Pierre Berton, Canadian cultural icon, enjoyed long and colourful career
(CP) – When hardly out of his teens, Pierre Berton’s adoring mother wrote a book about him called It’s a Boy! No one would publish it, since he was a total unknown.
Berton changed all that, publishing dozens of books and casting a towering media shadow across Canada as newspaper columnist, Maclean’s magazine editor and broadcast personality. He died Tuesday at age 84 of heart failure at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital.
The hallmark of the Berton image was his enthusiasm and immense energy. He loved flamboyant style – thick white sideburns, huge butterfly-like bow ties and dramatic opera cloaks.
In his heyday, he sometimes churned out 15,000 words a day – including a 1,200-word daily column for the Toronto Star – while also reading and answering all his mail and taking calls from anyone who phoned.
“You never know when you’re going to get a usable idea,” he said.
On the side, Berton wrote the erotic novel Masquerade under the pseudonym Lisa Kroniuk, began a 40-book series of paperback histories for children and produced several books of children’s fiction, most notably the perennial bestseller The Secret World of Og. His longtime friend and colleague Elsa Franklin says The Secret World of Og, which was about his children, was his favourite book.
Of all his honours and accolades, Berton particularly cherished a letter from a young Og fan: “I’m six years old, and this is the best book I ever read in my whole life.”
During his long and varied career, Berton became rich – he hit millionaire status relatively early – and was showered with awards.
“I was underpaid for the first half of my life,” he said. “I don’t mind being overpaid for the second half.”
He had at least 12 honorary degrees, three Governor General’s Literary Awards for non-fiction, two National Newspaper Awards and two ACTRA Nellies for broadcasting. He was a Companion of the Order of Canada and chancellor of Yukon College.
Eminent among his books, several of which gained international prominence, were The Mysterious North and Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, both of which won Governor General’s Awards.
Later came The Comfortable Pew, a controversial and critical volume on the Anglican Church, the railway books The National Dream and The Last Spike and the War of 1812 works titled The Invasion of Canada and Flames Across the Border.
In 1995, the second volume of his autobiography, My Times, was published, spanning 1947-1995. It opens with his move to Toronto to join Maclean’s magazine and covers his most famous and prolific period.
It coincides with a time of tremendous social change in Canada and abroad and Berton clearly sees himself in the thick of it. Sometimes he takes credit for being the catalyst for reform, though he also notes his exposes of certain injustices were often ignored.
His final book was Prisoners of the North, published in September.
Berton was not without his critics, those who chided him for writing pop-history that was more flamboyant than serious, for relying on others to do the drudgery of historic research and for using his TV and radio image to help promote his books.
But he endeared himself to some younger Canadians just this year, when he said publicly he had been smoking marijuana since the 1960s. He even demonstrated for the CBC satire show, Rick Mercer’s Monday Report, his technique for rolling the perfect marijuana joint.
Pierre Francis de Marigny Berton was born July 12, 1920, in Dawson City, Yukon, a frontier environment that stimulated his sense of adventure and hunger for facts, excitement and achievement.
As he recalled in Starting Out: 1920-1947, the first volume of his autobiography in 1987, it was the promise of the 1898 gold rush that lured his parents, Frank and Laura, to the Yukon where his father worked as a government mining recorder.
Berton also wrote of his young life in the Yukon in Drifting Home, the 1973 book considered by many to be his best.
The family of four, including younger sister Lucy, moved to Victoria in 1932 after the Depression forced Frank Berton to retire on half pension of $48 a month.
Friends of his teenage years remember a six-foot Boy Scout with a large, ruddy face, a natural show-off who loved to sing and recite verses, often applauding himself.
He entered the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and served an apprenticeship on the student newspaper, where he also met Janet Walker, his future wife.
“His mouth got him into trouble,” recalled a friend of that time. “He was much brighter than anyone else, and irrepressible.”
Berton’s parents were horrified when Pierre announced he would become a journalist rather than a scientist. He joined the Vancouver News-Herald upon graduation and at 21 became the youngest city editor on any Canadian daily.
“You won’t have a red cent as long as you live,” warned his disappointed mother, who with her son’s help wrote I Married the Klondike in the 1950s.
During the Second World War, Berton spent four years in the army, rising from private to captain.
Married on March 22, 1946, Pierre and Janet moved a year later to Toronto where he hit the fast track to a long and exciting career.
At 31 he was promoted to managing editor of Maclean’s. In 1957 he became a key member of the CBC’s public affairs flagship program Close-Up and a permanent panelist on Front Page Challenge, to become TV’s longest-running program.
When Maclean’s threatened to fire him if he refused to give up his broadcasts, he resigned and joined the Toronto Star as associate editor and columnist.
He left in 1962 to start his own TV program The Pierre Berton Show, which ran until 1973. He also appeared as host and writer on My Country, The Great Debate, Heritage Theatre and The Secret of My Success.
Berton also rejoined Maclean’s as freelance columnist in 1962. But he was soon in trouble again, writing that “premarital sex isn’t always a bad thing (and) what is bad is the sense of guilt, shame and sin.”
Some readers praised his honesty but so many expressed vehement digust that Maclean’s fired him.
Nevertheless, the magazine said in 1987, “more than any other writer, Berton has turned Canadian history, once considered dull, into a pageant as colourful as his famous plaid jackets.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he wrote a column in the Toronto Star.
Sometimes they were about crazy adventures with his growing family – the children were Penny, Pamela, Patricia, Peter, Paul, Peggy and the adopted Perri. But he also reported on underworld thugs and exposed how unscrupulous businesses ripped off their customers.
While young parents with a modest income, the Bertons moved to Kleinburg north of Toronto, gradually establishing a rustic but rambling estate.
In the early years they coped with a concrete floor, bare walls and single-paned windows. Carrying on the P tradition, friends calls Janet Pjanet or, as more than one put it, PoorJanet.
“My luxury is my home and my property,” Berton said of the simple, book-filled house that grew and grew and the spread that eventually included trees, shrubs, man-made hills, ponds, fish, ducks, old railway cars, a swimming pool and baronial barbecue to feed 150 friends.
He donated to the United Church of Canada and contributed generously to the New Democratic Party.
Although always generous to his family, Berton did not believe in inherited wealth and some years ago arranged to leave his 3.5-hectare property to the Ontario Heritage Foundation to be used as a retreat for struggling writers.
On his 80th birthday, he became the subject of a media event when reporters and photographers were invited to his regular workout at his favourite Toronto health club. Stepping off the treadmill he remarked on how, as a kid, he never thought he’d live to be 45, much less 80.
“Eighty? The year 2000? Impossible!” is what he said his view was in college. “Yet here I am. A survivor.”
He avoided computers and insisted on banging out his prose on one of six old Smith Corona electrics he somehow continued to keep in working order. He said the books are what he wanted to be remembered for.
“Because I enjoy them,” he said. “I can hardly wait to get there and do my work, because I’ve been thinking about it all night. I have it all in my head so I sit down and type it up.”
He attributed his longevity to growing up in the ruggedness and fresh air of the Yukon and to having parents who were also long lived. But he said he was fairly philosophical about growing old.
“I think when you’re dead, you’re dead. No need to worry about it.”
Here are some books that were written by Pierre Berton:
1954 – The Royal Family
1956 – The Mysterious North
1958 – Klondike – The Last Great Gold Rush
1959 – Just Add Water and Stir
1960 – Adventures of a Columnist
1962 – Fast, Fast, Fast Relief
1963 – The Big Sell
1965 – The Comfortable Pew
1966 – The Cool, Crazy, Committed World of the Sixties
1968 – The Smug Minority
1970 – The National Dream – The Great Railway 1871-1881
1971 – The Last Spike – The Great Railway 1881-1885
1973 – Drifting Home
1975 – Hollywood’s Canada
1976 – My Country
1977 – The Dionne Years – A Thirties Melodrama
1978 – The Wild Frontier – More Tales from the Remarkable Past
1980 – The Invasion of Canada – 1812-1813
1981 – Flames Across the Border – 1813-1814
1982 – Why We Act Like Canadians
1983 – The Promised Land
1986 – Vimy
1987 – Starting Out: 1920-1947
1988 – The Arctic Grail
1989 – The Mysterious North (Revised)
1990 – The Great Depression 1929-1939
1992 – Niagara, A History of the Falls
1995 – My Times: Living with History 1917-1995
1996 – Farewell to the 20th Century: A Compendium of the Absurd
1996 – The Great Lakes
1997 – 1967: The Last Good Year
2002 – The Secret World of Og
2004 – Prisoners of the North
Comments on the death Tuesday of Pierre Berton:
“Pierre Berton was the most remarkable writer of Canadian historical events in the last 50 years. So much of our nationhood and our collective identity as Canadians were created by him.” – Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson.
“(He was) such an important writer in the days when there weren’t any. He was also an enormously generous man.” – Author Alice Munro.
“He emphasized the importance of our history as distinct from American history or British history or French history. … And without having written down that record of life within this country, we would all be poorer.” – Writer Alistair MacLeod.
“I just called him and asked him if he would come on the show and teach Canada how to roll a joint. He immediately said ‘Yes, come up to the house. I’d be happy to do so.’ ” – Rick Mercer, recalling his invitation to Berton to appear on CBC-TV’s Monday Report in October.
“He chronicled the history of Canada, and he made history exciting.” – Mercer.
Pierre Berton, Canadian cultural icon, enjoyed long and colourful career