There are half a hundred people— mostly women—who have sat beside Pierre Berton at a banquet and have concluded, due to his silence throughout, that he is essentially a shy man.
There could be another opinion. Could you say a father named Pierre who named his children Penny, Pamela, Patsy, Peter, Paul, Peggy Anne—and an adopted daughter Perri—just possibly might have an ego?
Someone said all journalists are really shy egomaniacs. That is true, and so Berton fits comfortably into both categories.
All we know is that he is one of the more interesting Canadians this country has produced. In his new book, My Times: Living with History 1947-1995, he lays out further evidence. He is passionate, he is bumbling, he claims, he has extraordinary energy— and he doesn’t fear anything. What he hates is Canadian complacency.
The best evidence, a clever publishing device, are the inside covers of the book, reproducing newspaper headlines that demonstrate the guy’s fearless manner:
“Berton Takes Pile-Driver to Canada.” “Berton Calls Police Inefficient and Callous.” “ ‘Carry Me to Jail,’ Berton Taunts PQ.” “Women Are Discriminated Against in Media—Berton.” “Bishop Blasts Berton.” “ ‘Stop Hoaxing Kids on Sex’—Berton Sticks to His Guns.” And on. And on.
He’s now, of course, a national icon, a decade past retirement age. When he published the first half of his memoirs, Starting Out, he was clearly startled by the critical response. Reviewers intimated there were great figures in life, say a Churchill, whose career merited more than one volume.
Pierre Berton, they suggested, as interesting as his life obviously was, might have wrapped up his tale in one tome. Stung by the slap, he has turned out three as-usual best-selling books—The Arctic Grail, The Great Depression, Niagara—before returning, wounds all licked, to the second half of his tumultuous life.
One of the more interesting things about
the greatest Canadian nationalist of all is that he confesses here his ambition was to make it in the United States.
When Maclean’s plucked him from The Vancouver Sun in 1947, he “had no intention of remaining in Hogtown. It was merely a tedious way-point on the rocky road of my ambitions.” Surely within two years the editors of Life or Saturday Evening Post would notice his brilliant work “and extend a beckoning finger.”
It didn’t happen—to Canada’s credit. The big galumph who was raised in the mythical Yukon gold-mine town of Dawson City evolved into the biggest enemy of the American smothering of Canadian interests.
His main gift is his enthusiasm—product of his small-town pioneer background— and his prodigious discipline. He details how in fact he enjoyed his hour-long drive to his rural home in Kleinburg north of Toronto because he could compose in his head
several of his Toronto Star daily columns.
Wife Janet, who long ago should have been awarded the Victoria Cross for putting up with him, grew tired of explaining to guests why their host was standing in the corner with his face a blank mask. He wasn’t drunk; he was writing a column.
The Dawson City kid has indeed lived with history in the last half-century. He has covered everything. In Korea as a war correspondent, he was reviled for having his own jeep, driver, interpreter and bodyguard. He did Hiroshima, the Berlin Wall, China, Hollywood, Antarctica. In the shadow of the Sphinx, he and CBC producer Daryl Duke— waiting for an interview with Col. Nasser— end up in a belly-dancing joint that features two half-naked seven-foot Watusi. Berton asks Duke how he likes the local drink, arrack. “It’s more like pop,” says Duke. “It’s had no effect on me.” Berton: ‘Then why are we dancing on the table?”
He practises what he preaches. Janet for some time had been an active member of the Committee for the Adoption of Coloured Youngsters. One day they decided her actions had to suit her words. Perri came into the allwhite family. When a truant officer asked him to take in a troubled 16-year-old, Eric Basciano, for a couple of days, the days stretched on and—after adoption—bingo, a family of eight.
Some time before, 1963 to be exact, in this magazine Berton wrote about the hypocrisy of sex in our society and hoped his young daughters would at S least be introduced to it in £ a bed and not the back seat g of a car. The panicked management sacked him.
A committed socialist, the millionaire Berton once announced publicly that he would give his numerous children the finest education he could afford but would leave them no money, giving that to charities. (We wonder about that pledge, grandchildren being grandchildren.)
He is hated, of course, by academics because he has hijacked their monopoly: he has made history readable. Early on he was asked on television what subjects he would suggest to young writers. Berton said there are dozens of fascinating stories out there— the Dionne quintuplets, the CPR, Niagara.
Twenty years later, he gleefully recalls, they were still sitting there, untouched. Result: three more best-sellers. On Oct. 1, 1972, he had four books on the best-seller top 10: “That record has never been exceeded and, I suspect, never will be.”
To quote Dizzy Dean: “It ain’t bragging if you done it.”
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