Lionel Shapiro landed on D-Day en route to international literary fame

CARL MOLLINS June 4 2001


Lionel Shapiro landed on D-Day en route to international literary fame

CARL MOLLINS June 4 2001


Lionel Shapiro landed on D-Day en route to international literary fame



Even now, almost six decades later, extravagant language turns up compulsively in any account of Operation Overlord. In that assault against the western wall of Nazi-occupied Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944, more than 130,000 American, British and Canadian forces assailed a 100-km stretch of the fortified cliffs and beaches of Normandy. At the time, the sheer scale of the campaign, the roaring swarms of aircraft, ships and landing craft, must

have demanded superlatives—the myriad battles and how, among the invaders alone, combat took some 2,500 young lives and wounded 8,500 others on that single day. It is not surprising, then, that war correspondent Lionel Shapiro, reporting from France to the readers of Macleans on the fortunes of the 14,000-strong Canadian force, established a mood of historic drama in his first sentences:

“History is standing astride these rolling Norman fields and resolving its own direction for perhaps a thousand years to come,” he wrote. “We mortals who sit below can only be awed by its mighty presence. But if I cannot write world history in its proper perspective, perhaps I can write a personal version of Canadian history as it was unfolded before my eyes during these last flaming days, because between the little seaside town of Bernières-sur-mer and the Caen batde front, Canadian troops have written an immortal story.”

Shapiros suggestion that D-Day would shape the ¡ next 10 centuries stood in mockery of Adolf Hider s I claim, as Germany’s new Führer in 1933, that his Nazi f regime would endure for a thousand years. Of course, f Hider and his Third Reich were gone by VE-Day— 3

Victory in Europe—almost precisely 11 months after Normandy.

It was to be 11 years after D-Day that a special personal victory fell to Montrealer Lionel Sebastian Berk Shapiro. He reinforced his international reputation, and his bank account, with a romantic novel set in wartime England, The Sixth of June. A sensational popular success, it capped a career that was to end less than three years later with his untimely death from cancer.

The Sixth of June was his fourth and final book His debut work, They Left the Back Door Open, is a journalistic chronicle of the bitterly fought Allied conquest of Italy. He somehow managed to polish and publish that work—issued in separate British and Canadian editions in 1944—while he was heavily engaged in reporting the war still raging in Europe. His wartime reporting won him an OBE (Order of the British Empire).

The novels—The Sealed Verdict in 1947, Torch for a Dark Journey in 1950, then The Sixth of June in 1955—all set in Europe, feature male Americans engaged in struggles of conscience and, in Verdict and June, love affairs. Morality takes a beating and love proves a loser. Verdict inspired a movie starring Ray Milland, and Shapiro adapted Torch for a Dark Journey into the stage drama The Bridge. There were also a half-dozen Shapiro plays for TV, then in its infancy, but apparendy only as passing fancies of the voracious medium.

Such reminders of the transience of his work—novelist, playwright, a Hollywood gadabout working the public-speaker circuit and churning out articles for Macleans—prompted periods of self-doubt even in the apparendy supremely self-confident Shapiro. He admitted in a Macleans article to “pure gall” in selfpromotion. He also expressed fears that his “intellectual impatience” would result in “surface successes—like an all-round acrobat in a literary circus—but no substantial accomplishment.” After that bout of fretting came the climactic diversion—the successes of The Sixth of June. Its story of how an American army of-

ficer and a British counterpart fall for the same woman received warm reviews, at least one favourable comparison to Hemingway, and a potent recommendation by the U.S.-based Book-ofthe-Month Club. It became a multinational best-seller. (By late 1955, Shapiro boasted in Macleans, sales of his novels totalled “well in excess of two million copies” and earnings before his third novel’s publication topped a reported $350,000, an enormous sum then.) The new novel won the annual Governor General’s fiction award, was translated into nine languages and into a Hollywood box-office hit, D-Day, the Sixth of June, with such stars of the times as Robert Taylor and Dana Wynter.

It all enhanced Shapiro’s status as a jet-set candidate. Except, that is, for his attachment to his mother and their Montreal home—and to Canada (“His Canadianism was a deep, burning thing,” was how Ross Munro, a Canadian Press war correspondent, once put it). And although he was something of a man-about-town in his beloved Manhattan—back and forth between the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South and his Montreal apartment—he was not known as a ladies’ man. Writer Marjorie Earl lamented in Mayfair, then a Macleans sister magazine, that Shapiro himself was apparendy unattainable. She rhymed off his attributes—idealistic, romantic, industrious, quick-witted, a ham, tall, dark, good-looking and welldressed, rich and single—then added: “Any woman planning a campaign, however, would be well-advised to remember that she has a formidable rival—a cold, drab, grey-complexioned portable typewriter, to which Shapiro is irrevocably wed.”

Shapiro’s celebrity arose from ambitions to escape from youthful neediness and his urge to develop writerly talents. His father, a department store retailer, died when he was a baby. Tuberculosis killed two older brothers within a year of each other when he was in his teens. His mother, from dressmaking, managed to finance her remaining child’s achievement of a McGill University honours


degree in psychology in 1929. There, he also got into journalism at The McGill Daily, winding up as sports editor. A summer job at The Gazette in Montreal diverted him from plans to take postgraduate studies and into full-time sports reporting.

He made a name covering the NHL circuit, but like many Montrealers of his time, harboured a passion for New York City.

When his proposal to write an about-town column from the Big Apple got nowhere, he took off to New York in 1934 with his meagre savings and filed gratis columns— eventually named Lights and Shadows of Manhattan—that Gaz£tte editors were persuaded to print. The popularity of his reports with readers regained him a Gazette salary as well as a sponsored radio gig that paid him a then-princely $ 100 a week.

From there, it was ever onward in journalism: trips to Los Angeles to write Hollywood gossip, a posting as correspondent in Washington and, after he engaged in more arm-twisting, ultimately to England as war correspondent for The Gazette and Macleans. (He arrived the day after the casualty-heavy Canadian raid on Dieppe on Aug. 19,1942, but years later shoehorned several pages about the raid into The Sixth of June. “They got guts, those Canadians,” he has an American character exclaim.)

On his way to celebrity, Shapiro—Shap to his friends— rubbed some people the wrong way. “He was egotistical, neurotic, melancholy, obstinate and generally difficult,” conceded Macleans editor Ralph Allen in an obituary-editorial that also described him as being “among the best informed, the most gifted and the most perceptive” of all Canadian writers.

Allen also related one of a host of anecdotes that purported to quote Shapiro once saying to a friend: “But, John, here I’ve been talking about myself for two hours. How about you talking about me for a while.” Another, after the Old Vic drama company in

Bristol, England, staged The Bridge, quotes the writer remarking: “They used to do Shakespeare and Sheridan. Now they are doing Shakespeare, Sheridan and Shapiro.” Like many another Canadian who succeeds abroad, his home town was the headquarters of his detractors. It may have been the Old Vic crack that cued some Montrealers to refer to Shapiro as “the great Shakespeare of our time,” a joking deflator recalled by filmmaker and novelist William Weintraub, a younger contemporary. Weintraub remembers that what stirred up antipathy among some people was the Governor General’s fiction award to The Sixth of June. He and others thought the 1955 winner ought to have been Brian Moore, then a Montrealer, for his novel Judith Heame. (Moore later won the award in I960 for The Luck of Ginger Coffey and in 1975 for The Great Victorian Collection.) “Brian Moore’s book was a much more substantial work and destined to become a classic,” says Weintraub. “And who remembers The Sixth ofJuneT

True enough about the Shapiro books—out of print and out of mind. The plays and movies likewise have long since faded out of common view and even from public knowledge. His name is little known outside of his alma mater, where his legacy is the Lionel Shapiro Awards for creative writing, three a year for $ 1,000 apiece, and another for achievement in English. A similar endowment assists students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He set those encouragements up with money from The Sixth of June. The tide of the book in itself is a powerful legacy, recalling a date—57 years ago next week—implanted in many minds as a symbol of what Ross Munro once described as Shapiro’s “deep respect for human courage and endurance.” It is also a reminder of what the writer himself defined in that book as “the small unaccountable miracles” that flow out of such historic human events.

Read a selection of Lionel Shapiro’s Maclean's dispatches online



William Stewart was among the first Canadian correspondents to land at Normandy on June 6,1944. A 10-year veteran of The Canadian Press, Stewart crossed the channel on a British frigate and landed on the far western flank of the four-kilometre Canadian sector, Juno Beach, at about 9:30 in the morning. Now 87 and living in the Montreal area, Stewart still has strong memories ofthat day:

The landing craft took us right onto the beach. There was terrific relief to be ashore. In front of me was a large barbedwire barrier along which was a line of dead Canadians. There were about seven of them-several in front of the barbed wire,

one sprawled across it and one guy right up on top of the [German] pill box. He had fallen there and his helmet had rolled off.

I dug a hole in a sand dune with a little seat to sit on, and a ledge for the typewriter, and I started to write about what I could see. Then I went out to explore the beach, which turned out to be mined. A small tracked vehicle blew up and flung its occupants about. There were wounded on the beach shaking from shock and there were some dead. I walked up to a huge concrete barrier that stretched into the sea, and in front of it was a group of Germans who had surrendered. There was one Canadian soldier standing there with a rifle, guarding them.

About two o’clock, two other Canadian correspondents came ashore, Matthew Halton of the CBC and Charlie Lynch, who became a columnist for Southam. We went into the village, Graye-sur-mer, and were invited into the house of a retired postman and his wife. We worked at their dining room table, and they served us strawberries and cream-an unusual day for it.

I put the copy in small white canvas bags with red stripes on them and “Press” stencilled in big black letters. An arrangement had been made that a correspondent gave his story to the navy, and the navy, whether Canadian, British or whatever, put it on a craft going back to England. We got a message on D-plus-one from the general manager of CP saying that our stories had arrived.