(Editor’s note: novelist and newspaperman William Weintraub died November 6 at 91. Weintraub in 1996 published City Unique, an affectionate account of Montréal in the 1950s as Canada’s wickedest city. Weintraub on November 6, 2009 spoke with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan about the city he loved. Following is a transcription of his remarks)
In those days the sins of Montréal, then dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, were twofold. One was divorce, the other was birth control. Those were taboo. Québec’s Civil Code outlawed divorce; you had to petition Parliament to pass a private bill if you wanted to end a marriage.
As far as drinking and gambling and prostitution? They were tolerated as very minor sins. The operator of one of the largest brothels in the city used to phone police on Monday morning for an escort to take the weekends’ proceeds to the bank. Montréal was considered an easygoing place where people could enjoy themselves.
There was a belief then, even shared by some members of the clergy, that prostitution kept the city safe for good women who wouldn’t be attacked in the streets. These ravening beasts of men would not accost respectable women to satisfy their terrible appetites, but could take their lust to these approved houses of prostitution. That was the thinking.
My friends, journalists and others, sort of reveled in this, the idea that we were worldly and sinful. There were streets with literally dozens and dozens of houses of prostitution, rows of them. It was said gambling was worth $100 million a year. Taverns outnumbered churches.
It made us feel mildly contemptuous of the rest of Canada, which was so puritanical and straight-laced. Here we had an enormous number of nightclubs, all in the New York style. Drinking and nightclubbing went on till 3 in the morning. It was very lively.
Jean Drapeau was elected mayor in 1954. His first act in office was to fire the chief of police for corruption, and outlaw pinball machines. He was eccentric, but provided us with some amusement. Can you imagine anyone thinking of an amusing political leader today?
The wonderful thing about Mayor Drapeau, which we now forget, was that he was honest. Other city officials were stealing all the time. Drapeau realized late in life that he didn’t have any money, so he opened a restaurant while he was still mayor, in the Windsor Hotel. It was a high-toned restaurant, and he had a band that played classical music during dinner. While the orchestra played, you had to stop eating. I remember the Mayor coming over to our table and asking us how we liked the soup.
It was an era of growth and discovery. It didn’t have the melancholy feeling of the war years and the Depression decade that came earlier. However, from the mid-1950s on there was a real decline in the very lively nightclub business. Now people stayed home to eat TV dinners and watch the Ed Sullivan Show.