Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Volunteer Willis-O’Connor hailed as ‘a wonderful storyteller’

Jackie Willis-O’Connor receives her Wireless Sparks badge from her father, First World War flying ace Billy Bishop.

Famous family shadows loomed large over the life of Jackie Willis-O'Connor. Her father, Billy Bishop, was a legendary First World War flying ace and Air Marshal of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Her great-grandfather was department store magnate Timothy Eaton.

Carving her own identity wasn't easy, particularly after she was denied the opportunity to attend university on a math scholarship. In the Eaton purview, women belonged to the realms of marriage and motherhood, society balls and volunteering. It was a world Ms. Willis-O'Connor successfully inhabited until her death on June 24 at 87.

Her daughter, Catherine Murphy, said her mother was a creative individual who drew, painted murals and played piano. She was the life of the party and a woman who knew the meaning of joie de vivre. Under different circumstances she might have created a name for herself. Her brother, Arthur, wrote a number of books about military history and flew hundreds of missions as a Spitfire pilot during the Second World War. Yet, according to his daughter Diana Bishop, both her father and aunt were destined to remain largely supporting players in their illustrious families.

Story continues below advertisement

William Avery (Billy) Bishop married the regal, somewhat formidable Margaret Eaton on Oct. 17, 1917, at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto. It was an extravagant, high-society occasion. Guests and friends remarked that Mr. Bishop had "done well" for himself. Not only had he married into money, he had now added the Eaton pedigree to his own considerable cachet.

Their children were born in London, England, Arthur in 1923 and Margaret Marise (Jackie) in 1926. They were raised amid a life of privilege with nannies, ponies and Dior clothing. Their mother's social connections were powerful: the children's godparents were Princess Marie Louise, cousin of Queen Mary, and Prince Arthur, son of Queen Victoria. Mr. Bishop was squired around England in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Mr. Bishop lost a great deal of money. He decided to move his family back to Canada, shuttling them between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Mr. Bishop adored his children but, much in demand as a public speaker and on the boards of many corporations, he was frequently absent.

Margaret Marise, tired of having her second name mispronounced as Morris, announced at summer camp that she would thereafter be known as Jackie. She was extremely intelligent, bright enough to win a scholarship in mathematics to Queen's University. But her mother wouldn't hear of her accepting it.

"She said, 'No, no, no! This is not for you. This is for other people in society,' " Ms. Murphy said of her grandmother, who had been educated at home with tutors.

Jackie acquiesced to her mother's decision not to go to university but, on her 18th birthday, promptly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, a move that infuriated her mother so much that she sent her away to her grandmother's home in Toronto for the weekend.

Because of her connection to Mr. Bishop, Jackie was considered too vulnerable to be sent overseas. She studied Morse code at Radio College in Montreal and subsequently trained pilots. She is shown in a newspaper photograph receiving a Wireless Sparks badge from her famous father.

Story continues below advertisement

Like her father, on whom she doted, Jackie believed in getting on with things. She also shared his mischievous sense of fun. Mr. Bishop once threw a dinner party in which servants entered backward and served dessert first. Jackie brought the same spirit to her own relationships. Described by her family as "one hot number," she once sent a telegram to her boyfriend Hippo saying, "Drop the blonde. I'm coming in at 6:00." He did as she requested.

Having been raised with servants, she didn't know how to boil an egg when she married Hugh Raymond (Hippo) Willis-O'Connor on Sept. 20, 1947. It was another lavish family wedding, this time held at Montreal's Christ Church Cathedral. The event created a splash in the society pages of Canadian newspapers. The family story is that Mr. Bishop and his wife invited 500 of their closest friends to the nuptials. Afterward, Ms. Willis-O'Connor appeared in a magazine as a Woodbury Deb, an advertising campaign in which high-profile brides touted the benefits of Woodbury soap.

Mr. Willis-O'Connor was the son of the aide-de-camp for the governor-general of Canada. He had been a rear gunner in the air force before starting work in Montreal as sales manager for the Canadian Bank Note Company. The newlyweds received the gift of a three-storey Westmount house from the Eaton family but were otherwise expected to survive on their own.

Their son Michael was born in 1948. A daughter Margaret (Maggie) arrived on April 27, 1954, and Catherine was born on April 28, 1957. Family lore has it that Jackie kept her legs together before the birth of her second daughter because she couldn't stand the idea of having two children's birthday parties on the same day.

Parties and cocktails took up a great deal of the Willis-O'Connors' time. Balls and fundraisers required gowns. A gifted seamstress who'd learned from her mother, Ms. Willis-O'Connor took on upholstery work and interior design for friends and acquaintances in order to make ends meet. With leftover fabric from a chintz couch she'd make herself a dress; when she sat on the couch she would, as her daughter Maggie Sutrov put it, "disappear."

She sewed dresses for her daughters and even made her husband's shirts. She transformed her wedding dress into a stunning gown, removing its sleeves and dyeing it bright red in the bathtub. Mr. Willis-O'Connor remarked that he always knew with whom his wife had been dancing when she wore that gown because perspiration would stain the men's shirts pink.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Willis-O'Connor was practical and creative. Her idea of punctuality was to arrive five minutes early. She founded the May Court Club of Montreal, a women's group dedicated to improving the lives of the less fortunate. She dedicated long hours to fundraising and other volunteer work.

These activities, however, weren't enough for her keen intellect. In her 40s, she signed up at McGill University to study Russian literature. Ms. Murphy remembers Russian novels being strewn about the house. But Mr. Willis-O'Connor finally had enough of an absent wife and told her to drop it. Adoring him and committed to their marriage, she did. The two remained devoted for 65 years until he died last September.

Their daughters remember a house filled with guests, jokes and laughter, and long summers spent at their cottage in the Thousand Islands. One time, when she broke her finger, she and Mr. Willis-O'Connor fashioned a splint for it, then decided to turn her entire body into a splint. They wrapped her in a white sheet and covered it in ketchup to simulate blood. Thus attired, she arrived at a neighbour's house for dinner. "She could be a real clown," Ms. Sutrov said.

In her 60s, afflicted with macular degeneration, Ms. Willis-O'Connor began losing her sight. Mr. Willis-O'Connor, having lost part of his hearing during the war, became increasingly deaf. Ms. Murphy said it became a case of the blind leading the deaf and vice versa, each compensating for the other's disability.

Diana Bishop, a personal branding specialist and Ms. Willis-O'Connor's niece, produced a 2002 TV movie, A Hero to Me, about her famous grandfather. She said the greatest support came from her aunt, who regaled her with stories. "She was a wonderful storyteller and great fun to be around," Ms. Bishop said. When the movie was completed, her aunt gave her the gift of Billy Bishop's flying wings that he'd had transformed into a diamond-encrusted brooch for his wife. "Jackie was like that," she said, "very spontaneous and generous."

Ms. Bishop recalls some words of advice that her aunt gave her when she was at a crossroads in her broadcasting career. "She said to me, 'Just do something you love.' I think it was part of the Billy Bishop legacy. She was telling me to make sure you're being driven for yourself and not because you feel you have something to live up to."

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨