The national mourning in December for Jean Beliveau was extraordinary. It ran from the formal Memorial Mass in Montreal, attended by several Prime Ministers, all the way to a feature on him before a televised Maple Leafs game that silenced a raucous sports bar in the Beaches and had the fans getting reverently to their feet, their Leafs caps clutched in their hands.
But of course Jean Beliveau was extraordinary.
I was lucky enough to get to know him when at McClelland & Stewart we published his autobiography in 1994. Naturally, we planned a major author tour for him. It began in the West, and from Vancouver onwards the crowds were larger than we had ever seen. Every newspaper and TV and radio station was clamouring for interviews, and soon the whole event had taken on the dimensions of a Royal Tour. Signing books for the hundreds of admirers who had lined up to meet him made for very long days, city after city, and eventually Jean began to wear down.
Near exhaustion, he phoned from Winnipeg to ask for help. Typically, instead of brushing him off on the phone, our Chairman, Avie Bennett, flew out to give help in person. He and Jean decided that as the tour proceeded into the cities of the East, we should cut back on the original plans. We would cancel the media interviews, to allow him to concentrate on the massive signing sessions in the bookstores. That was a great relief to Jean. Problem solved.
After the weekend, however, Avie got a phone call from Jean. He said, “Elise has reminded me that I have never failed to do what I promised to do. So we should stick with our original plan. I’ll do the media interviews.” And he did. Brilliantly, with the dignity and the grace that were built into him.
It’s typical of Avie (and he and I were constantly in and out of each other’s nearby offices, so I knew him very well) that when he was briefly in Winnipeg that day, he was able to see another touring M&S author, Karen Kain, who was proudly promoting her memoir, Movement Never Lies. It was clear that the investment he made in our authors was worth it, even if publishing in Canada is such a tough business that the rewards tend not to be measured in dollars.
For similar reasons, he enjoyed his time as a part-owner of the Montreal Expos. He loves telling the story of strolling out of the stadium with two M&S authors on either side: Pierre Trudeau and Jean Beliveau. This allows him to set up the classic line: “Hey, who are those two guys with Avie Bennett?”
Another Jean Beliveau story:
Some years after we published his memoir Canada Post brought out a stamp in his honour. I happened to be visiting the great Montreal book event, the Salon Du Livre, and in my ramblings I came across a Canada Post booth, where Jean was signing for a crowd. They were lined up around the Hall, in their hundreds. I was standing there quietly, enjoying the sight of my old friend surrounded by admirers of all ages. I had no plan to intervene, since he was obviously very busy. But he paused in his signing, looked up, and saw me. And Jean Beliveau put down his pen, got up, came around the desk and across the aisle to greet me, shaking the hand of his “old friend Doug.” It was wonderful, and we had a warm conversation. But like a good publisher I was concerned about the delay we were causing for the people in the line-up, and I managed to move him back to the signing table.
During all this time, the people lined up showed absolutely no sign of irritation. If M. Beliveau wanted to get up and go to greet a friend, that was fine with them. But they looked at me with keen interest. I wasn’t a hockey player. So which NHL team, they wondered, did I own?
It’s too bad that Jean was never able to accept the invitation to be Canada’s Governor-General. He would have been a great, distinguished occupant of that role. And as we’ve seen, he knew all about Royal Tours.