor of Premiers Stanfield, Flemming, Mathcson and Smallwood, at which Lord Beaverbrook was host and Prime Minister Macmillan and Sir Winston Churchill were among the distinguished guests. “It has been my aim to get the premiers of the four provinces working closer together than ever before,” Wardell said recently. He has.

In fact, he quite clearly sees himself as the latest and most-likely-to-succeed in a long line of Maritime men who have tried to push and prod the economically depressed down-east area into bettering itself. This, an ambitious undertaking, calls for the kind of

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Mike Warden’s tempestuous love affair with the Maritimes continued from page 27

When she reigned as the toast of London, Tallulah nominated him as one of the “great beaux“

leadership which can inspire the gathering of forces powerful enough not only to influence Ottawa toward action but also to create remedies from within. That such leadership should come from a man not Maritime born and bred would hitherto have been considered impossible, even laughable. Yet Wardell immigrated from Britain only eight years ago.

Nevertheless, Wardell’s self-portrait as a leader of the Atlantic provinces toward greener economic pastures cannot be dismissed. As publisher of the lone daily paper in New Brunswick’s capital and of a magazine which finds its way into the homes of influential down-easterners he is able to make his voice carry a long way. Add to that his undoubted genius for focusing attention on his pet projects. Add too the fact that his prestige has steadily grown in the few years since he adopted the four seaside provinces as his bailiwick. Finally, Wardell has a record of nearly always getting what he wants, as even a few backward glances plainly reveal.

All play—and then work

In his youth, for example, when his sole ambition was to glitter as a blade in the fun-loving set of Britain's high society, he achieved a pinnacle of success matched by few. During the era when Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, was acknowledged sovereign of the playboy department Wardell, as his friend, strummed banjo duets with him in the royal railway car on the way to the hunt and matched broken collarbone with royal broken collarbone in uncounted spills from horses. In another sub-section of that department, Tallulah Bankhead, then a toast of the London stage, nominated him as one of the “great beaux” of the time.

Running out of bones to break (but not of fair ladies to enthrall: he was to marry three times, sire a son on each occasion), Wardell applied his “undoubted energies to a business career.” The phrase was Warden’s own, and his selfesteem was justified. He took a job as a novice newspaperman on Lord Beaverbrook’s London Evening Standard. In four years he was that paper's boss, building up its circulation to record proportions.

In 1944, Wardell, seeking a way to help win the war, developed the “Land Mattress,” a light, easily manoeuvrable artillery weapon which looked like a honeycomb made of lengths of narrow stovepipe, mounted on a two-wheeled trailer. It fired thirty rockets at a time, producing a tremendous simultaneous blast at the other end.

The British War Office, thinking the conflict’s end imminent, decided it was too late to use the device. Refusing defeat, Wardell approached the Canadian Army. The result: he was attached to General Crerar’s forces, took a twelveunit battery of his rocket device to help in the attack on heavily defended Walcheren Island. Its first assignment was to


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knock out an emplacement of German guns. Salvos of three hundred and sixty rockets were fired: smoke obscured the target: when it cleared, the enemy battery was no more. The Canadians from then on used the Land Mattress with devastat-

ing effect and, once again, Wardell had achieved exactly what he wanted.

Though losing his eye can hardly be classed as a Wardell accomplishment, the surrounding details do shed light on the man's amazing strength of character.

Early in 1925. while out with the Belvoir Hunt, he jumped a gate with overhanging blackthorns, a thorn penetrating his left eye. He rushed to London where the thorn was plucked out. Three weeks later, when he was about to leave the hospital,

his doctor took a last look at the injury which was thought to be almost cured. The doctor gravely shook his head.

“i'm afraid it’s all gone wrong,” he said. “You'll have to lose that eye at once or later lose them both.”

With typical British understatement. Warded recently recalled his feelings at the receipt of this ultimatum. “It seemed a devastating calamity for one brief moment." he said, “but I went back to jumping in a matter of weeks.”

An unusual aspect of his pattern for living is Warden’s tendency to travel backwards toward his long-range goals. He does not envy, for example, those men who go to work at an early age, become successful, then pass into retirement when they are older. "I planned the reverse way,” he once said, “and promised myself, when play was done, a life of toil to satisfy ambition. Work becomes part of life itself and should continue to the grave.” In like vein, while many a successful man becomes so by gaining experience in a small town then seeking broader scope for its use in a metropolis, Warded reached the top in Beaverbrook’s employ in the vastness of London, turned to tiny Fredericton to found his own business empire.

No outsider, indeed, seeing Warded walking down Queen Street to lunch at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel, would be likely to guess that he was a Frederictonian known at least by sight to nearly everyone in town. Minus his shell-rimmed eyeglasses, which he discards when he’s away from his desk, the Brigadier makes a picture of almost startling distinction in his Savile Row tweeds and his jet monocle, his hat straight on his head and wisps of string-straight salt-andpepper hair appearing below. His skin is smooth and pink, making him appear

younger than he is. He walks with a brisk military swing, looking straight ahead past his aristocratically arched nose, and does not appear to be at ad interested in his fellow townsfolk or likely to take notice of local affairs. All of which proves, once again, how mistaken it is to rely upon appearances or impressions.

Several months ago, for instance, War-

dell—who likes to travel about the eastern provinces in connection with his enterprises—happened to be in St. John s, Nfld., during a conference of the four Atlantic premiers and decided to double at the newsworthy event as a correspondent for his publications.

With a group of New Brunswick delegates, he admired an oil painting of Newfoundland's Premier Smallwood hanging in one of the Executive Council offices. “Hugh John ought to get his portrait painted like Joey,” one of the New' Brunswickers remarked, referring to his own premier. “We have lots of first-rate artists around N. B.”

Warded nodded. “Yes,” he agreed solemnly, with an overlay of down-east twang almost burying his normal Etonian accent. “We don’t want any damned Englishman to come out and do it!”

According to his few Fredericton intimates, Warded feels that he has become a Maritimer—although this does not prevent him from keeping up a flat in London, as wed as his Welsh estate, or from visiting Britain several times a year.

He tends to shrug off the intense local curiosity regarding the reason for his settling in Fredericton, where he lives in a modest three-room apartment on Regent Street.

“They’re not satisfied when I say I came here by chance and took a liking to the feel of things—they think I must have some frightful reason for fleeing from Britain.” He also denies persistent rumors that Lord Beaverbrook, who maintains a home in Fredericton, was responsible for his decision to dwell there.

He does admit that Canadian vision in using his rocket battery during the war influenced his decision to move to Canada. It also seems probable that Beaverbrook played at least a passive part in pinpointing the town for him to light. Warded makes no secret of his admiration for “the old man.” In his memoirs (begun serially in the Atlantic Advocate but suspended halfway through because he thought his readers might be tiring of it) he said that Lord Beaverbrook "had an extraordinary affection for New Brunswick, and from his stories of men and places I gained some little knowledge of its rigors and romances.”

Since Warded’s regard for Beaverbrook came close to hero worship, perhaps this background prompted him to jump at an invitation to fish salmon in New Brunswick’s renowned Restigouche River. The offer came in 1950 from J. B. McNair, then premier of the province, who—like Warded—was Beaverbrook’s guest in Nassau.

In Fredericton, as Warded explains it.

he met Wallace Crockett, part-owner of the Gleaner, and the Englishman’s interest turned to bigger fish than salmon. He persuaded Crockett and partners to sell him the newspaper for a reported three hundred thousand dollars. Its circulation then was only about seven thousand, but Warded studied a map of N. B., saw Fredericton was near its centre— apparently ideally situated as a distribution point—and envisioned the application of his experience as a Fleet Street executive to make the daily sale of the Gleaner multiply. He also resolved to go into book publishing and to try to corner the town's job-printing business.

Jubilant over his prospects. Warded sped to England to arrange for capital to swing the deal. Some of it was his own, the remainder came from wealthy acquaintances. Then he returned to Fredericton in a fever to make substance of his dreams. The low-pressure down-east townsfolk gaped at his non-stop tactics as—deciding the old Gleaner quarters were too small—he purchased a larger building on Phoenix Square a few blocks up Queen Street; bought out two jobprinting businesses to eliminate competition in that field; imported staff from ad over—printing technicians from Britain, others from the United States, Europe and across Canada—until, according to an erstwhile employee, he had “between a hundred and fifty and two hundred on the payroll.”

He had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of printing equipment sent from England, including a hundred-andthirty-thousand-dollar press, when one half the cost might have done, and a thirty-thousand-dollar binding machine which he was never to use; and ordered half a dozen delivery trucks—four more than needed. By the time he was done.

he had spent, according to varying estimates from $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. (He himself admits to having been allowed by the Bank of England to take a million and a half out of that country.)

An ex-employee from Wardell's early days in Fredericton blamed that first confusion on the publisher's misunderstanding of local conditions and geography. "He lined up local correspondents everywhere and had a map with them represented on it in colored pins like the quills on a porcupine. He ’ thought he could operate like one of the great national dailies in Britain—selling papers in every hamlet in the province.”

By this time, the Brigadier was threshing agonizingly about, trying to discover where he had gone wrong. "Listen.” he said to a reporter, a veteran of the preWardell Gleaner, “we have a better paper than it was, haven't we?”

The reporter readily admitted that, for the new publisher had instituted a more vigorous editorial policy, more up-to-date makeup, more complete coverage of local news.

"Then why isn't our circulation going up?” Wardell demanded. “We’re certainly centrally located in the province, aren't we?”

“Centrally located, yes,” the reporter replied with crusty frankness, “centrally located in the middle of the woods!”

From that moment, Wardell concentrated on achieving the possible, and with notable success. In the past five years, with Camp Gagetown bringing additional population to the area, the' Gleaner circulation has doubled to fourteen thousand daily. When, in 1956. he bought a regional magazine and changed the title to the Atlantic Advocate it sold only about a thousand copies per issue; now Wardell, who likes to encourage Atlantic province writers as contributors, claims a sale of about twenty thousand. His job-printing business is going well. From all reports, only his book-publishing venture, which began also by encouraging writers in the area but now seems to concentrate on titles for young children, is not setting the world on fire.

Although more often than not Wardell supports Hugh John Flemming, the Conservative premier of New Brunswick, he claims to be independent politically. The provincial Liberals (hurt because he now favors Flemming when he once applauded their former leader, J. B. McNair) now consider him to be their arch-enemy. One high-echelon Liberal was heard to say in angry exasperation that he was tempted “to put out Wardell’s other eye,” but the same man admitted that the Brigadier had considerably enlivened New Brunswick’s hitherto-staid provincial capital.

“We in N. B. had become used to a diet of milk-toast editorials,” he said. “Along came Mike Wardell and his editorials were attack, attack, attack. Now the people here are anxious to get the Gleaner to see whose buttocks he’s beating that day.” He added quickly; “But that doesn’t mean we have to like him. Right through the province people are either violently for or violently against him.”

Last September, learning of a temperance convention in Halifax, Wardell seized the opportunity to make a speech, also in Nova Scotia, in which he declared millions of potential American tourists “won t come here to be bullied by our archaic and unreasonable liquor laws, based on prejudice and hatred of civil liberty.” In Nova Scotia, liquor can be purchased only by the bottle.

As was doubtless anticipated, this provided both flint and tinder to the temperance folk, who officially resolved that

“such liquor advocates as Mr. Wardell insult every intelligent citizen.” An account of this head-on clash appeared in newspapers across the country. Then Wardell. having created his own nationwide fanfare, wrote another in a series of blistering editorials against the drinking laws.

As that controversy abated temporarily Wardell looked around with his good eye for other topics of dissension—which have ranged in the past all the way from preservation of Fredericton's elm trees (he’s violently for it) to fluoridation (he’s

bitterly against) to Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s failure to approve "payment to Newfoundland of thirteen million dollars, which most Canadians consider is money due to Newfoundland by constitutional right.” In fact, he cites his pressure upon Diefenbaker “to implement his election promises to help the Maritimes,” as proof that, being politically independent, he is for the Atlantic provinces first, last and always.

Perhaps that last sentiment is one of the reasons Premier Flemming counts himself one of Wardell’s admirers. "The

Atlantic provinces," he said not long ago, “are fortunate to have him adopt them.”

Wardell appears to agree, but he also considers himself lucky to have chosen Canada’s far east as the place fully to explore his own capabilities.

“I’ve fallen in love with this area and won't go away from it very much any more,” he confided in an interview. "It would be disaster for me to miss the exciting years ahead.” With Brig. Wardell around to stir things up. how could the years be anything else? ★