It was the midst of the Depression when 31-year-old George McCullagh merged The Globe with The Mail and Empire into the paper you’re reading now – though perhaps not in paper form. It was a remarkable feat for a high-school dropout from London, Ont., who spent years trudging the backroads of southwestern Ontario, selling Globe subscriptions to farmers.
McCullagh’s origin story, as told by Mark Bourrie in Big Men Fear Me: The Fast Life and Quick Death of Canada’s Most Powerful Media Mogul, reads like a mishmash of several famous fictional ones – Charles Foster Kane, Jay Gatsby, Daniel Plainview – spiked with a strong dose of revenge.
His was a brief, eventful life brimming with contradictions, not the least of which was the fact that, despite his professed contempt for democracy, McCullagh was at one point Canada’s presumptive next prime minster. Instead, McCullagh, who’d suffered from mental illness for decades, died at 47 in 1952, likely by suicide.
Bourrie spoke with The Globe and Mail about the book and the painstaking process of reconstructing McCullagh’s life.
How did you find your way to this figure who, as you say, became so obscure?
I really tripped over it. In 2004 I was working on my PhD thesis on censorship during the Second World War, so I had access to the the files of Directorate of Censorship, and his name kept coming up. There were memos about what he was doing and the trouble he was causing. I’m like, who is this guy? This became a hunt for this trove that I thought existed of his personal communications. Then I found out his daughter Ann was alive, so I called her up and she said, “my mom burned those papers.”
From there it became a real challenge.
Okay, so how does such a detailed biography arise from no material?
I tried to rebuild McCullagh’s papers by figuring out everybody he would have talked to whose papers were deposited in archives. So there’s correspondence from McCullagh in my book, but it’s from [Ontario premier] George Drew’s collection, or from [Ontario premier] Mitchell Hepburn’s. The book is this patchwork of tiny, tiny pieces.
So you essentially reconstruct this man, and learn what?
What I find intriguing is that he’s a super-high-functioning disabled man. We could say he’s a fascist because he wanted to put together his Leadership League, a populist movement that he tried to get off the ground just before the Second World War. But at the same time a certain kindness comes through. He was always paying for people’s surgeries and stuff like that. We’re entering this age where psychopaths and sociopaths have dominance in media, politics, academia, and McCullagh is an empath who has a lot of challenges, no education to speak of and he’s surviving and flourishing in ways that are sometimes endearing.
You say he was ‘deliberately erased from Canada’s history.’ How so?
Thousands of people turned out to his funeral when he died in ‘52. He was this really important man to Toronto, to the newspaper, to sports – he owned part of the Maple Leafs, part of the Argos. But because his death was a suicide, on paper he just didn’t exist anymore. And his wife really wanted him to be forgotten. That’s probably the saddest thing, because I think if he wanted anything it would have been to be remembered well.
He doesn’t seem to sympathize much with the working classes despite having emerged from their ranks, nor shared his Marxist union-agitator father’s views.
He was kind to working-class people, but he was no socialist. He didn’t believe in paying people a lot of money.
After his early 30s he’s in a position where no one’s going to challenge him face-to-face. There’s no real intellect involved with George McCullagh. It’s a mixture of schmoozing and leveraging.
This is a guy who’s going day to day around a lot of yes men – everybody telling him he’s going to be prime minister. So your head’s going to get pretty swollen. In 1947, when he buys the [Toronto] Telegram, he’s 42 years old, which to me is quite young, and he’s got racehorses, he’s got millions of dollars, he’s got adulation. He’s going to do what he wants, because who’s going say no?
As a young man he seems to be going on instinct and social intelligence. What do you think motivated him as he got older. Ideals? Power?
He seemed to revel in the fact that some people feared him. I think he liked power. I think that power protected him from what would happen to a normal bipolar guy who has millions of dollars and a newspaper and well-connected friends and a psychiatrist in New York City and a private plane. You can see how he builds his life around this sort of protection.
He conjures a lot of contemporary media and political figures. Who would you compare him to?
You could take a little bit of Conrad Black’s delusions of grandeur and love of newspapers and mix them with people who have the lifestyles of influencers on social media.
He’s a media star, but he’s too big to fit the media of today. He’s maybe somebody like [Elon] Musk, but not nearly as odd, in the sense that he’s got his fingers in so many pies. Musk doesn’t stay in his lane either. You’ve got $44-billion I guess you’re going to buy Twitter. That’s how these guys think, right? McCullagh’s got the looks and the money and the lifestyle … but he’s also stuck in this Canadian environment of, let’s not look too splashy.
He’s literally self-made – self-made, self-destructs and is it too frightening to be remembered by some people, when it comes down to it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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