Robert Fulford's column about George McCullagh

(Globe and Mail, April 15, 1998)

His life was a Horatio Alger success story that turned into a Scott Fitzgerald tragedy. George McCullagh, founder of The Globe and Mail, was Canada's Jay Gatsby--and some people feared he might also turn out to be our Mussolini. In 1952, in the middle of a fabulously successful career, he was suddenly dead, a suicide at 47.

I thought of him last week when the phrase "press baron" was used on television. McCullagh was the classic press-baron type: tough, brilliant, arrogant, and self-created. What brought him to mind was the news that Conrad Black plans to create a new national newspaper. The last time anyone did something that ambitious was 1936, when McCullagh, 31 years old, bought the Toronto Globe and combined it with The Mail and Empire to create The Globe and Mail.

McCullagh made his newspaper passionately Liberal, then passionately Tory. In the 1930s, he supported the Liberal premier of Ontario, Mitchell Hepburn, and in the 1940s he backed the Conservative premier, George Drew. In 1939 he briefly claimed to be above politics and gave a series of radio talks urging an all-party National Government that would apply sound business principles in Ottawa. Those talks inspired the Leadership League, which was neither party nor lobby but instead a call for national self-improvement, earnest but pompous. The tone was curiously old-fashioned: in one broadcast, McCullagh urged mothers to "get our children back to the reading of such simple and dream-building literature as Horatio Alger." He roused some interest (every word he said appeared in the Globe), but the Leadership League soon collapsed, and so did he, from what was called "complete mental and nervous exhaustion."

Was that an episode of clinical depression? Certainly he suffered from depression, and people wondered whether it was because he had rushed at life with such abandon. He was a little like Boy Staunton in Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. A carpenter's son in London, Ont., he left high school after six months and sold Toronto Globe subscriptions. He did so well that the Globe moved him to Toronto. There he transferred to the editorial staff and learned about money as a business reporter.

At 23 he left for a job in a brokerage house. He didn't go in anger, but the legend says he told the editor, "The next time I come in, I'll be buying this paper out from under you." He went to Bay Street at the worst moment in history, 1929, but he was well placed for the Ontario gold boom of 1933. He formed an alliance with William H. Wright, whose gold discoveries had made him one of the richest Canadians. Wright's money bought the newspapers and paid for the William H. Wright building, the new Globe headquarters. On the top floor McCullagh installed a squash court and a marble bathroom with gold-leaf ceiling. (I considered the squash court only an outlandish rumour, till one night around 1950, when another Globe reporter borrowed a caretaker's key and took several of us upstairs to see it. We batted a ball around for a while, then fell silent and left, appropriately awed.)

In 1938, the Saturday Evening Post, the biggest American magazine, ran a piece, "Canada's Wonder Boy," that said many Canadians believed McCullagh "can be prime minister of Canada at will." John Saywell, in his 1991 Hepburn biography, Just Call Me Mitch, notes that McCullagh was never content with wealth and luxury: "George McCullagh wanted power." Prime Minister Mackenzie King saw him as a menace. In 1936 he told McCullagh he was glad the new Globe was in Liberal hands, but he told his diary something different: "I fear it may become in time a big-interest, Fascist organ..."

Later, others imagined McCullagh saw himself as Canada's supreme leader, but his opinions weren't particularly unusual. He was pro-British, he was against high taxes, and he had great affection for mine owners. He opposed communists and American unions, which he considered roughly identical.

He thought his abilities even greater than they were. In 1941, when Britain and the Empire were facing Hitler alone, McCullagh told an editorial meeting at the Globe that if he could talk to President Roosevelt for half an hour, he could get the Americans into the war. "Yes," said one of his writers, Judith Robinson, "but on which side?" Shortly after, she was out of work.

In 1948 McCullagh bought the Toronto Telegram and turned it into a dynamic, attractive paper. He owned part of the Maple Leafs hockey club and he continued racing his horses. He lived with his wife and three children on a 100-acre estate north of Toronto. In all obvious ways he was a success, but he was often absent and the Globe staff began to hear he wasn't well.

When he killed himself the paper called it a heart attack. The truth didn't appear in print until 1990, when Richard J. Doyle, the editor from 1964 to 1985, mentioned it in his book, Hurly-Burly: A Time at the Globe.

The epilogue was the strangest part. Canadians have such a dim sense of history that even dazzling figures like McCullagh quickly disappear. He was seldom mentioned again. Today his biography remains one of the great unwritten books in Canadian history.

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