Margaret in Wonderland

David Cobb March 21 1977

Margaret in Wonderland

David Cobb March 21 1977

“I don’t intend to be just a rose in my husband’s lapel,” Margaret Trudeau said once. In six years of marriage she has kept strenuously to her promise—never more so than in her high-profile visits earlier this month to two intimate Toronto performances by Britain’s raunchy Rolling Stones, followed by a New York jaunt to the ballet (Mikhail Baryshnikov) and to a famous photographic studio (Richard Avedon). In both trips she was unaccompanied by her husband, and the upshot—in Canada and through much of the English-speaking world—was raucous, swift, and ruthlessly inquisitive. She may not have anticipated the extent of the uproar, but Margaret has never minded being the centre of attention. For one whole week—while Muslims held 134 people hostage in Washington and Finance Minister Donald Macdonald fought for press coverage in New York— Margaret Trudeau, 28, was certainly nobody’s lapel flower: she was an entire herbaceous border of her own, and in riotous bloom.

The fuse was lit with Margaret’s unheralded visit to the first Stones’ concert on March 4. The tinderbox went up when she repeated it the following night. Both times she arrived with lead singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Ron Wood: she could have attracted more publicity only if she’d arrived on the arm of Keith Richards, the group’s lead guitarist and composer, who a couple of days earlier had been busted by the RCMP with two charges of possession (heroin and cocaine), and one of intent to traffic (heroin). After all, the Stones are not merely, by wide consent, the best rock band in the world: they are rock’s rebels, the dark side of the Beatles, a group that for a decade has left behind it a sulphurous trail of drug-busts, violence, and untimely deaths (notably four at Altamont in California, 1969—a huge open-air happening policed by the Hell’s Angels). “I wouldn’t want my wife associatin’ with us,” drummer Charlie Watts grinned, as Margaret posed with them in Toronto. Naturally all this is part of the Stones’ mythic attraction, and it was not lost on the Prime Minister’s wife who, as Margaret Sinclair, had grown up with it.

“Fantastic!” she burbled to a radio reporter after the first two-hour concert in the seedy downtown Toronto nightclub called the El Mocambo. The Stones—in their first nightclub performances in 13 years, from which they hoped to record cuts for two upcoming albums—were indeed in superlative form. But what others thought just as remarkable was that that night was the Trudeaus’ sixth wedding anniversary, and that Margaret would be spending it at the Toronto (Harbor Castle) Hilton, 10 floors from the Stones.

Still, the storm was yet to break. Later that night she went to a Stones party in their suite. “She really pooped the party,” one guest said later. “Nobody could relax.” Small wonder: the Stones often relax, by repute, with a variety of interesting chemicals, and Margaret was accompanied by a Mountie. The storm-clouds gathered as Margaret went to the Stones’ performance the next night and it became obvious that the Prime Minister’s Office had no full grasp on her movements. “It’s her private life,” a Trudeau spokesman said stiffly, “and she’s on record as saying she wants to lead it the way she wants to.”

The storm broke the following Tuesday, the day Margaret and the Stones flew—on different planes—to New York. That night she and Princess Yasmin Khan, daughter of the late Aly Khan and actress Rita Hayworth, went to see Baryshnikov, the Russian ballet superstar, at City Centre. Greeted by a phalanx of reporters and photographers, Margaret explained she wasn’t in New York because of the Stones but because she wanted to do some photography—“nothing more sinister than that.” Handed a copy of The New York Post, which carried a large photo of the Trudeaus under the heading TRUDEAU’S WIFE IN HIDING, she flung it into a row of seats in front of her. “I say f— to all those papers,” she snapped. “My husband knew, my secretary knew ... I behave as myself always.” Later Yasmin and Margaret had a nightcap at the Plaza hotel, where they were joined by the Stones’ Ron Wood.

By this time the British press, with its patented mixture of piety and scandalmongering, was onto the story like a pack of libidinous nuns, and in New York columnist Suzy of the Daily News put her two bits in: “Ron Wood ... is Mrs. Trudeau’s very special Stone—and you can roll with that one ... He can probably tell you more about where Margaret is staying than maybe even the Prime Minister.” Even Bianca Jagger was heard from. Had Margaret been staying at the Jaggers’ New York home? “What? In here? Not with me around, she wouldn’t.”

If Margaret was troubled by the publicity or the paparazzi that followed her during her New York stay, she certainly didn’t show it. Many who followed her got the impression she enjoyed every moment. On one afternoon shopping expedition along Sixth Avenue with Yasmin and Mariel Hemingway (Margaux’s sister, Ernest’s granddaughter), she smiled and skittered about for the photographers. She did not even seem put out by two direct questions from the CBC’S Peter Cooke (“Are you having an affair with Mick Jagger?” “I certainly am not.” “Well, what about Ron Wood?” “I certainly am not.” The CBC, currently the object of a government inquiry, found this exchange too racy and deleted it from the tape.) The only time her spirits frayed was when she had to cope with an en masse assault of the New York press and three commando squads from Britain’s Sun, Express and Mirror. More than usually bitchy after waiting outside Avedon’s photography studios for six hours, they circled her, backed her against a wall, and started barking questions at her that would cause most Canadians epiglottal hernias. “How’s your marriage?” “How’re you feeling?” “Is your marriage happy?” “Is your health okay?” Finally breaking away—“I’m just going to stay at home and watch Lauren Hutton on TV."

She was cornered again as she arrived at the apartment building where she was staying. “Is your marriage in jeopardy?” she was asked again. “I have no comment to make about my marriage or my life,” said Margaret wearily, as the elevator doors closed behind her. It was one of the few sentences that she had managed to complete since leaving the Avedon studios.

As the storm blew itself out in New York and Margaret weighed the joys and woes of jet-set life, her husband attended his weekly Ottawa press conference with markedly less composure than usual. But he fielded the Margaret questions sensibly—“If she goes to a rock concert that is very celebrated, she has to be expected to be noticed and written about”—and with wit: asked about a British report that Margaret’s outings had rocked the dollar, Trudeau retorted, “Does it say anything about stamp collections?” He noted that his wife had canceled some official engagements for March—though after some soul searching, she did return to Ottawa for a dinner at 24 Sussex Drive with British Prime Minister James Callaghan. Said Trudeau, somewhat ambiguously in the light of events: “She just wants to be a private person for a while.”

Unanswered, because unposed—Fleet Street mau-mauing having yet to invade the National Press Gallery—were two questions at the back of many Canadians’ minds—including the minds of the legions who wish her well and buy wholesale her Sixties’ do-your-own-thing-come-whatmay philosophy. How strong is the Trudeaus’ marriage? And: is she nearing one of her periodic depressions?

Of the latter—apart from an emotional “I abdicate” quote in New York, speedily retracted—there is little sign. Unlike her performances in South America last year, Margaret’s behaviour in Washington in February was clearly a plus: clear-eyed, certain in her thinking, and allowing no petty nonsense from the nitpicking wing of the Canadian dress-design industry. Of her personal behaviour in Toronto and New York, it must be said that it was often better than that of those who badgered her. It’s her judgment that’s severely criticized by Liberal pols. “The nation’s at stake here!” cried one. “You can’t have the PM’s wife hanging out with the Stones, for crissakes, when you’re at 41%” (in the polls). Said another: “It sure doesn’t hurt Jagger. The only one who gets hurt is Trudeau.” The quality of the Trudeaus’ marriage is a matter of endless Ottawa speculation— and much concerned pessimism. It is no secret that she dislikes the political life; once, at Harrington Lake last summer when Trudeau was given a T-shirt inscribed 10 MORE YEARS, Margaret made a point of covering the numeral “one” with her hands. “All along.” says a friend, “it’s been a fairly cosmic relationship. When they’re good, it’s great, when they’re bad, it’s soso.” Others are not so sure. Notes a top Liberal who believes Trudeau is Canada’s only hope to save Confederation and that he may well step down if his marriage is endangered: “Margaret could help cause the break-up of this country.”

Observers keenly remember Trudeau’s reply last May to a question asking if he foresaw any reasons that would cause him to resign. “Yes, there are,” Trudeau said. “If family circumstances made my job impossible, then I suppose I might have to reconsider my job. But that's rather hypothetical,” he added, to the surprise of many who thought he was referring to his growing family, “because Margaret has shown that she has a great ability to adjust.”

It’s just this ability, unfortunately, that is currently in question. Nobody much minds that she is known to smoke marijuana; after all she is very much a product of her times and place, with liberal coatings of B.C. counter-culture. What she has not yet come to grips with is the fact that she is no longer Margaret Sinclair; and though she sometimes gets away with it, she cannot always behave as if she were. Notes an apolitical friend: “You have to make your own judgments whether she’s achieved a new level of freedom or whether she’s incredibly self-indulgent. Obviously she’s not doing Pierre any good right now.”

‘Mrs. Trudeau, ladies and gentlemen... the Rolling Stones!’