THE LAST TYRANT OF TASTE

Ken Johnstone March 24 1962

THE LAST TYRANT OF TASTE

Ken Johnstone March 24 1962

THE LAST TYRANT OF TASTE

Ken Johnstone

Tastemakers is a new word for the new men who, it's said, are subtly training us to think and buy their way. Well, maybe they are. But they're a pale breed compared to the post-Victorian tyrants who used their newspapers to telf the unwashed what to read, watch and applaud. S. Morgan-Powell, a boisterous legend and a living Montrealer, is the last of them

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN DRAMA CRITICS really could fill theatres for bad shows and empty them for good ones; when book reviewers could convince readers that hack writers were literary giants; when editors chased girl reporters around the city room and threw typewriters down the elevator shaft. There are times even now when any of these things happen, hut in a general way they belong to another day, and if it were not for S. Morgan-Powell, it would be hard to believe there ever was such a day.

For fifty years this “dogmatic, bombastic and opinionated Englishman," as he was once called, was the acknowledged tyrant of such literary and dramatic taste as the intimidated English-speaking population of Montreal could summon up. Now' ninety-five and still writing, Morgan-Powell still lives in Montreal, and as his influence has declined his legend has grown, doubtless profiting from a certain amount of self-cultivation. In it he is known as the man who was kissed by Duse and slapped by Bernhardt, the man who drank John Barrymore under the table, a confidant of Sir Henry Irving, ghost writer for Marie Corelli, a man who wrote and fought and drank his way round the world; a man of tall wrath and tall deeds and tall tales. The MorganPowell of legend, as an editor for the Montreal Star, terrorized his staff for decades with his spectacular rages and CONTINUED ON PAGE 5¿

CONTINUED ON PAGE 52

THE LAST TYRANT OF TASTE continued from page 24

“I’ve finally learned your age,” the publisher told him. “You are 135”

spectacular language, and left there a legacy of tales which they delight to tell today in fond if sometimes inaccurate or scurrilous detail.

These days find Morgan-Powell, a gruff but alert old bear of a man humped behind his desk in the study of his fourth-floor Sherbrooke Street apartment, surrounded by his well-used 3,000-volume library, a television set in the far corner of the room, his typewriter at one elbow, the phone at the other and a beer stein nearby. There he sits and parries questions with a mischievous twinkle in his little blue eyes and frets that he is not still in harness. Meanwhile he adds to the legend. This last Christmas, for what's believed to be the fifty-third consecutive year, he wrote a Christmas poem for the editorial page of the Star, and at New Year’s his fifty-third traditional tribute to the theatre, A Toast to the Players, appeared in the entertainment section of the paper along with an editorial comment which said in part: "His native London Town first saw him in the year before Canadian Confederation came into being, and he plainly has every intention of helping to celebrate this nation’s centenary in 1967."

More than a legend, though, was the very real power that the signature “S. Morgan-Powell" at the bottom of a theatre or book review once exercised over the theatre-going and book-buying habits of English-speaking Montreal. His confident assertion of omniscient authority was never seriously challenged in a city where the English-speaking minority, entrenched on its Westmount mountain, has long venerated all things British — and “S. M-P”

was nothing if not British. Thus he was the one critic in that city whom visiting companies were concerned to please. A former press agent, who defined MorganPowell’s essential quality as a critic as “heroic bigotry,” told me:

“Paradoxically, though, he is one of the kindest men I have ever known — a Santa Claus on one side and a composite of an unyielding Jesuit and a conscious fomenter of untruth on the other.

“I knew what his prejudices were and that if a press agent brought an American flag into his office and wiped his feet on it, he could get anything from the old man. I used this approach when 1 took on a show in 1949 called There Goes Yesterday. It had taken a box-office beating all over Ontario and they’d booked Her Majesty’s for Christmas week. No producer or booking agent in his right mind does anything Christmas week, but I told Powell the show was an all-British production. I even spoke with a Cambridge accent. ‘We must put this over,’ said the old man, opening a bottle of Bristol Cream, and we sat in his office for three hours. There wasn’t a day he didn't have something going for us; he gave us a review that must have run three columns. The result was that we did $16,000 and this was the only city on the tour that showed even a small profit.

“Then, a few years back I took on an awful Christmas fantasy. This was a show nothing could have saved. Only two reviewers showed up, Powell and another old-timer who was so stiff I threw him out of the building. But S. Morgan-Powell! The weather wasn't fit for a team of huskies. I helped him out of his limousine

and it took me and the chauffeur twenty minutes to get him to his aisle seat. He did a review he should have been shot for — a pack of lies praising the show as big-time.”

The legend of Morgan-Powell extends even to his birthplace and his age. One story has his birthplace as Leeds; another, London. He told me recently and presumably for posterity: “I was born on June 4, 1866. at 5 John Street, in the centre of London, and that makes me a real cockney.”

But at a dinner given some twenty years ago in his honor by The Montreal Star, publisher J. W. McConnell told editorial writer Dave Legate: "1 have learned a lot of things since I bought The Montreal Star, but one thing I can’t find out is the actual age of Morgan-Powell.”

Legate said. “Sir, we have carefully calculated from Morgan-Powcll’s tales of his youth and his exploits in England and the people whom he claims to have known intimately there, that right now he must be 135.”

McConnell got up from his place and went over to confront Morgan-Powell. "Well, I finally learned your correct age,” he said with satisfaction, “You are 135.”

The volume of Morgan-Powell's outpouring since 1908 in The Montreal Star, first as a news editor and drama critic, then as editor-in-chief as well as literary and drama editor, and finally, again, as literary and drama editor has not been matched in modern times, even by Pierre Bcrton. He covered every theatrical event from amateur church plays to Broadway tryouts, every concert and musical event, every new movie, and every new book. At

the peak of his career, for nearly twenty years he also wrote at least one editorial daily. These came to him easily enough, for he read every report and dispatch that came into the office and he had a retentive memory, which was sometimes embarrassing.

An assistant editor once came to him in some confusion and reported: “Sir, that editorial you wrote today on the Turkish question. It is word-for-word with the British Ministry of Information press release that we published yesterday on the opposite page.”

Morgan-Powell instantly seized the offensive: “Dammit,” he raged, “Why doesn't someone tell me these things?”

His language could be as purple as his literary prose. A girl who once occupied an adjoining office told me: "He could even make ‘damn’ sound obscene.” Yet he rarely swore deliberately in front of women, and the several secretaries who worked for him. almost without exception, speak of him now with warmth and tenderness.

Pat Pearce, The Star’s forceful TV critic, was once one of them, and is still a close friend. Although Morgan-Powell rarely leaves his apartment, she frequently gets calls from him which usually begin abruptly: “What the devil are they doing there?”

She replies. “Just a moment, Morgan,” and then she turns on the television set, switches stations until she obtains the program she believes he is watching, and goes back to the phone to tell him what she knows about the show.

Pat Pearce recalls: “I’ve heard a lot of tales about Morgan’s violent temper, but I worked for him when he was beginning to mellow, and I never saw any of the exhibitions of throwing the typewriter about, jumping on his hat or other tantrums that older staff members recall. As a matter of fact I always found him kind and perceptive. He was certainly the softest touch in town. I can remember John, the porter, coming into his office often with messages from the cadgers who waited in the lobby. Morgan would carry on a bit and swear that he wouldn’t give the man another red cent, and John would always shuffle slowly back across the city room. He took his time because he knew that before he got halfway across the room, Morgan would catch up with him with a five or ten dollar bill. He just couldn’t turn anybody down.”

She describes him as a man of violent views: “He hated all modern poets, called them ‘garbage-can poets,’ and he had the same view of modern art and modern theatre.”

Pat Pearce is convinced that MorganPowell is indestructible, and this feeling is shared at the Montreal Star. "I have given up any hope of ever being a pallbearer at Morgan’s funeral,” editor George Ferguson confessed recently, and managing editor Walter O’Hearn has an even more forceful premonition: “I can see it all now,” he says. “I’ll be laid out in my coffin in the church and the funeral service will be taking place for me, and outside, sitting in his car behind his seventh chauffeur (he’s on his fourth now) Morgan-Powell will be leaning over his cane, shaking his head sorrowfully and muttering to himself: “I knew the young pup had no staying power.”

Morgan-Powell’s tenacious grip on life was illustrated recently when his wife, Dolly, called Dave Legate at the Star one morning to report that the old man had taken a bad turn and seemed to be sinking fast. Legate asked her to get a doctor’s report and then called John G. McConnell, present publisher of The Star, to advise him of the bad news. But before he could phone back to obtain the doctor’s

report, a peremptory call came through from Morgan-Powell: “Send someone over here to fix this blasted typewriter!”

Typewriters have a special place in the Morgan-Powell legend: hurling recalcitrant machines off his desk was commonplace with him, and once he tossed one down an elevator shaft. There are at least three different versions of this incident. One has i" that he was engaged in chasing a comeiy secretary around his office when the office boy blundered in. Enraged at the interruption, Morgan-Powell ejected the office boy and hurled the typewriter down the elevator shaft in frustration. A second version claims that the elevator operator neglected to stop at Morgan's floor, so the latter expressed his annoyance by tossing the typewriter down on top of the descending cage. When I checked these stories with the old man. he gunned, and then disillusioned me: “The damned machine had been repaired about ten times in a month and I was

simply fed up with it. I decided to get rid of it once and for all.”

Legend has it that he didn’t pay for the new machine, either. “That was true, all right,” he confessed rather proudly, “though Lord Atholstan, who was publisher at that time, reproached me for lack of dignity in my action. Can’t say I blame him for that.”

Tales of Morgan-Powell’s violence with office furniture are common. Pat Pearce told me that he’s said to have wrecked every stick of furniture in his office during one fit of rage. 1 confirmed this incident with other staff members. They said it cost $600 to replace the furniture (MorganPowell didn’t pay for that either).

His forays into the composing room more than once brought the newspaper to the verge of a printers’ strike. These raids were usually characterized by columns of spilled type and by union men skipping nimbly out of the way of Morgan-Powell's flailing cane.

But invariably all such tales of MorganPowell's spectacular temper and behavior are qualified by generous tributes to his prodigious capacity for work and his great dedication to his job. “He was in before eight in the morning and he neither smoked nor took a drink until after four in the afternoon, when the day's work was done,” Pat Pearce told me. “And Morgan liked a drink and he liked to smoke, so it was a considerable personal sacrifice.”

Morgan-Powell was a two-fisted drinker until his doctor ordered him off alcohol in the middle thirties. Dave Legate says it happened this w'ay: “All right,” Morgan promised the doctor, “I won't touch a drop of alcohol again — only beer.” And he kept his promise, putting himself on a strict ration of 120 quarts of Black Horse a week. In the late forties, when the Black Horse label was withdrawn, it is rumored that they put away about a year’s supply for Morgan-Powell’s personal

use. The supply lasted barely a month.

I didn't ask Morgan-Powell about this legend but I asked him if it were true he had had a torrid affair with Eleonora Duse. “Not likely,” he said. “You couldn't get near her with that poet of hers.”

Baffled, 1 asked about Bernhardt; did she really slap him?

“She did that, all right,” he admitted, “with two dozen American Beauty roses which I brought her as a peace offering for being late for lunch. I had the scratches on my face for a week after, to prove it. A lovely temperamental lady, though. Two

minutes later she forgot the outburst.” And Henry Irving? "We were good friends,” Morgan-Powell recalled. “He seldom opened a new play at the Lyceum without sending me a couple of tickets.” The bare biographical data around which the legend of Morgan-Powell has been built records that he was in fact born in London in 1866, was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to The Yorkshire Post, worked his way up from office boy to drama critic, roamed over Europe as a free-lance reporter, and covered the Middle East and West Africa before taking

a job in 1900 as an editor of a paper in Demerara, British Guiana. He remained there, visiting most of South America until 1905, when he came to Canada. He first joined the Montreal Witness, then The Montreal Herald, and finally, in 1908, The Montreal Star, where he remained until his reluctant retirement in 1954. Students of Morgan-Powell’s earlier career may have difficulty fitting in his rumored graduation from London University and a four-year stint in the British Army, but that merely makes the legend more intriguing.

He has published two books of poems, has

written songs which are still heard in England, and has written one delightful autobiographical book, Memories That Live, which contains one tale of Morgan-Powell’s experiences on the West Coast of Africa and as a stoker on a ship that might have come straight out of Joseph Conrad and, according to Morgan-Powell’s irreverent admirers, probably did.

But no book is needed for evidence of Morgan-Powell’s strength of character and dogged determination in the face of heavy odds. When his second stroke left him almost completely paralyzed on the right side, he promptly learned to type and to do shorthand with his left hand, although he was already in his seventies. Anyone who has ever tried to master shorthand in the normal way can appreciate the magnitude of this feat. Yet. generally, Morgan-Powell managed to treat his affliction as something quite beneath his notice, something no British gentleman would acknowledge as serious.

For nearly fifty years Morgan-Powell kept the gradually tattering flag of British nineteenth - century traditionalism flying from the masthead of the entertainment pages of The Montreal Star against the incursions of modernism and Americanism. He went down fighting, too. Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in the early Fifties proved that the regime of S. Morgan-Powell among the box offices of English Montreal theatre was ended. Over a two-year period this offering of modern Americanism besieged Montreal twice as a play, twice as a movie and twice as a ballet. Morgan-Powcll unleashed his most slashing attacks against each offering. He said of the play:

“This is an unpleasant play . . . there is in it nothing of beauty, grace or charm. Its climaxes are apparently with deliberation concerned with the more or less nauseating aspects of sex. I prefer drama that is fundamentally decent, honest and not designed to pander to the lower instincts of humanity.”

Of the movie:

”... I can only say that it is even more unpleasant than the play.”

Of the ballet:

“This is not a ballet: It is cheap melodrama without any genuine entertainment value.”

The play, the movie and the ballet did record box-office business in Montreal on each of their runs. Morgan-Powell’s had become a voice in the wilderness.

But if Morgan-Powell’s reputation as a critic was a casualty of the years, his legend has flourished, and with it a wide and warm regard for this rugged old lion of a man. which must be a source of embarrassed wonder to him.

Ewcn Irvine, an editorial writer for The Star who often felt the lash of MorganPowell's wrath in editorial conferences and who admits that only his youth saved him from getting ulcers or a breakdown from the experience, speaks with measured affection of his recollections: "He would never admit that I was right in an editorial conference but when he came to write the editorial, more often than not he took the line I had defended. In conferences he was liable to manufacture any kind of false evidence to support his view, but when he indulged in fiction he always betrayed himself by swinging his left leg back and forth while he talked. His fabrications were harmless, though. Today I see Morgan-Powell as a man who has always lived by his own personal credo.”

Irvine reached into his desk and drew out a clipping, where over the familiar signature of S. Morgan-Powell appeared the following:

“I believe firmly that everybody is entitled to enjoy life and get out of it as much happiness as is humanly possible.” if