Born in 1934, Peter Gzowski covered most of the last half of the century as a journalist and interviewer. This biography, the most comprehensive and definitive yet published, is also a portrait of Canada during those decades, beginning with Gzowski’s days at the University of Toronto’s The Varsity in the mid 1950s, through his years as the youngest-ever managing editor of Maclean’s in the 1960s and his tremendous success on CBC’s Morningside in the 1980s and 1990s, and ending with his stint as a Globe and Mail columnist at the dawn of the 21st century and his death in January 2002.
Gzowski saw eight Canadian Prime Ministers in office, most of whom he interviewed, and witnessed everything from the Quiet Revolution in Qubec to the growth of economic nationalism in Canada’s West. From the rise of state medicine to the decline of the patriarchy, Peter was there to comment, to resist, and to participate. Here was a man who was proud to call himself Canadian and who made millions of other Canadians realize that Canada was, in what he claimed was a Canadian expression, not a bad place to live.
Rae Fleming's previous biographical investigations include a biography of Sir William Mackenzie, an edited collection of essays on biography, and a recent commissioned biography, not yet published. He has also written several articles, most of them biographical in one way or another, for The Beaver magazine. Rae lives in Argyle, Ontario.
As one of my editors at Maclean’s, he was often as vain, prickly, sneering and verbally sadistic as Fleming goes to such extraordinary lengths to prove he could be, but he was also funny, joyful, supremely well read and bursting with opinions and gossip about hot magazines and their writers.
My memory of Peter Gzowski remains so evocative and so poignant that while reading R.B. Flemings magnificent Peter Gzowski: A Biography I realized it is not just the story of a life but the saga of a generation The value of this book is the portrait it paints of its protagonist away from his microphone. Gzowski emerges not nearly as likable as he wanted us to believe, but the revelations of his dark side serve mainly to make him more human.
Fleming's biography of Gzowski is nuanced and remarkably well-assembled. It gathers the disparate strands of the broadcaster's chequered life into a coherent and fascinating view of a clever, complex personality who, despite emotional problems, kept a country intrigued for almost twenty years.
Having greatly enjoyed my friendship with him for four decades, I still sometimes brood over his contradictions. He was like an absorbing character in fiction whom the author never quite explains. Fleming is a long-time admirer of Gzowski the broadcaster but doesn't let that suppress what he's learned about Gzowski the man. I can't say more for Fleming than that he's made me think freshly about a subject I believed I knew well. He's given us an absorbing, provocative book about a man who was even more complicated than most of us imagined.
Last years triumphant biographies of two great Canadians R.B. Flemings Peter Gzowski: A Biography, and Charles Forans Mordecai: The Life and Timesrestored our faith in a form often too degraded into the literary equivalent of Jersey Shore.
Complicated is too anodyne a word to describe the Peter Gzowski who emerges from Flemings pages. But on radio he was magic. The medium freed him from all the dark corners of his private self -- and made him 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 extend few others have.
Through the book Fleming returns often to what he sees as Gzowski's habit of adjusting facts to suit the story he's telling. A charitable view is that he was exploring the creative non-fiction "New Journalism" of Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton. More cynically, Fleming sees Gzowski shoring up his insecurity by regularly fabricating and altering details of his life: from where he skated as a kid, to his mother's education, to his parents relationship, to where he went to summer camp.
One of the books strengths is its portrayal of the group of largely Toronto-based writers and broadcasters in whose circles Gzowski traveled and who helped shape Canadian pop culture.
Fleming had to fall back on his historical training to find ways to verify stories, Fleming knows, however, that with a public figure, gossip helps historians see how issues were presented or understood. It may be that readers will be selective in what they decide to believe about Gzowski, but this book will have a long shelf life because it tries to understand all aspects of Gzowski’s life, both public and private.
The enduring value of Flemings book is the saga of a very imperfect man who told stories, and a reminder of just how magical radio can be when its creators are willing to slave in the service of work that serves and unites its community by entertaining it.
Peter Gzowski was human, sometimes difficult and not always the nicest of people. Sounds like all of us, eh?