For four generations, these crusty entrepreneurs who treated politics just like any of their other business ventures, ran the island their way, and seldom drew a sober breath. According to an impressive new book, Rare Ambition, by journalist Michael Harris, the federal fisheries minister and surviving head of the clan may well be the least tipsy of the boozing Crosbies—alcohol killed his sister Joan at age 54 and led to his brother Andrew’s death at 57. Andrew Crosbie, who managed to reduce the family’s business assets from $100 million in 1976 to bankruptcy by 1981 (when he faced 38 charges of criminal fraud and theft), once drove his motorboat onto a neighbor’s front lawn, and even when he was flat broke insisted on wearing a watch that had been on the moon with the American astronauts and was worth more than most people’s houses.
Harris, whose lively yet introspective writing style is perfectly fitted to his subject, meticulously places the Crosbies in their time and place. He reveals a dark side of Joey Smallwood that will shock even the strongest critics of his corrupt administration, but lovingly portrays the tempestuous island on which his rowdy characters play out their lives. He catches the mystique of Newfoundland, which helps explain why the political soul of the maladministered province survives so much beating. “Awesome and aloof,” he writes, “Newfoundland commands the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with its back to the North American continent and its most settled shore, the Avalon Peninsula, looking across the Atlantic to the island’s European roots. For four centuries, the brute force of geography and climate have nurtured Newfoundland’s singular personality and, until comparatively recently, muffled the cultural din from mainland North America. The world’s tenth-largest island was in its beginning, and remains, a place apart.” The Crosbie legend dates back to the battlefields of 14th-century Scotland. After an epic encounter, when Col. Robert Crosbie discov-
A new book catches the vanished age of personal obligation, when men did business on a handshake
ered that one of his sons had fought on the English side, the family patriarch killed the youngster by riding over him and crushing his upturned face under the horse’s hooves. That set the pattern for Crosbie family relationships. George Crosbie, a plasterer, came to Newfoundland in 1858 and later bought a hotel in St. John’s that allowed his son. Sir John Crosbie, to plant the beginnings of the family’s commercial empire. Sir John also became the first Crosbie to enter politics. As a member of the opposition People’s Party, he dealt with his enemies in typical Crosbie fashion. Electioneering at an outport at the same time as Premier Sir Robert Bond, Crosbie and Bond had to climb up a dock ladder from a mail boat The hefty Crosbie, who in adult life resembled “a hogshead turned on end,” stepped on his liberal foe’s fingers, forcing the startled politico into the ocean. (Newspapers played up the incident as “a dastardly attempt on Sir Robert’s life,” claiming that Crosbie had administered “a brutal kick in the [premier’s] chest.”)
Sir John’s son, Ches, carried on family traditions by attempting to check a bear into a hotel, and consuming more wine and women than Errol Flynn. He led the anti-Confederation Economic Union Party and almost triumphed
over Smallwood’s pro-Canadian campaign. Of Smallwood, he confessed, “You couldn’t help liking the little bugger.”
Ches’s younger son Andrew—a typical Crosbie, he weighed 200 pounds by the time he was 14—built up the family empire to 75 companies, which eventually foundered under mismanagement and too much debt. His brother John—the current Crosbie—chose academia instead, studying politics at Queen’s University and law at Dalhousie. In 1952, he married Jane Furneaux in St. John’s. The match was soon consummated. “We stopped in Montreal to get her a diaphragm,” Crosbie recalls in the book, “but by that time it was too late. Before we’d hit Queen’s, she’d somehow gotten herself pregnant”
Harris follows Crosbie through his various political conversions from Liberal to Conservative and, from the provincial to the federal scene. Rare Ambition offers rare glimpses into the federal Tory party’s jealousies and internal tensions. During the 1983 leadership convention, the only way to stop Brian Mulroney from winning would have been for either Joe Clark to back Crosbie, or vice versa. When Crosbie sent Premier Brian Peckford to persuade Clark to jump on the halted Crosbie bandwagon, Joe refused by quietly shaking his head. But Maureen McTeer turned the suggestion down less elegantly. She looked Peckford straight in the eye and hissed: “Fuck off, you nerd.”
The author tries to portray John Crosbie as shy, but the Newfoundland politician trips him up every time. In his more reflective moments, Crosbie tends to dismiss opponents as “hypocrites, poseurs, skimmers, carrion birds, buzzards of the boulevards, boo-birds, twisters of the truth” and when pushed, will add “lickspittles and brothel creepers.” During the 1988 debate on free trade with the United States, Crosbie condemned the agreement’s enemies as “CBC-type snivellers, Toronto literati, alarm spreaders and encyclopedia pedlars.” When Pierre Trudeau once skipped a party policy convention to go dancing in New York City, Crosbie dubbed the Liberals and their leader as “Disco Daddy and the Has-Beens.”
Rare Ambition is an important chronicle, probably the best of this year’s crop of business books, ft not only astutely portrays the fall from grace of an important regional economic dynasty, but it also catches the vanished age of personal obligation, when men did business on a handshake, never left a friend in the lurch and drew class lines as stark as chalk marks on a blackboard in the feudal society that nurtured them and their beliefs.
When Harris decided to widen the book’s scope from a portrait of John Crosbie into a chronicle of his clan, the fisheries minister blustered: “It’s not enough to assassinate me; now, you’ve come back for the whole God damned family!” Harris hasn’t assassinated anybody. Just told the terrible truth about a doomed dynasty that takes full account of “a father’s smile or a mother’s tears, a son’s resolve or a daughter’s dreams.”
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