Jean Drapeau (Obituary)

Jean Drapeau lived by extremes. The man who as Montreal mayor for 29 years routinely travelled the world didn't leave Quebec for the first time until age 36, when he went to New Brunswick.
Jean Drapeau lived by extremes. The man who as Montreal mayor for 29 years routinely travelled the world didn't leave Quebec for the first time until age 36, when he went to New Brunswick.

Jean Drapeau lived by extremes. The man who as Montreal mayor for 29 years routinely travelled the world didn't leave Quebec for the first time until age 36, when he went to New Brunswick. The politician who comfortably entertained royalty, presidents and prime ministers lived, with wife Marie-Claire, in a modest brick bungalow in Montreal's working-class Rosemont district, which he bought with a $14,000 loan from his father in 1952. While opponents railed against the spending excesses of his government, Drapeau lived an ascetic life. His seven-day, 100-hour workweeks began with one of two breakfast choices: a cup of boiling water with lemon, or black coffee, taken at his desk at about 5:30 a.m. He was an incurable pack rat - right up until his death last week at 83 of undisclosed causes - and the private office he kept on Sherbrooke Street East was crammed with "every letter, medal, lighter, souvenir and knickknack he ever received," said Senator John Lynch-Staunton, an old friend and ally.

That frugal lifestyle was in sharp contrast to Drapeau's panoramic dreams and accomplishments. They range from construction of Montreal's unique Metro subway to the cultural centre Place des Arts to Expo 67, the world's fair, to the key role he played in bringing major league baseball to his city. For his achievements, "he will be remembered as the greatest mayor in Montreal's history - and one of Canada's greatest politicians," said Roger Landry, publisher of the daily La Presse.

That will be the case despite a large blot on Drapeau's record: the debt-ridden 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Originally budgeted at $310 million, costs ran $1 billion over budget - and the city is still paying the bills for the controversial stadium. Drapeau, before the Games, made his infamous crack that "the Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby." After, he was unrepentant - and so are his defenders. Says Landry: "He dreamed of glory for the city, not himself."

Although he won eight of nine elections - most by massive majorities - in a city known for its flamboyance, Drapeau's allure was not always apparent. In person, his most notable characteristics were his high, querulous voice, egg-shaped head, and dark eyes magnified by thick glasses. Despite his passion for the Olympics, he hated exercise and games: he played tennis once as a child, was hit in the eye with the ball, and quit. His English was fluent but heavily accented, while his French reflected his working-class roots. During rare interviews he gave to journalists, he sidestepped questions, or gave maddeningly circuitous responses.

But on the stump, Drapeau was rivetting. He had the ability to share his vision with listeners, to convince with his overwhelming belief in whatever he was promoting. Once, Drapeau's biographer, journalist Brian McKenna, asked his view of Lord Acton's maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. "That's true," responded Drapeau. "But not absolutely true." In a 1986 Maclean's interview, he explained his philosophy simply: "The people and I, we understand each other." He answered all the thousands of letters he received annually. On Sundays, he always drove through his city, Wagner arias blaring on his limousine tape deck, to inspect problems cited by constituents. Says Gerry Snyder, a longtime political ally: "You couldn't con him: he knew the issues firsthand."

Despite his stern image, Drapeau loved gossip and bawdy, sometimes silly jokes. Because of that he became close friends with a vocal critic, opposition councillor and gadfly Nick Auf der Maur. CBC television host Brian Stewart recalls going with Auf der Maur to visit Drapeau about 15 years ago. They arrived first, and Auf der Maur hid behind an office partition. When Drapeau stepped into the room, Auf der Maur leapt out and shouted "Boo!" Stewart was mortified while Drapeau and Auf der Maur collapsed with laughter.

Drapeau knew how to make a splash. During the 1967 world's fair, Ed Sullivan, host of the wildly popular television show that bore his name, had Drapeau on twice as a guest to plug Expo, and called him "the greatest mayor." That all came about because Drapeau had read a newspaper column by Sullivan that briefly praised Montreal. Drapeau, who never watched the show, wrote Sullivan a gushing note, which led to the invitations.

Born in 1916, Drapeau attended law school at the Université de Montréal. After dabbling with anti-conscription groups during the war - and running unsuccessfully for federal and provincial office - he rose to fame in the early 1950s as the lead lawyer in an inquiry that exposed the links between organized crime and the Montreal police. That led a group of citizens to draft him for a successful mayoralty run in 1954. Drapeau was approached many times later by many different parties to run at other levels, but always refused. "More than anything," said Lynch-Staunton, "he was a Montrealer."

A proud federalist, Drapeau made one of his last appearances in October, 1995, via video at a pro-Canada rally before the referendum. His was also the most effective reply to Charles de Gaulle's provocative use of the separatist slogan "Vive le Québec libre" during a 1967 visit. With passion in his voice, Drapeau told the visiting French president that Quebecers' identities were forged in the Canadian cauldron, not in that of Mother France.

Drapeau's voice broke when he announced retirement plans in 1986 - one of the few times he showed emotion. Prime minister Brian Mulroney made him ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, but he otherwise stayed out of the public eye. Now, the debate begins over how to remember him. But, says McKenna, in the city he controlled for so long, a formal memorial may not be necessary because "Montreal as it exists today is the real monument to the man." Even Drapeau could dream of no greater tribute.

Maclean's August 23, 1999