One Man's Family
THE CROSBIES DON’T SPEAKONLY TO GOD
They have other friends
It is a fragrant evening in June on an avenue of fat, shady, wooden mansions in midtown St. John’s and Mrs. Gertrude Murray Crosbie is departing for dinner with her husband A. H. “Bill” Crosbie (who won the DSO about 30 years back) and, as befits a personage who is both a Murray and a Crosbie and therefore one of the richest ladies in all Newfoundland, she is lean, elegant, summery. “I do hope,” she says with a friendly, weary intelligence, “that you won’t use that awful cliché, that we’re a family of‘merchant princes.’ We’ve had quite enough of that.”
Bill has already insisted the Crosbies were never as rich as Newfoundland gossip is forever making them out to be. Bill is a gruff, likable, rich man, free with his Scotch. “1 hope he doesn’t write about the swimming pools,” he tells a friend later. “They always write about swimming pools.” Crosbies, per capita, have appreciably more swimming pools than most Newfoundlanders.
Others among the older Crosbies and their spouses are less than voracious for florid publicity. Albert Perlin, for instance. He married Bill’s older sister, the late Vera Crosbie Perlin, and, in powerful contrast to his male in-laws, he detests equally the compromises of politics and the money-grubbing of business. He is truly a gentleman journalist. Perlin writes for the St. John’s Daily News (which his wife’s nephew, Andrew Crosbie, now happens to own); and his prose has appeared in St. John’s on virtually every publishing day since Joe Smallwood was a teen-ager. He’s also a formidable expert on Newfoundland history, and he says, “Yes, they’re an interesting family and colorful but, you know, they don’t own Newfoundland. A lot of people think they do.”
Why? If Perlin is right, how could Ray Guy have said, “This country is now in the hands of God Almighty and Andy Crosbie”? For many years Guy wrote a daily column for the St. John’s Evening Telegram and, for brilliant nastiness about politicians, his work is unexcelled in Canada. He once said the only Newfoundlanders who’d suffer from a provincial election would be “the Crosbie brothers who’ll have to lash out a few campaign millions in loose change to both parties once again.” Guy is Newfoundland’s most sarcastic expression of the suspicion that, no matter what party takes power, the Crosbies always win. The background to this suspicion is as complex as the history of Yugoslavia. Its roots are nearly 70 years old.
Sir John Crosbie. A couple of generations ago, a St. John’s newspaper published a headline in which Sir John Crosbie invited the Pope to kiss his . . . well, his buttocks. The folklore about Sir John, particularly among other important families, suggests he was an opportunist rather than a gentleman and his style was more earthy than refined.
Could be. And it could be, too, that savagery was essential to survival in the business world of pre-Confederation Newfoundland. Bill Crosbie has a faded poster showing the proud flags of dozens of fish and trading companies that operated off the St. John’s waterfront in the first decades of this century. He lays a large finger on each flag. That one’s gone. That’s gone. That one’s no more. All but a handful have disappeared and, while some were going belly up, Sir John was becoming Newfoundland’s biggest exporter to Brazil of salt cod.
Joe Smallwood has given Newfoundland the unshakable notion that the “merchant princes” of waterfront St. John’s are an ancient, insidious, monolithic alliance of aristocratic snots whose sole purpose is to bleed lesser Newfoundlanders to thereby turn themselves into millionaires. Bill Crosbie, and others, say the notion is a lie.
“Regardless of the Smallwood myths,” Bill insists, “capital does not exist on this island. The idea that there are more millionaires here than in Texas is unadulterated bullshit . . .”
But even if there is something in the Smallwoodian analysis, it obscures the fact that the trading world in which Sir John and his sons competed was among the most cut-throat in the world. Anyone who could build a business empire there could probably do it anywhere. “There’s a saying,” Albert Perlin recalls. “It’s that there’s more rejoicing on Water Street over one failure than there is over 26 successes.” Sir John had grown sons in his business but, within three hours of his death in 1932, five telegrams went out from rival fish merchants in St. John’s; and the wires said, in effect, “Sir John is dead. There’s no one else capable of running his business so how about buying your fish from us?” Now that is competition!
John Chalker Crosbie — his mother was a Chalker and Chalkers are still active in Newfoundland politics — was born in Brigus on Conception Bay in 1876, the son of a Scottish plasterer. His father died when he was 16, and he immediately left school to manage the family hotel in downtown St. John’s. (This institution survives today as the Welcome Hotel, a curious, friendly, rambling joint whose elevator would strike terror in the heart of any claustrophobic.) By the time he was 24, he’d founded Crosbie and Company, whose main stocks-in-trade were fish and insurance, and he had also married Mitchie Ann Manuel. There is a family photograph of the young couple; they are as handsome and competent-looking a pair as you’re likely to see in any turnof-the-century snapshot.
The Manuels, like the Chalkers, had come to Newfoundland from Devonshire. There were at least 10 of them at Exploits, in Notre Dame Bay, in 1877, and most were “planters,” which meant they were independent fishermen who owned their own schooners. John and Mitchie Ann Manuel married at Exploits. An old lady remembers that John was sensationally attired in black jacket and white trousers, and that the newlyweds were the first people to walk over the new drawbridge that linked the two islands at Exploits.
This is the second of two articles on the Crosbies by Harry Bruce, a frequent contributor to Maclean’s.
Sir John founded a butter company, then the government in which he held considerable power slapped a tariff on butter imports
John won his first election in 1908 and. by the time he was 33, he was a cabinet minister in the government of Sir Edward Morris. “Newfoundland governments,” S. J. R. Noel writes in his book Politics In Newfoundland (1971), “had rarely if ever been paragons of financial probity, but by 1909 there were opportunities for corruption on a scale hitherto undreamed of. And the ‘new men’ were not the sort to let opportunities slip.” The way the government awarded railroad contracts, for instance, was “a flagrant example of political payoff.” Sir John, of course, would not have agreed. “The people demanded the branch lines,” he said, “and the people will have them. The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
In 1925, Sir John — already a shipowner, freighter, international trader, insurance magnate, major fish merchant and Newfoundlander of powerful political influence — founded the Newfoundland Butter Company. It was a margarine factory. The government, of which he was himself a luminary, promptly raised the duties on imported butter and margarine. But his main competition was local anyway, and the company owed its success less to government favors than to Sir John’s own business savvy and staggering capacity for work. Morning after morning, he and his sons went to work at the margarine plant before dawn. Jack MacDonald, who’s worked for assorted Crosbies for 60 years, remembers Sir John striding around his teeming wharf each morning at six, with a red rose in his lapel.
Sir John was only 56 when he died in 1932. The Crash of ’29 and the Depression had depleted his fortune, and he left no vast estate. What he did leave was 11 sons and daughters. Some of the sons, and some of their children, inherited his bluff manner, his common touch, his confidence verging on braggadocio, his hefty good looks, his lust for success and his gambling courage, his fine sense of the connection between political influence and getting rich and, finally, his instinct that to survive in the dangerous big leagues of Newfoundland commerce it was essential not only to diversify but also to hustle like hell. Some of his children buttressed these qualities of character by making extremely good marriages. More than 100 people (including in-laws, coyly labeled “outlaws”) showed up at one recent family party; and, though not all of them were either powerful or millionaires, some were certainly both. They included a cast of significant characters in the political and industrial drama of modern Newfoundland.
Nina Crosbie, the widow of Frank Bennett, lives in St. John’s. Frank was a son of Sir John Bennett, a fellow cabinet minister and longtime political crony of Sir John Crosbie. The Bennetts were im-
portant brewers and. in the Thirties, Sir John’s oldest son Chesley acquired from them a soft-drink plant. (Chesley had the Coca-Cola agency for Newfoundland in those days.) Nina’s two daughters are June and Margaret (Mickey). June is unmarried. She’s a buyer for the Ayre family’s department store empire but, as you’ll soon discover, the connections between Crosbies and Ayres are closer than that. Margaret is the widow of Lindahl Hunt. He was a son of Charles Hunt, who was once a top lawyer in Newfoundland.
Vera Crosbie (above), wife of Albert Perlin, had white, curly hair, fair skin and spectacles. Her face was gentle, strong, intelligent. She married Perlin nearly 50 years ago and, during their courtship she told him she’d never wed a politician. Perhaps she was thinking of her father. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Perlin, who is certainly no Crosbieknocker, “my wife did more than all the rest of them.” He refers to her as a kind of living saint and prudent activist in the movement to build schools for Newfoundland’s retarded.
Vera was an officer in the Order of Canada, and she held an honorary degree from Memorial University. There are three children: Ann, who is married and lives in England; John, who is director of Newfoundland’s cultural affairs; and George. George is a political science professor at Queen’s University. He is known to be a trifle irreverent about certain Crosbies and their politics — both inside and outside the family — and, though hardly a classic black sheep, he is an outsider. His interest in Marxist theories does not comfort his Crosbie uncles and cousins.
Ella (Dolly) Crosbie is married to Jack Carleton, a bank manager.Their daughter Mitchie Ann is married to a doctor and lives in Ontario.
Chesley A. Crosbie. Ches was the first son and, after Sir John died, the one who came closest to being head of the family. Everyone liked Ches. Old Jack MacDonald, who saw him as a boy on Sir John’s wharf, says simply that he was a great man. Ches’s son Andrew says he was so charming he “could get away with murder,” that he worked hard and played hard. Ches’s brother-in-law, Albert Perlin. says he had enormous financial courage; he was boisterous, a builder, an entrepreneur who cared for the good of the country. (In Newfoundland. more often than not, “the country” still means Newfoundland.)
And Joe Smallwood, whose zany energy always held a strange fascination for Ches, says this senior Crosbie had thousands of friends throughout the island. In tribute to Ches’s habit of backing Smallwood’s business stunts, Smallwood refers to “his big heart and generous pocketbook.” Richard Gwyn, in Smallwood: The Unlikely Revolutionary, describes Ches as a “hard-driving, hard-living mercantile freebooter who had inherited a fortune and lost and remade it several times before he died.”
Bill Crosbie, however, suggests that the “fortune” his older brother inherited at the height of the Dirty Thirties was mostly a load of dried fish and a pile of debts. “If you simply stuck with the fisheries,” Bill says, “you were dead.”
Ches did stick with the fisheries and insurance but meanwhile, with a swashbuckling kind of confidence, he also invested in ventures as risky as whaling, as wacky as Joe Smallwood’s piggery, as romantic as a backwoods airline, as distant as a Brazilian margarine factory, as visionary as the herring fishery. He was into everything from fish meal to oneshot book publishing, to heavy construction, to soft drinks, to Arctic shipping. He made millions. He lost millions. He died in 1962 and, like his father, he failed to leave a huge, liquid fortune. Instead, he left the bones of an industrial and commercial empire that, under the direction of younger Crosbies, grew until in 1974 its annual volume of sales exceeded $100 million.
Ches couldn’t resist Joey’s wacky schemes
Ches married Jessie Carnell. She was the daughter of a St. John’s mayor who, according to Smallwood, was as colorful as Fiorello LaGuardia. Ches and Jessie had three children. Daughter Joan, whose first marriage ended in divorce, lives with her second husband in Ontario. Sons John and Andrew remain very much in Newfoundland. An aura of raw ambition clings like an odor to both men. John Crosbie is fisheries minister in the current Newfoundland government, and has been the most open political enemy of Joe Smallwood in the recent history of the province. Andrew Crosbie may well be the most influential businessman in Newfoundland — Newfoundlanders sometimes describe him as their very own Aristotle Onassis — and, in recent years, he infuriated brother John by engaging in political flirtation with Smallwood.
John married the daughter of a St. John’s veterinarian. Andrew married the daughter of a St. John’s stockbroker who, according to local opinion, was not only very rich but also miraculously uninterested in Newfoundland politics.
George Crosbie. While Nina married a son of one of Sir John’s political cohorts, George married a daughter of one of Sir John’s political opponents. She was Audrey Warren. William Warren, during the incredible political complications of 1923-24, was Prime Minister of Newfoundland. For a while, he was “the honest reformer” and, though he was not in power for long — neither was anyone else — it would be difficult to prove he was a worse prime minister than the others in that strange time.
George is a handsome man. These days, he looks faintly like Walter Pidgeon. In 1972, when he was 65, a reporter called him “a Roman patriarch in a conservative business suit.” His first job was to paint the inside of the smokestack at his father’s new Newfoundland Butter Company (later the Newfoundland Margarine Company). He was 18 when he made the company his career and he stuck with it for 47 years. At 25, he was president and, when the Crosbies sold the company to Lever Brothers and Unilever Ltd. in 1938, George remained as chairman of the board and, for the rest of his working life, as boss.
The company was a pioneer of medical and pension plans. The Crosbies are good employers — of the old, paternal. nobody-here-will-ever-need-a-union school — but their treatment of workers may not be totally altruistic. George, on his father’s personnel policies: “He told me that over the years you appreciate your machinery and provide repairs and maintenance. So what about the human element? They wear out, too.” George suffered a heart attack only two days after he retired from the Newfoundland Margarine Company.
Marrying well really isn’t a Crosbie plot: if love can be found on the outport beaches, why not beside a private swimming pool?
Back in July of 1961, George’s name flared briefly on the national scene, and in a characteristically Crosbie way. Crosbies have rarely feared being the odd man out in a controversy. In this case, nine out of 10 directors of the Bank of Canada refused to keep James Coyne as the bank governor. The Diefenbaker government was leaning on them heavily to bounce him. The tenth man was George Crosbie. He said the government’s demand for James Coyne’s resignation was “unnecessary, unjustified, untimely.”
George and Audrey Crosbie live in St. John’s, comfortably of course. They have three married daughters: Diane in England, Gillian in Florida, Deborah in St. John’s.
John (Jack) Crosbie, whom Albert Perlin remembers as “salt of the earth,” graduated from the University of Toronto as a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in 1930, and promptly joined the family butter company. He took over its dairy operation, and regularly visited the company’s 60 suppliers of milk. When the Lever interests bought control of the company Jack, like George, remained on the board. He was Technical Director. Jack married a girl from a well-fixed Ontario family. They had four sons: John, known to the family as “Dr. Jack,” who is indeed a medical doctor; Roger, the possessor of a Master of Business Administration degree, who has risen fast in the margarine company and is now its Technical Director; Peter, who runs his own trucking and taxi business; and young Douglas. Their father died more than a dozen years ago.
Margaret Crosbie never married. She lives in Montreal.
Edith Crosbie married Robert Panckridge, a British admiral and surgeon who was at the siege of Malta and eventually became Sir Robert Panckridge. The Panckridges live in Ireland.
Percy M. Crosbie, who died in April, was the president of Crosbie and Company, insurance agents, ship agents, ship brokers. It’s a kind of flagship among the family firms, and goes back to Sir John’s earliest business exploits. Percy joined it in 1931. His nephew Andrew (that’s Ches’s second boy) is now president. His brothers George and Bill, and his son James are all on the board. Percy was the chief business brain of Chimo Shipping and. with Andrew, of Eastern Provincial Airways, and Newfoundland Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd., which controls most of the other companies in the expanding Crosbie empire.
Mr. and Mrs. Percy Crosbie had two sons: James, who’s with Crosbie and Co., and Colin, who’s with Chimo Shipping.
Olga Crosbie (below) married Lewis Ayre, a member of one of New-
foundland’s oldest, hardiest, richest, best-known and most prolific merchandising families. The first Ayre store opened on Water Street in 1859 and the Crosbies, by contrast with the Ayres, are upstarts in Newfoundland history. There was an Ayre in the House of Assembly three years before Sir John was born. For generations, Ayres have profitably involved themselves in virtually every aspect of Newfoundland trade; and Olga’s husband, Lewis, is one of the dominant Ayres of our own time. They have two children: Miller Ayre, whose position in the family business is lofty; -and Penelope. Penelope is the wife of William Rowe, the son of a former Smallwood cabinet minister, and himself a prominent Liberal politician.
Alexander Harris Crosbie is better known as just plain Bill. The last of Sir John’s children, Bill is the one war hero among them. For service in a tank regiment, he emerged from World War II with a DSO. Then he married Gertrude Murray, whose maternal background is both intricate and impressive. Gertrude’s mother, Agnes, was one of three beautiful daughters of a furniture manufacturer named Miller. Agnes married an Ayre but he was one of four Ayres who died on July 1, 1916, in the Battle of the Somme. The young widow later married a Murray.
Now this fellow was no commercial slouch himself. He had a highly successful fish business, and substantial interests in lumber, fishing, international trade. Today, the chief concerns of A. H. Murray Company Limited are building supplies and industrial machinery. Its president is none other than Bill Crosbie, husband to the lean, elegant, summery lady whose mother was a Miller, and then an Ayre, and then a Murray; and who is now tired of clichéridden stories about family dynasties of “merchant princes” in St. John’s, Newfoundland. And despite Bill’s insistence that Smallwood and others have grossly exaggerated the wealth of such people as himself, there’s a suspicion in St. John’s that the Bill Crosbies are actually richer than other Crosbies. They have five children.
The pattern is clear. It is not perfect. There are those who are outside this one. There are those who left the island. Certain older Crosbies are a bit jaundiced about certain younger Crosbies. There are Crosbies within the pattern who would rather not discuss Crosbies who are not. Still, the pattern is there: it is a pattern of rare ambition.
Crosbies fight to excel in business, and in Newfoundland, more than anywhere else in Canada, dramatic business success depends on government money. Therefore, Crosbies fight, too, on the political fronts of the province. Both secretly and openly. To complete the pattern, they marry into families who have also fought to excel in business or to influence whatever political movements suit their particular ambitions.
The marriages, of course, are not part of a Crosbie plot. If love may flourish on an outport beach or in a St. John’s rooming house, surely it may also flourish at a blossom-rich garden party during the sweet summertime escape from the private schools of Ontario to the manicured lawns of home; or beside the cool secrecy of a private swimming pool. The influential crust of St. John’s has always been small and, for a long time, Cupid’s official visits from there to the lesser classes were rare. Still, you can begin to understand why the folklore of Newfoundland defines the Crosbies as men and women who have arranged the world to guarantee that, in the long run, they simply cannot lose, ÿ?