Satirist’s shrewd eye — the life of William Wein­traub.


National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - ROBERT FUL­FORD

The Cana­dian lit­er­ary world first heard of William Wein­traub when his satir­i­cal novel, Why Rock the Boat?, was pub­lished. That was in 1961, when Wein­traub was a young re­porter, but old enough to know the worst about the jour­nal­ism be­ing prac­tised around him.

Wein­traub, who died last week at age 91, had worked at the Mon­treal Gazette, af­ter writ­ing for the McGill Daily in his stu­dent days. As he re­called, the Gazette was a sleepy daily that never let the news in­ter­rupt its in­sti­tu­tional tor­por, the feel­ings of its ad­ver­tis­ers or the high daily al­co­hol con­sump­tion of its re­porters. In Why Rock the Boat? Wein­traub in­vented a mem­o­rable news­pa­per by wildly ex­ag­ger­at­ing the qual­i­ties of the Gazette.

On his fic­tional news­pa­per, the Mon­treal Wit­ness, the staff re­frains from re­port­ing any­thing re­mark­able be­cause they pre­fer to save it for their pri­vate talk. As a re­sult, they have a rep­u­ta­tion as lively racon­teurs.

One of them hap­pens to see a fire in a ho­tel that’s hold­ing an in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tion of nud­ists. As the fire burns, the air is filled with naked peo­ple leap­ing to safety on nets ar­ranged by the fire de­part­ment. Newsy, per­haps, but it can’t be re­ported in the Wit­ness. For one thing, the ho­tel is a Wit­ness ad­ver­tiser. Any­way, it makes a good story to be told later over drinks, the kind of story that gets a jour­nal­ist in­vited to the best par­ties.

Nat­u­rally, the Wit­ness staff con­sid­ers their ed­i­tor a tyrant and a mean pen­nypincher. His char­ac­ter was clearly based on H.J. Larkin, the Gazette’s real man­ag­ing ed­i­tor. About the same time, Brian Moore, a for­mer Gazette re­porter and a friend of Wein­traub, wrote The Luck of Gin­ger Cof­fey. Much of that novel took place in a news­pa­per of­fice, ruled by a dread­ful ed­i­tor who also closely re­sem­bled Larkin. Later, the real Larkin was proud to boast that he had been a model for villains in two fa­mous nov­els.

Moore, who later es­tab­lished an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for his nov­els, was an Irish im­mi­grant whom Wein­traub re­mem­bered as both the best and the fastest re­porter at the Gazette. He could sit down and start typ­ing while oth­ers were still star­ing at the blank pages in their type­writ­ers. And Moore was not only writ­ing se­ri­ous nov­els on the side, he was also in­creas­ing his fam­ily in­come by churn­ing out pa­per­back thrillers under pseu­do­nyms. Later, when his pseu­do­nyms be­came known, his pot­boil­ers be­came cher­ished lit­er­ary col­lectibles.

Wein­traub loved Mon­treal — its charm, its his­tory, its di­ver­sity. City Unique, pub­lished in 1996, was his trib­ute to the city’s rather raff­ish past, a kind of Sin City. But Wein­traub had no af­fec­tion for the sep­a­ratism that be­gan build­ing in the 1960s. His novel, The Un­der­dogs, de­picted lonely, iso­lated English-speak­ing Cana­di­ans try­ing des­per­ately to deal with their new lives as cit­i­zens of an op­pres­sively so­cial­ist Que­bec of the fu­ture. Some of them are or­ga­niz­ing a vi­o­lent re­sis­tance move­ment. A stage ver­sion of The Un­der­dogs was per­formed at Mon­treal’s Just for Laughs fes­ti­val.

Sep­a­ratism also showed up in a film Wein­traub made, The Rise and Fall of English Mon­treal, which high­lighted his feel­ings about his friends and ac­quain­tances mov­ing to Toronto to es­cape Que­bec pol­i­tics. For many years he served as a Na­tional Film Board pro­ducer with a hand in some 150 films. He was an all-pur­pose film­maker, work­ing on Canada: Beef Cat­tle and a por­trait of the au­thor Mar­garet Lau­rence.

Like all true satirists, Wein­traub had a shrewd eye for the un­con­scious com­edy that un­rolled in the world around him. When Brian Moore’s son was born, Wein­traub ac­com­pa­nied him to the city hall to reg­is­ter the birth. This pro­vided a vivid glimpse of the Que­bec of the 1950s, as Wein­traub re­called in his 2001 mem­oir, Get­ting Started.

The clerk at the city hall had two ledgers, la­belled Catholics and Protes­tants. “Which one?” he asked Moore. “’Nei­ther,” said Moore. “Jewish?” said the clerk. “No,” said Moore, “I have no re­li­gion.” The clerk frowned, dis­ap­peared briefly and re­turned blow­ing the dust off a thin ledger. It was marked Pa­gans.


Au­thor William Wein­traub loved Mon­treal — its charm, its his­tory, its di­ver­sity.

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