Montreal, Part I

 “If Canada were not a country…but instead a house, Vancouver would be the solarium-cum-playroom… Toronto, the counting room, where money makes for the most glee; Montreal, the salon…”                                             —  Mordecai Richler

And who wouldn’t want to live in the salon? It’s hard not to romanticize Montreal.  Its more recently risen musical and culinary stars, like Arcade Fire and Au Pied de Cochon, have placed it on several important world maps and more and more New Yorkers are discovering that actually, Montreal is rather close (New England has been on to this for a while now).  Just this past week the New York Times ran a 36 Hours In Montreal special, a good friend took his bachelor party up there from Brooklyn, and another friend decided last minute to take the $62/each way Amtrak Adirondack up the Hudson to spend the week there for that much needed summer respite from NYC.

Some Americans and Europeans, mostly to illustrate their own sophistication, and distance themselves from America, describe Montreal as very “European.” While that sounds almost as silly as saying Montreal has a certain je ne sais quoi, it is also grossly inapt. Montreal is so much more than merely being like any other place.  It is a quintessential New World and Old Empire experiment that just happened to land on the French side of things.  It didn’t start out that way. The US is always seen as the adolescent nation evolving with growing pains that reverberate around the world.  But Quebec’s own not-so-quiet resolution of its identity begins with the whole of the British Empire and ends with a charming mid-sized Francophone city that might compete only with Berlin for the kind of genuinely creative, DIY sensual revelry that so much of Williamsburg aspires to (In Montreal, “vagrants” and misfits are actually tolerated and welcomed, and there is no shame in having a Phd and working as a bartender, or generally not being “on the make”.  Some see it as stiflingly complacent, and  some as liberating, and it is, of course, both).

Old, Waspy, Montreal

It’s hard to imagine, but Montreal was once highly class-conscious and its upper classes highly Anglo, the Scots-Presbyterian elite deemed to control the whole of Canada from St. James Street. But St. James Street became Rue St. Jacques, and for decades the street has not functioned as a major financial engine in Canada. Most of the major money, and English protestant types, decamped after the Parti Quebecois and separatist politics took root in the 1970’s. But in 1928, when the Bank of Canada built its headquarters on St. James Street, it was the tallest building in the British Empire.  

You can see this lost Waspy Montreal world in the pages of the now defunct magazine The Montrealer. (This world has been more or less reconstituted in Toronto, but the flavor is a lot less British, less colonial – in Montreal they lived their lives a spiritual stone’s throw from Whitehall and London. Toronto, as any Torontonian will proudly point out, is technically the world’s most multicultural city, the restrained British sensibility has faded and London is now much farther away than Ottawa).  Modeled after The New Yorker, The Montrealer, a Hugh MacLennan-edited monthly that ran in the 1950’2 and early 60’s*, is a testimonial to Montreal of the early and mid-20th century.

Along with original poetry, fiction, and clever cartoons, The Montrealer also served as a society page, including complete coverage of the annual St. Andrew’s Ball, with black and white photos of the gents in their tartans and military medals, and their ladies with matching tartan sashes, the captions beneath announcing names such as Capt. Earl Spafford, Mr. Watson Ogilvie, Lord and Lady Lovatt and “Miss Isabel Pearce (of the Stuart Clan)”. If you blink while reading through the 1953 January issue, you might miss the only evidence that there actually might be French Canadians in Montreal – on page 35, after the St. Andrew’s Ball and Gunner’s Ball coverage, is a page reserved for La Ligue de la Jeunesse Feminine Bal de la Melodie with equally charming and well-groomed couples and debutantes. 

Another mainstay of the magazine’s society coverage was the “Bermuda Holiday,” a favorite Commonwealth  Carribean spot for well-heeled English Canadians, and includes cheeky reminders how to enjoy one’s holiday while there. In one essay by Ben Cossman, titled “How NOT to Enjoy Yourself in Bermuda,” the author muses that all the brochures and magazines about Bermuda are pointless and should instead concentrate on those out there who are intent on not enjoying their holidays – one picture of an evening beach party has a caption that reads: “If you’re on your honeymoon, don’t attend the night barbecues on the beach. There is too much danger of having fun. Besides, there’s no charge and this alone might please the grouchiest of us.”

Each issue, as might be expected of any important, well-informed and well-informing, Canadian magazine, especially in the 1950’s, spends much time on the neighbor to the South. In the section titled “Unpopular Editorials,” in this first issue of 1953, Hugh MacLennan writes about President Eisenhower and the Red Scare. He observes, “In sober moments, no thinking American can seriously believe that their danger comes from communism within their government. Nor, if they think hard enough, can they believe that the complex of fear which grips the nation is caused solely by the Soviet Union…What, after all, does a man dread most? Seldom his open and manifest enemy; almost invariably some weakness he suspects to exist within himself…If Dwight Eisenhower is to succeed as president, his main task is plain. He must exorcise the irrational terror which bedevils the 1950’s as Roosevelt exorcised the equally irrational fear that haunted the 1930’s.”

Of course, like the New Yorker, the Montrealer sought to strike the right balance between the fun and frivolous and the “very serious.” After reading about the Red Scare and behemoth America, one can turn to page 16 and take the month’s quiz: How Would You Mix These Cocktails: Angel’s Kiss, Gimlet, Clover Club, Merry Widow, Gin Fizz, Sloe Gin Rickey, Pousse Café, Sidecar, Tom and Jerry, Maiden’s Prayer, White Cargo, Old-Fashioned. Answers on page 69.

(Part II will be about the other 2/3 of Montreal — the French and the Jews, and Hugh MacLennan’s and Mordecai Richler’s books about them).

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One Response to “Montreal, Part I”

  1. Miche Says:

    You ought to have written this biography I got as a xmas gift. I grew up in Montreal I adore Mordecai I like how you talk on him

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