Since his books are spaced out over intervals of seventeen years or so, you can hardly call William Weintraub a prolific writer. But you can certainly call him a provocative and entertaining writer who, as an adjunct to his distinguished career as a film producer, director, and script-writer at the National Film Board, has penned three witty books over the course of the last thirty-five years.
The first was the zany satire of 1961, Why Rock the Boat?, which mercilessly lampooned a fictitious newspaper, the Montreal Daily Witness. (In fact, Weintraub put in two stultifying years as a reporter at the Montreal Gazette; allegedly he was fired in 1950 for calling the managing editor a pig.) The Underdogs followed in 1979, three years after the first victory of the Parti Québécois. An Orwellian farce about life in post-separation Quebec, it now seems less like campy satire than ominous prescience. (For instance, the air in the Republic of Quebec is fresh and sweet, because the economy is at a standstill.)
Weintraub's most recent book, City Unique, a work of non-fiction, is appropriately more reined-in stylistically than the two novels. But the subject-matter alone is often racy enough, without need of exaggerated writerly flourishes. Beginning with the Royal Tour of 1939 by George VI and the present Queen Mother, and ending with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1960, City Unique offers up an elegant and textured account of an ambiguous period in Montreal's history: a time when, on the one hand, Duplessis and the Church sought to keep people in the dark and held iron sway over the province and, on the other, Montreal was the capital of Canadian vice, spice, and culture.
His choice of these two decades resulted from an exchange of letters with Mavis Gallant, who once wrote to him that someone ought to write a book about Montreal in the 1940s, the sort of book that would include in its mandate "the phenomenon of Lili St. Cyr". (This noted stripper reigned as Montreal's femme fatale for seven years; her name, writes Weintraub, "invoked sophistication, mystery, sin, and-for many males-instant arousal." When she was arrested on morality charges in 1951, her acquittal brought great joy to the city's Chambre de Commerce, which declared her a national treasure in its newsletter: "She awakens the adolescent,... stimulates the young man, gives comfort to the mature man, and sweet memories to the elderly.")
The years from 1939 to 1960 saw the gradual transformation of a parochial town ravaged by the Great Depression to "a city unique in the world-bilingual, cosmopolitan, exceedingly handsome, and wonderfully odd." La Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness) of Maurice Duplessis cast a pall over much of political and intellectual life, and corruption riddled municipal and provincial politics. Yet Montreal was a "wide-open town" in many ways. Many a funeral home might be a front for gaming parlours, and luxurious (illegal) casinos were the meeting-places of politicians, lawyers, and even judges. (The police always made a point of phoning ahead before a raid.)
Weintraub does a splendid job of characterizing both ordinary and famous Montrealers of the forties and fifties. There's Camillien Houde, "Mr. Montreal", mayor of the city for eighteen years, who welcomed the King and Queen in 1939 with the unforgettable words, "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming. My wife thanks you from her bottom too." Houde set aside loyalty to the Crown a few months later when he not only refused to register for possible overseas service, but counselled other Montrealers to follow his suit. His seditious remarks landed him in internment camps for four years; upon emerging from prison he won a resounding victory in the municipal elections of 1944. It's easy to make Houde sound like a buffoon, yet Hugh MacLennan compared him to Shakespeare's clowns ("who are infallibly the most intelligent characters in the plays"), and Weintraub does him the honour of a truly subtle portrayal.
There are also the vice-fighters Pacifique Plante and Jean Drapeau; a quickie snapshot of Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque lunching together at an elegant restaurant, before Lévesque's separatist days; and a walk-on by Maureen Forrester, who at fourteen wanted nothing better than to become a band singer in a St. Catherine Street dance palace.
But some of the most engrossing anecdotes are of ordinary Montrealers jelled in historical aspic. People like Paulette Buchanan, a true-believer Communist, who sheltered Fred Rose and Tim Buck in her Notre Dame de Grâce apartment after the War Measures Act of 1940 outlawed the Party. Or people caught on the cusp of fame, as when Morley Callaghan attended one of the earliest of Leonard Cohen's poetry readings and concluded, "He read well, just like a pro."
The great strength of this book lies in Weintraub's balanced presentation. He gives equal time to the denizens of the Square Mile-Montreal's Anglo-Scottish aristocracy-and to the inhabitants of disadvantaged areas like Point St. Charles (where frozen horse-droppings were used as pucks in games of street hockey). French and English, left and right, literature and radio drama, all get equal time. This is not to say Weintraub doesn't have a point of view: he is scathing on the subject of anti-semitism and xenophobia, for instance, and Lionel Groulx's pronouncements and Le Devoir's editorial policies in this period come in for serious drubbing.
He also knows when to be silent. In 1960, commentators across the land believed that the future lay with Montreal, that the whole world would be its oyster. Saturday Night declared, "It will require something so far unforeseen to demote Montreal to second best." Weintraub lets us reach our own conclusions about Montreal's sad fall from grace.
Elaine Kalman Naves writes a book column for the Montreal Gazette and is the author of The Writers of Montreal (Véhicule) and Journey to Vaja: Reconstructing the World of a Hungarian-Jewish Family (McGill-Queen's).