Robert Fulford's column about William Weintraub

(The National Post, October 2, 2001)

It was said that H.J. Larkin took pride in having served as the model for the terrifying editor in two famous novels written four decades ago about newspapers in Montreal -- The Luck of Ginger Coffey, by Brian Moore, and Why Rock the Boat?, by William Weintraub. Larkin's obituary in the Montreal Gazette in 1975 indicated that the pleasure he took from being enshrined in those books outweighed the discomfort of being depicted by the authors, his former employees at The Gazette, as the editorial equivalent of Hitler.

Larkin might be even happier to know that this season he is once again being slagged in print, now under his own name. He is the grimly pompous villain who fires the young narrator in the early pages of Weintraub's charming, evocative Getting Started: A Memoir of the 1950s (McClelland & Stewart).

Weintraub tells the intertwined stories of Moore, Mordecai Richler, Mavis Gallant and himself as they began their careers in Montreal and parts of Europe. From his own recollections and letters written by all four at the time, he has built a touching and engrossing group portrait.

There are flaws: I could have used an index, some footnotes, more about Mavis Gallant and fewer anecdotes about Weintraub's adventures as a freelance writer in Europe. But Getting Started nevertheless registers as a unique work of graceful, when-we-were-young literary history.

Moore comes through as an attractive Irish immigrant working all the angles, turning out magazine articles and paperback thrillers (seven in all) to float his career as a serious novelist. Like his creation Ginger Coffey, he started out as a proofreader. Unlike Ginger, he moved up to reporter. Sad, desperate Ginger represented the part of young Moore that could have become a self-loathing failure if things had worked out differently. He's the Moore that Brian dreaded becoming.

Weintraub remembers Moore as the best and fastest reporter at The Gazette; when he entered the office he seemed to begin typing even as he sat down at his desk and finished while others were still staring at blank pages in their typewriters. He also worked fast as an author. During four months in 1956, he had three books published in the U.S.: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and two of the thrillers he wrote under pen names -- Intent to Kill, by "Michael Bryan," and This Gun for Gloria, by "Bernard Mara."

Weintraub's comic novel, Why Rock the Boat?, was as striking as Ginger Coffey, but quite different. It satirized The Gazette as the kind of newspaper run by narrow-minded penny-pinchers like Larkin and staffed by tired old hacks or young opportunists. In Weintraub's account, it followed one unwritten rule: Reporters who gathered piquant or even just interesting facts omitted them from their stories and saved them for private conversation; anything stimulating might bother advertisers. Satire describing such a specific world usually dies young, but Why Rock the Boat? reads well today. Seldom, before or since, has boredom been made so funny.

Getting Started contains perfect glimpses of 1950s Montreal, from corruption in the nightclubs to weird religiosity among bureaucrats. When Moore's son was born, Weintraub went with him to register the birth at city hall. On a clerk's desk lay two ledgers, marked "Catholics" and "Protestants."

"Which one?" the clerk asked.

"Neither," said Moore.

"Jewish?" said the clerk.

"No," said Moore, "I have no religion." The clerk frowned, disappeared into a back room and returned blowing the dust off a thin ledger marked "Pagans."

After his first success, Moore was asked by the widow of Sir James Dunn, the head of Algoma Steel, to write her husband's official biography. The offer was $30,000 -- about $200,000 in today's money. Moore resisted temptation, explaining he could not bear spending two years as Lady Dunn's lapdog while "writing a shameful eulogy of one of the Greatest Bastards this country has ever produced."

His letters sometimes revealed opinions he muffled in public. When Orville Prescott raved about Judith Hearne in The New York Times, Moore wrote to Weintraub: "There must be something really wrong with my book if that crap artist likes it."

Getting Started relates many triumphs, from Gallant's first acceptances at The New Yorker to Weintraub's flourishing career at the National Film Board. But these lives could also be miserable. The first marriages of both Richler and Weintraub collapsed (Moore's also dissolved, but in the 1960s, outside this book's jurisdiction). Weintraub sometimes suffered from severe depression, which responded to neither electroshock therapy nor four-times-a-week psychoanalysis. Eventually he hit upon a miraculous cure: "It finally occurred to me ... to stop drinking and avoid starting the day with a black, throbbing hangover." In those days, the newspaper business floated on a sea of alcohol; this produced many funny letters about drinking bouts, and many casualties.

In those years, Richler signed himself Mordy, or Mort. Writing from exotic addresses like Tourrette-sur-loup or Haut-de-Cagnes, he typed his letters entirely in lower case, as if they were poems by e.e. cummings compressed into paragraphs. In 1952 he wrote from Paris: "a guy named dave is gunning for me in montparnasse. whenever he is drunk (which is always) he takes to waving around a .45 and asking for this sonofabitch richler. he swears that he'll get me. i laid his woman, or something." In 1953, as Weintraub was pleased to note, Mort discovered the shift key on his typewriter.

Richler had grubbed through most of the 1950s, with many letters to Weintraub asking for loans. Then he wrote, for £500 and no credit, the final script of a celebrated film, Room at the Top. After it opened in 1958, London movie people somehow knew Richler deserved most of the credit. Soon he was in demand as a script doctor, at £1,500 an operation. For the first time, he became almost prosperous. In 1959 he wrote to Weintraub, "If things break as well as they indicate, next year I will give a grant to the Canada Council." Somehow I don't think he did that, but he may have been the only writer to whom such a notion ever occurred.

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