This is an excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, running every Friday. The following is from the chapter on Refugee and Power-Seeking Missile, Peter C. Newman.
“That bastard Newman! You can’t ever trust him!” It was 1968 and my boss, David Manuel, was furious. The letter in his hand contained bad news. Despite the existence of a signed contract, Peter Newman was cancelling his plans to provide Doubleday with his next book, which was certain to be a bestseller. He was cancelling the contract with regret, and returning, without interest, the money that had been advanced to him some years earlier.
But it wasn’t just that. The letter to David — announcing, and feebly explaining, this decision — was a copy, and the envelope contained an original, signed letter from Peter to Jack McClelland, saying, in effect: “This should fool those guys at Doubleday.”
David Manuel sent back the correspondence to Peter Newman with a curt note explaining that it seemed to have been intended for someone else. Then we sat back and waited to see how Peter Newman could get out of this situation of almost terminal embarrassment.
No problem. Back from his desk as Ottawa editor of the Toronto Star came a cheerfully unrepentant letter that joked about the unpredictability of the mails, glossed over the difficult facts, and went on to spread general good will and best wishes all around.
That day I learned why John Diefenbaker, who had suffered badly in Newman’s 1963 book about him, entitled Renegade in Power, had called him “the bouncing Czech.” Although Dief bore the fine people of Czechoslovakia no general ill will, it was not an affectionate nickname. So I learned very early in my career that there was more to Peter than met the eye. Clearly, this was a man who bore watching. As the years went by I found that watching him was a lot of fun.
Fast forward almost forty years. By now, after I had edited and published Peter’s superb autobiography Here Be Dragons in 2004, we were friends. I had enjoyed my encounters with him down through the years, since I had seen him clearly from the start. I knew that he was a mischievous fellow, with his own agenda, and not a candidate for sainthood.
But after the predictable success of Here Be Dragons (stuffed full, as it was, of amazing stories involving Canada’s major figures), I had tried, like a good publisher working to keep his major authors busy on another book, to get Peter going on a new project. He was always flattered, and always keen to get started on something in due course, but a little vague about when that might be, since he was so busy, as always, with newspaper and magazine work. I found it very hard to pin my friend Peter down.
So when Jane and I were invited to join Peter and his wife Alvy for a sail in their boat in Lake Ontario, I was delighted. I looked forward to getting to know Alvy better (since in a earlier conversation I had brushed away her objections that I would have no idea about the Peace River district she came from, and amazed her by establishing that she had been in high school in Fairview with my second cousin Fraser Robertson). And spending a whole summer Saturday in a yacht with Peter — an experienced sailor who has ventured right around Vancouver Island — at the helm, meant that I could find out what his plans were, for sure.
Except that the boat also contained Ray Heard and his wife. I don’t know if Ray was actually assigned the task of talking all the time, of if Peter assumed that he would fall naturally into the role, but a tête à tête with Peter proved to be impossible. We had a fine sail, fine food and drink, nobody drowned, and nobody strangled Ray Heard. So I was still making no progress in getting Peter to start a new book, and still unsure about what his next project might be.
Until, that is, the morning of September 12, 2005, when Jane, an early riser, disturbed my morning drowse with the words, “I think you should see this.”
This was the front page of the Globe and Mail, which revealed in a huge headline that Peter C. Newman had just brought out a clandestine book, The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister. These were tapes that Peter had made during the years of Brian Mulroney’s time as prime minister. Peter had talked (perhaps the word is “flattered”) his way into the role of Boswell to Mulroney’s Dr. Johnson, and the two had chatted frankly over hundreds of Ottawa hours as the Prime Minister’s life in office unfolded. The eventual publication, Mulroney obviously hoped, would be a team effort that provided him with a great legacy.
Then things went wrong, somehow, between them — it may have been the word “team” — and the project languished. But there were these many hours of tapes. . . .
As I lay there in what had been my restful bed I cast my mind back for any clues that this bomb was about to explode. No new Peter C. Newman book had been listed for that fall season by any Canadian publisher. Random House, it was true, had been offering booksellers an anonymous book for that month by a major author that would, they promised, be hugely controversial.
. . .
Then I remembered a lunch, some years earlier, when Peter had mentioned in passing that he had all of these tapes that he had made with Mulroney. I didn’t get into the obvious problem that tapes of a conversation belong to both of the parties involved, because I simply told Peter that I was going to be publishing Brian Mulroney’s memoirs, so was not interested in any other Mulroney projects, and we moved on to other topics. It occurred to me that morning that this vague thirtysecond conversation, in Peter’s world view, constituted fair warning.
That morning I was the only person in a world of screaming “Mulroney Betrayed by Newman” news stories to receive a phone call from both Peter C. Newman and Brian Mulroney.
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