The Berton Years

Judith Timson March 5 1979

The Berton Years

Judith Timson March 5 1979

The Berton Years

Judith Timson

The following theme has been proposed, ¡here is a giant backdrop offtneof the most famous pictures in Canadian history: tjje struggle up the slopes to the ChHkoot Pass. It 'Opfdhßlizes the cold coming we had of it in Canada: Pierre’s youth and closest association, his size and aspirations to achieve fame, his achievement of same. ..Up the slope are three stations or platforms... we show Pierre’s progression up it from brash and callow hotshot on The Vancouver News-Herald to the ultimate.—from the minutes of the Pierre Berton Celebration Dinner committee meeting Jan. 8, 1979

The media titans are having a party. It's called the Pierre Berton Celebration Dinner. They will all be

there, names as familiar to Canadians as those of movie stars are to Americans, the only celebrities we have got. Bassett and McClelland. Honderich and Templeton. Mowatt and Frum. Of course the Canadian Room in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel will be fleshed out with just plain folks as well—novelists, actors, executives, a politician or two— who have paid up to $50 a person to be part of it all. But it will be the titans themselves who will experience that delicious feeling of bonhomie when they rise on the evening of Feb. 28, glowing from the wine and the pleasure of each other’s company, to drink a toast to the man who did it undeniably bigger, possibly better and certainly faster than they.

He has been called a tall tree. A force of nature. A colossus striding across the country. A huge zeppelin hovering over the landscape. Who else (besides the other Pierre) can walk into any room in Canada and be recognized? A man who draws enormous infusions of strength and joy from his own celebrity, he has been known to swell visibly (“like a puff adder,” says a family friend) in his public incarnation. “I hate promoting my own books,” says his friend and colleague Charles Templeton, “but Pierre absolutely relishes it. It’s a side of him I don’t really understand.” Pierre Berton is not a writer’s writer, dwarfed in the flesh by the power of his own written word. He is a figure who has remained consistently larger than the sum total of his work, a canon that, over the past 25 years, encompasses 25 books, $10 million in sales, and enough words (2.5 million) to invite

the question: is that writing or typing? He has been, with the help of the Canadian media eager to lionize one of their own, an extremely visible man.

“The truth is,” says Charles Templeton solemnly into the phone, “Pierre Berton is Mr. Canada.”

Last year Mr. Canada published his 25th book, The Wild Frontier. But this year there may not be a Berton offering for the Christmas book sales. The contemplation of this causes a look of pajn to cross the pleasantly dissolute features of his publisher Jack McClelland. “I’m experiencing that panic this year. God, I wish we could just get a compilation from him ...”

What kind of literary giant could, after producing 25 books, engender that much consternation in his publishing house simply by laying off for a year? Certainly not, in the realm of reality, a man who polishes off innocuous short stories about the travails of our pioneers or in a slightly more ponderous form the history of our railroad. The truth, of course, is that Berton, undoubtedly the best popular historian in the country in the estimation of more than a few experts, has become, at the

age of 58, something of a national institution. “What I find astonishing,” says York University historian Jack Granatstein, “is the way the popular press has turned him into a cult figure.”

Years from now some ambitious journalist will produce The Berton Years, a 1950s-60s-70s-and-counting melodrama in which it is chronicled how Pierre Berton came to be a pop cult phenomenon. How this brash, awkward son of the North (see Klondike, I Married the Klondike, Drifting Home) burst into the newspaper business, at 21 the youngest city editor (of The Vancouver NewsHerald) in Canada, how he began a trajectory that took him through a magazine writing career, a stint as the best newspaper columnist of his time, two decades of television and a career of championing every civil liberties cause to come down the pike. How he was buttressed by two tough women, his relentlessly pleasant wife, Janet, who kept the home front together, helped raise eight (one adopted, one foster) children and joked about being allowed to change his typewriter ribbon; and his relentlessly ferocious television producer Elsa Franklin, who needed a vehicle and found one in Pierre, who taught him

what to wear (sort of) and how much money to ask for (a lot).

Furthermore there will be revelations: the dialogue that never got reported on those endless Berton family trips with their endless numbers of children whose names all began with P up and down various Canadian rivers in various conveyances; “Daddy, Daddy, I’m bored (hungry) (tired). Why do we have to keep doing this?” “Be quiet. We’re saving the country.” And: just how many reporters did Pierre Berton invite over the years into his barbershop to watch him (as valuable detail for their feature stories) getting another haircut? Jimmy the stylist has stopped counting, and for anyone who’s interested, Berton’s rapidly diminishing silver hair is grown long on one side, folded carefully over the scalp and then lifted a fraction of an inch off the surface. They should make an omelette that carefully.

Sitting in his chair, watching intently as the new non-flaking, firm-holding, dry mist hair spray settles on his stylist’s silver artwork, Berton deadpans: “I always ask people to meet me here because it’s convenient. And they always end up writing about it.” He flips absently through a Playboy magazine. He is, after all, despite the fact that he once asked to be paid for some work he did with a case of Château Lafite-Rothschild (average price: $35 a bottle), a man of self-confessed plebian tastes, which include watching Battlestar Galáctica with his kids and Hawaii Five-0 for his own pleasure.

When asked to situate himself in Canadian letters (A “being those with the heavy artillery, The Canadian Forum boys”), he smiles disarmingly: “I’m a B writing for other Bs.”

Ignore the comp easy to see him as the product of a blissfully happy and romantic Yukon childhood who has sought to recreate it both in his personal life, in the bosom of a large and improbably close (for 1979) family, and in his writing wherein he has tried to romanticize the Canadian past. “I wouldn’t be writing this stuff if there weren’t the market for it,” he says, as if to disabuse one of the notions there is something romantic about it all. He is not an introspective sort. “I’ll leave that to my daughter Patsy’s [age: 261 generation.” But he has rich and warm memories of his childhood that come to him often. Some of the most poignant writing he has done concerned, in Drifting Home, the death of his father. “Morley Callaghan read it and said he wished I’d put more about my feelings toward my parents in there. I wish I had too.”

He loves to talk about his writing.

How he has built up this complex system of amassing research (collected diligently by his permanent researcher Barbara Sears who picks up a third of his royalties) and indexing it in large black binders. The system—almost a write-by-number affair—“works every

time—at least it works for me.” How he likes to clear his head before he starts by reading a bit of Dickens or Twain. “Sure it makes me despair when I read great writing like that—but I don’t think people should aspire to be what they can’t be.” Usually he does the actual writing of his books in a sunny clime, Jamaica or Mexico, lugging his Smith-Corona electric with him.

Several years ago, Charles Templeton started editing his manuscripts after Berton complained he couldn’t find an editor who would be really tough on him. Perhaps that had something to do

with his formidable presence within McClelland and Stewart. He and the publisher have worked together, caroused together and accorded each other the status of confidant and adviser for many years. There is a provision in McClelland’s will that after his death Berton be consulted on the future of the company.

Indeed, he already owns 2!/2 per cent of the company (“a bloody good idea for authors to be involved like that”). It is safe to say that Berton usually gets what he wants at McClelland and Stewart even if it means relieving a

staff member of a job. One publicity woman was fired, recalls McClelland, “because she failed to realize that Pierre was more important than she was in the company. No one could survive around here with an attitude like that.” McClelland maintains that Berton has never published a bad book. Which isn’t to say one hasn’t been written: buried somewhere in a dusty filing box out at Berton’s rambling Kleinburg, Ontario, home is the manuscript for a novel that his publisher dissuaded him from publishing. Set in “a whorehouse in Rosedale” it is a story about legalized prostitution and simply “isn’t very good”, says McClelland.

Journalists and academics agree his three best books were Klondike, The National Dream and The Last Spike. In the latter two, he strung together an exhaustive history of the railroad and a social history of the country, introducing new material (mostly on the surveying of the railroad) that delighted historians. “They are clearly the best books written on the subject,” says University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss, who acted as Berton’s academic consultant on them. “But we have no way of knowing whether they are actually read or whether they’re bought as Christmas presents to sit on shelves. I suspect a lot of people have not read these books.” Moreover Bliss, who makes it clear that he has unlimited respect for Berton both as a historian and a writer, offers up a tough assessment of his entire output: “In a way it’s hilarious to celebrate his 25th book — only five of them have been any good.”

Pierre Berton himself says a man is “only interesting when you discover his flaws.” But there are certain virtues to the man that reflect a kind of moral and ethical energy at a premium in 1979. His loyalty: at the Berton’s famous annual pool party one encounters not necessarily the movers and shakers but old friends who once were prominent but who have fallen on hard times or into obscurity. They do not get dropped. The Bertons’ generosity and concern for anyone they know who is in trouble is legendary. “The first call you get is from Pierre,” says June Callwood a longtime friend and fellow writer who believes that Berton’s chief importance lies in his ability “to sort out things around an ethic the way most people can’t.” Berton, at work now on an opus of the War of 1812, enjoys immersing himself in reams of detail, and piecing together a story that has a beginning and an end. “Do you know the most insulting question I was ever asked?” he says. “Some television reporter in Lindsay wanted to know if I wrote my own books!” He doesn’t quite see how it could happen.

How Berton the writer (and a serious consideration of him) could be eclipsed by the man in the Mr. Canada suit. But that’s the man, who for a modest $3,500 to $4,000 will make a speech to your club or association. That’s the man who can only be described as promiscuous with his opinions being heard twice a day engaging in mock debate with his colleague Charles Templeton on a Toronto radio station. “I have an opinion because I’m bloody well paid to.” The man who is the ubiquitous television host. Or the man who, since 1957, has been a panelist on Front Page Challenge, a palpably tired show, the success of which (it is the third most watched show7 in the country) could lead one to dismally conclude that Canadian society has all the intellectual rigor of a Saturday night euchre game were it not for the revelation that a great chunk of its viewing audience is over 50. On the show, Berton plays out a lacklustre role that is no longer tough guy, more paper tiger. He does not look as though he’s having any fun. Hours after it’s over, he cannot remember w7ho the mystery guests were. But he does it, he says, “because it’s a very large sum of money for very little wrork.” And also (with a straight face) “for exposure ... I believe you’re easily forgotten.”

While Berton struggles on all fronts to remind people of his presence, there are those who wish he would pull back a


bit, and use the full force of his voice in a way that does not dilute its impact. “There is real value in the man, but it is underestimated,” says novelist Timothy Findley, who has fought political battles alongside Berton in the Writers’ Union.

When The Findley, Wars and author recipient of the of novel the Governor-General’s award for fiction last year, realized that acclaim, if not fame, was closing in on him, he wrent to Berton to find out what it was like. How does one act? What is important? He came away w7ith a sense that a good writer must have a very hard centre “and he must be obedient to that centre.” There is affection, sadness and concern Findley’s voice as he describes the times he has looked across the room at Be and seen that centre go soft.

“I’ve seen him sag. And it’s then I want to say to him ‘go home’.”