In 1985, McClelland & Stewart, publisher of many of Canada's most illustrious and popular writers, was teetering on financial collapse. Then Avie Bennett, like one of those folkloric "Broadway angels" who step in to resuscitate a cash-starved musical, bought the company and kept the house lights burning brightly at M&S for the next 15 years. In 2000, he donated 75 per cent of his shares in M&S to the University of Toronto with Random House acquiring the remaining 25 per cent, marking the end of a curious interval in publishing history in which a highly successful real estate developer proved he could navigate, with verve and panache, the often closed and hermetic world of Canadian letters.
Avie Bennett was not only a boon to Canadian literature; he was a long-time supporter of the National Ballet of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, as well as a committed citizen deeply engaged in education and public policy. Over his long career, he served as chancellor of York University, chair of the Historica Foundation of Canada, president of International Readings at Harbourfront, honorary chair of the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of Ontario and co-chair of the Canadian Democracy and Corporate Accountability Commission that issued a stinging report urging greater social responsibility on the part of corporations. In recognition of his public service and unstinting philanthropy, Avie Bennett was awarded a Companion of the Order of Canada, an Order of Ontario, three honorary degrees and many other distinctions.
Sometimes, however, honours obscure the individuals they decorate, reducing them to a type, cookie-cutter "distinguished Canadians." There is no denying that Avie was a truly distinguished Canadian, but he was also a quirky, larger-than-life character, a grand original with a razor-sharp mind, a savage wit and an irresistible sense of fun.
I first met him when I became part of an author exodus that saw writers such as Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell, Mavis Gallant and Jack Hodgins depart storm-tossed Macmillan of Canada for the more serene shores of M&S. My introduction to Avie was a cursory one as far as I can recall, no more than a handshake and a perfunctory how-do-you-do. It was only when David Staines was appointed editor of the New Canadian Library and he invited Munro, Bill New and me to serve on the advisory board of the NCL that I came to appreciate first-hand Avie's remarkable character, to witness his fierce sense of honour, to relish his nimble intelligence, his passion for the literature and history of this country, his delight in mischief-making and his blunt, oh-so-blunt way of taking on the world.
What I liked best about Avie was that he was a bit of a charming rascal. He loved the fact that, as chancellor of York University, he kept Mordecai Richler surreptitiously supplied with Scotch onstage while Richler awaited an honorary degree in a lengthy convocation ceremony that slowly and inexorably trudged ever onward. But Avie was equally amused when I made a short speech at a dinner held in his honour at York University and referred to him as the Iron Chancellor, adding that in my experience he was a man who hid an iron fist in a glove of steel, my small revenge for his habit of jumping on me with the wry observation, "and you call yourself a writer," whenever he detected me making an ungrammatical slip of the tongue.
There were times when Avie and I bumped heads – sometimes that's what writers and publishers do – but I never doubted that he was a man of the utmost integrity, someone whose word was his bond. Avie Bennett had no time for unethical people, frequently saying he couldn't do business with anyone he wouldn't invite home to dinner, a rather stringent standard of commercial conduct in today's business climate. His honesty and fair dealing earned him the respect of his writers and often their friendship. When Avie left M&S, I made a point of keeping in touch with him. Feeling somewhat guilty for having eaten so many dinners at his expense, I invited him to lunch. His response was, "Great. It's been some time since I dined beneath the Golden Arches."
Yet Avie's flinty manner shielded a tender heart. When my wife, Margaret, was dying and I was struggling to look after her at home, Avie frequently called me, lending calm and practical counsel. Sensing my increasing desperation as things grew more and more dire, he made an astounding proposal. He told me he would happily pay for Margaret's stay in a private care home. This was an offer I could not accept, but it is one that speaks eloquently of Avie Bennett's great compassion and generosity. For me, of all the things about this unforgettable man this remains the most unforgettable. Avie Bennett was much more than a publishing icon and distinguished Canadian; he was a mensch.
Guy Vanderhaeghe is a three-time winner of the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction and an Officer of the Order of Canada.