Canada’s most famous family started on the road to wealth from a tiny implement forge near Port Hope. From gilded mansions where “theatre” was a naughty word rose a remarkable elan whose sense of showmanship and history produced Abe Lincoln on the stage, the country’s greatest music hall, a traffic-stopping Bible class, a headline-making report on culture, and perhaps even our native governor-general
NO CANADIAN FAMILY, past or present, has had a more profound impact upon the nation than the great House of Massey, whose monuments are graven out of enduring clay.
They are as solid, these monuments, as the early Masseys themselves, who were Methodist pioneers with hard lines about the mouth and a hard glitter about the eyes; they are as varied as the younger Masseys whose activities now run the gamut from soap company president to disk jockey.
Taken together, they symbolize the heady brew of showmanship, culture, old-time religion, hard business sense and national spirit which has made the Masseys a moving force in Canada for five generations.
For showmanship there is the incredible Moorish pile of Massey Hall, squatting in obese grandeur among the tradesmen of Toronto’s Shuter Street.
For culture there is the granite face of Hart House, whose Gothic tower graces the campus of the University of Toronto.
For old-time religion there is the austere oblong of the Fred Victor Mission, frowning its reproof among the laundries and rooming houses of Toronto’s lower Jarvis Street where Massey carriages once rolled beneath long lines of stately elms.
For hard business sense there is the one-hundred-and-thirty-five-million-dollar industrial colossus of Massey-Harris, the century-old farm-implement company, now no longer in Massey hands but whose roots are quite literally deep in the Canadian soil.
And for national spirit there is the red, white and blue of the two - hundred - thousand - word Massey Report on the Arts, Letters and Sciences, as unorthodox a state document as was ever fabled before a house of commons.
Although it is the fusion of many talents the now famous Report bears the unmistakable imprint of the man for whom it is popularly named: Vincent Massey, a lean, ascetic figure with the hands of a concert pianist and the long, melancholy features of a Savonarola. The head of the Massey dynasty, he is also its product. If his fine Canadian hand is to be seen throughout the Report’s four hundred pages, so are the shadowy hands of his fathers. The showmanship of his Uncle Walter is in the gay cover and the journalistic turns of phrase. The religion of his father Chester is in the quotations from the evangelical saints, Paul and Augustine. The stern sense of detail of his Aunts Lillian and Susan is in the personal choice of typeface and careful redesign of the coat of arms. The practical business sense of his great-grandfather Daniel is in the recommendations. And the Made-in-Canada approach of his grandfather Hart is implicit in the entire volume.
A Sense of Hero Worship
If family traits endure it is because the Masseys are a cohesive group, bound together, as the Forsytes were, by strong characteristics. There is a family resemblance in all of them: the big head, the heavy brow, the deep eyes, the high cheekbones, the prominent nose, the stubborn lower lip. The early Masseys all looked a bit like Lincoln who was born, as they were, in a pioneer’s log cabin. Chester, Vincent’s father, was a Lincoln scholar and this, plus the family likeness, was useful to his second son Raymond who starred in Abe Lincoln in Illinois on Broadway in 1938-39. One of Raymond’s most effective bits of business in the play was the act of absent-mindedly catching flies as he discoursed on his front veranda. Raymond had watched his father do it many times on his veranda, years before.
Though the Masseys keep a granite face to the watching world the ferment of family sentiment is within them all. “Do you know that you can hate a family and love them, both at the same time!” exclaimed one of the younger Masseys the other day in a most un-Masseylike burst of intimacy. Genuine tears welled up in Raymond’s eyes when describing his brother Vincent to a reporter last year. “I feel a definite sense of hero worship for him,” he said. As children, Vincent and his cousin Ruth were so close they went into mourning after a quarrel, she with a black bow in her hair, he with a black cravat. The family sentiment goes right back to Daniel, founder of the Canadian clan. In the midst of clearing his land the hard old pioneer sat down to write a tender little poem welcoming his new daughter-in-law to the homestead.
A century of breeding has brought to them the poise of the aristocracy. This has occasionally been demonstrated under trying circumstances. Raymond, as a gangling youth, was once hurled through the windshield of his motorcycle, to emerge bathed in blood on the sandstone of Jarvis Street. “Have you had an accident?” a passerby enquired. “No,” replied Raymond, in what some consider the best line he ever delivered. “I’m going fishing.”
His cousin Denton tells a story about Vincent carving a turkey at a private dinner for John Buchan shortly before Buchan became Governor-General. Vincent is not the best of carvers and when the turkey slipped to the floor, platter and all, Vincent, so Denton says, removed his coat, hung it neatly over his chair and continued to carve the turkey on the floor, asking his guests whether they preferred the white or the dark.
Denton Stopped All Traffic
These minor family traits are overshadowed by a major one: the astonishing sense of the theatrical that has touched so many of the Masseys, young and old. There are four of them in the fifth generation: Vincent Tovelle, a producer-announcer for UN radio, Susan Fletcher, a monologuist, disk jockey and Hollywood bit player, Dorothy Jane Goulding of the CBC’s Kindergarten of the Air, and young Walter Massey who recently won the best actor award at the Intercollegiate Drama Festival.
There are four in the preceding generation. It is a Massey jest that Raymond, Vincent and Denton are all great actors, but Raymond is the only legitimate one. Denton’s sister, Mrs. Arthur Goulding, has directed the Toronto Children s Players, a nationally known juvenile dramatic group, for eighteen years. Denton himself stopped traffic in Toronto in the Thirties when he put his York Bible Class on the radio. Vincent acted amateur theatrical roles at Hart House for seven years, playing everything from burglar to pontiff and, according to critics who praised him, submerging his personality completely in his stage character. The same critics were less kind when brother Raymond brought his first play to Toronto. It went on to smashing Broadway success and Raymond riposted by calling Toronto critics “morons.”
Vincent has since left the theatre for a broader stage, but his recent Royal Commission colleague, Father Georges-Henri Lévesque, muses, “I’m wondering if he really isn’t still a better actor than his brother.” He is still an excellent mimic—Churchill is a favoiite—and the Victorian parlor game of charades has been an annual Christmas rite in his household, as it was in his father’s.
All this is startling in the light of the Massey background. For the Masseys have been Puritans and Methodists since the days of John Wesley and Plymouth Rock. In the rococo Massey mansions of the Nineties, “theatre” was a naughty word, dancing a sin and wine a mocker.
Daniel Massey all but lost his first harvest when he balked at the traditional practice of serving whisky to farm hands. His grandsons, Walter and Fred Victor, actually made an old Temperance cliché come true when, parched with thirst on the Sahara Desert, they stiffly refused the only liquid available because it was wine and stuck it out to the next oasis.
Methodist families, as the Masseys, helped give Toronto its sombre Sunday. Vincent as a boy wasn’t allowed to ride his bicycle on the Sabbath nor could his cousin Dorothy put so much as a roll of Brahms on the self-playing electric organ. Servants and family assembled for morning and evening prayers, Bible class and Sunday school, it was beyond the pale. Hart Massey, Vincent's grandfather, was never inside a theatre, even to see Shakespeare. Vincent himself didn’t see a stage performance until he was sixteen. Yet this very Puritanism nourished theatrical taproots among the Massey offspring. Part of it was a psychological reaction—an “eruption,” as one of them puts it—against the disciplines of the creed. Part of it was sheer inventiveness on the part of bored youngsters whose entertainment had to be self-made in the form of charades, mimes and tableaux vivants which were the Methodist amusements of that time.
In many of the Massey homes, still spotted about Toronto like ageing dowagers, there was a room with a stage. It was called a gallery, never a theatre, and here the younger fry disported themselves in genteel fashion in homemade costumes. Chester was a skilled mimic and his son Raymond is still remembered as a thin rather sickly youth taking comedy parts along with cousin Denton in playlets written by cousin Madeleine and produced by cousin Dorothy, in the big house at Dentonia Park, a Massey estate on the eastern outskirts of Toronto.
On the terrible day when Raymond, who couldn’t stand working at Massey-Harris, decided to make the stage his career, his father Chester prayed silently with closed eyes. Chester finally said, not without a struggle, that he thought Raymond could serve his God on the stage as well as off as long as he didn’t “practice” on the Sabbath. Raymond promised and set off for London and some meagre years haunting the wings. Finally one day, when he had a part in Shaw’s Saint Joan, Chester arrived to see his son act. The old man was as dazzled as a child by the footlights and greasepaint and came Backstage afterward to see his son who hastily persuaded his dressing-room companions to forgo their nightly highballs. Then and there Chester released the future Abe Lincoln from his pledge not to rehearse on the Sabbath. Raymond’s eruption from his Puritan background is now complete. He has been twice divorced and thrice married.
The twin themes of showmanship and sanctity were blended into a masterly counterpoint by Denton Massey, Raymond’s cousin, who applied theatrical rules of thumb to Bible class teaching with spectacular results. In seven years the attendance at his York Bible Class rose from eighteen to seventeen thousand. Denton comes by both qualities honestly. His father Walter, who taught Bible class before him, was also a showman responsible for the flamboyant Massey advertising of the Eighties. He scrapped woodcuts for four - color illustration, changed the name of the Toronto Light Binder to Mighty Monarch of the Harvest Field, published a series of national magazines hearing the Massey name and sent gold-plated implements to international expositions. He sponsored hundreds of gala demonstrations in town and hamlet to mark the delivery of Massey machinery.
But his son went him one better. Denton’s charm, his executive ability and his attention to detail all Massey traits were funneled into the single purpose of building the largest Bible class in the world. He started out with the world’s first Bible class broadcast and by 1931 was able to jam Maple Leaf Gardens with seventeen thousand devotees. Another twenty thousand or so milled around outside, stopping streetcars and causing the worst traffic jam in Toronto’s history.
The class was as highly organized as the Third International. It had a president, board of directors, executive committee, paid office staff, a two-hundred-man brains trust called Sages and a block system of district officers, majors and captains to keep the faithful in line.
The service itself was streamlined on theatrical lines to provide the maximum effect of variety and contrast. Denton, known to his followers as The Big Fellow, peppered his sermon with jokes, news items and classical quotations and gave them catchy provocative titles, such as The Knight Whose Armor Didn’t Squeak. He dictated them over and over again into dictaphones, playing them back to get the timing right. His rich Rotarian tones, pouring from two hundred and fifty thousand radio loudspeakers of a Sunday, sent, a thrill up the country's spine and a chill up the stiffer vertebrae of some of his more immediate relatives who went for a simpler religion and winced a little when he referred to his wife as My Lady and his children as Exhibits A, B and C. Denton who went into politics (P-C, Greenwood) dropped the class when he joined the RCAF in 1939. He rose to group captain and before it was over had, according to his own count, shaken seventy thousand hands.
In politics Denton was a Bennett Tory. He is the only dissenter in a family which has been Liberal and reformist ever since the days of Daniel, who was a William Lyon Mackenzie man. Hart was an agrarian reformist and Denton’s father, Walter, a Laurier man. The Masseys all supported free trade although a protective tariff policy would have favored their company.
The company was founded by Daniel who was the first of the Canadian Masseys, and, like the line he founded, as Canadian as maple syrup. His forebears were Puritans from Salem who had left England in the seventeenth century because of their dissenting religious views. But shortly after establishing his homestead at Newcastle, Upper Canada, Daniel was fighting his former countrymen in the War of 1812.
His son Hart was born in a log cabin in a forest clearing and, true to the day’s traditions, died in the richest house in Toronto. At seven young Hart was hauling water. At twelve he was marketing crops. At sixteen he was foreman of a lumber gang. At twenty-one he had taken over his father’s fledgling sickle - and - cradle business and, before he was through, had fashioned it into an international industrial empire.
Here the roots of Massey nationalism, seeded by Daniel, found fertile loam. Hart Massey’s Canadianism was largely economic but it was strident. His was the first company to stamp the slogan Made In Canada on its machinery. At world fairs, in Britain and the U.S., the Masseys were snubbed so obviously at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago that it became a parliamentary cause célèbre. But the world was soon forced to recognize the Canadians. Emperor Napoleon III used Massey machinery exclusively on his farm. So did Queen Victoria. When the Little Monarch of the Harvest Field won the spectacular agricultural trials in Paris in 1884, Massey’s Illustrated shouted “Hurrah for Canada!” in bold letters.
The Massey publications, sparked by Hart’s son, Walter, all voiced a forthright nationalism. The policy of Massey’s Magazine, which foreshadowed the Massey Report by more than half a century, was “to retain for Canada the best work of her best writers, to create a demand for Canadian literature first hand (and) to foster the growth of Canadian literature.” It published the works of Charles G. D. Roberts, Duncan Campbell Scott, Bliss Carman and W. H. Drummond and the illustrations of C. W. Jeffreys, J. W. Bengough and Fred Brigden. Another Massey magazine, Trip Hammer, sent a war correspondent to cover the Riel Rebellion of 1885. And meanwhile Hart Massey, who eschewed the theatre but liked the sound of a church organ, was erecting Massey Music Hall. Culture was creeping up on the Masseys, late of Newcastle, now of Jarvis Street, Toronto.
Hart Almerrin Massey was a gaunt towering figure in silk hat and frock coat who made punctuality a fetish and philanthropy a duty. Promptly at 6 a.m., come sleet, rain or storm, he flung wide the door of his home and plucked the morning Globe from the mat. Once when a newsboy was late he stood out in the elements for twenty minutes in gown and slippers to reprimand him, then sent his coachman over with a new winter outfit for the ragged lad. Promptly at 9:15 his carriage deposited him at the sprawling Massey works on King Street. Looming out of the gloom of a winter morning he so startled one workman that the man tumbled into a vat of red implement paint.
He lived in a high Victorian mansion, bristling with peaks and turrets and cupolas, which was the epitome of the Gilded Age. It had twenty-seven rooms, eight bathrooms, eighteen mantelpieces and a pantry so large that it later rented out as a three-room apartment. The windows were leaded and stained, the walls alfrescoed, the ceilings gilded, the floors inlaid, the tile mosaicked.
Victorianism, which still hangs faintly over the Masseys like the scent of old violets, was in full flower. Even the family tragedies have been Victorian—one Massey shot on his front steps by a housemaid, another plunging to his death from a viaduct. The most touching of all had the smack of Wimpole Street’s Edward Barrett to it, for it concerns Lillian Massey, Hart’s only daughter, a comely but lonely girl who was allowed no suitors. The story goes that when Lillian waved at a boy from an upstairs gable her father put her on bread and water. Certainly on those occasions when a young man called, Hart Massey went black with rage and tore pieces off the rubber plant.
In the fall of 1895 Hart suffered a stroke. His doctor, after some prompting by the old man, told him he had ten days to live. “Ridiculous!” cried Hart. “The annual meeting isn’t until February.” He lived through the meeting, putting important business first, in case he should succumb during proceedings, and died soon afterward.
A decade later, at fifty, her beauty a wreckage, Lillian Massey married. The groom, John Treble, was an old man with grown children, but she had a young girl’s lavish wedding. He gave her a Bible as a wedding present.
She inherited her father’s mansion and added to its splendor. Moors came from Spain to garland the walls of one sitting room with arabesques. Craftsmen from Scotland fashioned the scrolled mahogany cabinets. A conservatory, big as a night club and hot with orchids, sprouted on the south wing. An organ, a fish pond, a fountain and an Otis-Fensom elevator took their places with new bas relief on the walls the molds of which were instantly destroyed.
Lillian endowed the Lillian Massey School of Household Science, now part of the University of Toronto. She sketched the plans herself from a sickbed, personally choosing every stick of furniture, item of hardware and shade of paint, just as a generation later her nephew Vincent was to pore through twenty varieties of type face when selecting the dress for his Report.
Hart Massey had four sons besides daughter Lillian. The oldest was Charles who was a businessman and music lover. He founded the Massey Silver Cornet Band, the Massey String Orchestra and the Massey Glee Club. He died young of overwork. His line comes down to the present Charles, his grandson, who is now president of Canadian Lever Brothers.
The second son was Chester, a pious man who once gave a youth a job because he found him reading the Bible. The boy’s name was Thomas Findley and he rose to be president of Massey-Harris. Chester was a chronic invalid who equipped himself with an inordinate number of overcoats. “He’s so afraid of catching cold he even airs out his pocket handkerchiefs” his sister-in-law Susan used to say. Chester, a wit, a mimic and practical joker, cheerfully admitted it. “I enjoy poor health,” he’d say. He outlived them all, dying at seventy-five in 1926. Vincent and Raymond were his sons.
Hart’s third son was Walter, the most advanced Massey of his generation. He became president of Massey-Harris after his father’s death. He was the first man to introduce pasteurized milk into Canada, the first man to take moving pictures, the first to run an electric toy train. He scrapped his carriage for an electric runabout and raised Jerseys on a model farm at Dentonia Park where he founded the Toronto City Dairy. He was working on wrapped bread when he died.
Walter was also an ardent fisherman. He bought an entire lake once because he spotted a tremendous muskellunge hovering beneath the surface. It took him three years to catch it. At one point brother Chester maddened him by slipping in a dead and gutted thirty six-pound salmon. The muskie, stuffed and mounted, now hangs in the home of Walter’s son, Denton.
Walter died of typhoid at thirty-six. Ironically, the germ that killed him came to him in water, the strongest beverage his Methodist soul would countenance. His elder brother Chester became president of the family firm.
Hart’s fourth son, Fred Victor, died of consumption at twenty-two. Of all the Masseys he was perhaps strongest in the faith of his fathers. He and Walter took a trip around the world in 1887, bringing back ostrich eggs, monkeys, assegais and even a live dragoman who became part of the domestic staff. But Fred was shocked by the smoking, card playing and story-telling that went on in the ship’s lounge and, in the words of Walter who later wrote of it, “returned to his stateroom, his face aglow with righteous indignation (and) proceeded to call forth a volley of anathemas upon men, who, professing to be decent and bearing the outward appearance of gentlemen . . . could indulge in such senseless and impure conversation for amusement.”
As Fred’s life ebbed he sent a note to a friend whose wife had died, asking if he could take a message to her in heaven with him. It was fitting that a mission house, complete with a "drunk’s room” for the wayward, should be endowed and named for him.
With Walter’s death his widow, Susan Denton Massey, emerged as the strong figure in the family. She influenced them all. She sat on the board of Massey-Harris and she ran household and company with firmness and dispatch. She too was a Puritan born into the New England Methodist family of the Dentons. Her father used to spank all his daughters regularly on Saturday night on the premise that they’d be wicked sometime during the following week.
Duty and responsibility were her code. The great home on Jarvis Street with its Gothic gables, and later her huge mansion at Dentonia Park, which she labeled Susan’s Folly, had as many as fourteen maidservants. But she made her four children rise at seven and make their own beds. Gongs signaled prayers and meal hours and it was a sin to be an instant late. Only two people ever got around her. One was Pengelly, the aged gardener. She used to silence him by pointing her black walking stick at him and saying in a firm voice: “Pengelly!” The other was Denton, her only son. He alone rose late and was tardy at meals. Later, as an MP, he hung up a record for absentee membership in the House.
At Dentonia Park Susan reigned in almost feudal splendor. Her brother-in-law Chester moved his home there from Jarvis Street (bringing Vincent and Raymond) and when her three daughters married they built homes there too. It was as if the family had walled itself from the world on the big estate. Her own children were taught Sunday School at home for fear they might catch something. The next generation became known to neighborhood toddlers as The Family Behind the High Board Fence.
Today the leading scion of the House of Massey is Vincent in whose person the old wine of the Massey generations has been distilled to a fine liqueur. The theatrical streak has given to Vincent an unequaled sense of timing and pageantry. His first name is Charles but he dropped it long ago: “Charlie” he deemed undignified. His roots are Methodist but he became a high Anglican while still an undergraduate: he preferred the drama of the liturgy. In seven years of amateur acting his favorite role was that of a Pope.
The Puritan is in him yet. Although he became the first man to smoke a cigarette in the common room at Methodist Victoria College, he still found it necessary, a few years later, to interrupt his only political campaign, hurry to Toronto and rewrite the more suggestive passages of a purplish version of Samson and Delilah in which he was playing at Hart House.
Approaching him, one writer once said, is like entering a Gothic cathedral. Certainly, in his public appearances, in diplomatic knee breeches, or in his robes as Chancellor of the University of Toronto, he has the air of high places about him. “Vincent loves a lord,” a colleague from his days in London once remarked. Vincent himself was once quoted as saying, after being named Minister to Washington, that “they think I’m a prince, but I’m not.” A more telling pleasantry is attributed to Lord Cranborne, an English aristocrat whose lineage as a Cecil goes back to the mists of antiquity. “Fine chap, Vincent,” Cranborne said, “but he does make one feel like a bit of a savage.”
Years of diplomatic training, an Oxford background and a strong sense of his position, have caused Vincent Massey to move as carefully as if he were treading on eggshells. “He’s one of the surest-footed men, an acquaintance said of him years ago. He is modest to the point of immodesty and proud of it. He has a poker face which he maintained throughout the Royal Commission hearings. Colleagues maintain he winced only once, and then imperceptibly, when Jack Kent Cooke, president of Toronto’s raucous CKEY, suggested bluntly that Canada join up as quickly as possible with the U.S.A.
Canadianism has been his creed and he has been its apostle since his youth. He has been more polite than Massey’s Illustrated which said in 1891 that “the U.S. is becoming to the world commercially what Turkey is politically—a nuisance” but some of this feeling is inherent in what he says. His early speeches and his book On Being Canadian (which two reviewers were unkind enough to retitle On Being Vincent Massey) read like outlines for the Report which he has fathered. In the same measure he has always been a patron of the arts, a backer of the Hart House String Quartet, a president of the Chamber Music Society, a committee member of the National Gallery, London, and a collector of the Group of Seven. His hobby is architecture and his son Hart Jr. recently won the Pilkington Scholarship in this art. Vincent was decrying the lack of a national library and proper art gallery and was praising the CBC well before the Royal Commission on the Arts was a gleam in Louis St. Laurent’s eye.
He has written that “we are the more Canadian for being British” and his own life is a monument to that. He has spent close to twenty years in Britain as scholar and diplomat and he lives today like an English squire at his four-hundred-acre country seat of Batterwood, not far from the original clearing where his great-grandfather built his log cabin. Batterwood, with its paneled study lined with morocco-bound books, its neatly curved cedar hedges, its quarried-flagstone terraces, its formal gardens and its carefully manicured arborvitae, might have been plucked from the Surrey countryside.
Massey’s voice has an English inflection and his carefully chosen words an English flavor. A favorite adjective is rather; a favorite noun is chap. Raymond, on the other hand, has a flat Upper Canada accent which was labeled atrocious by the Oxford Undergraduate Dramatic Society which barred him. Raymond, who does not walk on eggshells, later denounced Oxford speech as “the most affected and least intelligible in the world.”
For a man who has never needed to lift a finger in common toil Vincent Massey’s career has been both varied and strenuous. He has been successively history professor, dean, industrialist, cabinet minister, politician, diplomat and royal commissioner. He is both a Right Honorable and a Companion of Honor, an order that is limited to sixty-five members.
His mother died when he was sixteen. Psychoanalysts might make something of the fact that Raymond, whose career has been markedly different, was a toddler at the time and never knew her. She was a Vincent and her brother, a Methodist Bishop, founded the Chatauqua religious and educational movement in New England.
At the University of Toronto Vincent, who lived in a big house, observed that out-of-town students had no home to go to. The result was Hart House, a centre for male students, built by the Hart Massey estate—later the Massey Foundation of which Vincent was an executor.
He went to Balliol College, Oxford, returned to teach history at Toronto, and was Dean of Burwash Hall, a Massey gift. He was a lieut.-colonel in Ottawa during the first war where he managed to make a detailed chart of army red tape. He married Alice Parkin, daughter of a confirmed imperialist and principal of Upper Canada College. She had an air of regalit ycharm about her and it is she who is credited with giving him much of his drive. She took a personal interest in his work.
When the Prince of Wales planned to visit Hart House for a squash game in 1922 Alice personally took charge of cleaning it up, reprimanding one young man for dripping water from the showers about the halls. “But you see, ma’am,” the young man finally said, drawing the towel tighter around his waist, “I’m the Prince of Wales!”
When Alice Massey died suddenly a year ago it was a staggering shock to the lonely man in Batterwood House.
As president of the family company after the first war Vincent was called a “Lorenzo the Magnificent plus Henry Ford.” With his amateur theatricals, his taste in art and music and his genteel air, he did not look like a captain of industry. In 1925 astute old Mackenzie King, severely criticized by Canadian manufacturers and the Tory party for easing protective tariffs on such things as farm machinery, made Vincent a member of his cabinet. (Laurier had once tried the same thing with Walter, with no success.) Vincent quickly found his position in Massey-Harris untenable. He resigned and sold out his holdings and that of the estate for eight million dollars. The family company passed into other hands to the chagrin and exasperation of Aunt Susan, the indomitable old lady in Dentonia Park.
Vincent contested the next election on his home ground, spent sixteen thousand of his own money campaigning, but was soundly beaten. He was never very close to the people of Port Hope, the nearest town, and there was a damaging rumor that the Masseys referred to it as “the village.”
That was Vincent’s only brush with politics. Soon afterward he became first Canadian Minister to Washington, a post for which he got twelve thousand dollars a year and spent fifty thousand. In 1935 he became High Commissioner to London, a position he held until after World War II. The Masseys gave stature and dignity to the expanding Canadian mission He could always produce a cabinet minister or two for visiting firemen, and important people from the artistic and political world graced his dinner table almost nightly. Latterly he found himself at odds with Mackenzie King who tended to bypass diplomats. Once Vincent wrote King on an urgent matter requesting a quick reply. It didn’t come and he was exasperated that week to meet a woman who had just had a fourteen-page handwritten epistle from the Prime Minister discussing trivialities.
During the war the Masseys moved into a suite in the Dorchester Hotel. Vincent’s two sons, Lionel with the army, Hart with the air force, were both wounded in action. The Massey Foundation built a million-dollar convalescent home in Herefordshire which ministered to twenty-seven hundred Canadian officers. Both Alice and Vincent Massey took a personal interest in it in addition to the two other clubs they founded—The Beaver Club for enlisted ranks, and the Canadian Officers’ Club.
But, in spite of his years of diplomatic service, Vincent Massey considers the bright little volume labeled Report his greatest achievement. He flung his heart and soul into it, attending every one of the one hundred and fourteen public sessions, reading each of the four hundred and sixty-two briefs, poring over the thousands of words of verbatim testimony. He handled it all with superb stagecraft. His manner was informal without being familiar and he appeared genuinely interested in everything that was said. At the same time he kept things moving with clockwork speed. His long sensitive hands pulling the glasses down low over his aquiline nose became a familiar spectacle to the hundreds who appeared before him. “He speaks with those hands,” says his colleague, Father Lévesque.
The writing of the report was a group effort. Each commissioner wrote a section, then they rewrote each other’s. Some chapters were revised ten times. There was one four-week period when the entire group went over every word and comma, changing, editing, paring. Nonetheless it is the Massey personality that pervades the result.
Massey was determined that as many Canadians as possible read his findings. He engaged Toronto artist Eric Aldwinckle to design the cover and he insisted that the style be popular and the treatment lively. The result was a unique state document which has been reviewed as a book in Boston, Manchester and New Delhi, and has sold more than three thousand copies at $3.50 each. The foreign reviews have all commented on one thing: the so-called anti-American bias. Canadian reviewers have tended to harp more on Dr. Arthur Surveyer’s dissenting remarks about the CBC and Film Board.
Nonetheless, he feels that the Report and the discussion it has stirred up may have in the end a monumental effect on the country. Already it has added new stature to the name of Massey. At the very least he is slated to be president of the arts council which the Report recommends and which will probably come into being in the near future. At most he may become Canada’s first Canadian Governor General. Curiously, for a man with a Methodist Upper Canada background, he is French Canada’s No. 1 choice for the post. He is considered the most popular English - speaking Canadian among Quebecers, partly because he insisted on conducting commission hearings there totally in French without translation. The nationalistic Le Devoir has come out flatfooted for him as Governor-General.
The position, if he achieves it, will stand as another tableau vivant in the pageant of the Masseys. In many ways the old order of the family is changing and it is perhaps as well that Hart Massey has gone to his rest behind the great bronze door of his stone mausoleum in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. His grandson Denton has deserted the ranks of the Grits, his grandson Vincent has taken to himself the incense of another religion, his grandson Raymond is given to endorsing ads for Schenley’s whisky in the slick magazines. The family company is controlled by E. P. Taylor who made his money out of beer, and the family mansions are now institutions on a rundown street which has been cited as one of the most sinful in Canada.
And yet the family name is as bright as ever and the monuments still endure to mark the curious mélange of piety, patriotism and practicality, not unmixed with a strong streak of ham, which for five generations has given the Masseys their unique and unchallenged position at upper centre on the broad Canadian stage.