Satirist’s shrewd eye — the life of William Weintraub.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WILLIAM WEINTRAUB
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.