As one of Canada¹s richest industrialists and media barons, a biography of John Wilson McConnell, the President of St. Lawrence Sugar Refineries who once owned Holt Renfrew and the Montreal Star newspaper is certainly long overdue.
McConnell, who died in 1963, was a self made man, who by all accounts bore himself so regally « in the manner of a royal personage or a film star," that he was once described as “The King of Montreal.”
During his lifetime “Jack” McConnell was a philanthropist who gave generously of his wealth, his organizational skill, and his talent for fundraising in support of any number of institutions including the The Montreal Neurological Institute, the McConnell Engineering Building on the McGill University campus, and The Griffith-McConnell Home as well as a establishing a pension fund for United Church ministers.
His incredible generosity lives on through the same foundation that bears his name and subsidized author William Fong to write a 700-page bloated biography: J. W. McConnell, Financier, Philanthropist, Patriot, that even the most ardent McConnell enthusiast will find difficult to absorb. In his introduction, Fong suggests his book, as published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, “is less than a quarter of the length of the original text,” and that what we are left with is an “abbreviated story.”
It’s a rags to riches story in the best Horatio Alger tradition. McConnell, we are told, always kept an old worn brown tweed jacket hanging in his private washroom to remind him of “where he had come from.”
McConnell came from Muskoka, Ont., where he was born in a split-log cabin on July 1, 1877. He began working as a salesman for a Toronto dry goods importer, before joining the Standard Chemical Company and coming to Montreal to run the outfits local office. Within six years he was second vice president of the company, then went on to make a fortune as a stock broker and promoter selling shares in Western Canada. He eventually became President and Managing director of St. Lawrence Sugar, and to add to to his millions, he became director of Montreal Light, Heat and Power, Canada Steamship Lines and Sun Life Assurance.
That McConnell did so well, according to his biographer, was that he he was able to create “an image of confidence, and all his life McConnell exuded a powerful presence: an ingratiating blend of Methodist rectitude, Irish charm and geniality, and transparent commitment to success. There was nothing pompous or condescending or pretentious about him.”
Religion played an important part in his life too. McConnell was a devout Methodist, who believed in “systematic giving,” which made sharing one’s wealth with others, «”a habit and a rule of life.”
He was a great newspaper publisher. When McConnell bought The Daily Star, from Lord Atholston, he abandoned his many company directorships to run the paper as “a public trust.” He believed that although he owned the paper, his first duty was to his readers.
“McConnell took his responsibilities as a newspaper owner very seriously,” Fong writes, “perhaps, paradoxically, too much so to make much of an impression as one.”
As a publisher, McConnell believed that newspapers were much more than “mere vehicles for advertising.” As soon as he began running the paper, he raised salaries, invested in improving the editorial content to boost circulation, and “interfered surprisingly little with the editorial policy,” trusting “professional newspapermen to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
During the Second World War he continued to pay his reporters who enlisted for military service part of their salaries. In spite of McConnell's close friendship with Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, The Star was a liberal paper, and steadily reported increases in both circulation and advertising during the years McConnell ran it. The profits did not go to McConnell, but were reinvested in the paper.
The story of McConnell’s progress as told by Fong is, unfortunately, diminished by the author’s obsession with minutiae. For example, in reading about McConnell, do we really need to know that on a trip to India aboard the Empress of Britain in 1936, McConnell played tennis with Col. Henry Cockshutt, the former lieutenant governor of Ontario or that Sir Edward Lutyens designed the Viceroy’s palace in New Delhi or that “the Jews of Toronto grew from 534 in 1881 to 1,425 in 1891, and 3,044 in 1901?”
Interesting asides in themselves, but not in the least relevant to McConnell¹s life. Also Fong’s decision not to lay out McConnell¹s life chronologically is terribly distracting. It is hard to follow a story that bounces back and forth as this one does: Chapter 8, starts in 1925, Chapter 9 in 1911, and Chapter 11 in 1901.
Make no mistake about it: Fong is a magnificent, meticulous researcher. But research is only one element of good biography. Fong mines McConnell’s life and times, more than anyone had, but he is so consumed by his research he doesn’t really use it to shape a meaningful portrait on his subject.
Because of his wealth, McConnell was feared and reviled, yet his philanthropy, Fong tells us, “was not an issue of mere pity or charity, but a way of enabling people to get on” in life. He was sure that others could emulate him if given the right tools.
McConnell was an intensely private man; his own newspaper was prohibited from writing about him or reporting on any of his donations. He destroyed most of his personal papers and files before he died, and picking through what remains demands an intense focus on the subject.
But good storytelling requires context and better balance, some objective assessment that’s missing from this massive work. Fong tells us, his book is “but a start to a fresh evaluation of him,” and that there will “probably be others who can argue about McConnell better and with more information.”
One can only hope.
The whole point is not just to write a biography, but to write a McConnell biography that people will actually want to read.