Peter Gzowski: A Biography

Winter 2010 CSANews Issue 77  |  Posted date : Dec 06, 2010.Back to list

In Peter Gzowski: A Biography, author R.B. Fleming does something very unusual for a Canadian writer. He exposes the quirks and foibles - the dark side - of a complicated, flawed, supremely talented personality who died a Canadian icon.

For Canadians of a certain age, this book also takes us on a journey back through the last half of the 20th century, reminding us of the issues and newsmakers that Peter covered as a journalist during that more optimistic era.

Though it was his radio persona that made Peter famous, he was ubiquitous in all media. Fleming had access to the personal papers which Peter had deposited at Trent University, and he also did a lot of diligent reportorial digging, as the book follows Peter from childhood trauma (divorced parents, severe acne and early death of his beloved mother) to his days as editor of The Varsity, campus newspaper for the University of Toronto.

We hear from co-workers at the papers in Timmins, Moose Jaw and Chatham, where Peter worked after not graduating from U of T. There are quotes from writers who submitted articles to Peter when he became the youngest-ever managing editor of Maclean's Magazine and later, entertainment editor at the Toronto Star.

Gzowski was a consummate writer. Along the way, he wrote 20 books, many freelance articles, and was a columnist for the Globe and Mail when he died in January 2002. But on radio, Peter was magic, becoming the beloved companion of thousands of Canadians (especially women) on Radio Free Friday during the late 1960s, on This Country In The Morning during the '70s, and from '82-'97 on Morningside. "His radio persona seemed to embody just about everything we liked about ourselves as Canadians: humble but not grovelling, patriotic but not jingoistic, athletic but not superjock, cultured but not egghead."

Through the years, Gzowski made several forays into television, but was out of his comfort zone. He felt that television "could never achieve the real spontaneity of radio."

During his reportorial digging, Fleming peeled away the layers of the Gzowski icon to reveal the demons that drove him - depression, women, alcohol and smoking. His romantic proclivities led to his divorce from wife Jennie, who bore his five children. The trysts continued through two long-term relationships and, in the epilogue, Fleming reveals that one such tryst in 1961 resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son, who Peter acknowledged somewhat, but never really supported. The alcohol resulted in a driving charge and the tobacco resulted in the emphysema which finally killed him.

Peter Gzowski: The Biography is a fascinating model of meticulous research, but a ruthless editor would have axed some of the irrelevant details.

In the introduction, Fleming tells of Peter asking author Michael Bliss whether it troubled him to expose Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Frederick Banting and show that he had feet of clay. Bliss and Gzowski agreed that a biography must be honest, and that exposing this less attractive part of Banting did not remove him from the pantheon of Canadian heroes. Fleming's comment: "Nor should this biography of Peter Gzowski."