It’s unlikely anyone was clamouring for an exhaustive Peter Gzowski biography. In the 13 years since the CBC Radio mainstay stepped away from his most prominent perch as host of Morningside, and in the eight years since his death, Gzowski’s profile and fame, like that of many prominent and beloved broadcasters, has receded. Nevertheless, R.B. Fleming has taken on the task, though the result is not likely to win over many skeptics.
Fleming’s book exhaustively details Gzowski’s youth, his years as a print journalist experimenting with the emerging forms of “new journalism,” his various pre-Morningside CBC projects (most notably his late-night TV talk show, 90 Minutes Live), and his often dark and tumultuous personal and family life.
At times, the book gets tedious. Fleming provides an overly extensive account of articles Gzowski wrote for publications like Maclean’s and the Toronto Star. Fleming also repeatedly points out Gzowski’s tendency to embellish personal anecdotes, which results in a biographer constantly questioning his subject’s honesty.
On the plus side, one of the book’s strengths is its portrayal of the group of largely Toronto-based writers and broadcasters in whose circles Gzowski travelled and who helped shape Canadian pop culture. However, while Fleming repeatedly notes how popular Gzowski, and especially Morningside, was with a fairly diverse swath of Canadians, he has little to say about its lasting influence on the culture it sought to support or, for that matter, the cultural value of the show itself.
One of the side effects of Fleming’s biography is to bring into focus the changes that have taken place at CBC Radio and in Canadian culture in the past 15 years. In hindsight, maybe Gzowski’s frequent chats with W.O. Mitchell about life on the Prairies are as ephemeral and ultimately empty as eTalk’s “exclusive” reports from the set of CTV’s latest generic police procedural. There’s a reason why all that’s left of the version of Canadian culture represented by the Gzowski-era CBC and fellow cultural nationalists is kitschy, overpriced T-shirts and bags targeted at people who can barely remember the pre-Ghomeshi CBC.
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 Québec 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.
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.
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. (Robert Fulford)
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.
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.
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.
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. (Peter C. Newman)
Last years triumphant biographies of two great Canadians R.B. Flemings Peter Gzowski: A Biography
, and Charles Forans Mordecai: The Life and Times
restored our faith in a form often too degraded into the literary equivalent of Jersey Shore.
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.
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.
Peter Gzowski was human, sometimes difficult and not always the nicest of people. Sounds like all of us, eh?
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.