BORN: Vienna, Austria • 10 May 1929
THE FLAME OF POWER HAS ALWAYS BURNED BRIGHTLY in Peter C. Newman’s eyes. As a journalist and popular historian, economic and political power fascinates him. His talents are such that he can get close enough to his subjects to plumb their depths—and wade all over them in the shallows.
Establishments in government and business are his metier, and he has made them understandable to Canadians.Born to a family of wealthy Czech-Jewish industrialists who lived near the Austrian border, Newman’s privileged youth (six maids, a gardener, and a chauffeur) ended when the Nazis swallowed his country in 1939.
Good fortune and wealth helped them escape Europe ahead of Hitler’s armies and, refused entry to the United States, the Newmans came to Canada—as farmers. His father sent the shy fifteen-year-old Peter to Toronto’s Upper Canada College where, discriminated against because of his accent and his religion, Newman did not flourish.
But he Canadianized his accent, graduated, and went off to the University of Toronto, where he anglicized his name from Neuman. University, too, was not a notable success—except that he joined the “Untidies,” the University Naval Training Division, and formed a lifelong devotion to sailing and the navy.
But it was writing that captured his attention.He found work on The Varsity, the student paper,and then for five years at the Financial Post, the country’s leading business paper. His work on business fed his fascina¬ tion with the men who made the economy hum and led to his first book, Flame ofPower, which became a bestseller.
By 1959, when he was sent to Ottawa by Maclean’s, Newman was ready to make his mark on political reportage.The time was ripe. Journalists were still open political partisans in those days, serving the interests of their masters more often than those of the public. Newman was different.
He cultivated the politicians but also the executive assistants, and he knew how to do an interview, extracting the hard news and the quirky stories that gave a story texture. The Diefenbaker government was in power with a huge majority, but the cracks were starting to show in the economy, in defence and foreign policy, and in the psyche of the prime minister. Newman had found his subject.
Renegade in Power, his devastating account of the rise and fall of John Diefenbaker and his Conservative govern¬ ment, forever changed political journalism in Canada when it appeared in the autumn of 1963. Here was inside informa¬ tion and hard judgment, political shrewdness and sparkling prose.
Canadian politics, to the surprise of most readers, was just as exciting as American. The Tories fumed (to Dief, Newman was ever after “the bouncing Czech”), but the public ate it up, as his immense sales showed, just as it did his subsequent book on the Pearson government.
By 1969 Newman was editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star, and he turned that newspaper into the flagship of Canadian nationalism. He was a founder of the Committee for an Independent Canada, a lobby group that formed around the economic nationalism espoused by Walter Gordon.
And when he went to Maclean’s as editor in 1971, he continued to wear his nationalism on his sleeve. Under his lead, the magazine went from a monthly to a weekly, offering a current Canadian slant on the world and the nation.Still he continued to write books, once again turning to business leaders, where his journalistic adaption ofcinema verite continued to work.
What he did, he said, was to record his subjects “with the objectivity of a handheld camera, recording them as they are.” The Bronfmans, the Canadian Establishment, Conrad Black, and the Hudson’s Bay Company were all subjects that he popularized, and his book sales and publication advances continued to lead the pack.Newman was a staple of the book trade, the author sure to be found in every home where books went unread.
But it was not all hosannas. Academic historians ordinarily disliked his work, resenting his popularizations of their subjects, frowning over his perfervid purple passages.Unfazed, Newman gave as good as he got: if he didn’t write popular history, Canadians would be forced to get it from Walt Disney.
Take that, you professional historians. In one memo¬ rable exchange in the Canadian Historical Review that left his opponent battered, Newman suggested that history was too important to be left to the historians, and he blasted the academics for their boring pedantry and for forgetting that history was ultimately about stories.
“I’m not dull,” he told a columnist, “and I intentionally use the techniques of fiction to make history interesting.” Those techniques did not make for sound history, but he was precisely right in his strictures on the professors.Now approaching seventy, Newman still writes a weekly column for Maclean’s in the early morning hours on his battered typewriter, with his earphones blaring Stan Kenton at him.
With his fourth wife, he sails the West Coast, the very model of the active man of leisure. Heaped with honorary doctorates and awards, all carefully detailed in Who’s Who, Peter Newman made it big in his adopted country as the chronicler of the Establishment and, most important, as the man who pulled Canadian political jour¬ nalism into the twentieth century.