Remembering Gzowski

Much-loved Canadian writer, broadcaster had more than his share of flaws, biography reveals

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Peter Gzowski A Biography By R.B. Fleming Dundurn, 511 pages, $40

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/08/2010 (4425 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Peter Gzowski
A Biography
By R.B. Fleming
Dundurn, 511 pages, $40

If ever a cherished Canadian public figure had feet of clay, it was Peter Gzowski.

Many of us knew the late great broadcaster and author as a massive talent. And, no surprise, biographer R.B. (Rae) Fleming charts chapter and verse the story of Gzowski’s path to that success in this thorough and revealing effort.

Golden mind, feet of clay

What is surprising, however, is Fleming’s revelation of Gzowski’s flaws and the price that he, and those around him, paid for them.

Fleming’s depiction of the contradictions of Gzowski’s life makes for compelling reading. First the flaws: Infidelity, alcohol abuse, depression, insecurity, careless parenting, social climbing (don’t get Fleming going on Gzowski’s admiration for Peter Pocklington), and a habit of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

Contrast those qualities with his strengths: creativity, tenacity, insight, journalistic judgment and curiosity.

"He was a brother, a friend, or a helpful neighbour," Fleming writes. "His stammering, which was a carefully developed characteristic of his radio style, made him all the more human."

Fleming gives us a never-before-seen look at the private Gzowski, who was almost the opposite of the carefully crafted public Gzowski.

This biography is not an homage or a hagiography. Fleming, 66, who lives in south-central Ontario, is not widely known but he has written numerous small-scale historical articles including some for Canada’s History, the Winnipeg-based magazine formerly known as The Beaver.

He published a biography of Sir William Lyon Mackenzie in 1991 and, in 1992, edited a collection of essays called Boswell’s Children: The Art of the Biography.

Here, in a door-stopping 512 pages (with 77 pages of footnotes, a 13-page index and 28 photos — some never published before), Fleming traces Gzowski’s life in exceptional detail. In his acknowledgments, he cites hundreds of former Gzowski colleagues and friends, though not his immediate family members.

Fleming follows Gzowski from his birth in Toronto in 1934, through his childhood in small-town Galt, Ont., to his first writing in the sports pages of his high school newspaper.

He details his early manual labour across the North, his first newspaper work in Timmins, Moose Jaw, Regina and Chatham, and his return to Toronto, the site of so much of his success.

This included his two hit radio programs, Morningside and This Country in the Morning, his CBC-TV shows, his writing in The Star Weekly, Maclean’s or Canadian Living, his 18 books, and his volunteerism for literacy programs.

Fleming also charts Gzowski’s painful decline and eventual death at age 67 in January 2002 from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) after a lifetime of smoking 80 cigarettes a day.

As Fleming tells it, earlier Gzowski-family successes and failures cast a long shadow over Gzowski and ordained a high-achieving but painful life’s path for him.

He explores how Gzowski was driven, through journalism, to emulate the success of his long-dead great-great-grandfather Sir Casimir Gzowski, a high-born Pole who became a fixture in the political, business and social elite of Canada and Britain.

By the time Gzowski was born, his ancestors’ elite connections and their fortune has vanished in the crash of ’29. His soon-to-be absent father sold insurance and his much-adored but flirtatious librarian mother was on her way to an early death.

In Fleming’s view, Gzowski’s wobbly and uncertain childhood with inconsistent and unreliable parents led to his own careless attitude to family and spousal fidelity. Fleming argues that he replaced the love of family with a search for the love of adoring readers and listeners. Gzowski’s recurring problems with depression and alcohol abuse didn’t help.

The biggest surprise of the book is Gzowski’s 1960 affair with and impregnation of Cathy Perkins, an editorial researcher, of Toronto.

"In the 1960s, single-motherhood was a scandal," Fleming notes. "Peter’s job at Maclean’s might have been jeopardized, and one can only imagine how difficult it would have been to rise through the ranks of Canadian media had it become known he had fathered an ‘illegitimate’ child."

Robert Lawrence Perkins was born Feb. 3, 1961. "Peter had forbidden the use of any of his three names," Fleming says. "I had to shame myself into writing ‘Father Unknown’ on the birth records," Perkins tells him.

Manitobans may be interested to discover that Gzowski’s first wife, Jeanette (Jennie) Lissaman, who left him in 1977 after raising their five children, was a University of Manitoba grad from Brandon, where her father, Reg, was a well-to-do building contractor and realtor and a Conservative MLA.

Through the book Fleming returns often to what he sees as Gzowski’s habit of adjusting facts to suit the story he’s telling. A charitable view is that he was exploring the creative non-fiction "New Journalism" of Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton.

More cynically, Fleming sees Gzowski shoring up his insecurity by regularly fabricating and altering details of his life: from where he skated as a kid, to his mother’s education, to his parents relationship, to where he went to summer camp.

Fleming’s depiction of the public outpouring after Gzowski’s death on Jan. 25, 2002, is touching, with stories of mourning listeners, including those in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Penitentiary, "[where] some of Canada’s most hardened criminals sat around quietly discussing their favourite Morningside interviews."

He also reminds us that tens of millions of English-speaking Canadians and most French-speakers did not listen to Gzowski and they did not grieve.

"Peter’s Canada of small town and essentially good-hearted white people had long ago been replaced by a cosmopolitan, polyglot urban nation," he writes.

"What Peter represented was nostalgia for a self-confident decent and compassionate Canada that had all but vanished except in the memory of his listeners."

This book will stir and provoke those listeners and will generate debate about the true legacy of this driven, talented and troubled man with a golden mind and feet of clay.

Terry MacLeod was a producer for Peter Gzowski at CBC’s Morningside from 1988 to 1993. He is currently the co-host of CBC Winnipeg’s Information Radio.

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