Big Men Fear Me by Mark Bourrie

Mark Bourrie, a talented journalist and historian, details the life of former Canadian Newspaper Baron George McCullagh as an enigma, a force of nature and a personal paradox-a Citizen Kane-like figure whose rise and fall was tragic. A prolific author has aptly captured his subject again, especially given the absence of information from destroying his records and profile.

“Not bad for a boy who dropped out of school in London, Ontario, in grade nine and used his charisma, people skills, good humour and social grace to sell newspapers door-to-door.”

George McCullagh, the founder of the prestigious Globe and Mail, and eventually the Toronto Telegram, was at once a rebel force for creative media destruction and a society man with ownership stakes in the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Argonauts and even a prestigious horse stable. His impressive collection of thoroughbreds took him to win the King’s Plate and the predecessor of the Canadian Triple Crown. And socialize with Royals, politicians, and the corporate power brokers of the time.

Not bad for a boy who dropped out of school in London, Ontario, in grade nine and used his charisma, people skills, good humour and social grace to sell newspapers door-to-door, and his capitalist chops in Bay Street gold stock promotions to ascend to the elite classes of Canada, the US and UK as gracefully as one of his prized show horses.

One of those influential people was a Canadian mining magnate and Canada’s wealthiest man, William Wright. Wright had ambitions for McCullagh as he supported him in his media ventures and his barely veiled role in leading the federal conservative party. Sadly for his supporters, a combination of his manic depression, alcoholism, brutal psychiatric treatments, and at the time, the Anglo stigma associated with his poor roots and lack of formal education may have led to his likely and mysterious demise.

George McCullagh bought The Globe and Mail and Empire newspapers when he was thirty-one. He conjoined them and had a reasonable shot at becoming Prime Minister due to his increasing national voice and political actions, aspirations and financial support. A fact not lost on “frenemies” like Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who both supported and denied his ascension. McCullagh moved seamlessly through provincial and federal corridors of power, partly due to his wit and charm, but just as likely his role as corporate political bagman and media tycoon.

He supported Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn, a troubled soul at best, while remaining best friends with his nemesis, conservative Gorge Drew. He diluted this dream with an aborted attempt to create a political revolution (or an anti-democratic merger of traditional parties) with the creation of the “Leadership League, though it failed despite his newspaper endorsement and substantial capital. Bourrie notes that Canadian media historian Douglas Feathering called the “League” “at best anti-democratic and perhaps even fascist in its sympathies.

McCullagh provoked a media war with Toronto Star owner and publisher “Holy Joe” Atkinson over libellous claims of political interference and anti-democratic sentiment. They eventually publically reconciled but never lost their private enmity.

George was flying high as the President and Publisher of the Globe and Mail (a point Bourrie makes about the initials intentionally evoking its leader G&M). Former Globe and Mail editor and Senator Richard Doyle noted that “McCullagh called himself ‘just an ordinary man. Doyle’s memoirs include the anecdote that George was “Not to the manor born, he was the man who built manors.”

In an interview for the New York-based Saturday Evening Post, McCullagh perhaps over-embellished his “hard luck childhood and rise through the newspaper business and on to Bay Street.” He said, “He built up Barrett, McCullagh into a forty-member gold-stock trading outfit “that was the time big men began to fear me.”

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He paid honourable tribute to Mr. Wright as his mentor and financier. Still, he somehow took delight in snatching the reigns of the Globe to humiliate the aged William Gladstone Jaffrey and I.W. Killam estates. He bought the Mail and Empire, fought the unions, and seemingly beat his alcoholism. He professed to save Ontario from socialism and was promoted by some as a potential Prime Minister-in-waiting. Perhaps it was good that his friends jibed him about his claim “that big men feared him.” It a not an unreasonable boast at the time, but not well received by his patrician colleagues and friends. He quickly caught on to his Public Relations hubris and avoided media interviews for over a decade.

Bourrie notes that although McCullagh “could be moody, annoying, opinionated and ruthless, no one—not even his enemies called him treacherous.” The journalists who worked for him and he poached from rival papers were well paid and free to disagree with his temperament or leave. He allegedly knew the name of most evening newspaper sloggers and thanked them by name for their hard work after late-night Leaf games or boxing matches. He was known to be a dedicated father, if not a thin-skinned political opponent. 

The death of his mentor, surrogate father and financier Bill Wright was an enormous loss to McCullagh. However, his business interests had become successful in their own right and self-financed. He had lost a trusted mentor and friend, soon to be followed by his long-time New York psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Forest Kennedy. Shortly after that, he suffered two “mild heart attacks.” His daughter Ann allegedly said, “He just burned out.”

McCullagh’s body “was found in a pond near his Bayview house. He was just forty-seven years old.” At first, allegedly from a heart attack, but a decade later revealed as a likely suicide. Perhaps he could no longer tolerate the years of depression, insomnia and pain, highly stigmatized at the time. Author Mark Bourrie depicts his challenges with compassion and dignity.

Despite the author’s sensitivity and yet, a minor point, I wish the author was as empathetic with the so-called “boonies’ and hicks as well as his condescension describing London, Ontario as “comfortable, conservative, bland and smug.” To each his own.

“Big Men Fear Me” is a masterwork of scholarship, years of careful research, and documentation and seems to have a natural feel for the times.

A Globe and Mail editorial at the time reflected that “George McCullagh was the most human of men. If the love of fellow man is the hallmark of leadership, this was the secret of his great success”. 


About the Author

Mark Bourrie is an Ottawa-based author, lawyer, and former journalist. He holds a master’s in Journalism from Carleton University and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Ottawa. In 2017, he was awarded a Juris Doctor degree and was called to the Bar in 2018. He has won numerous awards for his journalism, including a National Magazine Award, and received the RBC Charles Taylor Prize in 2020 for his book Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre Radisson.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Oct. 18 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771964936
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771964937

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