Press baron’s rise and fall a riveting read

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This fascinating biography of the Globe and Mail newspaper’s founding owner and publisher might just as aptly be subtitled The Man Who Would Be Prime Minister.

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This fascinating biography of the Globe and Mail newspaper’s founding owner and publisher might just as aptly be subtitled The Man Who Would Be Prime Minister.

In October 1936, Toronto high school dropout and self-made millionaire George McCullagh bought a city newspaper, the Globe (founded in 1844 by Father of Confederation George Brown). A month later he bought another Toronto newspaper, the Mail and Empire.

He promptly merged them and christened the hybrid the Globe and Mail.

The newspaper became his platform to espouse a host of public-policy positions and the springboard for his political ambitions.

As Ottawa author Mark Bourrie puts it, McCullagh believed “the country needed an unconventional, strong leader. He saw that man when he looked in the mirror.”

Bourrie has the credentials to write this bio. He has a law degree, a master’s degree in journalism and a PhD in history. His immediately prior book, Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre Radisson, won the 2020 RBC Charles Taylor prize for literary non-fiction.

McCullagh, in Bourrie’s telling, pretty much controlled two Ontario premiers, perennially drunk reprobate Liberal Mitchell Hepburn and Conservative ideologue George Drew. He also had the ear, and often the ire, of then Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King.

In 1952, at age 47, he was positioned to make a move into national politics. “The way was open for him to be leader of the federal Conservative party when his friend George Drew was finished taking his turn,” writes Bourrie.

Instead he died, suddenly, almost certainly by suicide, the result of decades of fighting a bipolar disorder for which he was treated and often mis-treated.

McCullagh is a forgotten titan of Canadian journalism and political history. Bourrie sees two reasons for this.

First, the Globe and Mail’s subsequent owners and publishers have ignored or downplayed his legacy.

Second, his self-aggrieved widow, Phyllis, burned his prodigious collection of papers — correspondence, speeches, reports, documents, receipts, accounts — making it difficult for historians and wannabe biographers to get the inside dope on McCullagh.

McCullagh’s surviving daughter, Ann, told Bourrie her mother burned the papers so they could never be used for a biography. Ann avows that his wife, and her mother, hated McCullagh because “intellectually she couldn’t keep up with him.”

Bourrie devotes a couple chapters to a somewhat bizarre, and ultimately abortive, populist movement called The Leadership League that McCullagh launched in 1939.

It was ostensibly a non-partisan organization that aimed to curtail government overreach. But its objectives were always murky. What it did, though, was create, albeit briefly, a national vehicle for McCullagh’s politics.

He cites media historian Douglas Fetherling’s epitaph on the movement, who described it as “at best anti-democratic and perhaps even fascistic in its sympathies.”

Bourrie’s research is meticulous, and his writing has great pace and bounce.

McCullagh’s rags-to-riches accession to press baron, and dark sudden demise, is a remarkable story.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

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