A lot of stuff Peter Gzowski just made up

A new biography sets the record straight about many of the CBC radio legend’s stories

Bryce Duffy/CORBIS/ Richard Pierre

In the last two decades of the 20th century, Peter Gzowski was as close to a Captain Canada as this country has ever seen. He had his loud detractors, to be sure, and many more who simply wouldn’t have recognized their Canada in his radio universe. But the 350,000 Canadians (and thousands of Americans) who tuned in to CBC’s Morningside every weekday from 1982 to 1997 were enthralled. The everyman hemming and hawing, the hesitant delivery of perceptive questions, the boyish enthusiasm and curiosity—whether addressed to the world yodelling champ (a Canadian, naturally), Leonard Cohen or a prime minister—drew them into Gzowski’s richly imagined nation. One fan named her dog Gzowski, while others wrote the host letters about deeply personal matters (“How are you? Last time I wrote I was just getting over that awful miscarriage”) or lamenting that his retirement would mean the end of “the glue holding Canada together.”

Back then, Rae Fleming was one of those listeners. A grad student caring for a dying parent, isolated in a tiny Ontario town, he used to silently thank Gzowski every morning at 9:12 “for saving my sanity.”

Now the author of Peter Gzowski: A Biography, Fleming has a more nuanced view of the show and of the man. “I thought Gzowski was near-perfect and Morningside the epitome of Canada,” Fleming says in an interview. “It was an enchanting country he presented. I know now it was a rather narrow portrait—that the show missed things starting to bubble up, notably Western alienation—but it was an attractive one, the image of how we wanted to be. It was like Ronald Reagan on radio.”

It was a modest, tolerant and unassuming Canada that emerged, even if it was engaged in unending struggle (with the CBC as its chief defender) for cultural independence from the U.S.; devoted to peacekeeping, medicare and the welfare state; hockey-mad and literary-minded. It was essentially an Ottawa-Toronto-Montreal-triangle view of Canada, forged in the 1960s and ’70s. And this sunny vision was championed by a man who—gregarious, fair-minded and welcoming as he was on radio—was both “troubled and troubling” in private, as author Sylvia Fraser noted after Gzowski’s death in 2002. He drank heavily at times, and was given to bouts of self-pity; he was ruthlessly competitive to the extent of cheating in games and reneging on bets if that didn’t work; he could be moody and unpredictable.

Michael Enright told Fleming of a time Gzowski warmly invited him to his cottage, “very insistent that I go and very attentive in giving me the right directions.” Once Enright arrived, however, Gzowski ignored him during his stay.

Yet the most intriguing aspect of Gzowski’s personality was the astonishing degree to which he lived within his own imagination. (And it was precisely the extent to which he did, Fleming suggests, that made him so compelling and attractive a communicator, especially for the women who made up the majority of the Morningside audience: one of Gzowski’s producers estimated there was a club of women, 5,000 strong, spread across the country, all madly in love with Peter.) Gzowski was often engaged, in print and on the air, in reinventing the events and, more, the entire feel of his childhood. He was born in Toronto in 1934, but grew up mainly in Galt, Ont. (now Cambridge), the hometown of his stepfather Reg Brown, whom his mother married two years after her 1938 divorce from Peter’s father.

Galt is the setting for a quintessential Gzowski tale, one he told often, about a game of hockey that began in a park. After the puck flew over the boards, the boy who went to retrieve it found the grounds—the whole city, in fact—transformed by verglas, a French word describing fields of ice created by frozen sleet overlying snow. Soon every local boy, “40 of us, 50 of us,” were skating “across roads, across lawns, racing down hills like skiers, out into the country, soaring across farmers’ fields, free as birds.”

Not really, of course: Dickson Park, then as now, was surrounded by streets of brick homes and wooden fences and offered no outlet to far-off farms. It was the sort of magical memory, the kind that demonstrated his true Canadianism, that Gzowski wanted to craft out of his boyhood, and often did—at times Fleming is busy setting the record straight at almost a story-per-page clip. In his 1988 memoir, The Private Voice, the broadcaster recalled his Quebec-friendly disdain in Grade 9 when the poet William Henry Drummond read some of his “racist doggerel” at Galt Collegiate. True, the poet did write popular verse featuring French-Canadian habitants speaking in bad English, but Drummond came by his Victorian attitudes honestly: he was a Victorian. By the time Gzowski reached high school in 1947, Drummond had been dead for 40 years.

At other times the reinventions were less political and more personal. Gzowski told CBC’s Life & Times that his parents married hastily because of his impending arrival and divorced “almost before I was born.” In reality the perfectly respectable Margaret Young and Harold Gzowski wed in 1932, two years before their son’s birth. Whatever had fractured their marriage, it wasn’t his doing.

Fleming recounts these instances not to bury his subject, but to explain him. Gzowski was intelligent, sensitive and scarred in his early years: emotionally less by his parents’ divorce than by his mother’s shockingly early death at 40 when Peter was only 16, and physically by severe acne. As Gzowski noted in The Private Voice, “I don’t think people who haven’t had the real thing—I’m talking ugly, festering pustules that bleed through your basketball shirt—have any idea what it does to a young person’s soul, and if some psychiatrist were to try to explain my sometimes excessive need to be liked on the radio by peering into the history of my epidermis, well, he could have something.”

The imaginative child grew to be an gifted writer, as seen in his articles for Maclean’s and various newspapers and in The Game of Our Lives, his 1981 book on Wayne Gretzky and the emerging Edmonton Oilers dynasty. Even so, his was a creative genius that worked best on radio—a medium through which he could connect directly with the audience’s individual imaginations—and crashed and burned on television. Gzowski’s ill-fated 1970s experiment 90 Minutes Live has ever since been considered a textbook case of bad TV.

A lot went into bringing about that flop, including overconfidence: Gzowski thought he understood TV and was—for a man who dispensed advice on a daily basis, on everything from politics to books—notoriously averse to taking it. (That was particularly so about cigarettes: the three-pack-a-day smoker, who died of emphysema at 67, would respond with days of silent treatment to anyone with the temerity to suggest it was time to quit.) So Gzowski embarked on a talk-show format in which he was profoundly uncomfortable and, worse, looked it: often sitting with his shoulder turned from his guests, as though he were shunning them, rarely smiling, constantly rubbing together his index finger and thumb, as though impatient with the conversation or craving another cigarette.

Sometimes he came close to losing control of the show to the guests. Wrestler Gene Kiniski embarrassingly asked him, “Your hands are shaking. Something the matter?” To be fair, not all of the most cringe-inducing moments were Gzowski’s fault: when he asked Mordecai Richler to comment on Anne Murray’s contribution to Canadian identity, the novelist—always a dangerous man to ask an earnest question of—replied, “Who’s Anne Murray?” At the time Richler was seated beside Murray’s brother, Bruce.

Such ineffectuality only scratched the surface of the real problem. For a man who poked and prodded others for a living—some 27,000 interviews over his professional life—Gzowski hated any sort of eye on him, very much including a TV camera. In 1991, in a Toronto bistro, he became aware of a four-year-old boy gazing at him from another booth. Eventually Gzowski went over to the parents and demanded, “Tell your son to stop staring at me.” Six years later, in Paris with Mavis Gallant to choose finalists for the Giller Prize, Gzowski snapped at the celebrated writer, whom he had often praised for her insights into the human heart, “Stop being Mavis Gallant!” She was shocked, and later speculated he feared becoming a character in a story. A good guess, since Gzowski on two occasions—off-mike—anxiously asked Sylvia Fraser, whom he had once attempted to bed, whether he was in the novels up for discussion. (One was A Casual Affair.) The thought that he might be exposed to others’ gaze, in the way he exposed them, was intolerable.

Of course, like anyone else (though perhaps more than most), Gzowski had a lot to be private about. Besides the drinking and the ugly competitive streak, there was the tumultuous sexual and family life: one marriage, two long-term relationships and uncounted liaisons, the five children of his marriage and the one child, never openly acknowledged, born of a brief affair.

Complicated is too anodyne a word to describe the Peter Gzowski who emerges from Fleming’s pages. But on radio he was magic. The medium freed him from all the dark corners of his private self—made him as free as the birds he imagined the Galt skaters of his boyhood to have been—and through it he connected with the emotions and imaginations of Canadians to an extent few others have.




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A lot of stuff Peter Gzowski just made up

  1. If there were 5000 women who were madly in love with Gzowski, then that is most uncomplimentary to the intelligence of the female members of the NDP.

  2. CBC., this isn't new.They always make things up.

  3. Alas. Merely another all-too-human human being.

  4. He was and is memorable, whatever his faults, he brought us something unique. And he fostered a feeling of connection.

  5. He was a storyteller. Stories aren't always based on facts, but they still offer a kind of truth.

  6. Really, what is to be gained by showcasing the warts of a beloved fellow years after his death?

    He made stuff up for entertainment and to make himself feel better. People loved him for it; where's the harm? He was flawed; he sounds depressive. Not criminal, merely human.

    • I think it is a useful case study of how we come to believe that "the good old days" were all that good and nobody's perfect. Both are valuable lessons to learn.

  7. His game was to try to think with his feelings. So, many liked him enormously, thought him nice. But one can't think with feelings and that avoidance of hard logic cost him dearly. Pandering to sensitive and confused listeners he became an intellectual anti-hero. Rather than serving as a public intellectual he worked as the apologist of sloppy thinking.

    His later incarnation is Suzuki, the man who makes all of science a whore to sentiment.

    • Very, very well put. Never really thought about any connection between the two. Gzowski I could tolerate at times. Suzuki I have never had any use for. I hope I am around long enough for the whole story to come out on that megalomaniac. It should be a dozy.

      • Suzuki is different; he isn't interested in being liked. He is a public scold — wants to be heard and is willing to be a total dink if necessary. He does not hold the sentiment of most Canadians because of his prickly personality; he is however respected and considered intelligent.

        • I don't doubt Suzuki's intelligence, but he does have a penchant for pointing out the flaws in things or the overarching problem with little on the side of tangible and realistic solutions.

          • Suzuki has a penchant for pointing out flaws and inferring that anyone who disagrees with his extremist views is akin to a "denier"=holocaust denier=Nazi. However he has a pretty thin skin when it comes to anyone criticizing him even mildly. I recall he withdrew a scholarship he used to give at a journalism school years ago when a student there wrote an article mildly critical of him in the student newspaper. Can't be sure of the school, it may have been Carlton. That was before he went totally of the deep end and I wasn't paying that much attention to him.

    • Brilliantly well put! Perhaps because I am an American, I am not at all certain who Suzuki is, but I will attempt to find out. Of course, if there is more to read from "Petermarch", that would seem a more worthwhile use of my time.

      Please advise.

      • Suzuki is the last name of a Canadian broadcaster (CBC) who culls the scientific journals seeking evidence which favours theories of global warming and parlaying these spare facts as settling the issue. For him global warming is no mere theory, it is now a scientifically established moral imperative. In an earlier time he would have been a 'new-ice-ager', and before that a 'eugenicist'. The craven history of those who conflate science and morality.

  8. Another "Great Big Canadian Phoney" exposed, lulling insecure Canadians with what they wanted to hear.

  9. I aways found Gzowski to be superficial in his views on anything. An aberration of the CBC. Besides, I have since learned that he disliked Michael Coren. I feel I have been proven in my assessment of him.

    Ken Rowan, Toronto

  10. David Suzuki has helped establish Canada's environmentally conscious reputation internationally; and Peter Gzowski connected Canadians with each other, with their communities, with social events and environmental wonders, and with thinkers. Suzuki is a communicator of the most important messages possible; and Peter Gzowski communicated truths of the heart. I honour them both!

  11. Gzowski was superficial in his views. An aberration of the CBC. Besides, I have since found out he disliked Michael Coren. I feel justified in my assessment of him.

  12. god what a cheap and despicable attempt at a hatchet job – says far, far more about this 'magazine' and the writer – and the state of Cdn so-called 'journailsm' – than about Gzowski

  13. Gzowski was superficial in his views? Have you met our latest government? It's a disease.

  14. The images and feel of Canada that Peter drew and vocalized are quite true. Just drive across Canada in the winter and you will understand.

  15. Gzowski brought intelligence, humour, and personality to the radio in a way that excelled compared to the rest of AM radio at that time. Of course, it was entertainment: he told stories, interviewed, and challenged in his way, he wasn't plastic and superficial. Yes, he had his faults, but that is what made him real, more so than most cardboard figures in radio and television these days. I listened to him several times a week, during breaks, when he hosted This Country in the Morning (I was a grad student, busy studying, writing papers, theses, etc.).

  16. I used to listen to him a lot years ago and grew tired of his persona. Something about him did not seem authentic. Now I realize that is because he wasn't. He certainly wasn't decent or honourable in his behaviour towards his family. Was the son he did not publicly acknowledge, and who was excluded from his funeral, included in the division of his estate? From what I read, any support he provided during his lifetime was sporadic and not in keeping with his financial capability. He was a self-centred weasel.

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