I first met Peter C. Newman more than three decades ago when he invited me to lunch on board his wooden pilothouse schooner docked at Coal Harbour’s Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. I was surprised to receive the invitation but went along, not knowing what to expect.
Lunch was a jar of oysters of dodgy provenance with some rye bread, my first introduction to Peter’s complete indifference to food. He explained that he’d read my recent book on the 1988 federal election and had really liked it. I forgot to mention I’d never read any of his dozens of books, but I really liked him.
We were both bachelors at loose ends and we became fast friends. I spent much time in his apartment, finding a perch among the serried ranks of bookshelves, the stacked boxes of papers, the mementos and tchotchkes and clippings – quotations, news stories, photos, cartoons – tacked onto corkboards propped against every wall and surface. We talked for hours about the state of things, although we always came around to books and Peter’s Next Big Idea. Peter always had a Next Big Idea. I believe he would have deflated like a sad balloon without one.
From time to time, I’d be reminded that Peter was a powerful journalist and a national treasure. It was typically incidental. He would, for example, ask me to run some repairs on the boat for him because he had to be away for a chat with Brian Mulroney. During my time in Ottawa, we’d all heard rumours of the Peter C. Newman deal with Mulroney: their secret trysts and unholy secrets, all to be revealed only once the Boy from Baie Comeau had left office. But Peter could have been away visiting an aunt for all I cared; when he got back, I never asked, and he never told.
I was a columnist with The Globe and Mail at the time, while Peter was biding his time writing snoozers that sounded as exciting as Canadian Tire: The Power and the Glory. He was regathering strength after his three-volume beaver pelt opera about the Hudson’s Bay Company: Company of Adventurers, Caesars of the Wilderness, and Merchant Princes, which had sold big, and which people had told me were very good.
But he was restless to double the more than 1 million books he had already sold and one day announced his Next Big Idea – that Canada was undergoing a quiet but fundamental shift in its relationship to power. He asked me to help him with the resulting book, The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance. Although I never thought of it as work or of Peter as my boss, I remained as his editor – and by his own account, mentor – for the next decade. In return, he gave me more of the fruits of friendship than I ever could, or did, repay.
I had never been that interested in Peter C. Newman the author. I was enraptured by Peter Newman the man. We were friends. We went to the movies – naval epics preferred. We listened to jazz – Stan Kenton for him, chanteuses for me. We went motoring – I ran British classics while he had a side hustle reviewing luxury cars. Best of all were the times we shared on the sea. I happily played first mate while Peter found contentment on the bridge in his Greek fisherman’s cap and pipe, looking out on the horizon.
Our relationship changed with the tyranny of the page, but not our respect or affection. On first contact with his baroque stylings, I felt as the French General Bosquet did of the Charge of the Light Brigade, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre, c’est de la folie.” But it was his voice, not mine. So having at first resisted, I then permitted, surrendered to, and finally delighted in his way around a sentence.
I have cajoled, shaped, and rewritten a terabyte of words out of him, and I can say this about Peter C. Newman the wordsmith: He was a Gothic stonemason, a Parisian flaneur, and a Rimsky-Korsakov of the pen. Many wished to write like him, some tried, none could. In pursuit of effect, he was relentless as a hound on a tick. Rather than block a metaphor, he would baste it in a Scheherazade of purple sauce, turning it on a spit until it emerged, plump and dripping in word fat, to be enjoyed time and again.
Having coined a phrase he saw no point in using it only the once. “He was a self-made man, and worshipped his own creation,” he said, of just about everyone. Or “he was driven by desperation, and desperation makes for a lousy chauffeur.” It was kind of irresistible, and I hadn’t the heart to cut it.
As for his legendary footnotes – long-winded, non-linear bonbons left under the table for the reader – these were more than a desire to amplify, surprise, or amuse. He simply couldn’t leave anything behind. I soon learned these sidebars were the most fun of the chapter and had to resist reading them first.
In 1995, Peter announced his Next Big Idea, and her name was Alvy Bjorklund. Having spotted her dark Scandinavian beauty at a Maclean’s reception, he had chatted her up, and she was perfect – so perfect that if she didn’t marry him, he would die. What’s more, if she died first then he would have to die, too. A heroic sentiment but an unlikely outcome, as they were the same age difference as Bogart and Bacall.
Peter courted Alvy extravagantly, married her within months, and went on a Grand Tour before family life in Vancouver with her and her lovely daughters Dana and Brandi. A few years later, Peter moved to London so that Alvy could pursue her academic studies.
I was already living there, and he invited me to lunch at Pomegranates, a once legendary spot favoured by movie stars, royalty, and politicians pursuing illicit trysts.
There, Peter revealed the latest Big Idea – his autobiography. It was to be more than a retelling of twice-told tales. He wanted to tell the story behind the stories and reveal the man behind the myth.
In short, he wanted to answer, as he wrote in the preface to the resulting 733-page book, Here Be Dragons: “Why, Mr. Newman? Why all those big fat books, Mr. Newman? Why all the marriages? Why all that travel, all that ambition? Why bother pretending you’re just a regular guy?” These are also, nearly word for word, the questions I asked him over lunch, and a hundred times since.
It quickly became clear that the book he wanted could never be written by Peter C. Newman the invested persona. He needed to consult with the article within, Peter Newman without the C., who was much a stranger to him.
Peter’s well-rubbed stone of personal legend has him born to a prosperous family of non-observant Czech Jews who fled the Nazi Holocaust when he was 11. Strafed by the Luftwaffe on the beaches of Biarritz, they made their escape to Canada, where he attended Upper Canada College and rapidly climbed the journalism pile through hard work and raw intelligence to become the saviour of Maclean’s, a defender and definer of Canadian identity, and the first to breach the walls of the Canadian Establishment.
He was famously connected, a familiar and confidante to every Prime Minister since Louis St. Laurent (more than even the Queen), to Canada’s ruling dynasties, and to the emerging players of the New Order. Along the way he created a new form of literary journalism that revealed, rather than served, the interests of power.
It was a formidable act of self-invention played over a sweeping canvas of half a century, but it left out one essential: Peter.
For one thing, his family was “prosperous” only in the manner of the Earl of Grantham’s in Downton Abbey, and it lived according to the same Edwardian values. He was raised in Breclav, near the Austrian border. Breclav was a company town, and his father owned the company; Mr. Neumann was also a leading power broker and a close ally of Tomas Masaryk, the founding father of Czechoslovakia and its President.
Peter’s world vanished overnight with the signing of the Munich Pact of 1939, when France and England traded Czech Sudetenland to Hitler in exchange for the promise of “peace in our time.” Peter’s father grabbed what treasures they could carry and fled at once to Prague, where Peter witnessed its capitulation.
His grandparents stayed behind and were later consumed in the Holocaust, while Peter’s family made their way to Biarritz to board a freighter commandeered by the Czech Free Army for England.
Peter really was strafed by a Junkers Stuka dive bomber; he also witnessed ships in his Atlantic convoy sunk by German torpedoes. In the retelling, however, his viewpoint had become that of a passive observer, not that of a terrified child.
At one point, his father had entrusted him with a wallet of precious postage stamps representing half of his family’s remaining treasure; the other half was the jewels carried by his mother. Perhaps his father felt any German checkpoint would search the child last and, to be safe, he did not let Peter know their true worth.
In the event, Peter traded the stamps to a German boy in exchange for a much more exciting toy pistol. When his father learned of it, he said only, “I see,” and lapsed into a silence that lasted, well, forever. Peter felt that he had crushed his father’s spirit and believed that he was never forgiven – his greatest regret was the distance between him and the man he worshipped as a god.
His was a Dickensian tale of drama, reversal, injury, and redemption, but one Peter did not dwell upon. Like his wartime generation, he felt it was best to keep buggering on and that life didn’t bear too much thinking about. Yet an honest account of his life demanded it, and I believe it was Alvy who gave him the safety and the space to do so.
She was a clear-eyed plainswoman with no use for pretension in possession of a great deal of energy, intelligence, curiosity, and sense of fun. She also threw off warmth like a wood-burning stove and easily attracted people to her. All that she asked in return was to live with the genuine Peter and not his media invention.
“The distinction between the two Newmans is not whimsical in any way,” Elizabeth Renzetti wrote in a perceptive article for The Globe and Mail article following the 2004 publication of Dragons. “It is a preoccupation that fuelled the writing of the memoir, and the central question at the book’s heart.”
In her interview with him, Peter dismissed the Peter C. character as a charade of costumes, fisherman’s caps, and bon mots who merely “pretends that he’s real. Peter Newman is real. I only discovered him quite recently.” Some days, he added, “I’m still on that beach.”
In 2008, Peter returned to Canada with his wife, and I stayed in London with the woman who would become mine. But I kept an eye on him, from a distance, until Alvy got in touch to let me know it would soon be time. Farewell then, Peter, even as the country celebrates the life of your creation, Peter C.
Author Raymond Carver wrote, “for the world is the world, and it writes no histories that end in love.” He’s right, of course. All lives end at the same destination. But before then, some lives encounter the power of love and become at least authentic, if not redeemed. Peter C. Newman had been in thrall to power, but Peter Newman wrote in the epilogue to Dragons: “The only thing that power cannot control, which is why it is holy, is love.”