She is like her paper—as gentle as a shotgun and timid as a muleskinner
MA MURRAY: THE SALTY SCOURGE OF LILLOOET
She is like her paper—as gentle as a shotgun and timid as a muleskinner
WHEN VANCOUVER WAS PLANNING a testimonial dinner for British Columbia Premier W. A. C. Bennett in 1965, organizers invited Mrs. Margaret Murray, the well-known editor, to speak. The premier’s aides were horrified: they couldn’t face the prospect of Ma Murray standing up and calling Bennett “that old blankety-blank.” And so, quietly, the invitation was withdrawn. Snorted Ma: “They’re chicken!” And the Vancouver Sun chivalrously editorialized: “The [testimonial dinner] committee has succeeded only in insulting a brave pioneer citizen of this province.”
The fact is that Ma Murray is more than just “a brave pioneer citizen" of BC: she's a freeswinging maverick, an individual in a province that prides itself in being full of individuals. Indeed, Ma Murray is almost an institution, a symbol of the blood-and-guts Victorianism of British Columbia's lusty yesterdays. There are few women better known in the province — in Canada even — and when she was younger (she’s going on seventynine now) she was both well loved and soundly hated from the stuffy salons of Victoria up to the beer bars of Stewart on the Alaska border. Now that she’s old, most everyone loves her — but still they fear to end up on the wrong end of her salty tongue, or be the target in one of those wildly ungrammatical, windmill attacks she calls editorials in the weekly newspaper she publishes and edits with singular gusto.
Lord Thomson, who can at least add and subtract. will likely be remembered in London for revitalising the Sunday Times. J. W. Dafoe, a legendary editor, made the Free Press great in Winnipeg, and around the world as well. Lord Beaverbrook, a capriciously arrogant genius, revolutionized journalism with his Daily Express in England. But out in Lillooet, some two hundred miles northeast of Vancouver, Ma Murray, who can't spell worth a damn and wouldn't know a split infinitive from fractured French, has become cemented in the folklore of Canada’s fading frontier with her weekly Bridge River-Lillooet News.
She and her husband started the paper in 1933, and ever since it has reflected the vigor and the hardships of the BC hinterland and of Ma Murray herself. She’s a character anyway, but newspapering helped her become a better known one than she would have otherwise been, and she has made the newspaper into a vital part of the community it serves. (Lillooet, population 1,304. is only the hub of the paper’s circulation area.)
Words pour from Ma Murray’s old typewriter in a torrent not unlike the Fraser River, which swirls past Lillooet, not far from Ma’s main-street printshop. She's an iconoclast (though it’s unlikely she knows the word), willing to attack almost anyone or anything, with scant regard for the niceties of accuracy. Her ignorance of (or flagrant disregard for) the laws of the land, particularly those governing libel and contempt of court, has often enlivened the newspapers she has produced. Reporting the acquittal of a man charged with murder, she headlined: ANOTHER MURDERER GOES FREE. /
continued on pape 48
continued from page 18
A chuckle a week...or money back
When reporting a violent death, she wrote: “Lillooet is normally a quiet sort of place and nothing much happens until the dew is off the ground until the other morning [and here she printed the man’s name] came running up the hill to the police with the news that his wife was lying there with her head chopped off.” She finished that item by concluding that the husband, accused of murder, would probably he sent to a mental hospital. Visiting newspapermen are staggered, hut somehow Ma Murray gets away with it.
It’s hard to tell Ma’s editorials from the news: both are larded liberally with opinion. The masthead boasts: “Printed in the sage brush country of the Lillooet every Thursday, God willing. Guarantees a chuckle every week and a belly laugh once a month or your money back. Subscription: S5 in Canada. Furriners: $6. This week’s circulation (currently 1.569) and every bloody one of them paid for.” Lillooet loves it — and Ma. The council has given her the official freedom of the town, even though some of its leading citizens are alarmed by her attacks on Premier Bennett and his Social Credit government: she recently described his northern development plans under the headline: “MORE BENNETT BULL-.”
And yet, to look at her you wouldn’t think butter would melt in Margaret Murray’s mouth. Her hair is fine and grey now. and she often wears frilly blouses, sensible shoes and a little-oldlady hat with a veil.
She never ever wears the slacks that are part of the frontier-woman’s customary dress and for years she hated the nickname “Ma” because “it’s undignified” (today, however, she signs herself “Ma Murray”). When she smiles, she smiles sweetly, kindly, as story-book little old ladies should. If you’re a sophisticate, all this folksiness may seem contrived to produce a calculated effect. It isn’t. Kenneth Caple, BC regional director of the CBC, has known Ma Murray for years,
and he says, “She’s always been the same. She’s got an immense and intense interest in people, and she’s just a whirlwind of a woman.” She’s had almost no formal education, and a third of a century spent publishing newspapers may have broadened her intellectual interests and vocabulary, but it never repaired the holes in her grammar.
She was born in Kansas, one of the family of six girls and three boys of an Irish peasant who emigrated to the U. S. in the mid-nineteenth century. As a child, she acquired a taste for chewing tobacco by munching tobacco leaves to stave off hunger pangs. At thirteen, with a fourth-grade education, she went to work, first as a housemaid and then, in her late teens, as a clerk in a Kansas City saddle shop. While shipping saddle harness to Alberta. she played what began as a practical joke: into the packages she tucked notes describing herself as a decent hard-working girl anxious to marry. She received dozens of replies, including six that “sounded interesting." So she set out for the north to appraise her mail-order suitors.
On the way she stopped off in Vancouver and met and married a big handsome newspaperman, George Murray, from Oxford County. Ontario. If he had been another kind of man, or Margaret a better educated woman, she might today be a gracious hostess in Victoria, playing the turn-ofthe-century role of the outstanding and talented woman denied her own place in the sun.
But in 1933, when George Murray decided to go into politics, he went up country to fight as a Liberal for the provincial riding of Lillooet. He won anti, with Margaret, launched the Bridge River-Lillooet News. George held the seat until 1941 when he was defeated in the election in which so many CCF Opposition members were returned to the BC legislature that provincial Liberals and Conservatives were driven in to form a coalition
continued on page 50
MA MURRAY continuel!
Ottawa chit-chat: “too damned dull”
government — an unlikely and, some said, unholy, political alliance that lasted for eleven years. And when, in 1945, the Liberals and Conservatives agreed to submerge their individual identities into an official Coalition Party, Ma Murray rebelled. At a Liberal convention in Vancouver she pointed a shaking, accusing finger at the premier. “Generations of Liberals will curse your name, John Hart, for this betrayal,” she yelled.
She promptly went to her then home town of Fort St. John, where she and her husband had started the Alaska Hiyhway News, and got herself nominated Social Credit candidate for the Peace River riding. Her staunchly Liberal family — it now included a son, Dan, and a daughter, Georgina
were appalled. She had temporarily handed over the running of the Lillooet weekly to Dan, and when she declared her Socred candidacy he announced on the front page, “Mrs. Margaret Murray has nothing to do with the editing of this paper,” while (ieorge stopped seeking the candidacy in the Lillooct riding. Margaret ran a lame third in the election (though she won a majority of the polls in Fort St. John itself), and that ended her career in politics and her affection for Social Credit. By 1949 George had lived down the disgrace of his wife's Social Credit flirtation and he fought for and wam the Cariboo riding in the 1949 federal election as a Liberal. But when George went off to Ottawa, Margaret stayed in British Columbia to run the paper. (On occasional visits to the capital, she concluded Ottawa conversation was “too damned dull.”)
Though she never again sought election. Margaret Murray found political in-fighting irresistible. She spoke in support of Liberal candidates throughout the province, but during the last provincial campaign she also supported Davie Fulton as he tried to lead the disorganized BC Conservatives back into the legislature. It was during this campaign that she turned up to heckle at one of Premier Bennett’s public meetings. Bennett refused to rise to her baiting. “There’s Mrs. Murray at the back of the hall,” he said. “Everybody — give her a hand.” And they did. As Bennett was leaving the hall, he embraced her. Later, on a live television show', she was asked whether she had kissed the premier. “He may have kissed me,” she said, "but I didn't kiss the old blankety-blank back."
In last year’s federal election her friends and fans feared that Ma Murray was going soft on the politicians in her old age (she and George had returned to Ullooet in 1958: he died in 1961). Truth was. she was sick and couldn't leave her office-cum-apartment in l.illooet to stump the countryside. But editorially she did support Lester Pearson by endorsing his “humble w isdom in appealing for a majority government this time so he won’t be at the mercy of a handful of mavericks who haven't gotta chance in hell for to form a government . . . the other three leaders, hittin, catterw allin. regurgilatin and ballyraggin like a pack ol wolves ..."
Soon she was back, spurting around
the countryside in her dust-caked Mercedes-Benz, giving speeches here and there, talking at Rotary clubs and Kinsmen clubs and opening rodeos and bazaars and reporting her own speeches for the readers of the News. Nowadays one of the weekly editorials is called Chat out of the old hay and their fame is spreading. Other newspapers reprint them from time to time, even the ones where she whacks away at the press itself. The Vancouver Province reprinted this one:
Many readers of such sheets as ours or any press for that matter have become so damned inverted, arrogant and uncharitable over the last two decades the press generally have quit writing editorials, have refrained from expressing any view's and the country has suffered. [But] to the welfare workers who don’t like us lifting the scab on the body politic; the taxpayers or those Catholic haters [Ma Murray is a devout Catholic] or new citizens who reviled us over drawing attention to unscrupulous methods; and to the politicians who don’t like our appeal . . . they can get their own bloody ink and white space to air their views.
Ma doesn’t need so much ink and white space nowadays. She’s appeared three times on the CBC television network, once on the Pierre Berton Show carried on private TV stations, and she now has her own half-hour, twice-amonth show', often filmed in Lillooet and shown over Vancouver’s CHANTV. She likes television.
“Fvc always had a lot of trouble with my dangling participles and misplaced metaphors.” she admits, “but hell, when you have something to say, just go ahead and say it.” ★
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.