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Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail (Anthony jenkins)
Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail (Anthony jenkins)

Margaret Wente

Pierre Trudeau and his (many) women Add to ...

I met Pierre Trudeau only once. It was at a banquet in Toronto. He was well into his 70s and rather shrunken, but he hadn't lost any of his charm. "Ah, Ms. Wente," he said with exaggerated appreciation as he kissed my hand. It was all I could do to keep from asking for his room number.

A lot of women did. Women loved Mr. Trudeau and he loved them back. He was far more comfortable with them than men, especially if they were young, gorgeous, lively, artistic, left-wing and a bit flaky. I wasn't any of those things. But, hey, a girl can dream.

John English's terrific new biography of the former prime minister, Just Watch Me , is about as complete an account of Mr. Trudeau's love life as we are likely to get. Alas, certain women spoke to him only off the record. And I still couldn't figure out whether he really slept with Barbra Streisand.

"Did he really sleep with Barbra Streisand?" I asked Mr. English.

"The evidence is overwhelming that he did," he said.

They also, I learned, shared a passion for art deco.

Other women were more than happy to blab. They include Liona Boyd (the blond-bombshell classical guitarist), Margot Kidder (Superman's girlfriend), Gale Zoë Garnett (who wrote We'll Sing in the Sunshine ) and Kim Cattrall ( Sex and the City ).

He often invited two girlfriends to the same event. Allan Gotlieb, his ambassador to Washington, complained about one dinner he hosted for Mr. Trudeau because he had three girlfriends there. At 24 Sussex, he carried on downstairs even though Margaret (from whom he was officially separated) was still in residence upstairs.

Mr. Trudeau's attentiveness to women was central to his charm. He listened to them. He was funny and playful, and great with his kids.

He also projected the sense of a vulnerable little boy "who lives trapped under layers of defences," according to Ms. Kidder. We're suckers for that.

"He was so incredibly sexy," said Ms. Cattrall, who ought to know. "He was very soft-spoken, incredibly smart, sensitive."

He did yoga and meditation. He was also a control freak. He made all his women swear to total discretion, even as he flaunted his love life in public.

One night, after Ms. Boyd had performed at a reception at Rideau Hall, his then-separated wife, Margaret, remarked, "So you had a mistress play."

"Not one, but two," he shot back.

Once, Margaret came across a pile of photographs of women in his desk drawer. Ms. Streisand's picture was on top. "Are you rating us?" she asked. "Maybe," he said.

Personally, if I were Margaret, I would have cold-cocked the guy. As a husband, Pierre was critical, emotionally withholding and deeply old-fashioned. "Reason before passion" was his motto, but obviously he forgot it when he married her. They were doomed to make each other miserable. After they split up, he insisted on custody of the children and cut her off with scarcely a dime. He even gave her a black eye or two. (Eventually they came to an amicable joint-custody arrangement and learned to get along quite well.)

When Mr. Trudeau came to power in 1968, he was almost 50. But to his hordes of groupies, he embodied the spirit of the age - youthful, irreverent, adventurous and unstuffed. He was the first (and maybe last) PM who looked good in blue jeans. He was fortunate to conduct his love life in an era when the private lives of politicians were (by mutual consent) more off limits to the media than they are now. His affairs - to say nothing of Margaret's shiners - would draw a lot more scrutiny today.

There was only one woman Mr. Trudeau failed to charm: Margaret Thatcher. She loathed him, especially when he launched his personal peace initiative under the influence of Ms. Kidder. By then, it was the early eighties and a vast number of Canadians, including me, had grown to loathe him, too.

But then one night he kissed me on the hand, and all was forgiven.

 

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