Excerpt: City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and ’50s

The soldiers were worried that their horses might panic if the crowd was large and noisy. And so, during the rehearsal, as these magnificently groomed steeds trotted down Park Avenue, the neighbourhood children were asked to make as much noise as possible, to help the animals get used to boisterous cheers, applause and patriotic outcry. Mounted on the horses, in gold-braided black tunics, were men of the Seventeenth Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars, who would provide an escort for the limousine bearing King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Their Majesties would be arriving in four days – on Thursday, May 18, 1939 – and would drive twenty-three miles through the streets of Montreal, which presumably would be lined with crowds cheering so wildly that the horses might be dangerously alarmed.

But the Gazette was worried that the cheering might not be quite loud enough. “It is essential,” the paper wrote, in a stern front-page editorial, “that we become for this once a little more articulate than is our wont, somewhat more free in the expression of our feelings, a little less careful of our emotions.” IT would be the first time a reigning monarch had ever visited Canada, and as Montreal prepared and rehearsed, anxiety was everywhere. The Province of Quebec Safety League was worried that balconies might become overloaded with spectators. The League warned householders that they might have to face lawsuits in the event that their balconies collapsed, causing injury and/or death. The wives of dignitaries had other anxieties. When presented to the king and queen, should they perform an ordinary curtsey or a deep curtsey? When they asked Emile Vaillancourt, chief organizer of the festivities, he told them that he didn’t know.

Nobody was more worried than the mandarins of Ottawa, who were responsible for the overall organization of the Royal Tour, which was going to go all the way across the country. Their most vivid nightmares involved the possible behaviour of certain officials in Quebec. For instance, when Premier Maurice Duplessis was presented to Their Majesties, would he be drunk or sober? After all, it was only a year since he had ordered his car to stop in front of the Reform Club, had rushed in and, to the astonishment of the members – all political enemies – had unbuttoned his fly and urinated into the fireplace, extinguishing the Liberal flames. And what about the equally unpredictable Camillien Houde, mayor of Montreal? It was only three months since Houde had said during a speech that if England were to go to war with Italy, Quebec would side with Mussolini. Had the king of England heard about this declaration of disloyalty, made by the man who would be welcoming him to Montreal?

Perhaps the greatest concern of all in Ottawa was how the French Canadian populace of the city would greet the English king. In London, the British government would be watching carefully. The unstated purpose of the Royal Tour was to bolster the Dominion’s loyalty to the mother country. If war against Nazi Germany were to break out in Europe, as now seemed inevitable, could Britain count on Canada’s all-out support? There had been growing doubts about this, and especially about French Canada, which in the past had always felt that it had no stake in England’s foreign wars. If, during the Royal Tour, the crowds on St. Hubert Street or St. Denis Street were sparse, or tepid, or even hostile, it would be a bad omen indeed.

But now, just a few days before the arrival of Their Majesties, there were grounds for optimism. The whole city seemed to have broken out in red, white and blue. Houses, office buildings and stores were swathed in bunting and Union Jacks, and shields with the royal coat of arms hung precariously from apartment windows. On St. Catherine Street, huge portraits of George and Elizabeth looked out of the windows of department stores. And, as the Montreal Star noted with satisfaction, “Many of the very poorest in the city have somehow managed to provide themselves with small flags.” For the poor, the purchase of even the cheapest flag entailed a sacrifice, in a city that was in the grip of the Great Depression, where people were often hungry. At Eaton’s, a small Union Jack cost forty-five cents; for an unemployed man on the dole, forty-five cents represented more than two days of what the government gave him for food. In the newspapers, large advertisements welcomed the royal couple. As might be imagined, the ads were mainly from banks, insurance companies and department stores. But there were also a few smaller ads, affirming loyalty to the Crown, from enterprises like Tony Fuoco’s shoeshine parlour on Guy Street and the One Minute Lunch on St. Antoine.

For Montreal, the Royal Tour would be the outstanding event in a year that marked the beginning of a new era. Within four months, Canada would be at war with Germany. With the war would come an end to the Depression that had impoverished the city for almost ten years. The year 1939 would usher in two decades of prosperity, growth and a flowering of the arts. Montreal would begin to think of itself as a city unique in the world – bilingual, cosmopolitan, exceedingly handsome and wonderfully odd. At the same time, these would be decades darkened by the repressive Quebec government of Premier Duplessis. The authoritarian fog engendered by Duplessis would dissipate only after his death in 1959, the year that marked the end of this era.

The 1940s and 1950s were years of ferment. They saw the growth of a sophistication which, by 1959, made it hard for Montrealers to credit how innocent their city had seemed only twenty years earlier, how colonial its exaggerated reverence for a king from across the ocean.

The middle-aged man who was causing the disturbance was obviously drunk and, even more obviously, was an out-of-towner, probably from some strange foreign place like Toronto. The Montrealers in the room watched indulgently as he lurched toward the stage, where the chorus girls were doing one of their high-kick numbers. “Would you girls like a little drinkee?” he was calling out as the headwaiter took him firmly by the arm and led him back to his table, where his fellow businessman- bumpkins, all similarly sloshed, were applauding his wit.

It was almost always the out-of-towners who were the rowdy ones in nightclubs like the El Morocco. They were, Montrealers knew, simply busting loose after being confined to the parched prison that constituted the rest of the Dominion of Canada. In most provinces, in the 1940s, you couldn’t legally consume hard liquor in public, except in a few private clubs. There was no booze to be had in restaurants, no wine with meals. For a night out on the town, you would buy a twenty-six-ouncer of rye at the gloomy government liquor store (where the act of purchase was somehow made to feel sinful) and take it to the restaurant or the dance hall, where you’d keep it under the table, in its brown paper bag. Men and women could not be trusted to drink together, and so the drab, sour-smelling beer parlours were for men only, with separate “beverage rooms” for the ladies. And, needless to say, there was nothing vaguely resembling the elegant, glamorous nightclubs that Canadians saw in Hollywood movies.

But Montreal had nightclubs aplenty – fifteen of them in 1948, all with elaborate floor shows, plus about twenty-five smaller “lounges,” with more modest entertainment. These flourished despite ecclesiastical disapproval. “We are ashamed,” Cardinal Léger said, a few years later, “that our city has more nightclubs and drinking places than churches.” This in a Montreal that now had even more churches than it did in the 1880s, when Mark Twain said, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you can’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” But there had always been plenty to drink in Montreal. Back in 1720, there were nineteen taverns in the city, one for every 105 inhabitants, and this despite the bishop’s having ordered his priests to deny absolution to the operators of these Sodoms, where, he had heard, dancing was permitted and immorality was commonplace.

Excerpts from City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and ’50s, pp 1 – 3, 120-121 © 1996 William Weintraub, by permission of Robin Brass Studio Inc.,