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Charlotte Gray (MICHELLE VALBERG)
Charlotte Gray (MICHELLE VALBERG)

Inside the Charles Taylor Prize shortlist: Read an excerpt from Charlotte Gray’s The Massey Murder Add to ...

This week, the RBC Charles Taylor Prize will be awarded to one Canadian non-fiction book from the past year. We spoke to the nominated authors about their craft and the process of writing their shortlisted book. Here, an excerpt from Charlotte Gray’s The Massey Murder.

Charles Albert Massey’s funeral took place three days after he had been shot.

THE 2014 CHARLES TAYLOR PRIZE

Mount Pleasant was the final resting place for haute Toronto. And none of its memorials was more lavish than the massive Massey mausoleum, designed by architect Edward Lennox, who had also designed City Hall. The monument, a shrine to Massey muscle, was a solid lump of rusticated masonry encrusted with every excrescence imaginable – steps, windows, gables, pillars and a turret. It was topped by a life-size statue of a hefty woman standing on a small Greek temple, gazing westward and radiating a forbidding power.

A couple of reporters watched the hearse and black-clad mourners drive to the cemetery. The reporter from the Star noted respectfully that, “Many beautiful floral tributes testified to the popularity and esteem in which the late Mr. Massey was held by a host of friends and acquaintances.” The paper noted that Frederick Massey, a distant cousin, was the only pall-bearer related to the dead man. Bert’s 27-year-old first cousin, Vincent Massey, then a member of the University of Toronto’s history department, attended the service but darted out early because he had more pressing priorities. He had already been obliged to miss a lecture on musketry at the university. That evening, former U.S. President William Taft was scheduled to speak at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall and the ambitious Vincent had wangled for himself the honour of being an usher.

The funeral cortege drove slowly up Yonge Street into Mount Pleasant Cemetery. However, then it skirted the mighty Massey mausoleum and headed towards a snow-covered, treeless southern corner of the cemetery. The procession finally stopped in an area of modest memorials and unmarked graves close to the cemetery wall. The undertakers swiftly lowered Bert’s coffin into a hole in the ground: equally swiftly, the handful of mourners dispersed. There would be no grave-marker for half a century.

The physical distance between Hart Massey’s mausoleum and Bert Massey’s grave reflected a bigger gulf – the distance between a hard-nosed entrepreneur and his less-favoured descendants.

Of all the industrialists who helped lay the foundations for the Dominion’s wealth, Bert Massey’s grandfather was the best known inside and outside Canada. By the time Hart Almerrin Massey died in 1896, the Massey name was stamped on Toronto’s largest factory, on millions of pieces of agricultural machinery, and on buildings dotted around Toronto. Hart Massey had built an insignificant colonial village smithy into the mightiest manufactory of its kind in the British Empire. When 18-year-old Carrie Davies killed her employer, Hart Massey’s fame and philanthropy guaranteed that his grandson’s untimely death would become a sensational news story.

But Hart Massey was also a stern moralist and strict disciplinarian – the kind of rigid, self-righteous Methodist who insisted that Toronto should remain a repressed, closed-on-Sunday, God-fearing and fun-shunning city. It was the influence of prominent citizens like Hart Massey that prompted a British visitor to the city to comment that, “Sunday is as melancholy and suicidal a sort of day as Puritan principles can make it.” Alongside the fulsome eulogies to an outstanding businessman was a layer of hostile comments. “His was not the impulsive charity that springs from an exuberant disposition,” read the obituary in the Toronto Evening Star. “He gave because he thought it was his duty, not because he loved much.” The man who could be a devoted husband and father could also be a tyrant, as his grandson, Charles Albert Massey, knew firsthand.

Bert was sixteen years old when his grandfather died, aged seventy-three, and he had clear memories of the tall, gaunt frock-coated figure with the white beard, gimlet eyes and forbidding demeanour of an Old Testament prophet. For the first few years of his life, Bert and his four siblings had been the darlings of their grandparents’ eyes. Abruptly, when Bert was about ten, Hart had pushed them all to the margins of the Massey empire and disinherited them.

The public knew nothing about the nasty family politics behind closed Massey doors. Masseys were Masseys – rich, powerful people who lived like kings. Bert Massey’s home, 169 Walmer Road, might be modest compared to such baronial piles as Hart Massey’s Euclid Hall, but it was still a comfortable detached house with room for servants and a carriage house in the backyard. And Bert Massey appeared to symbolize the thoughtless presumption of a playboy. He wore a diamond stickpin and sold Studebaker cars to wealthy Torontonians. As a married man with a young son, it was perhaps no surprise that he had not rushed to join the armed forces. Nonetheless, plenty of other 34-year-old family men had already volunteered to fight for king and country in the war that was raging in Europe.

Newspaper reporters latched on to the name Massey, unaware that the dead man belonged to a spurned branch of the family with no access to Massey millions. In 1952, the critic B.K. Sandwell made the same blithe assumption when Bert’s cousin Vincent Massey, a fourth-generation Massey to achieve eminence, was appointed Canada’s first Canadian-born Governor-General. Sandwell made the famous quip:

“Let the Old World, where rank’s yet vital,

Part those who have and have not title.

Toronto has no social classes –

Only the Masseys and the masses.”

But it had never been quite as simple as that. The Massey name was an ambiguous inheritance.

Excerpted from The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country. Copyright © 2013 Charlotte Gray. Published by HarperCollins Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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