The many bonfires of Paul Desmarais

Peter C. Newman explores the lingering legacy of a Canadian billionaire

Gilles LaFrance / Journal de Montreal / QMI Agency

Paul Desmarais, who died last week at age 86, was the most vital, avant-garde money man in the annals of Canadian capitalism. He was uniquely Canadian because he didn’t need to examine the high-stake flyers of New York or London to find out how to be ultra-successful. They studied him. He was the contemporary incarnation of Sherman McCoy, the central character in Tom Wolfe’s legendary novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in which the bond trader depicts himself as a “Master of the Universe.”

In his time, Desmarais certainly qualified as Master of the Canadian universe, setting the pace, imposing the boundaries and exercising the essence of integrity in an industry that all too often thrived on the opposite. He was the role model in his approach to the business ethic, mastering relevant safeguards in both of Canada’s founding cultures. Held up as an example of Quebecers’ ability to compete, the crown princes of Canada’s business community endowed him with almost occult powers, since many of them viewed Quebec as some kind of mythical Transylvania. Desmarais served as the essential link.

As a youngster, Paul had sharpened his native wit and wisdom by prowling the back streets and alleys of Sudbury, where he was born, hanging out in the auto-repair shops, community rinks and pool halls. Sudbury is a lively but unforgiving place.

Desmarais moved up in Canada’s business hierarchy so quickly and so quietly that only a few top insiders heard his approaching footsteps. He fit no stereotype. In business on a grand scale, he placed strategy over process, and never once established an original enterprise. He advanced by conquest, the capacity to mobilize remote possibilities into major corporate acquisitions. His specialty was reverse takeovers—minnows swallowing whales—with Moby’s enthusiastic consent. “You sell your assets to a company and, with the proceeds, you pay for the shares of the company you just acquired,” he once explained, to my complete bafflement. That kind of manoeuvring took a special breed of cat, free of the hidebound timidity that holds back run-of-the-mill competitors. Only Paul could make a pitch to boards of directors, supporting his takeover of their companies with their own money, and leave them in exalting heat.

He had no patience. On one flight from Toronto to Texas by private jet, he and his companions forgot to bring playing cards for their usual poker game. To keep himself occupied, Desmarais insisted they make bets on the serial numbers of the money in their wallets.

During a lifetime of deals and empire-building, Desmarais built a personal fortune estimated at $4.5 billion. His family’s annual net income averaged $33 million.

During the terrors of the 1970 October Crisis, when Pierre Laporte was assassinated, Desmarais was confidentially warned by Montreal’s chief of police that he was on the FLQ murder list and that he should stay out of sight. The Power Corp. chairman immediately took off for Île aux Ruaux, a secluded island in the St. Lawrence that was stocked with pheasants. It was unoccupied except for a hunting club so exclusive it only had seven members. When Desmarais was informed that the authorities could no longer guarantee his safety, he was escorted home aboard a landing craft manned by troops from the nearby Royal 22e Régiment, by direct orders of prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

He collected Canadian prime ministers like rare butterflies.

At least four of them became buddies, with Brian Mulroney at the top of the list as a lifetime best friend. Trudeau, Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien (whose daughter, France, married Desmarais’s son, André) enjoyed almost equal access.

It took me three years to arrange my first interview with Paul Desmarais, who, at the time, was trying to take over Argus Corp., before it was acquired by Conrad Black. We had some fabulous interviews, but in my first Establishment book, I quoted a dubious assessment of a Desmarais stock deal. He took great exception, and hired legal super-eagle J.J. Robinette to issue an injunction that would halt distribution. The problem was that 75,000 copies of my book had already been printed and were ready to be trucked across the country. There was only one solution. Publisher Jack McClelland recruited 20 volunteers who, over a weekend, pasted a new page over the offending paragraph. A novel way to edit. The injunction was lifted, but the next time I saw Desmarais, he pretended to be stern: “Your damn sticker comes off!” he said—but then allowed that he tried to rip it off but it took most of a week for the new page to disappear. We had a good laugh. Before the book was published, Desmarais made a promise that he didn’t keep: “If I like your book,” he wrote me, “I’ll buy 500 copies; if I don’t, I’ll buy all the copies.” Promises, promises.

One of Paul Desmarais’s most daring capers that never became public was his success in preventing his company from being snapped up by the CPR. The railway was then run by Ian Sinclair, a tough and capable corporate marauder. When Desmarais got wind of the threat, he realized CPR was one of the few institutions that possessed the clout to buy him out.

The two decided to spend an evening talking it out, and started off with drinks at the Château Champlain dining room, then the CPR’s main hotel in Montreal. After that, they had drinks in one of the hotel’s clubs, followed by more drinks in a private suite. By 3 a.m., they were both well gone. Paul decided to take Ian home. When they got there, not only could he not find his house key, he couldn’t locate his pocket—and when he did, he kept missing the keyhole. The staggering pair of corporate heavies broke down the front door. A startled wife, Jacqueline Desmarais, threw Sinclair out on the street.

Next morning, Paul slept for a full eight hours, but not before leaving a message with Sinclair’s secretary that he would be in conference all day, but would drop by Ian’s office in the late afternoon. When he arrived, there was the sleep-deprived CEO of the CPR, looking decidedly worse for wear, unable to focus on the well-rested, vibrant Power Corp. chairman. Sinclair decided on the spot not to proceed with his intended takeover, and staggered home to bed. And that was how Paul Desmarais saved his company to fight another day.

Two decades later, I was invited to Paul Desmarais’s winter home in Palm Beach, Fla., in preparation for bringing his exploits up to date for my next Establishment book. I recognized a profound unrest inside the man—an existential dread of there ever being a vacuum in his affairs. I interviewed him for 17 hours at his villa, modelled on Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent Monticello design. My first question was about his private mountain. His estate was set on a highway and the passing cars interrupted his reveries. So he erected an artificial mountain that blotted out any evidence of the road.

Breaking my rule of never pretending to quote anyone’s thoughts, I fiddled with an imagined interior dialogue Desmarais might be having: “I’ve made all this money, but what else can I do?” he was entitled to be thinking. “I’m the richest French Canadian there ever was. I have an office full of Krieghoffs and Chippendale chairs, an ambassador’s son as my assistant. Cabinet ministers come and play poker with me. E.P. Taylor’s daughter did my Montreal house. The governor general throws special receptions for me. My wife is beautiful and I can entertain 80 relatives at a time. Here I am, done up in my gorgeous three-piece dark-blue cashmere suit with a Patek Philippe gold watch and custom-made, valet-shined shoes. What else can I do? There must be something I can turn my wits to.”

I grew fond of Paul, because he was a living testament to the proposition that you could be all-powerful and wealthy beyond imaginable limits, and yet still admit to being vulnerable and susceptible to self-doubt. He seemed to invent himself for each occasion, changing his demeanour according to the impression he wanted to leave. Yet the stern centre of the man remained inviolate: his natural elegance; the six-foot, two-inch frame—bent like a parenthesis—his habit of moving at a deliberately slowed pace that enhanced his majestic bearing. The piercing brown eyes, the constant shrugs, so elusive that they could be dismissive or confirming. I noted his ill-disguised stutter, which was his only sign of nervousness; the thumbs that curved outward signalled his hot temper, which I had felt at least twice.

The last time we talked was at his winter home in Palm Beach during the late 1990s. We talked for hours in a detailed and compelling tour d’horizon. Then he started to pace the room and launched himself into a closing monologue: “I’ve been like a fisherman who puts out a net, and if he’s lucky, he gets a good catch,” he began. “Well, I spent a lot of time putting out nets and, finally, over a long period, I’ve been lucky. But it’s not just luck. You’ve got to expose yourself to the fish precisely when circumstances are favourable. [There are] lots of things I’d like to accomplish still. I ask myself, ‘Why don’t you stop?’ With everything you have, there is a corresponding responsibility—and after a while, it becomes a heavy burden. But the fascination to go on never stops . . . ”

He trailed off. Then, sitting on the edge of a table, he slowly pronounced his farewell. “My . . . enemy . . . now . . . is . . . time . . . ”

That “enemy” caught up with him last week, and I realized that, not only had his time come up, but there would never be—could never be—another Paul Desmarais. I was delighted to have known him, watched and studied him, like a young Sioux shadowing the great buffalos of the Plains.

Looking back, his essence seems as elusive as ever. But I am comforted by the fact that no one can alter my memories of his magical, lingering presence. His successors now face the challenge of being considered grounded eagles. I knew one that soared.

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