It happens in the best of families

DAVID COBB June 13 1977

It happens in the best of families

DAVID COBB June 13 1977

At 3 a.m. on March 6, 1971, working on a mural for a downtown disco, Vancouver artist-sculptor Jim Wilier heard the news on the radio. Margaret Joan Sinclair, 22, had married Joseph Phillippe Pierre Ives Elliott Trudeau, 51 and two years older than her mother. “I remember thinking something about it sounded off,” says Wilier now. “The bell rang with a crack in it.”

Late last month the bell shattered. In a brief but eloquent four-sentence statement the Trudeaus announced that they had separated, Margaret would pursue an independent career, and Pierre would have custody of their three sons. The news must have come with as little shock to other Canadians as it did to Jim Wilier; ever since Margaret’s solo escapades in March—two Rolling Stones concerts in Toronto, the first on her sixth wedding anniversary, followed by worldwide publicity on her trip to New York—the country has been waiting for the other shoe to fall. Indeed, if Canada had one generalized reaction, it was a huge collective sigh of relief, not least that the public humiliation of the nation’s leader was over.

This sense of relief also said much about the ease with which marital breakdowns among top elected figures are now accepted. Ten years ago, certainly 15, the collapse of a Canadian prime minister’s marriage would have been unthinkable—if he intended to stay in office. Neither public nor party would have stood for it. In the case of the Trudeaus it would have been even more remarkable, since both are Roman Catholic (he by birth, she by inclination just before their wedding). Occasionally, then, the more things change, the more they stay changed; and Margaret Trudeau’s six-year skirmish with the position’s demands and rewards has changed our perception of the office of Prime Minister’s Wife—hitherto enjoying the same kind of profile as the U.S. vice-president—at least as much as our social attitudes have changed with her.

Never in Canada’s history has a prime minister’s wife come to the job with so much on her side: a widely touted intelligence, a reputation as a spokesperson for the times, enormous personal goodwill from the public, and the kind of looks to tempt the angels. Here was a child-woman who would be a fresh wind through Ottawa’s fusty corridors, a free spirit who could cheer and energize Canada’s bored and disaffected youth, a bright beacon for the Canadian tramp steamer. And 24 Sussex Drive, which only two decades before had harbored a chatelaine who made preserves and stored them under the nuptial bed, would become our own Camelot and resound with the feast of reason (his) and the flow of soul (hers). It never worked out that way, but for six years, like a glass eye in the nation’s forehead, the marriage fascinated Canadians even when it became clear that our inflated expectations had made the gods laugh.

As the marriage wound down, there was no dearth of explanations—particularly in Ottawa, where gossip is a way of life. Most particularly speculation centred on the Trudeaus’ sex life—and if they resented it they could at least reflect that they were our first prime-ministerial couple to be known to have one. Indeed, it’s the extent that has caused the most outrageous rumors: if one believed the buzz of the bazaars, Trudeau has been notoriously unfaithful with everything from casual power groupies to a club-footed Andean yak. For this there is no evidence (the yak, after all, being native to the Himalayas), and a robust sex life seems to have been one strong point that kept the marriage going as long as it went. Once, in the tense days leading to the break, Margaret was asked what she and her husband had ever had in common. “We f— a lot,” she explained suavely.

Another vibrant rumor has it that Maclean’s had a tape—plus her own photographs—of Margaret Telling All; and this was so torrid that the editors sent it off to the Liberal Party for safe keeping—a story so widespread that the Mounties have tried to find out to whom they sent it. Answer: nobody, since no part of the rumor is true.

And then there are the variegated versions of the black eye, after Margaret’s return from the Rolling Stones and New York. Story One: Pierre bopped her. Story Two: Story One’s untrue, because she was seen getting off the plane from New York with the black eye already. (Added color: black eye donated by lesbian friend.) Story Three: Story Two’s untrue, because Robin Leach, the New York journalist who first interviewed Margaret for People magazine, accompanied her back to Canada with his photographer, and knows she didn’t have a shiner then. Leach adds: “Remember me? I’m the one identified in the papers as the Mountie escort. My photographer was the CIA agent.” So back to Story One, which had been leaked by Margaret in the first place—a bid, some believe, for public sympathy, the first time in six years she had ever had to ask for it. If so, it was misguided: many felt she was lucky getting off so lightly.

Aside from what it meant to her husband, the Stones/New York jaunt marked the end of Margaret’s love-affair with the Canadian public. For the past six years she has been loved by the many for just those reasons that have embarrassed the few. Two 45-rpm records have been made in her honor, one so adulatory—“All we needed was a friend like you/To give a helping hand/You became a working momma/And inspired all the ladies in this land”—that it spread initial rumors that it had been financed by the Liberal Party; closer examination of content and delivery might more imaginatively have attributed it to the Tories.

Her particular constituency has been the under-35s, those who view the ferment of the Sixties with the stickily romantic nostalgia of post-pubescence. Margaret was their flower-child, she said so herself. She wanted to do-her-own-thing, find herself, drench herself in the works of Jiddu Krishnamurti. And so when she sang her own song, during the Prime Minister’s Latin American visit last year, to the wife of Venezuela’s president (“You are a mother/And your arms are open wide/For your children/For your people,/Mrs. Pérez, you are working hard”), she still had much of public opinion on her side. In Toronto and New York she squandered it: she was every bit as much a mother as Mrs. Pérez, after all, and not only was she seen not to be working hard, but her own arms appeared to be open wide only for herself.

More than most, Margaret Trudeau is a study in contradictions. She is vulnerable and sensitive: on hearing, at an Ottawa party, that the wife of King Hussein of Jordan—whom she barely knew—had been killed in a helicopter crash, she wept long and hard. That vulnerability, matched with position and good looks, is found by many to be irresistible. All three make her self-absorption easier to take, notably by men; it’s an egocentricity, nevertheless, that has become increasingly hard to swallow, according to many who know her. The American writer Tom Wolfe has described the young adults of the Seventies, grown out of the Sixties’ adolescents, as the Me Generation, and Margaret is the living embodiment of it. “She can talk only about herself and her children,” says one friend with regret, “and not very often about them. Try and talk to her about yours, and she turns off at once. She is an extraordinary narcissist.” Or as former transport minister Jean Marchand put it: “Une crise d’exhibitioniste!” Once, when Trudeau was out of town, she invited a married couple to a threesome dinner at Sussex Drive and spent the evening behaving as if the other woman wasn’t there. The latter calls Margaret “That woman!” to this day. Says Marjorie Nichols, a longtime Margaret-watcher, once The Vancouver Sun’s Ottawa correspondent, now in Washington: “She was indulged as a child—and she’s developed into a selfish, immature woman with no sense of responsibility at all.” And from Judy Morrison, reporter for Ottawa’s Newsradio: “He has class and more than that, dignity; she can be very charming, but I’m afraid she has neither.”

A widespread theory holds that Margaret has been badly treated by the media: exploited is the cant shibboleth. The most cursory look at newspaper files suggests that in fact she has been treated rather well: she has had more publicity than might be good for anyone’s head-space—but much of that goes with the territory, and much of it, too, has been welcomed with the same kind of pride that rejoices in her “cute bottom.” And she has used, or tried to use, the media at least as much as they have her. Last year, fresh from Latin America, she asked Newsradio’s Judy Morrison to work with her on a magazine piece about Venezuelan day-care centres for children. She could only write poetry, Margaret explained, prose was beyond her. She showed Morrison a fan-mag clipping of what she was after: Why I married Richard Again, by Elizabeth Taylor as told to. Morrison, suggested Margaret, would be her as-told-to—and made it clear that as a quid pro quo she would grant Morrison a radio interview.

Sure, said Morrison, if we split the take from the magazine piece. “But you have a job,” said Margaret, incredulous—and volunteered nothing... beyond the casual information, a little later, that the Prime Minister gave her half his $68,000-a-year salary. The inference was clear: being the Prime Minister’s wife was not a job, certainly not for one of the Me Generation.

And so the Prime Minister’s wife with the greatest opportunities, the most profligate gifts—and the most obvious challenges—rejected them all; “abdicated” in favor of whatever flavor of the week she fancies. A Trudeau aide notes that “Margaret has the attention span of a hummingbird,” but she has hummed “photojournalism” most often; acting and television also. Last week she was a guest on ABC-Tv’s Good Morning, America with a selection from her photo-journalism. Perhaps—if she gets a U.S. work permit—they will lead to assignments; or so ABC initially suggested. But it will increasingly depend, as the notoriety of being the Prime Minister’s wife recedes, on what talent her photographs reveal. At the moment, The Toronto Star’s award-winning Boris Spremo gives her work average marks for “good, family-album shots,” low marks for composition—“I’ve never seen one of Margaret’s pictures that’s made me say Wow!”

Finally, apologists will argue—and do—that the breakup was caused by the 29-year span between the two, and that Margaret didn’t know what she was getting into at the age of 22. Both arguments are unpersuasive: the first because Trudeau, at 57, is more sinewy in mind and body than many men in their thirties, the second because she knew very well what she was getting into, being one of five daughters in the highly political household of James Sinclair, former fisheries minister for prime minister Louis St. Laurent in the Fifties. Closer to the point is the obvious fact that husband and wife were poles apart temperamentally, and that neither can be easy to live with. Trudeau, as disciplined and ascetic as his wife is neither, put his finger indirectly on the heart of the matter in a remarkably personal interview for the French-language TVA network earlier this month. “Marriage is a very difficult institution to live by,” he said, “and requires great maturity . . . Marriage doesn’t produce more freedom, it produces less.”

It was precisely this that Margaret Sinclair Trudeau rebelled against, though the evidence of history suggests that the kind of freedom she seeks demands a discipline of its own. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, sang Kris Kristofferson, premier bard for the lost and lonely of the Sixties—a romantic notion, and seductive.