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book review
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Dr. H.A. Bruce, Lord Tweedsmuir and the Globe and Mail publisher George McCullagh meet in the front lobby of the original office.The Globe and Mail

  • Title: Big Men Fear Me
  • Author: Mark Bourrie
  • Genre: History
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
  • Pages: 320

Mark Bourrie has written a simply splendid book about George McCullagh, founding owner of The Globe and Mail, who dominated the worlds of politics and journalism in Ontario during the 1930s and 40s, but who has virtually been lost to memory. The editor and essayist Robert Fulford once said that a biography of McCullagh was “one of the great unwritten books in Canadian history.” With Big Men Fear Me, Bourrie answers that call.

George McCullagh, born in 1905, was a poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks in London, Ont. He hustled his way into the newsroom at The Globe, founded by George Brown in 1844 and owned in the 1920s by William Gladstone Jaffray.

Jaffray resented the headstrong young reporter and fired him for smoking on the job. As he walked out the door, McCullagh vowed that the next time he entered the newsroom he would own it. Seven years later, at the age of 31, he did.

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McCullagh made his money in the teeth of the Great Depression, investing shrewdly in mining stocks. He earned the admiration of William Wright, who had discovered some of the deepest veins of gold in Northern Ontario, making him one of the richest men in the country. The eccentric prospector adopted McCullagh as a protégé and surrogate son. In 1936, McCullagh used Wright’s money as well as his own to acquire both The Globe and The Mail and Empire.

Under the ownership of the prudish Jaffray family, The Globe had been losing readers and money as it continued to champion the lost cause of Prohibition while refusing advertising for everything from sanitary napkins to horseracing. The Mail and Empire had more readers and money.

But it was The Globe that dominated the merger that created The Globe and Mail. McCullagh chose the name, Bourrie says, because it matched his initials.

Young, vigorous, charismatic – Pierre Berton, then a young feature writer at Maclean’s, described him as “tall and handsome, in a raw-boned, blue-eyed sort of way” – McCullagh dominated the social and political world of Ontario in the latter years of the Depression and during the Second World War. He staffed The Globe and Mail with some of the best journalists in the country, paid them what they deserved, sent them where they needed to go and backed whatever they wrote. Most of the paper’s reporters and editors were devoted to him.

He owned Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn so completely that the newspaper proprietor handled the politician’s personal finances. This led to a dark moment: the 1937 strike involving General Motors in Oshawa, Ont., and the United Auto Workers, perhaps the most bitter labour dispute between workers and a single employer in the country’s history.

McCullagh and The Globe backed the Hepburn government’s efforts to break the strike, which included hiring university students as goons to prowl the streets of Oshawa looking for skulls to crack. Hepburn’s Hussars, they were called, and Sons of Mitches, though in the end there was little or no violence. But despite the best efforts of Hepburn and McCullagh, the workers prevailed. Big Labour had come to Ontario.

McCullagh was so upset with the result that he delivered a series of radio broadcasts advocating for what he called a Leadership League, which would place efficient administration above partisanship, and for the abolition of provincial governments. Bourrie, like critics of the time, believes McCullagh was flirting with fascism. More likely he was just naïve. In any event, the league came to nothing.

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George McCullagh presses a button to start press on the first run in the new Globe and Mail building.The Globe and Mail

By now, McCullagh had tired of Hepburn’s drinking and womanizing, and transferred his newspaper’s loyalties to the up-and-coming Conservative leader, George Drew. McCullagh and Drew became part of a clique that included newsman John Bassett and Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King feared them, though he always managed to get the better of them.

Bourrie handles with great empathy the complex issue of McCullagh’s mental health. He suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, and in down periods, which steadily become longer and more pronounced as the years went by, would flee to Manhattan. There, a prominent psychiatrist subjected him to electro-shock therapy.

Mood swings might have had something to do with McCullagh’s decision to purchase the Toronto Telegram, a conservative evening paper, as part of his effort to crush the liberal Toronto Daily Star. The ensuing newspaper war was glorious at best and vicious at worst, but McCullagh didn’t live to see much of it. He was found dead in his swimming pool on August 5, 1952. Although the coroner listed heart failure as the cause of death, many believe he died by suicide. He was 47.

Bourrie’s book positively sings in some places, especially in the chapters leading up to and including the Second World War. McCullagh and his arch-enemy, (Holy) Joe Atkinson, owner of the Star, were larger-than-life characters, and the author treats them as such. The book is thoroughly researched and the prose is clean and engaging.

There are niggly errors here and there. Bourrie has Lester Pearson working at Canada’s High Commission in London in 1949; he was foreign minister by then. And occasionally the author indulges in shots that really are a bit cheap. He should not have described today’s London, Ont., as “comfortable and conservative, preppy, bland and smug.” There is so much more to the city than that.

But his description of McCullough as a teenager trudging along the back concession roads of southwestern Ontario, trying to sell Globe subscriptions to skeptical farmers, captures time and place beautifully. There is little to criticize and much to love about this book.

McCullagh deserves to be known, alongside George Brown, as the co-founder of The Globe and Mail. On his watch, the paper championed the rights of the individual and a free press in the face of overreaching government and the deep Protestant prejudice of the day. He made The Globe the dominant voice in English Canadian journalism. Bourrie’s biography does him full justice.

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