Pierre Berton: A Biography

Winter 2008 CSANews Issue 69  |  Posted date : Dec 23, 2008.Back to list

Pierre Berton is a celebrated national icon in Canada, and was probably one of the first modern "Canadian celebrities," back when the term itself was almost an oxymoron.  Professor A.B. McKillop has written the first scholarly biography of Berton, all 791 pages of it!

Reading Pierre Berton is like embarking on a long, leisurely, but pleasant train trip through the 20th century, recalling highlights of the decades as they flash by.  Just occasionally, we are shunted off to irrelevant sidings.  For example, in describing the Little Lord Fauntleroy look that Pierre's mother inflicted on him – short velvet pants, Dutch cut and knee socks – McKillop goes off on a tangent about Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple with their respective versions of Little Lord Fauntleroy.

No wonder Pierre was picked on by the bullies of Dawson.  His mother, a school teacher and aspiring writer, and father, a university graduate and mining recorder were determined to maintain their Victorian standards.  Not being athletic, Pierre escaped into his books and imagination, but recalls his Dawson childhood as being idyllic.  Collecting, exploring the Yukon rivers with his sister and parents, Pierre exhibited early on the curiosity, enthusiasm and joie de vivre that remained for his lifetime.

The Berton family had to move from Dawson to Victoria after Frank lost his job.  During the Victoria years, Pierre attended high school and the first two years of college, always involved in the campus newspapers and working during the summers at Klondike mining camps.

At the University of British Columbia, Pierre was soon editor of the famous Ubyssey student paper, as well as a wild young cub reporter for a real Vancouver newspaper.

His newspaper career was postponed by the Second World War.  Pierre considered that he had a lousy war.  "Between March 1942 and March 1945, he found himself posted from one army base to another, constantly training for war, but never in it." In his autobiography, Berton confessed that, after a boisterous VE Day in England, he was told by a girl that he was going to become a father, but that she was marrying her boyfriend. End of story.

After the war, Pierre returned to Vancouver newspapers and married his best friend Janet, who had been co-editor of the Ubyssey.  Janet was not only the mother of his children, she remained an integral part of his editorial team for the rest of his life.

Pierre's philosophy was "news was not the truth, but it was what somebody claimed was the truth." He was always on the lookout for the weird and controversial.  It was his much-publicized northern trip to explore the "Headless Valley" on the Nahanni River that caught the attention of Toronto publishers, and led to his lengthy careers at Macleans and later, the Toronto Star.

After living in a couple of Toronto apartments, the Bertons built their house on a scenic lot in Kleinburg.  As the family grew to include seven children, the house grew from 1,450 square feet to more than 6,000.

Pierre Berton's middle years were his most productive; he became a crusading phenomenon.  Besides his work for Macleans and the Toronto Star, Pierre wrote 50 books telling Canada's stories to Canadians and recycling his columns in other books.  He also travelled the world, did daily radio gigs and television talk shows.  There was, of course, the famous Front Page Challenge which lasted for 38 years.  "It was cancelled by the CBC in their usual classy way.  The panel members were notified by speakerphone"!

Most of us are aware of Pierre Berton's life at some level or another. McKillop does go into some salacious details about the infamous Sordsmen's Club which Pierre founded with publisher Jack McClelland, and he devotes a whole chapter to the Elsa Factor.  Elsa was Elsa Franklin, who became Pierre's producer and business partner.  When asked directly if she and Pierre became lovers, her reply was, "I would never answer that question." Mind you, she does admit that she and Pierre had shouting matches in many of the major cities of the world.

Another result yielded by the meticulous research which McKillop conducted for this book was the fact that Pierre's father had been put into an orphanage by his own mother, from ages six to 17.  She was an impoverished widow and they resumed family relations after Frank graduated from university.  Pierre was 84 when McKillop shared this with him; the family had never known.

At one point, McKillop mentions a review accusing Pierre of being prolixitic (long-winded or writing interminably). To me, that term applies to this book.  Pierre Berton's quotes and excerpts are the liveliest writing in the biography.

Historian Jack Granatstein once noted that Berton was a "good researcher, but he consciously made his work interesting,"  to which Berton made a rare rebuttal.  "Well professor, I sure as hell don't consciously make it dull!"  And he didn't, and we miss him.

Willa McLean is a freelance writer who lives in Kitchener.