Well you can ’t cry in public. It ain’t fittin'.— Judy LaMarsh, February, 1980
On the third loud thump of the brass knocker, she flings open the door to her Toronto Tudor-style townhouse and growls her own kind of
welcome: “Well whaddya know,
someone who actually arrives when she says she’s going to.” The voice and the style are still the same—vintage that’s-why-the-lady-is-a-Mack-truck—but the visual presentation is utterly different: a svelte, bordering on thin, middle-aged woman with silvery-tipped hair, perfectly applied lipstick, and an elegant
olive-green knit sweater and skirt.
Slightly dispelling the perfect portrait of the Lady Novelist in Residence, Judy LaMarsh lurches from her living room—it is lush with green, growing things, the lair of a nurturer, a woman, a mother of sorts—and into her kitchen to see about tea, muttering as she goes: “Shouldn’t do that. Move too suddenly and I feel dizzy.” Still seeking her balance, she gets right to the point: “Have you read my book?”
The answer, fortunately, is an affirmative. The shiny black cover of her just-released second novel, A Right Honourable Lady, a more polished blend of Harlequin and Hansard than was her first attempt, A Very Political Lady, winks convincingly from the visitor’s briefcase. What if the answer had been no? “I would have been insulted. And then I would have concluded you hadn’t really come to talk about my book at all.”
There are, after all, other things to talk about. Judy LaMarsh, at the age of 55, with landmark careers in law, politics and the media behind her, one pathologically indiscreet book of memoirs and two hot novels to her credit—and enough controversy surrounding all these endeavors to qualify her for the Hit the Fan Hall of Fame— is dying of cancer. It has riddled her pancreas, assaulted her guts (an ironic indignity comparable to Don Juan being felled by a heart attack). Just before Christmas they took out her gall bladder, sewed her back up, and gave her anywhere from three months to a year. “And I’ve already used up two of those months,” she shrugs.
Despite the Judy-style bravado—she has recently cracked, “I may be dying but I’m not sick”—there is enough evidence to suggest her daily existence is wrenching. She cannot eat. Where once she assaulted the scales at a peak 220 pounds, she now weighs 136. It’s hell just to get dressed, and her strength has slowly sapped away to the point where she can only water some of her plants each day. Desperately trying to write a sequel to her Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage, she finds herself unable to type and is, characteristically, furious about it. “Got to get that written,” she barks, thinking of those years since 1968 when she dispiritedly bowed out of politics and took on the world—hotline radio shows, newspaper columns, royal commissions, her own law practice, and of course the books. “Want to show the dirtiest politics are outside politics!”
Her friends, poignantly aware of her frustration, her own ferocious streak of independence doing battle with the reality of what is happening to her, have rallied. Courtly Walter Gordon, her for-
mer colleague in Lester Pearson’s cabinet, drops around often, for a precise hour’s chat; any longer and it’s too much of a strain. LaMarsh’s publisher Jack McClelland wanders over for a drink by the fire. The Old Girls’ Network, as Vancouver Sun political columnist Marjorie Nichols calls it, has sprung into action: British Columbia judge Nancy Morrison, once Judy’s junior law associate, recently flew east to keep her company. And NDP MLA Rosemary Brown of Vancouver arranged for medical help when a friend of Judy’s from her former riding and home town of Niagara Falls took her for a week’s rest to the Caribbean. Still the blunt
truth of the matter is, despite the ministrations of friends, despite the “nice” notes from political acquaintances like John Turner and Tommy Douglas and Joe Clark, despite the 400 or so letters from ordinary men and women, thanking her for being an inspiration to themselves or their daughters, Judy LaMarsh is dying alone. The very public lady who was so “classy,” according to a recent note to her from Vancouver broadcaster Jack Webster, that she held a press conference to announce her own death (in fact, the doctors called it after the hospital was swamped with inquiries),is very much a solitary figure: her beloved parents, artist mother and law partner father, in many ways her closest friends, are both dead; she is not so close to either her brother or her older sister. And, as that emotional deadweight of a phrase goes, she never married, a fact her friends rue publicly more than she does.
“I always, when I think of Judy, think of the softness underneath the shell,” says her longtime political cohort and friend Paul Hellyer. “She’s very soft, very feminine, and in my opinion would have liked very much to have married and had kids.”
When LaMarsh’s Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage was published in 1968, her public persona became tinged with bitterness. She had lashed out. The hurt and betrayals she had suffered being an imposing female public figure before it was fashionable, aggressive before it was sexy, oozed out of every page, chronicling her lunches alone while the rest of her male colleagues dined to-
gether, her limp kiss-off by Pearson, whom she damned as “gutless” in her own virulent brand of history. LaMarsh had desperately sought an appointment to the bench when she left politics, and Pearson had turned his back on her. To this day she remains convinced—as do her friends—that she was shabbily treated by the Liberal party. Now, more than a decade later, like a boxer who has flailed at his punching bag until he has finally played out, much of the bitterness seems to have been worked out of her system. “I shouldn’t have been so hurt,” she says. “I was used, but that’s what politics does. It uses people.” Are there any regrets? There is a pause: “For a long time, I regretted using the word ‘gutless’ to describe Mike [Pearson]. I never saw him again after that, 'never went to his funeral. 1 felt very
equivocal about that, but I finally came to the conclusion I was right.”
And now, despite the trauma of having to close up her law practice—“I consider myself first and foremost a lawyer”—and her serious debts, Judy LaMarsh confesses to a “sense of serenity.” It has to do, she feels, with having done so much, not the least of which was the publication of her two novels. Writing them was “the hardest work I’ve ever done.”
When A Very Political Lady was published last year, it was laughed at by the critics for its pathetically transparent semi-fictionalized public figures (such as “high priest” Prime Minister Jean Jacques Charles of the hooded eyes, jutting cheekbones and arrogant manner) and its simplistic plot, at the centre of which was Kathleen Marshal, female cabinet minister who saves the country. “What a marvelous fantasy to have constructed,” breathes one of LaMarsh’s closest friends, “to have the entire Liberal party down on its knees, pleading with you to lead them.”
This year, Kathleen Marshal, tall, stately and “almost handsome/’returns as prime minister in A Right Honourable Lady—and the critics have been kinder. “Thank God they didn’t kick me in the stomach again,” says LaMarsh. “I thought maybe they were being nice to me because . . . but they’re too professional for that.”
The plot is better constructed, involving the sale of a nuclear reactor to Cuba, the wrath of the president of the United States (a ringer for Jimmy Carter) and, unfortunately, the downfall of Kathleen as Canada’s first lady PM. Despite her long political apprenticeship, Marshal appears breathtakingly naïve: “My editor said Kathleen sure seems dumb and I said she’s about as smart as I was,” chuckles LaMarsh.
In a rather squishy finale, Kathleen, honorable to a fault, is destroyed politically, but she doesn’t really mind: she has her prince to fall back on, the very perfect Mr. Andrew Wickstrom, whom she married late in life and who is charming, supportive and “bloody unusual,” claims his creator. “I’ve never met one like him in real life.”
In real life. The phrase lingers in the air, somehow blurring instead of clarifying that line between fact and fantasy in Judy LaMarsh’s own life. Her novels, in the end, seem a pretty vulnerable offering, served up totally without a sense of irony. Still, it is difficult to tell whether their author is also missing one when, staring straight ahead, the light in her eyes having taken on a curious intensity, she confesses: “I’m not very happy about the ending. I fiddled with it and fiddled with it. But it didn’t come out exactly the way I wanted it to.”
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