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A scribbler's life

Dafoe's grandson offers insight behind the 'newspaperman' in new bio

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/6/2014 (1157 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

An artful portrait of famed Free Press editor John Wesley Dafoe hangs on the second level of the sunny atrium of the Winnipeg Free Press building on Mountain Avenue. Unlike other portraits of long-dead Free Press luminaries, the painting is neither signed nor dated.

The image is iconic: a somewhat rumpled, mustached man in a three-piece suit, stylus in hand (he never used a typewriter), looking directly and inquiringly at the viewer.


He seems perfectly comfortable in his skin, calm and deep as a dark pool. There are paintings within the painting on the wall behind Dafoe. One depicts a session of Parliament, which was the focus of his life and which he first covered as a reporter for the Montreal Weekly Star at age 17 -- when Sir John A. Macdonald was prime minister and Sir Wilfrid Laurier was, like Dafoe, a bookish loner often found in the parliamentary library.

There are photos of Dafoe -- the paper's editor from 1901 until his death in 1944 at age 77 -- throughout the Free Press building, all of which look much the same as the portrait in the atrium, some more rumpled, some less so.

The sameness of most surviving public images of John Wesley Dafoe might suggest he was born an august elder statesman.

That stereotypical image, however, is precisely what his grandson, writer and editor Christopher Dafoe, set out to clarify in writing In Search of Canada.

"Kit," as his grandfather called him as a boy, greatly admires J.W., and if he wished, he could have burnished his record. He could have gone into detail about how he was a Canadian nationalist in colonial times, a member of the Canadian delegation that demanded inclusion at the 1919 Versailles peace conference, and a steadfast and, at first, unpopular opponent of Nazi appeasement, but that work has been done by others in comprehensive biographies.

What Christopher Dafoe succinctly and successfully adds to the record "is the story of the man his family and friends knew," a guy they simply called "Jack" throughout his lifetime.

Christopher Dafoe (known as Chris at the Free Press, to which he has contributed throughout his career) relies heavily on the voluminous family archive of his grandfather's personal correspondence, speeches, essays, books and recollections to bring to life the "long-legged, lantern-jawed, spindly shanked, red-headed curiosity" born on March 8, 1866, to a desperately poor, lapsed barroom-brawling father and an English Methodist mother in the backwoods of Ontario, known then in pre-Confederation days as Canada West.

He was "tongue-tied" and could not speak "plainly" until age 10 or 12 following several surgeries. Chris speculates that his condition might explain why he was bookish, dreamy and introspective, not the hard-working hand his father desired.

His schooling was primitive and sporadic. Although he was known to be something of a brat, he was always a top student, a voracious reader and self-taught beyond his years. He became a teacher at age 15, where his lifelong fondness for "little ones" made him a favourite.

He had a poem published at age 12, and was torn throughout his young adulthood between a literary life or the life of a "newspaperman."

He rebelled against his father's Tory Orangemen beliefs and the "narrow" views of Methodists, declaring himself "a Radical" and eventually "a fighting Grit," although he was never a slavish partisan, defying the Liberal party on many occasions when he found it to be on the wrong side of such issues as wartime coalition government and free trade.

While he rejected his parents' beliefs, he never rejected his family, supporting them always, even acquiring land in Manitoba for them to farm.

He was not a fair man in the even-handed sense of the word. He knew what he believed, and fought for it with words in ways that might be considered extreme by some today. He despised some people and let them know it, and had a low opinion of most politicians and anyone whose claimed convictions exceeded their wanting courage or who abandoned principle for the base gratification of popularity.

A lifelong teetotaler, he courted his wife Alice for four years, largely by mail. She refused his proposals of marriage twice, perhaps because he was six-foot-two and she was little more than five feet.

But eventually they married and settled in Winnipeg, "a cold wilderness," where the rest, as they say, became history.

In Chris's able hands, however, it never reads like history. Rather, it reads, as he intended, as the story of a remarkable young man who accomplished greatness after he realized early that "I was born to be a scribbler and a scribbler I'll be all my life."

Chris, who was eight when his grandfather died, clearly inherited the "scribbler" mantle, as did his brother, John Wesley Dafoe (junior), the former editorial page editor of the Free Press who died in February.


Gerald Flood recently retired as Winnipeg Free Press comment editor.


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Updated on Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 8:08 AM CDT: Formatting.

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