The Grano Speakers Series brought the world to Toronto. Launched in the fall of 2004 with a season of discussions about The American Empire – William Kristol was its opening speaker – it quickly became one of the hottest tickets in town. The new season, which opens next week with Malcolm Gladwell, includes Luigi Zingales, Robert Reich, and Fareed Zakaria.
The idea was hatched in the summer of 2004. Rudyard Griffiths, then the executive director of the Dominion Institute, and Patrick Luciani, a former executive director of the Donner Canadian Foundation, were chatting with Roberto Martella, the proprietor of the North Toronto trattoria Grano, when they began commiserating over a shared frustration of modern life.
Rudyard Griffiths: All of us were tired of the hotel ballroom speech: the Cornish hen and the not-so-great wine, and 500 or 800 people packed into these horrible tables of 10. The idea the three of us came up with was, let's really blow up that model and try to do something different that gets back to the insight of the salon in the 19th century, which was: good conversation, intimate group, intimate setting.
A season's subscription runs $1,200 for four evenings, but the Bay Street crowd that crammed into Grano to rub shoulders with thinkers and pundits such as Bernard Lewis, Martin Amis, Gore Vidal, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, James Carville, Camille Paglia, and Paul Volcker, didn't blink at the cost.
Still, Mr. Griffiths made it clear that you couldn't just buy your way onto the invitation-only list, which back then was capped at 70. "Some people may want to consider these evenings as informal auditions," Mr. Griffiths told The Globe at the time. "We're going to be listening to the questions they ask and watching the degree to which they participate."
John Polanyi, Nobel laureate, regular attendee: Toronto I think has a [hard] time in overcoming its clannish instincts. It hasn't really cottoned on to the fact that it would be better off if it were to leap all these walls that separate the various categories of people – people who are curious about the wider world. So the reason I'm there is to meet people I wouldn't normally meet.
The dinners are preceded by a notoriously crowded cocktail hour.
Rudyard Griffiths: You've got this very eclectic, not entirely comfortable restaurant, and you pack 130 people in there and it becomes like an intellectual kind of mosh pit. There's that thing: If you're suffering a little bit for your pleasures, they feel all that much better. But it is nuts, in fact. The reception is not a reception, it is disorganized chaos.
Michael Levine, entertainment lawyer, regular attendee: What was very interesting about it was not just the speakers, it was the crowd. My sense of it is, more business was done in that room, not only in the media, but private venture capitals, deals were being cooked.
Allan Gotlieb, former Canadian ambassador to the United States, regular attendee: I think the secret of the series' success has been the format – about which I was rather skeptical at the beginning, whether you could combine weighty and significant lectures and subjects, and do it in a social atmosphere.
In that sense, Christopher Hitchens may have been the quintessential Grano man.
Hilary Weston, former Ontario lieutenant-governor, regular attendee: He was an incredibly gifted speaker and he used his character, his whole physical attitude: leaning on the shelf of the bar with a glass of wine in his hand, and it was an intimate conversation that we shared with him. And, of course, people fell on his every word.
In the early days, of course, it was truly a salon then, the restaurant wasn't packed full, and the conversations were brilliant, and there was interaction between the speaker and the audience.
There were people like Fouad Ajami and Bernard Louis, and it was a very interesting period. It was a sort of a very troubled time [in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks]. It helped – the conversation – as to what we were facing and what we might have to look forward to in the future.
Rudyard Griffiths: It doesn't always go right. One of our early speakers was Samuel P. Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations – this big, big brain. We get him, we're just so excited, and the first inkling that maybe something's wrong is, he asks for a lectern. Our whole system is, the speaker has to – we encourage them, no notes, speak in an impromptu fashion. So he asks for a lectern, we get him the lectern, and I can see, I'm sitting there, and all of a sudden, he reaches into his suit jacket and out come 10 or more densely typed pages of text, which he sets down … and proceeded to read verbatim. As one person described it, it was like nerve gas going off in the room.
Bernard-Henri Levy insisted he didn't like the duvet on the business class flight on Air Canada, and insisted before he gave the speech – inferring that it was almost as a condition of him giving the speech – that we'd source a different duvet, it had to be a 100 per cent down duvet, in Toronto – and presented this to his hotel room so that he would have it for the flight back to Paris.
Michael Levine: The one talk I remember best, because it was in one way sad and in another way amusing, was when William Thorsell was tasked with interviewing Gore Vidal. Vidal was very much off his game, and very batty in his answering and in all his reactions to everything. Very much past his best-before date.
Novelist Martin Amis also flopped spectacularly. In his November, 2009, appearance, Mr. Amis – slated as part of a season about Risk and the Next Global Crisis – offered a sullen and very personal speech about feminism and al-Qaeda.
John Polanyi: It didn't feel that he knew what he was doing there, who this bunch was, and what they expected. He was trying to get their wavelength and failing. That actually is part of the charm of the evening. It is not heavily structured. It doesn't matter if you are well informed and brilliant and have one or two special ideas to convey: You're still faced with the fact that you have to understand this miscellaneous audience. It may be your time for speaking is over by the time you figure out what the audience wants from you. That was Martin Amis's situation – and to a degree, many people's.
Michael Ignatieff, former Liberal leader, speaker: As I said [the night he appeared, in 2004]: I've worked a lot of rooms in my time, but this is by far the toughest. You're all eating great food, I'm standing here with sight lines to the right, the left and behind me, and you're the smartest people in town.
There is simply nothing like it, as a venue, anywhere else: You're at a restaurant, standing at the bar with mike in hand, knowing that the town's bankers, entrepreneurs, professors and writers are all in the same room, waiting to eat you for dessert!
After Mr. Amis's talk, the author seemed so out of sorts that Rudyard Griffiths chose to scuttle the traditional Q&A.
Rudyard Griffiths: [The TV executive] Michael MacMillan had his hand up. He clearly had something he really wanted to put to Amis, and he kind of accosted him in the very tight confines of the post-speech kind of reception, book signing, and Amis just perfunctorily told him to [eff] off. And I could tell that MacMillan – who's a good spirit about this stuff – I could tell he was shocked, but he also I think enjoyed the fact that Martin Amis had told him to eff off.
Some wit and witticisms from past salons:
"Like getting a note from your undertaker."
-Martin Amis, on being a grandfather for the first time
"It's a failed country, but I came back for the health care."
-Gore Vidal, on America
"I was once asked why I wanted to become a journalist, and I replied, 'So that I wouldn't have to rely on the press for information.'"
"Hillary has more sooty baggage that a 90-car freight train."
-Camille Paglia on Hillary Clinton
"Government is more and more secretive. The message managers in the White House get better and better."
"We are finally discovering that Europe is not necessary."
"A thug. He really did steal Robert Kraft's Super Bowl ring."
-David Gergen on Vladimir Putin
Source: Grano Speakers Series archives, transcripts