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.