Latin Graces

The history of a Canadian academic fiefdom is finally told.

As a piece of modernist architecture, Massey College is remarkable. A blend of brick and concrete that manages to evoke a medieval cloister, it looks inward on a quadrangle that seems a world away from the busy campus that surrounds it. As an institution, Massey is equally noteworthy. When it opened a little over a half century ago, it was known as a bastion of anglophile tradition. Over the years it has transformed itself into an up-to-date centre of scholarly life within the University of Toronto, while still owing a strong debt to its distinctive origins.

These origins are the subject of A Meeting of Minds: The Massey College Story, the college’s official history published to commemorate its 50th anniversary. Author Judith Skelton Grant is well placed to write it, having dealt with aspects of college history in her biography of founding master Robertson Davies. This new volume does suffer some of the drawbacks of an officially sanctioned history. Most notable is its surfeit of detail, which risks wearying the most loyal insider. But Grant pulls no punches when describing difficult periods in the college’s evolution. Most importantly, she has a fascinating tale to tell. Few authors have been handed such a colourful cast of characters, or have had access to so wide a range of sources. Grant has consulted them all, from prosaic student club minutes to roman à clef novels, and she has supplemented this written record with an impressive number of personal interviews. All this allows her to provide a richly textured backdrop to her story.

The years when plans for Massey College were first being made are a good illustration. The initial idea dates back to March 1957 when Vincent Massey was nearing the end of his term as governor general and was casting about for a project to occupy his retirement. “I have thought of a residential hall at the University of Toronto,” he wrote to his brother Raymond who, like Vincent, was a trustee of the Massey Foundation, “giving to, say, 50 residents a life similar to that of an Oxford or a Cambridge College.” Massey shared his idea with the other trustees—his sons Lionel and Hart, Raymond’s son Geoffrey and the family’s financial advisor Wilmot Brougham. All found it appealing as a possible undertaking for the foundation, especially if targeted to graduate students.

But, as Grant explains, this initial accord soon broke down. In the years that followed there were times when the fissures became so great that relations among the Massey family members were seriously affected. Not until 1966, when a permanent endowment was finally made, was the festering discord ended, and even then only after the threat of legal action by Raymond and Geoffrey against the college’s Quadrangle Fund as well as Brougham’s employer National Trust.

“I love all the Masseys dearly,” was the way Brougham put it in one of his indiscreet tête-a-têtes with his ally Davies, “but they drive me crazy. And they all have a fabulous ability to create schemes and dream dreams, and turn them over to somebody else to make into realities.” Davies himself, after being appointed master designate, exerted considerable emotional energy to maintain a good working relationship with each of the family trustees, but even he boiled over with private exasperation on occasion. After one particularly trying family tempest, he confided in his diary, “Damned stupid, spoiled, cold-hearted, penny-pinching, ignorant rich people!”

Even by the elastic standards of high-born plutocrats, the Masseys had a few jarring idiosyncrasies. Most were tied to Vincent himself who, in contrast to his serene and aristocratic public persona, could be domineering and small-minded behind closed doors. Hart’s wife, Melodie, had a choice anecdote revealing this side of Vincent’s character. In reference to her father-in-law’s time as queen’s representative she noted, “He was the queen, all right. Do you know we had to curtsey to him even at Batterwood [the Masseys’ country estate] before we went to bed? I’m not kidding. It was not easy for my sister-in-law or myself.” The same streak appeared in Vincent’s relations with his sons. For example, Davies, who was a contemporary of Lionel’s when the two were students at Balliol, recalled that Vincent used to return the letters Lionel wrote to him “corrected and rephrased in red ink.” The sweet-tempered Lionel was never known to complain.

Not that the trustees’ deliberations were all acrimonious, as evidenced by the quality of some of their decisions. Awarding the college’s design to the relatively young Ron Thom was a stroke of genius—an unconventional choice aided by the fact that two of the trustees, Hart and Geoffrey, were architects themselves. And the selection of Davies as founding master was equally inspired. Although by no means an obvious candidate, given his lacklustre academic credentials (his highest earned degree was an Oxford BLitt), he was to prove himself more than able to hold his own in scholarly company, while bringing creative flair and unflagging resourcefulness to his multifaceted role.

Some of the trustees’ other decisions proved more contentious. “That the college admitted only men when roughly a fifth of the 1,645 full-time students in the [University of Toronto] School of Graduate Studies were women caused not just comment but action,” notes Grant. Once the college opened, there were periodic pickets and protests, many duly picked up by the local media. Such attention caused Davies and other college officials considerable angst. Their inevitable response—let some other philanthropist fund a like-minded institution geared to women—was soon sounding stale, especially by the early 1970s when the junior fellows themselves began lobbying to admit women.

The inevitable climbdown occurred in 1973. As was his usual custom, Davies tackled the fallout with a round of biting wit. Each holiday season he delivered a humorous ghost story to the assembled college. That year’s story gave him a pretence to speak directly to the college’s detractors, having cast a fictional representative of them as the heroine of his tale. “The new dawn of which you speak was hailed on 11 May of this year,” he intoned, “when it was decided by our senior fascist-recidivist-elitist-chauvinist-pigs, meeting in solemn council, and with full concurrence of those of our Founders who are still living, that women should be admitted to this College, under the same conditions as men, beginning next September.”

He had greater luck in fending off periodic calls to update the various traditions that he and Vincent Massey had prescribed for the college. So the academic gowns and Latin graces that marked dinners, as well as a range of other minor customs and rarefied pieces of nomenclature, stayed virtually intact. All this meant there was a good deal of stability during Davies’s long mastership. To those living in residence during those years, there was the sense of inhabiting some minor imperial duchy with Davies as the well-meaning if somewhat aloof duke who officiated at the round of ceremonial events that marked each phase of the academic year: welcoming buffets in the Master’s Lodge, Gaudy Nights of choral music and High Tables featuring arcane customs such as properly passing port decanters (“always to the left”) and taking snuff. By useful coincidence this duke was also a novelist not above using his pen to puncture the egos of college personalities rash enough to go against him. Best known was the fate of eminent sinologist W.A.C.H. Dobson who, after setting himself up as Davies’s rival during his time as senior fellow, ended up being caricatured as The Rebel Angels’ repulsive Urquhart McVarish.

The late 1960s and ’70s were definitely glory years, with Davies having fully settled into his pseudo-ducal role and an array of international luminaries, including the likes of Northrop Frye and John Polanyi, associated with the college. But by the time his mastership ended in 1981, it was clear a new regime was needed. No one questioned Davies’s accomplishments, yet there was one glaring mark on his legacy: the gradually worsening state of the college’s finances. The original endowment had not been wisely invested, and by this point its income was making only a minor dent in the college’s costs. Davies had never wanted to be a fundraiser—he had stressed that to the Masseys when he first took the job of master. A far different perspective would be expected of his successor. Patterson Hume was a mathematician and computer scientist with strong artistic and cultural leanings who had long been associated with the college. Davies’s polar opposite in many ways, Hume kept most college traditions intact while launching a successful campaign to help fund the library. He also made much-needed cuts to expenses. These moves should have been initiated years before, but had to wait until after Davies’s leisurely departure to be enacted.

While Hume did what he could to confront the college’s financial problems, he was not able to reverse their continuing deterioration. When in 1988 he handed the reins to his successor, noted W.B. Yeats scholar Ann Saddlemyer, money matters were still front and centre. In many ways Saddlemyer’s term was pivotal. Although the 25th anniversary of the college provided her with a pretext for another fundraising campaign, she found— as Hume had done—how difficult it was to reverse the negative financial tide that had set in. She had little choice but to look for added economies on top of those squeezed out by her predecessor.

The early 1990s represent the nadir in the college’s fortunes. An episode from this period perfectly captures the prevailing mood. It involves the outgoing college librarian Desmond Neill, a veteran from Oxford’s Bodleian Library who, during his decade and a half at Massey, had become a divisive figure. Although popular with some junior and senior fellows, he was seen by college officials as an abrasive time server. One day just months before his retirement, he confronted Saddlemyer while she was passing by his office. In a fit of pique Neill began hurling personal invectives at her. He assumed Saddlemyer would begin scrutinizing library operations the moment he was out the door, and his assumption proved to be correct. Within days of his departure a consultant was hired to start itemizing the library’s obvious state of disarray.

If nothing else, this episode proved Saddlemyer’s leadership qualities—in particular her willingness to face down some of the more problematic legacies of the college’s past. But her term was interrupted by her absence from the college between 1991 and 1992 so she could take her sabbatical. During that year the college’s acting master was political economist Stefan Dupré. The Dupré interregnum had one important benefit, for when Saddlemyer returned she was ready to tackle financial matters with an alacrity she had lacked during the prior phase of her mastership. But even so, each successive attempt to launch a new fundraising campaign seemed to backfire.

It was not until the spring of 1994 that the stars began to align. For all its storied reputation, the college by this time was in parlous financial straits. The main challenge was to find a suitable person to lead the fundraising efforts. Candidate after candidate turned down the poisoned chalice, until Saddlemyer finally hit on someone with the emotional mettle to take on the position and, what was more, give it his concerted attention in the succeeding months. This someone was journalist and writer John Fraser.

In Grant’s words, “Fraser had very little experience with fundraising (he had been national chair in 1988–9 of Memorial University’s annual campaign and had done ‘some fancy dance work to keep Saturday Night alive’), but he was willing and enthusiastic, and he had grown to love and believe in the college.” By the fall of 1994 he was providing the college corporation with an exceptionally favourable report. With three quarters of a million dollars already in hand, Fraser made a confident prediction that $2 million more would arrive by the time the campaign was formally launched. “Most important of all,” says Grant, “he had conceived of a way to bring the college a regular infusion of funds, one entirely in keeping with Massey’s role as a bridge between town and university—namely, the Quadrangle Society.” In introducing this avenue for outsiders to become part of the college, Fraser established an entity that remains an important part of Massey life today.

All this was a stunning accomplishment—one that made Saddlemyer’s last months as master far cheerier than they would otherwise have been, especially once Fraser had proven that he could back up his promises with results. It was no great surprise when he was made the college’s fourth master. In retrospect, he was an obvious fit—not least because of how his own career echoed that of Davies. Neither man was an academic, but both knew how to humanize scholarly pursuits in ways that could create a vital intellectual community. And Fraser—himself an avid monarchist—was every bit as ducal when it came to carrying out his ceremonial duties, although with a stronger note of self-irony than Davies had exhibited.

But there were numerous ways in which Fraser had his own unique style. Not only did he continue to raise funds to guarantee the college’s ongoing financial health, but he also kept tabs on every aspect of the college’s operations with a meticulousness absent in any of his predecessors. And while college traditions were largely maintained during the Fraser years, he introduced a range of more informal social occasions. Fraser also followed Saddlemyer’s lead in making sure that the college was progressive in its outward face. Saddlemyer had initiated an overtly political tone by co-sponsoring the Massey Lectures and establishing the Walter Gordon Forum on Public Policy. Fraser oversaw a continued expansion of such initiatives, although with a more explicit humanitarian bent.

By serendipitous coincidence, the college’s 50th anniversary occurred just months before Hugh Segal was selected as fifth master. This means Grant is able to end on the high note of Fraser’s imminent departure after a highly successful two-decade term. As she makes evident, her tale is really about four people—the tetrad of masters whose terms covered the college’s first 50 years. And this is as it should be, for to a degree virtually unimaginable in any other organizational context, these four had the power to shape the college as they wished. Detractors might call it a species of academic authoritarianism. Those more sympathetic are likely to evoke the Platonic ideal of a philosopher ruler.

A Meeting of Minds is about what happened when four intelligent, quick-witted individuals were thrown into a context that was unlike anything their educations had prepared them for. Each was willing to take on the mastership due to his or her belief in a set of principles that, in all substantial respects, can be traced back to Vincent Massey’s original vision for the college. Grant concludes by summing up this vision and the way these four worked to ensure its continuing vitality:

Robertson Davies, Patterson Hume, Ann Saddlemyer, and John Fraser all accepted the challenge of the mastership because they sensed that the college is something special and irreplaceable in the world of the university. It is one of the few places where all aspects of the university’s intellectual life are gathered under one roof, and where interdisciplinary discussions happen on a regular basis. It is exciting and adventurous, a demanding vessel to pilot.

Now, thanks to Grant’s impressive labours, their story has gained a fitting testament.