Pierre Berton, fresh from a 47th book tour, still calls me Pete
By PETER GZOWSKI
Saturday, November 24, 2001 Print Edition, Page F3
I began my own career at Maclean's magazine just a few days before Pierre Berton, who had been its legendary managing editor (as well as a prolific contributor to its pages), stepped out the door.
His departure had nothing to do with my arrival. The magazine's bosses, in their wisdom, had told him to cut back on his appearances on radio and television, even though Berton, as he is still not loath to point out, was generating more publicity for them than anything else they were doing.
I still remember his speech at his farewell party in the Lord Simcoe Hotel. He talked of his own hiring at Maclean's. Arthur Irwin, then the editor, had sent Scott Young to Vancouver with instructions to hire Pierre, then the world's youngest city editor (at the Sun), for, as he told Berton, from $4,000 to $4,500. "I'll take the $4,500," Berton said.
At first, he thought of Toronto as a steppingstone to a real career at Life or The Saturday Evening Post, but he was converted to Canadian nationalism by Irwin, and his incredible career was under way.
I've never been among Pierre's circle of intimates. For a whole lot of reasons, some of them evident on this season's bestseller lists, I hold him in as much awe now as I did in 1958. Perhaps I'm still too young, though that shortcoming doesn't keep me out of many other clubs these days. I've just never felt close to him. He calls me Pete, for one thing, an appellation I try to reserve for either really old friends or members of my immediate family, who use it teasingly, and I'm still not comfortable with the number of times I used to have to introduce my wife to him, no matter how often he had met her before.
He has the disconcerting habit, which I've noticed among other people who know a great deal about a lot of things, of being pretty sure he knows a lot about everything. I remember sitting near him at a Blue Jays-Baltimore game, as one of a number of guests of the publisher Avie Bennett, when Pierre, who knows as much about about baseball as I do about placer mining, began declaiming about "the big left-hander" coming in from the bullpen ("funny," said Harold Town, "he was warming up right-handed") or announcing "run coming in, run coming in." An Oriole had hit a lazy two-out fly to the outfield, and his teammates were just around the bases to fulfill a baseball ritual.
Then, too, he may have a bone or two to pick with me. After he left Maclean's, he turned to writing a daily column for The Toronto Star, which raised that whole form of expression to a level it had not reached before and, alas, has not been matched since. By the time he was ready to move on, I had become managing editor of Maclean's myself, and I was one of those who helped to lure him back to his old medium with a fortnightly column.
But when the magazine's bosses, again in their wisdom, were upset by a piece in which he said that if his daughters were going to have sex, he'd rather it was in a bed than in the back seat of a car, I -- and my colleagues -- failed to stand up for him. Then, a few years later, when I was the editor of The Star Weekly (we really did play a lot of musical chairs in those days), I bought an excerpt from his book The Smug Minority andhad it illustrated by a huge caricature of Pierre as Rodin's Thinker, which we ran as a kind of Playboy centrefold. Pretty dumb. Pierre, I was told, was not amused.
Our most famous encounter was probably on the late-night TV show 90 Minutes Live. Pierre, who has always had an uncanny instinct for what's trendy, came on to demonstrate the latest in newfangled appliances, the food processor. Plunging in where angels feared to go, he lifted the lid while the cutting dial was still spinning, then reached in and tried to stop the blade with his finger.
This is not recommended food-processor technique. Berton, ever the trouper, held his hand behind his back, from which great dollops of blood dripped onto the studio floor. The director cut to commercial, a doctor who was our next scheduled guest applied a finger tourniquet and we sent him off by cab to the nearest hospital. The next night, ever the trouper, he wanted to come back and do it all again -- without an attempt at dedigitization.
Pierre is 81 now, still with all his fingers and, apparently, all his incomparable faculties. The only concession he seems to have made to aging is that he can handle only three glasses of liquid a day, but he makes sure, as he said on the phone, that one of them is wine.
His 47th book, Marching As To War,a history of earlier conflicts that seems remarkably, if fortuitously, relevant this fall, is getting healthy reviews, as if even the academics who used to challenge him as a historian have at last realized what a masterful storyteller he is.
And, as always, he's been showing us all not only how to write books, but how to sell them. He's just returned from a gruelling national tour that started in September. He's having a very good time. I think he's outlived all he people who used to bite him around the ankles.
I remember trying to explain to the young Wayne Gretzky, that he should be ready in case the adoring media ever turned on him. "They did it to Anne Murray. They did it to Pierre Berton, they did it to . . . "
"Pierre Berton?" Wayne said. "Is he a Canadian?"
"Is he ever," I said. God bless him.