Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
Pierre Trudeau, unmasked: always the seducer
By MARGARET WENTE
Saturday, September 30, 2000
'He's a very distant man," says Sacha Trudeau. "I think he's had himself alone in many circumstances. That's part of his character, his personality. He was and always will remain somewhat distant from everything."
Seductive. Elusive. The man of a thousand masks, who loved to tease and charm but never did let people get too close.
Sacha and Justin, his two surviving sons, are among the few people on Earth who ever saw the man without his masks. To hear them speak so fondly yet so truthfully of him, as they did last year for a CTV documentary, feels shockingly intimate.
Yet intimacy was the one great gift that eluded their surpassingly gifted father. It was too dangerous, perhaps. Intimacy makes you weak. He learned from an early age to overcome whatever was weak, to temper his body and his mind so that they would become hard and invulnerable.
He learned these lessons from his mother, and from the Jesuits.
"The Jesuits have this, you know," said Sacha in the documentary, aptly called A Canadian Affair. "You take what you have and you thrust it out as hard as you can and what's left is what's true."
Pierre was a frail and scrawny child who did sports to build himself up. His parents' union was contradictory and conflicted and emblematically Canadian. His mother, Grace, was a disciplined Anglo. His father, Charlie, was a flamboyant, self-made man who made a fortune from gas stations. Charlie was a ladies' man, a loud and sociable guy who spent most nights with his cronies, drinking and smoking and playing cards.
When Pierre was 15, his hard-living father dropped dead. Grace maintained it was Charlie's habits that killed him, and she made sure Pierre, the oldest son, did not miss the lesson of his father's dissolution. "You have to lead a more careful life. Disciplined. Healthy. Pure," recalled Justin.
Pierre was both a sensualist, like his father, and austere, like his mother. But it was his mother he revered. "He speaks of her with such respect and awe," said Sacha. "She was an exceedingly wise woman."
And so he learned at an early age to keep the sensuality firmly in check, to never lose control, to always be the seducer, never the seduced. He became Canada's leading ladies' man, and courted many leading ladies. But the press, he warned, had no place in the bedroom of the prime minister, and his many affairs remained tantalizingly private. "If you're entitled to pry into my private affairs, I don't see why I couldn't be entitled to pry into yours," he told reporters, with that mix of playfulness and menace they came to know so well.
In all his life, he lost his heart to a woman only once. He lost it to a girl 30 years younger, and she broke it.
Margaret was all emotion and no reason, all feeling and no thinking, all exhibitionist and no reserve. She was as different from Pierre in her way as his father had been from his mother. It was a supreme romantic folly. In the one emotionally reckless moment of his life, he doomed them both to the exquisite private hell of a marriage that was cursed by temperamental incompatibility. They were not Venus and Mars. They belonged to different galaxies.
And when she ran away, after three babies and six years, the wreck of their marriage was public property. "He loved Margaret very deeply," said his former press secretary, Patrick Gossage. "It was obvious he suffered a lot. We kept up this fiction that he was fine, but he was hurting a lot. He really adored her and I think he felt very betrayed."
He suffered in silence. She told the world. "He couldn't give up his work for me, and therefore . . . we couldn't stay together," she confessed on national television. "I think I've decided that he's not the man for me."
In 35 years of news and documentary footage, there are only a few glimpses of the man without the mask, and hardly any moments of self-revelation. One of those came during a fireside chat, late in his time in office, with a young female (no coincidence) TV interviewer. "When I was younger, I emphasized the importance of not taking myself too seriously, not taking other people too seriously," he reflected. "It might have been a bit of a pose or a defensive mechanism -- a kind of hedging against possible failure. If I'd fail, it wasn't all that serious."
He made sure he would never fail at romance again. His broken heart hardened. He entertained spectacular beauties at Harrington Lake, and read Teillhard de Chardin to Liona Boyd by moonlight. He even had a child, at 72, with Deborah Coyne. But he made Liona lie down in the back of the car so they wouldn't be seen together, and he was never publicly associated with a woman again.
He kept his heart, instead, for the three boys he raised to men.
"Family and us were a way for him to know himself in a deep and not so rational way," said Sacha. "I think that was very important to him. That was one of the few things that was true to him and real to him. Us. His family."
"People perceived him as tough and arrogant," said Justin. "We would perceive him as strong and disciplined."
The mask of the warrior-philosopher was to drop in public only once again, at the funeral of his son Michel. And there he was for all the world to see. The strength all gone, and the heart, so guarded, broken forever.