It happened all at once although it was a long time coming. Minutes after Bronwyn Drainie, who edits this grace note of the Canadian literary scene, asked me to review the new biography of Peter Gzowski, I read in The Globe and Mail that Ezra Levant had just been signed to a multi-volume contract with McClelland and Stewart. There could not have been a harsher or more symbolic transformational coincidence.
My memory of Peter Gzowski remains so evocative and so poignant that while reading R.B. Fleming’s magnificent Peter Gzowski: A Biography I realized it is not just the story of a life but the saga of a generation. The arrival into the literary mainstream of Ezra the Levant and his Precambrian rants marked the demise of that generation and the expiration of the compassionate peaceable kingdom that gave us shelter. Ideologically we were unabashed nationalists, convinced that Canada ought to evolve along our own lines, instead of imported neo-con lines.
Now, my Canada has been overtaken by Whigs and Tories with their self-serving agendas. While this invaluable is welcome, it already reads more like nostalgia than history. The binding factor between us and so many other cultural activists of that period had been a slavish respect for Peter Gzowski, the CBC radio interviewer who became not only our Boswell, but also our conscience, in the sense that if and when we did something worthwhile—for the country, not for ourselves—explaining it to Peter’s audience gave our crusades legitimacy and us the mojo to keep going. Peter was the town crier who maintained our public voice. He set our agendas.
During its run in various guises between 1971 and 1997, Gzowski’s radio program hosted 27,000 interviews on everything from the history of the Robertson screwdriver to the musings of the most incisive political panel ever to bless our airwaves. Every Tuesday morning the Tory sage Dalton Camp, the Liberals’ iconoclast Eric Kierans and Socialist sparkplug Stephen Lewis would sound off on what was bugging the country. Their debates were so compelling that I recall people arriving at my parking garage and sitting in their cars until 9:25, when the weekly exchanges ended.
Gzowski on air was self-deprecating, bumbling and often surprisingly deferential as an interviewer, but if you listened to him long enough or knew him personally, you realized that his mannerisms were tactical, and that he knew exactly what he wanted his subjects to say so that they would keep revealing their characters. In this first major biography, Gzowski emerges as a troubled spirit who smoked himself to death, lacked the bodacious self-confidence of those who make their mark on the live end of a microphone and, despite the lively relationship with his children, was the guilty party in a disintegrating marriage long past its due date. “For most of his anxious, restless life Gzowski lived inside his imagination,” notes author Rae Fleming, a rural historian from Argyle, Ontario, whose honesty and empathy make it appear he was invented for this assignment. “Right up to his death, his enthusiasm and curiosity were intact, as if the child in him had never completely grown up.”
Gzowski’s radio personality was perfect for his time. When he died in January 2002, we felt that we were losing not so much an old friend as a member of the family. “On air, Peter was open and welcoming; in private he was carefully guarded,” his biographer reports. “Although he made it his life’s work to reveal the inner workings of the Canadian political system, he thought it an act of treason if a friend even hinted at his ruthlessly competitive nature … On air, Peter was usually the paragon of fairness, yet in private he wasn’t above cheating at golf and swearing at an opponent.”
Fleming, whose prose occasionally descends to police blotter banality, was the right choice for this assignment. Its tone is neither worshipping nor condemning. But he brings his protagonist alive, no holds barred. If there is a weakness, it is Fleming’s determination to be a completist to the point of boredom. “Gazoo” (as some of us called him) held a regular literacy benefit at his Lake Simcoe cottage, and the author gives us the full menu and guest list. Every time.
Gzowski’s first real jobs were at The Moose Jaw Times-Herald and later The Chatham Daily News, dreary outposts of the Thomson newspaper chain where you could not claim a new pencil unless you turned in the used-up stub of your old one. But he caught the attention of Ralph Allen, Maclean’s greatest editor, who offered him the job of running a new wraparound late-form section of the magazine printed on yellow paper, which reduced the lead time for breaking stories. I followed him in that slot and we were the first to correctly predict the date and location of Expo ’67 and the fact that Canada would celebrate its centennial by hoisting a new, distinctive flag. It was a heady time at the magazine, with the editorial guidance of Allen and managing editor Pierre Berton breach-birthing a generation of superb writers, including my late ex-wife, Christina.
Gzowski led the pack. When he was transferred to Montreal, he made his journalistic reputation by being the first English-language reporter to appreciate the emotional motivations of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and to write a major English-language profile of Pierre Trudeau, then a university law professor.
His subsequent blood feud with Maclean’s administrators ultimately left him unemployed until he latched on to CBC radio, where he made history. It was he, along with Barbara Frum, the first of the outstanding female hosts of As It Happens, who prompted my published comment that all of us who cared about the future of the country lamented the drop in quality of CBC’s television offerings, but that blood would run in the streets if the CBC’s radio network ever lost its clout and vibrancy. It did, and nothing happened. The senseless firing of Barbara Budd is typical of the network’s free fall.
The value of this book is the portrait it paints of its protagonist away from his microphone. Gzowski emerges as not nearly as likeable as he wanted us to believe, but the revelations of his dark side serve mainly to make him more human. He was officially married only once, to the former Jeanette Lissaman from Brandon, Manitoba, although he had a long partnership with Gillian Howard. But Fleming’s epilogue makes news on the personal front. On the night of Ralph Allen’s 1960 retirement party at Toronto’s Lord Simcoe Hotel, Peter conceived a love child with Cathy Perkins, a Star Weekly researcher, who gave birth to their child (a boy she called Rob) in England and later returned to work at Canadian Homes. Gzowski paid her a measly $30 a month in child support. Her job meant they worked in the same building and, if the elevator was empty, she and Peter would hold hands until they reached the ground floor. They did meet for drinks occasionally and “made love without planning it.”
Cathy now lives in retirement on Wolfe Island, and but for Fleming’s inquisitive spirit, she would have carried her story to the grave. Almost a decade after Gzowski’s death she told Fleming, “I could have loved Peter happily, as long as I never was in a position where I had to trust him.”
A fitting epitaph perhaps, but Peter Gzowski remains the totem for a vanishing generation of Canadians who believe that their country is possessed by the mandate of heaven.
Peter C. Newman wrote many books, including Mavericks: Canadian Rebels, Renegades and Anti-Heroes and Heroes: Canadian Champions, Dark Horses and Icons.