COVER

HEADY DAYS

Margaret Trudeau Kemper roars down memory lane

JANE O’HARA April 6 1998
COVER

HEADY DAYS

Margaret Trudeau Kemper roars down memory lane

JANE O’HARA April 6 1998

HEADY DAYS

COVER

Margaret Trudeau Kemper roars down memory lane

JANE O’HARA

When the movie As Good as It Gets opened in Ottawa over the Christmas holidays, Margaret Trudeau Kemper rushed to see it with her nine-year-old daughter, Alicia. Although Margaret has always been a sucker for a romantic comedy, she had more than an average moviegoer’s interest in the film. When it was over she turned to her daughter and, in a low, conspiratorial whisper, said: “Alicia, I have a secret.

Mommy dated that man.” The man she was referring to was Jack Nicholson— who last week won an Academy Award for his performance as a boorish writer with a tender soul. She and Nicholson didn’t exactly “date” so much as have a torrid fling in the late 1970s when her marriage to Pierre Trudeau was in tatters. At first, Alicia acted giddy after being entrusted with her mother’s serious and sexy confidence. Then, after giving it some thought, she said: “But Mom, he’s soooooo old.”

Margaret laughs when she tells this story. It is mid-March and she is sitting in an Ottawa restaurant after a lunch of salmon and salad, smoking cigarettes, working on her second glass of red wine and roaring down memory lane like a car without brakes. Clearly, she is enjoying the ride, revelling in her flamboyant exploits which made headlines all over the world. They began in 1971 when, as a breathtakingly beautiful 22-year-old flower child from North Vancouver, she married Canada’s most eligible bachelor, the 51-year-old Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. From that fairy-tale wedding, Margaret launched herself into a celebrity orbit unheard of in Canada.

She was known simply as Margaret, sometimes Maggie—a gust of fresh air that blew through the musty archives of past prime ministerial wives. In the beginning, she was universally admired. She became the sainted mother of Trudeau’s three sons—Justin, Sacha and Michel. She was considered down-toearth, making her own dresses and remaking Trudeau’s reclusive image, softening his uncompromising edges. But, in 1977, public opinion began to shift when she rejected the sole role of mother, complained about the prison of protocol and burst out of her suffocating marriage.

It wasn’t her leaving that caused concern—after all, many women were re-evaluating their lives as a result of the feminist

movement. It was where she ended up that seemed so problematic: jet-setting with the cocaine-and-Concorde crowd, hooking up with an international roster of glitter boys like Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, Hollywood leading man Ryan O’Neal and trash-TV talk-show host Geraldo Rivera. When she wasn’t doing drugs or dancing at New York City’s Studio 54, she was writing about it in her books, Beyond Reason (1979) and Consequences (1982), which also talked about her intimate life with the prime minister. Here, the public drew the line: it was one thing for her to write honestly about her personal quest for freedom, but quite another to rob Trudeau of the most important thing in his life: his privacy.

Margaret still keeps in touch with some of the people from those heady days. In November, during a visit to London, a friend arranged a phone call to her old flame Nicholson in Los Angeles.

“Are you ever coming back on my road, Margaret?” he asked.

“No, Jack,” she replied.

“Not even a little detour, Margaret?”

“No, Jack.”

Then, after flirting with him for a half-hour, she convinced him that her days of taking detours, of making U-turns and illegal lefts were over. “I wished him well,” says Margaret. “But he’s a bad

boy. A totally, totally bad boy. I loved that chapter in my life. Those were roads I was on and was happy to be on, but they’re not a part of my life now.”

These days, her life is far more sedate than sensational. In September, she will turn 50. It is hard to believe, and harder still to erase the old images of the young Margaret that seem burned into memory. Though her face no longer has the angular beauty that was captured so often by so many photographers, she still has a radiant smile and eyes as clear and blue as the sky. For the past 14 years, she has been married to Ottawa businessman Fried Kemper, a Conservative who, ironically, was once a member of Brian Mulroney’s famous 500 Club of wellheeled supporters. Along with Alicia, she and Kemper have a 13year-old son, Kyle. After trying various careers—photographer, actress, talk-show host for an Ottawa TV station—she does not have a paying job. Still, she is devoted to her fund-raising efforts for a non-profit agency called WaterCan, which delivers clean water to the Third World, and operates out of a basement office in an old red-brick building near the University of Ottawa.

Margaret admits it was hard to give up being Trudeau’s wife. She still refers to him as “the love of my life” and says he still calls her “his wife.” When she separated from him in May, 1977, they shared custody of the three boys, an arrangement that continued for seven years. She says Trudeau made her write a handwritten note at 2 a.m. one morning in 1977, giving up any right to the considerable personal wealth he inherited from his father—and to the children. He also took back the wedding and engagement rings he gave her. He still has them in a safe in Montreal, she says. Of the note, she adds: “It wouldn’t have stood up in court. But I think when you have old wealth as he has, you’re very suspicious that people are in it to take you for your money.”

In 1984, when Trudeau quit as Liberal leader and moved back to Montreal, the estranged couple finally divorced. Trudeau demanded sole custody of the kids. In return, Margaret received a financial settlement. “Because of the strength of Pierre in every way, I had to give in and let him have it his way,” said Margaret. But she has remained close to her three boys and kept in regular contact with Trudeau throughout the years. Two weeks ago, she visited her youngest, Michel, 22, who, after getting a degree in marine biology from Halifax’s Dalhousie University, now lives as “a ski bum,” as she describes it, at a resort in Rossland, B.C. Her eldest, 26-year-old Justin, also lives out west. When not studying education at the University of British Columbia, he teaches snowboarding at Whistler.

According to Margaret, Trudeau was “devastated” last September when the two boys moved to British Columbia, leaving him alone in his Montreal mansion for the first time since 1984 (Sacha, the 24-year-old middle son, was living in Toronto at the time). “It was the empty-nest syndrome,” says Margaret.

“Pierre knew it was coming, bul it was still very hard for him. Il was hard for Justin too. He’s our tender heart. He’s been the one that’s been consistently there for Pierre.” It was the second blow for Trudeau last year. In June, his oldest friend, Gérard Pelletier died at age 78. According to Margaret, Trudeau, now 78 as well usually doesn’t attend funerals because “he’s a crier. He’s verj emotional.” Still, with his boys support, he went to Pelletier’s funeral. “It aged him tremendously,” adds Margaret. “It’s hard for him to lose his friends. I think this is the first year he’s really fell old—he’d put it off for so long.” Recently, however, Sacha movec back into Trudeau’s home. Aftei getting a philosophy degree fron McGill University in Montrea and studying German in Berlin he worked as a documentary film I maker in Toronto. (To date, he’s I only made one film: an exam S ination of the Liberian civil war.] a Now, Sacha has set up an editing “ suite in Trudeau’s home anc t enjoys the time with his father “Sacha and Pierre put on theii black ties and go off to the balle together,” says Margaret. “Or Sacha takes him to all the excit ing new films and they do end less walks together. Sacha never did like the competition wher his brothers were around.”

According to Margaret, all three boys share Trudeau’s passioi for skiing and his love for the rugged outdoors. None of them though, have embraced Trudeau’s devotion to Roman Catholic ism, which Margaret says includes his practice of praying to Mar; on his knees twice a day. But she notes that her boys are deep! spiritual, if not traditionally religious—even though Trudeau oftei read to them from the Bible. She recalls an incident when th boys, in their mid-teens, started physically fighting while on a ca trip with her. “When they got home and told their father about it, she says, “Pierre whipped out the Bible and read them the stor; of Cain and Abel. He told them if he ever heard again of then being brother against brother, he’d give away their legacy to th Catholic charities up north. It was really profound for them.”

Two years ago, Margaret hit menopause. “I thought my usefu ness was finished,” she says. “After all, I believed my job on earti was to procreate and be a pleasant sexual diversion for hare working men.” She spiralled into a depression (a disease that ha struck her before) and tried leaving her marriage in the summe of 1996. Psychotherapy and Prozac brought her around and nov she says, she feels “totally, totally liberated.” In therapy, she dis covered she hadn’t come to grips with the losses in her life: th death of her father, former federal Liberal cabinet minister Jame Sinclair, in 1984—or the collapse of her marriage to Trudeau. ‘ was like Scarlett O’Hara,” says Margaret. “I always said I’ll de; with it tomorrow.”

After almost three hours, she signals it is time to end the inte: view. Her daughter is waiting to be picked up at school and sh has to pack for a weeklong family ski trip. There is just one mor question: will she let a photographer come and take her picture As she dashes out with her coat halfway on, she says: “Use one ( me when I was 20.” □