Historicist: Citizen McCullagh
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Historicist: Citizen McCullagh

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

C. George McCullagh in his office, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3526.

George McCullagh seemed to have it all: a rags-to-riches back story; a brash, cocky charm that appealed to financiers, politicians, and the public; a growing family; influence in the back rooms of government; and ownership of several Toronto daily newspapers. He even attempted to lead a crusade to change the nature of government that would enable him to fulfill his belief that he alone could improve the state of affairs for Canadians or at least the state of affairs for his friends in the mining industry. Ultimately all of this may have been too much for one body to handle.
McCullagh’s boundless energy and charm appealed even to those who disagreed with his personal philosophies. A 1936 profile in Saturday Night noted that he resembled the “Arrow-collar advertisement man in the flesh: dark, crisp hair, of medium size but broad-shouldered with an athletic build. Readily, he smiles or jokes, glibly he damns or consigns to hell what does not meet with his approval. But underneath this congenital [sic] exterior is an alert analytical mind—one that misses nothing, one that sizes up constantly and one that acts without hesitation.” As a publisher, he made it a point to know the names of his employees and chat with them on an informal basis. He held court in the newsrooms and cafeterias of his papers where, as David Hayes noted in Power and Influence: The Globe and Mail and the News Revolution, when McCullagh ”turned on his hundred-kilowatt smile and said ‘how ar’ ya?’ senior editors and pressmen alike felt a special bond with their boss.” Less charmingly, he chased female employees around the office. According to June Callwood, who worked at the Globe and Mail during World War II, “he exuded sex. The switchboard operator was a friend of mine. She’d tip me off. ‘The publisher is looking for you.’ And I’d go and hide in the washroom.”

Clement George McCullagh was born in 1905 in London, Ontario, the son of a cabinetmaker. His father’s deep devotion to union organizing led to periods of hardship during McCullagh’s youth, which formed the basis of his deep distrust of the labour movement later on. To help support the family, McCullagh worked as a newsboy for the Globe, a job that kindled his interest in the media. He dropped out of high school to work as a rural salesman for the paper, where visits to farmers sometimes ended in ploughing competitions with those he couldn’t easily convince to buy a paper. By his late teens, McCullagh worked at the Globe’s Toronto headquarters in roles ranging from coordinator of a child safety campaign to business reporter. He stayed with the paper until 1928—many accounts blame his departure on Globe owner Williiam Jaffray’s anti-smoking policy, though an ambitious, energetic character like McCullagh probably wouldn’t have stayed happy as an underling for long with the lure of making baskets of money on Bay Street beckoning. Legend has it that Jaffray warned him against leaving, but McCullagh was firm and departed with a boast. “The next time I come in,” he said, “I’ll be buying the paper out from under you.”
Thanks to contacts made while in the business department, McCullagh joined the brokerage firm of Milner, Ross and Company as their stock-market expert. While colleagues lost their money in the early days of the Great Depression, McCullagh shrewdly invested in gold mine stocks just before they doubled in price. Within a few years he ran his own investment firm and saw his bank account go into the seven-figure range. He used his natural charm and drive to ingratiate himself with mining magnates, politicians, and other figures with clout. Looking for ways to spread his influence, McCullagh looked back to his beginnings.

Headlines from the front page of the Mail and Empire announcing McCullagh’s purchase of the paper, November 19, 1936.

On October 15, 1936, the front pages of all four Toronto dailies announced the fulfillment of McCullagh’s promise to Jaffray. Among the immediate changes McCullagh made to the Globe were reversals to Jaffray’s policies against publishing tobacco advertising and horse-racing results, as well as adding livelier syndicated columnists like Walter Winchell. The paper retained its tilt towards the Liberal Party, though McCullagh always added “independent” in front of the party name and vowed in his initial policy statement that in “reserving the right to commend or criticize, from the standpoint of the country’s interests, it will not be a party organ.” He quickly reorganized the paper’s board of directors to create a group of “great men” who, as described in the November 4, 1936 edition of the Globe, “regardless of creed or political leaning…will be prepared, after considered judgment, and with no selfish motive, to visit Ottawa or Queen’s Park, as occasion arises, and there contribute ideas tending, in their opinion, to improvement of conditions generally.” Observers wondered if these changes would improve the Globe’s circulation, which lagged far behind Toronto’s other morning newspaper, the Conservative-leaning Mail and Empire. McCullagh had an easy solution—he bought the competition one month after purchasing the Globe and merged the papers.
The newly dubbed Globe and Mail initially maintained a Liberal bias, but slowly McCullagh increased his criticism of Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn as his relationship with both deteriorated over a variety of political and economic issues. Likely he was miffed with the limits of his influence over both governments, especially in Ontario where he often boasted he had single-handedly dictated Hepburn’s efforts to crush a strike at General Motors in Oshawa in 1937. His views were more in line with the Conservative Party, but weak, revolving-door leadership left him unwilling to throw the paper’s support behind them.

Leadership League ballots. The Globe and Mail, February 14, 1939.

McCullagh’s disillusionment with politicians and his belief that it was his destiny to save the country from itself led to a series of five Sunday-night radio broadcasts during the winter of 1939. Initially rejected by the CBC because his speeches weren’t backed by a recognized political party, McCullagh cobbled together thirty private stations to air his views. He hoped that the speeches would rouse a lethargic public to become interested in public affairs…and extend the influence of the Globe and Mail. The content of the speeches reveals someone whose money and self-made nature set him at a distance from reality and, in the face of the upcoming battle against dictators who promoted mindless obedience, suggested the way forward for Canada was mindless obedience. Under the heading of “Let’s Do Some Plain Speaking,” he argued that Canadians “do not need great brilliancy in the administration of public affairs. We require rugged honesty, clear purpose, tireless energy and unswerving loyalty to principles which we, as citizens of average intelligence, can appraise fairly.”
These simple virtues and the principles that free enterprise operated under were all the country needed to shake off the last dregs of the Great Depression. Mothers could start their children on the right path at an early age by promoting “the reading of such simple and dream-building literature as Horatio Alger, instead of allowing them to absorb the vicious doctrines of defeatism. You successful men can all recall the days of our youth when you read such books as Bound to Win and Strive and Succeed and would go to bed waiting eagerly for the next day to appear so you could go out and conquer the world.” He promoted extreme thrift at the government level, to the point of eliminating provincial governments and removing bilingual civil services—once Quebec understood the savings that resulted, they wouldn’t miss the ability to conduct government matters in French!
All Canadians needed to forget about their regional issues (hello again, Quebec!) and throw all their energies into being good British subjects. In an earlier Globe editorial, he noted, “If there is a race problem in this country that prevents the nation from doing its duty…then there will be an overwhelming demand for less Canadianism and more British sentiment in both theory and practice.” To lessen divisiveness, he pushed for a party-free national government run by business and political leaders (in that order) who would subordinate their personal interests to revitalize the country. Unemployment needed to be abolished due to its role in the “disintegration of Canadian manhood,” but he offered no solutions other than a vague idea to throw the unemployed into camps where they could be trained in military matters. As historian Brian J. Young noted in an essay in the Canadian Historical Review, it was typical of McCullagh to raise fury but provide no solutions. “Though all observers describe McCullagh as a man of strong views,” Young wrote, “one searches his speeches in vain for an integrated or clear philosophy; there was a certain nebulous and shallow quality to his utterances… the content of his speeches was often blurred by the force of his personality and by his use of catch phrases.” Or, as McCullagh put it, “I have no politics, I am a Canadian.”
McCullagh’s speeches made an impact on listeners seeking both a confident leader and a voice for their frustrations. During his last broadcast on February 12, 1939, he asked the audience to join him in a “militant and vigilant organization” called the Leadership League that would clean the political machinery of the country. Two days later, the Globe and Mail set aside page seven for regular promotion of the Leadership League, which included membership ballots, forms to send to MPs, examples of poor spending and leadership, and a list of “Hansurdities.” More than one hundred thousand ballots were mailed in, and by the end of the month the paper announced that local clubs could be formed. Most attached themselves to local civic, business, and Protestant organizations.
Reaction from the rest of the press was harsh—the Toronto Star called it “a campaign which undermines the confidence of Canadians in democracy,” while the Vancouver Sun saw the logical end of McCullagh’s campaign as “a Canadian Fascism.” The business community stayed at arm’s length, as charges spread that the Leadership League was merely a front for McCullagh’s friends in the banking, insurance, and mining industries. Lack of financial support, McCullagh’s resistance to changing the Leadership League from a pressure group to a full-fledged political party, and his poor health led to the disbanding of the organization after a March rally at Maple Leaf Gardens failed to meet attendance expectations. McCullagh continued to pursue his pet policies during the war and finally threw the paper’s support behind the Conservatives when Arthur Meighen became federal leader in 1942.

Source: The Telegram, December 2, 1948.

As McCullagh’s views headed rightward, his editorial and financial battles with the Star became more pitched. He looked for ways to put the competition out of business. One solution was to buy another paper, which happened when he purchased the Telegram in November 1948. He promised its staff an “honest, fearless paper” that would be revitalized from the stupor it had been in for years. When the Star charged McCullagh with being a front man for “outside influences,” he snapped back that Star President Harry Hindmarsh “is so ugly that if he ever bit himself he’d get hydrophobia.” As the Star’s ownership had passed to a charitable trust, McCullagh convinced his Progressive Conservative allies in the Ontario government to pass a bill whose conditions would either force the Star to be sold or closed (an agreement was later reached between the Star and Premier Leslie Frost that preserved the paper’s status). Globe and Mail staffers were transferred to the Telegram to boost the evening paper’s circulation, and rumours grew that the two would eventually be merged. Ultimately, according to Maggie Siggins in a biography of later Telegram publisher John Bassett:

George McCullagh’s heart was never in the Telegram. He never felt the same way about his new paper as he did about the Globe and Mail. The Globe remained the centre of operations. Occasionally he’d drop over to Melinda Street, put his feet up on a reporter’s desk and talk about some story or other. But those who saw a lot of him realized that there was something very much awry: he was beginning to suffer badly from mental depressions.

C. George McCullagh in stands at sporting event, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3534.

McCullagh was diagnosed as a manic depressive. His bouts of melancholia may have been worsened by his strong determination to stay sober after fighting a drinking problem in the early 1930s—one friend noted that “he had so much energy and was so high-strung that without liquor he had no way of relaxing.” As David Hayes noted, “When he was riding an upswing he was dynamic, charismatic, decisive, outgoing. During the increasing number of downswings, he looked haunted. He was so frequently absent from the paper that [business partner William] Wright found it necessary to publish a disclaimer assuring readers that McCullagh was still in charge.” He had also suffered from frequent bouts of pneumonia most of his life, as well as insomnia. By early 1952, a couple of heart attacks added to his health woes as he underwent treatment with a neuropsychiatrist in New York.
On August 5, 1952, McCullagh was found dead in a pool at his Thornhill estate. The front pages of the Globe, Star, and Telegram the next day provided the official cause of death as a heart attack. Later accounts indicate the likely cause was suicide, hushed up to protect the family and its reputation. How he died was debated—self-inflicted gun shot? A fall off the wagon? Stunned employees wished afterwards that they hadn’t been insulated from the extent of his illnesses and wished they had been able to help a boss they genuinely loved.

Editorial cartoon, the Telegram, August 6, 1952.

The pages of the Globe and the Telegram in the days following McCullagh’s death are filled with memorials from dignitaries and reporters that reflect a deep sense of loss. Though a modern sensibility might look cynically at the amount of ink used to praise and perhaps overinflate the importance the “beacon of democracy” wielded, one can’t helped but be touched by the warm reminiscences that peek through.
Additional material from Bassett by Maggie Siggins (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1979); “C. George McCullagh and the Leadership League” by Brian J. Young from the September 1966 issue of Canadian Historical Review; Hurly-Burly: A Time at the Globe by Richard J. Doyle (Toronto: Macmillan, 1990); Power and Influence: The Globe and Mail and the News Revolution by David Hayes (Toronto: Key Porter, 1992); Scrum Wars: the Prime Ministers and the media by Allan Gerald Levine (Toronto: Dundurn, 1993); the October 15, 1936 and November 4, 1936 editions of the Globe; the November 23, 1936 and August 6, 1952 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the December 6, 1948 edition of Time.