R.I.P., Pierre!

Hundreds gather for celebration to remember prolific author Pierre Berton
TORONTO (CP) – The Governor General told some backstage tales. Publisher John Neale hawked some of Pierre Berton’s books. And curmudgeonly columnist Allan Fotheringham wept.
It was the kind of night Berton would have loved, from the sentimental to the irreverent. Some 500 people – friends, family and just plain admirers – came in out of a mild autumn rain and crowded into the atrium of the CBC broadcasting centre Tuesday evening for a public celebration of the life of the broadcaster, journalist, author of more than 50 books and, all agreed, a one-of-a-kind nationalist who will be greatly missed.
Berton died of heart failure Nov. 30 in hospital at the age of 84, triggering a national outpouring in recent days that culminated in the event, A Celebration of Pierre Berton, with a who’s who in Canada’s cultural and literary establishment present. Speakers at the gathering included Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson, Margaret Atwood, June Callwood, Lister Sinclair, Betty Kennedy, Rick Mercer, John Honderich as well as members of the immediate Berton family.
“You’ll never die, Pierre,” Callwood said in a voice that shook slightly with emotion. “You’re gone, but you’ll never die.”
Fotheringham told a story of the night a teenage Berton got drunk, stole a car and got arrested in Dawson City, convinced his life was over, and how in later years one historian accused the writer of making Canadian history interesting just as a ploy to sell books. But as the laughter ebbed, Fotheringham began to choke up on his closing words.
“One of a kind, and there’ll never be another Pierre Berton.”
Back on the lighter side, Neale, chairman of Random House Canada, held up a copy of Berton’s last book, Prisoners of the North.
“With the collective will of all of us in this room, I know this book will be back on the top of the (best-seller) list very soon,” he said to laughter. “I’m a salesman. Crass commercialism, yes. Pierre would have wanted me to do this.”
A giant black and white photo of the smiling man of honour, with arms crossed and trademark bow tie untied, served as a backdrop for the stage.
Clarkson shared personal stories of their friendship, talking about the time she was a guest panellist on Front Page Challenge, Berton’s birthday party at Rideau Hall and get-togethers at his home in Kleinburg, Ont., where he barbecued “to a crisp all those sausages.”
“He was really a remarkable person and I think of him always as a comrade, an ally, a friend and a colleague,” Clarkson said.
“We were allied in all sorts of battles together, as many of you were, against capital punishment, against the libel laws, but the causes were always many and we were always, I’m happy to say, on the same side.”
Berton’s longtime manager Elsa Franklin took the stage wearing what she called a “silly” bow tie, and described him as a “dynamo.”
“He wrote and he wrote and he wrote and he wrote,” she said. “For Pierre, family and friends came first, after writing.”
Author Margaret Atwood recalled a long-standing rumour in the literary community that Berton was the only writer in Canada who had his own “forger” – someone who supposedly sat in a back room in a Vancouver book store filled with Berton books and signed them.
Singer Dinah Christie played her guitar on stage, and sang what she said was the first folk song she ever learned – one Berton taught her.
But it wasn’t all praise. His shortcomings as a singer, poet, artist and motorist were eagerly referenced, too.
Comic Rick Mercer got the final laughs, describing how he and a TV crew went to Berton’s house in October to tape the now-famous sketch in which Berton taught a lesson in how to roll a marijuana joint.
He said Berton willingly agreed to the idea, adding only: “Bring the pot.”
As they packed up to leave, Mercer thanked the family for their hospitality, and Berton’s parting words were: “Leave the pot.”
Mercer said Berton was not only a shit-disturber but “the Wayne Gretzky of shit-disturbers.”
Berton’s widow Janet, recovering from a broken hip, looked frail in a wheelchair but was smiling and serene as she spoke to VIP well-wishers paying their respects before the event began.
“This is overwhelming,” she said. “It’s so sweet and warm, and very difficult.”
Berton’s sons and grandsons all wore bow ties in honour of Berton’s famous neck attire.
Here are some quotes from A Celebration of Pierre Berton, held Tuesday night:
“He just couldn’t stop writing. It was compulsive, obviously. And he had, luckily for us, the talent to go with the compulsion.” – Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson.
“Pierre was in fact a Peter Pan sort of person. He never grew up, he never lost his sense of wonder and curiosity and his love of adventures. It was what made him a great storyteller.” – Berton’s sister, Lucy Berton-Woodward.
“He had a great reverence for life. For his family, for begonias, for cats, for dogs, for rascals, losers and friends, often the same person.” – June Callwood.
“Pierre was big. He was big in every way. He was big in physical stature and he had a heart to match the frame. We shall miss him dearly.” – Betty Kennedy.
“As you can see, the banana is very odd and the grapes are questionable. And I’m very glad he stayed with the writing! It’s of course worth a fortune.” – Vicki Gabereau, holding up a painting Berton the amateur artist once gave her father.