Articles

Exactly who is James Bannerman?

McKenzie Porter March 1 1958
Articles

Exactly who is James Bannerman?

McKenzie Porter March 1 1958

Exactly who is James Bannerman?

McKenzie Porter

In its attempts to counter the rise of hillbilly culture with broadcasts of intellectual merit the CBC often is accused of dilettantism. And one of the men the critics single out as the epitome of this frailty is a professional chatterbox known as James Bannerman. For nearly a decade the fifty-five-year-old Bannerman has introduced Sophoclean drama, Puccini opera, Bach cantatas or Spenserian verse on CBC Wednesday Night, a Trans-Canada radio program aimed at the loftiest literati and tonalists.

Although Bannerman retains the chunky frame and close-cropped thatch of a man who once fought thirty-two fights in the prize ring, he manifests more hallmarks of the longhair. His wardrobe harbors a Bloomsburian range of sports jackets, shaggy shirts, windbreakers, sweaters and odd pairs of pants. Once, during a heat wave he emerged from his apartment on Avenue Road in Toronto, wearing brown shoes, black socks, a shirt woven out of a sort of purple candy floss and army shorts that looked as if they’d been stolen from the grave of a Desert Rat.

For sartorial reasons, perhaps, Bannerman rarely appears on television. From radio, however. he earns more than eleven thousand dollars a year. On hearing his quasi-Oxford overtones and airy bubbling delivery millions of middleand lowbrows switch him off with groans. Yet many of these same listeners remain familiar with Bannerman's accent through the wicked mimicry of Max Ferguson on the CBC's Rawhide show.

If Rawhide's impersonations suggest that Bannerman is choking on a silver spoon the impression is not wholly false. Bannerman was raised after the fashion of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Had he cleaved to his family’s conventions he would today have been a millionaire. But Bannerman rebelled against what he calls "middle-class morality.” His insurrection drove his first two wives into the divorce court and provoked his rich father to cut him off without a penny. The chequered nature of the revolt included bouts not only as a prize fighter but as a gigolo, actor, vaudeville artist,

chef, wine taster, racing motorcyclist, counterespionage agent and naval officer. These social experiments endowed Bannerman with the encyclopaedic knowledge that has become his chief stock in trade.

He is capable of enlivening music criticism, for instance, with an unexpected phrase from the quarterdeck. When he was preparing an introduction to a Haydn Mass in D Minor he snorted at its alternative title, The Nelson Mass. Disbelieving the legend that Haydn composed the mass in Vienna in honor of Nelson's 1798 victory at the Nile, Bannerman checked the date on which the British officer carrying news landed at Naples. He then found out how long it would take the officer to travel by coach to Vienna and proved that Haydn couldn't have known the result of the battle before the mass was finished.

Bannerman’s kaleidoscopic background also serves him w'ell when he sits on the CBC Trans-Canada Network quiz panel. Now I Ask You. Invited to name the last meal served aboard the torpedoed liner Lusitania, Bannerman drew on facts he’d accumulated as a chef. Correctly he identified the meal as dinner and then described every course.

Bannerman’s obsession for the sea and its fruits pops out at the most disconcerting moments. When the Now I Ask You panel was asked to name the animal to which the collective noun clowder is applied, Bannerman knew that the answer is a clowder of cats. But he preferred to pun by saying "a clowder of chams.”

On Assignment, a CBC Dominion Network hour of topical features and comment. Bannerman is the resident culinary expert. Last Christmas, complaining that buffet suppers are getting "too bitty,” he urged his listeners to "hoist a noble rib roast onto the sideboard and let each guest have at it with a carving knife.”

Such robust lyricism provides Max Ferguson with rich material for his Rawhide skits. Ferguson imitates Bannerman so well that many listeners don't know for a while which voice they are hearing.

The greatest confusion followed a Ferguson impression of what Bannerman would sound like if the latter’s head were grafted onto the body of a homey radio character named Ma Perkins. Rawhide set the scene of the imaginary operation in Toronto General Hospital. A humorist at the hospital, hearing of the show at third or fourth hand, wrote Bannerman deadpan, asking for a retraction of the statement that its medical staff experimented in swapping continued on page 42

For almost ten years a mysterious presence has charmed and

exasperated CBC listeners with a droll wit and lashings of culture with a capital C.

Here at last is his true identity: boxer, chef, gigolo, novelist, artist, seaman, actor, counterspy, poet, motorcyclist, wine taster —almost everyone but James Bannerman

continued on page 42

Exactly who is James Bannerman? continued from page 12

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With thugs trailing, hands in their pistol pockets, he became Hollywood’s greatest mystery

human heads. Bannerman, who hadn’t heard the Rawhide show, didn’t know what the hospital was talking about. There began a flurry of mail between the hospital, the CBC, Bannerman and Ferguson. The question of who said who grafted whose head onto whom, and where, and when, became so involved that the correspondence fizzled out in a general wringing of hands.

During this epistolary nightmare the very name Bannerman had an unreal ring. Actually, it is a pseudonym. Bannerman is so proud of earning his own living that he uses it to discourage recollections of days when he didn’t.

He was christened John Charles Kirkpatrick McNaught. His father, the late Charles Boyd McNaught, was a millionaire director of twenty-six companies. Bannerman, an only child, was reared in a mansion in Toronto.

Bannerman’s earliest recollection is of “riding in the family brougham on a winter’s night and reveling in the snug feeling of my mother’s fine fur coat.’’

The late Vioffet l.ouisa McNaught cherished baby Bannerman and showed him off at innumerable teas given by the ladies of Toronto. On candy, crumpets, cream buns and adult conversation Bannerman thrived as an ox fed on linseed cake. The simile is apt because before he was three Bannerman could read Oxo on billboards.

At four the billboards told him that Pertussin was an excellent remedy for coughs and colds. At five he had waded through the fat annual of the Boys* Own Paper. At six he was zipping through the Bible.

The “biggest influence" on his life was his maternal grandfather John Seath. then the Superintendent of Education for Ontario. Seath, who went for walks with seventeen collie dogs—six on the leash and eleven at heel—and each night at dinner called for a saucer of claret for the cockatoo that perched on his shoulder, probably planted in Bannerman the seeds of anti-bourgeois prejudice. After listening indulgently as the nine-year-old boy denounced the Bible, he presented his grandson with a copy of the Moslem Koran. When Bannerman was ten, and as plump as a midget sultan, he went to Upper Canada College. There he announced that the Koran was “better” than the Bible, that the Boys’ Own Paper was “for prigs and clots," and that compulsory cricket and soccer were “tiresome.” So the other boys kicked his behind and called him The Cow.

Four years of dodging kicks reduced Bannerman’s weight to normal and his anxious mother removed him from school for private tutoring. At eighteen Bannerman went to the University of Toronto but never graduated because he spent most of his time writing a play in French entitled L'Ermite. When it was produced at Hart House his father, who hadn’t understood a word, said, “Very good.” Bannerman cried, “It is not very good. It is a grossly immature version of Flaubert’s Salammbô. I cannot stand the intellectual climate of this city any longer. Send me away so that I may write for critics who know what they are talking about.” Somewhat overawed, McNaught wrote a cheque and dispatched his son to Vienna.

In Vienna, in the early Twenties, one of the most scintillating subjects for lit-

erary research was a red-headed lady whose husband, a circus acrobat, was away on tour. In three months Bannerman spent on her all the money he’d been given for a year.

Too proud to ask his father for more he went to a restaurant and invited an American matron to dance. During The Blue Danube he informed her gently that he levied a small charge for his company. She paid up without surprise. For nine months Bannerman danced wistfully with lonely American matrons and reached the conclusion that the gigolo’s service to society is underestimated.

Back in Toronto his muse failed, and a sales job in one of his father’s businesses palled, so he got a part carrying a spear in a production of When Knights Were Bold at the old Princess Theatre. The scent of grease paint, dust, flats, beer and dirty costumes “intoxicated” him and subsidized by his father, he went to London to become a Shakespearean star.

Toward the end of 1923 he was touring Yorkshire in a knock-about vaudeville sketch. He played lover to a woman who in private life was a grandmother. During their supposedly romantic asides she regaled him with stories of her daughter’s sufferings from a post-confinement ague called Milk Fever. Bannerman discovered offstage that comedians are “ulcerous bores,” that trapeze artists are “alight with a sort of muted madness” and that dogact trainers are “polished ghouls.” Deciding there was no glamor in the theatre, he wrote a novel entitled The Tin Mother, I returned to Toronto and married a showj card designer named Evelyn Ballard.

With another hefty letter of credit'

from his father Bannerman took his bride to the French Riviera. There, in a rented villa, Evelyn and Bannerman hired three servants, begat three children, and lived three years. During this period Bannerman wrote another novel entitled. The Long Chase. He relaxed by painting bad pictures and competing in motorcycle races. He expressed his enthusiasm for food and drink by working in restaurants and vineyards. He also dispirited a pack of burglars who infested a café opposite his home by going out onto the lawn every afternoon and engaging in pistol practice.

During an all-night supper of vin ordinaire and Tripe à la Mode de Caen a bearded poet nicknamed Judas Iscariot persuaded Bannerman to enter the prize ring. Billed as the Canadian Hurricane, Bannerman met an Italian welterweight named Giovanni Verdonelli. The Italian hushed the Hurricane in fifteen seconds. To recover his reputation, Bannerman fought thirty-one more fights along the Riviera, winning twelve.

Bannerman remembers training across the Channel at The Spread Eagle, in Thame, a hostelry kept by the late John Fothergill, who admitted “only beautiful or intelligent guests.” Fothergill. known as “the rudest innkeeper in England," discouraged others by explaining that a large additional charge on their bill, a charge listed as “Face Money,” was their forfeit for being ugly. In one of his best-selling books on the experiences of inn-keeping, Fothergill included a short prose piece written in French by Bannerman.

At The Spread Eagle, Bannerman acquired an English accent with the occasional help of such fellow guests as Jer-

ome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat; Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Shakespearean actress and old flame of George Bernard Shaw; Humbert Wolfe, England's civil-servant poet; one of the several duchesses of the late Duke of Westminster; and the Sultan of Muscat.

Late in the Twenties his wife Evelyn persuaded Bannerman to return to Canada. He accepted a job in one of his father’s Montreal insurance businesses and bought a big house. About the same time he got a commission in the RCNVR and almost immediately went to sea for training. Evelyn divorced Bannerman and married a dentist.

Returning from sea, Bannerman was interviewed by his father. He then sailed for England and stayed for a time at The Spread Eagle. He started another novel, Time For Love, at Thononles-Bain, on Lake Geneva. There he received a call from Paris. It was from Tim Eaton, eldest son of Sir John and Lady Eaton, who wanted Bannerman to ride with him in a Bentley in a race against the express train from Paris to Florence.

The race was lost by a few hours, owing to too many stops on the way. But Bannerman consoled himself by treating a hundred and fifty members of the cast of White Horse Inn, a touring musical, to a Florentine night-club supper.

By 1932 Bannerman was working on Time For Love, at Bonnie Isle, his parents’ Ontario summer place on Georgian Bay. There his family was visited by a nineteen-year-old Toronto debutante named Gwethelyn Brown who announced that she was interested in writers. During a subsequent vacation from Smith College, Gwethelyn married the thirtyyear-old Bannerman in New York. For nearly two years the couple lived in Toronto and had one son. Between several jobs in his father’s businesses Bannerman finished Time For Love. The Tin Mother, The Long Chase and Time for Love all failed to find publishers. But Earth and High Heaven, a novel written by Bannerman’s second wife under the name Gwethelyn Graham, became a best seller. By the time the royalties were rolling in, however, Gwethelyn had divorced Bannerman and married a philosopher.

In 1935 Bannerman married Emily Jonatansson, a girl who worked in a radio station. A year later he flew to Hollywood to become a script writer. Conforming, for once, he joined in the general quest for publicity. He paid two thugs fifty dollars a day each to follow him about with their hands in the pistol pockets of their jackets. This arrangement aroused great curiosity as to Bannerman’s identity but failed to establish him as a script writer. He returned to Toronto, leaving the Hollywood gossip writers vexed by one of the greatest social mysteries of the time. That same year, 1936. Bannerman’s father estimated that his son had cost around one million dollars, cut him out of the will, and died.

Emily and Bannerman went to New York to write commercials for kidney pills. They were so badly paid they toyed with the idea of eating their product. In fact, they were saved from near starvation only by the Second World War. Bannerman answered the call of the RCNVR and Emily became a CWAC officer.

Bannerman was posted to naval coun-

tor-espionage in Halifax. But he found to his chagrin that the RCMP captured all the spies and left none for him. Although he was over forty he wangled a berth at sea and served aboard destroyers in many hazardous convoys. His most vivid recollection of combat is associated with food. After a German torpedo had passed directly beneath the ship, Bannerman, who was lunching on the bridge, was intrigued by the discovery that he'd swallowed at one gulp an enormous beefcheese-and-onion sandwich.

After the war, under the pseudonym 1 ajos Dohanyi Lajos, Bannerman wrote an indictment of Canadian middle-class morality and sold it to Mayfair Magazine. Under the names Robert Elliott, George Austen and Mark Carter, he began writing food articles, book reviews and music criticisms. Under the heading

Climb Doesn’t Pay, and the name Peter Davidson, lie vilified Canadians who try to keep up with the Joneses. Using the name James Bannerman, which he borrowed from a sign over a grocery store, he wrote general articles. In one postwar issue of Mayfair, Bannerman, under six pen names, was the author of almost every line. He was also writing for radio.

Nine years ago he wrote for Maclean's an article entitled They Used to Call Me Fatty. Since then he’s written more than forty more, on subjects ranging from the uses of the potato, lettuce, the apple and the egg, to the Canadian adventures of Charles Dickens, the thrills of naval warfare, the delights of ballooning and the spectacular death in Ontario of Jumbo, the world's biggest captive elephant.

Among his favorite relaxations are mathematics, serving breakfast guests

with steaks, chops, sweetbreads and scallops, and driving out with Emily in their Sunbeam Talbot sports car to a tavern in suburban Todmorden. There they drink beer among working men and women. “I love dukes and garbage men,” says Bannerman, “but I still can’t abide the people in between.”

Among the people in between he includes his late parents. And yet he regrets the trouble he caused them. “I do not look upon myself with approval,” he says. “I lay myself before God’s mercy in all humility and contrition. I wish I’d been able to make amends to my parents before they died. But it was not to be.”

His early flirtations with Islam have given place to High Anglicanism and he is making “a life work" of a libretto for an oratorio based on the Life of St. John

of the Cross. A few years ago, at a funeral parlor, he shocked his Presbyterian kin by crossing himself and kneeling for a moment at the casket of a deceased aunt. “I am not ashamed,” he says, "to kneel before My God, nor am I worried, in His presence, about the crease in my pants.”

While visiting the graves of relatives in Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery, he looked for a moment upon the plots of several big businessmen who’d been his contemporaries at school. "And they told me” he said to Emily, “that 1 was killing myself.”

While Bannerman wishes he had some of the money he spent in his youth, he often consoles himself with a motto he found on the back of a pre-war Italian coin: "It is better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.” ★