In 1911, when Richard Bedford Bennett first arrived in Ottawa as the bachelor MP for Calgary West, his choice of accommodation was the Rideau Club. No finer meal could be had. Bennett loved food. “He believed if he put on weight he would present a more impressive appearance,” a friend recalled.
In the end Bennett ate his way to diabetes and heart disease and the Rideau Club burned to the ground. But once both were in their glory.
Bennett was a self-made millionaire and corporate lawyer. He was brash, opinionated, obsessive, mercurial, philanthropic and a workaholic. Bennett put in 16 hour-days amassing his fortune.
He said tersely of his time in Calgary: “I went West. I worked. The country and I grew with it.” In Calgary Bennett was somebody. In Ottawa this tall, portly man was a backbencher. His first impressions of both the capital and parliament were thin.
“I am sick of it here,” he wrote a friend. “There is little or nothing to do, and what there is to do is that of a party hack or departmental clerk or messenger.”
In 1911, the Rideau Club opened a stately new four-story headquarters at Wellington and Metcalfe Streets in Ottawa, a stone’s throw from Parliament. The club was a terra cotta beauty and Conservative institution. John A. Macdonald was first club president. Prime Minister Robert Borden used the clubhouse for cabinet meetings.
One newspaperman observed, “Ottawans who cared not at all for the Rideau Club as a club cared a lot about the building. It presented an elegant, finely proportioned but unobtrusive façade that stared steadily across Wellington Street, decade after decade, towards the parliament.”
With its upholstered lounges and elegant dining, it was an obvious attraction for the Calgary MP. A light lunch for Bennett was a dozen oysters with pie and maple syrup. He snacked on chocolates by the box. A lifelong chum Max Aitken recalled: “His daily breakfast was immense: a plate of porridge, bacon and eggs, plenty of toast, honey or marmalade.”
At the Rideau Club Bennett never lingered in the cigar lounge. He loathed smoking and could not stand a dirty ashtray. And the bar? “I promised my mother I would never drink and I never have,” he said, though Bennett took his meals with a glass of crème de menthe and laced his soup with tumblers of sherry.
Bennett served six terms in the House. He relocated in time from the Rideau Club to the Chateau Laurier Hotel where Bennett kept a suite. He won the Conservative leadership and served as prime minister, from 1930 to ’35. In retirement Bennett bought an English manor where his gardener recalled he liked to eat buttered asparagus by the pound.
Bennett died of a heart attack at 76. He remains the only prime minister buried outside Canada. And the Rideau Club? It went up in flames Oct. 23, 1979. A century of furnishings, artwork and irreplaceable mementos were lost. The elegant landmark was reduced to a smoldering shell. Today the site is a paved lot.
By Andrew Elliott