Amid the swirl of media analysis surrounding the conviction of Conrad Black in Chicago on one serious count of obstructing justice and three lesser charges of mail fraud early in July, Ed Mirvish died. Mirvish was 92, and a man universally liked by Torontonians for his straight-up business practices and his unstintingly generous support for the theatre and some of the other arts. In the days that followed, the eulogies poured in, mostly from the theatre community and politicians eager to climb onto the legacy of a man with a spotless record. They were lavish., and one almost suspected that their number and effulgence was a journalistic respite from the farce of Black’s trial and conviction, which began with serious issues of corporate governance and the possibility of clarifying the fiduciary relationship between the management apparatus of publicly-traded corporations and their shareholders, and ended with how hard it was appropriate to kick an arrogant man who speaks in six syllable words.
In the middle of all this, no one seemed to notice how different Mirvish’s life and priorities were from Conrad Black. Both men, of course, have a few things in common. There was the
common interest in money and in the arts, and both were notably uxorious. But beyond that, it is hard to imagine more different pursuit of those commonalities. Black took his money and ran with it, buying a British peerage so he could peer down his nose at Canada, and residing mostly-and very ostentatiously-in London, Florida and New York City. Mirvish put his wealth back into the city that generated it, rescuing a beloved theatre from the wrecker’s ball and then constructing a uniquely kitschy arts district to support it. Around his flagship store at Bloor and Bathurst, he created yet another arts district, this one with the best visual arts and architecture bookstores in the city, among other things.
Black treated his wife to diamonds, plastic surgeries and whatever else she wanted, apparently to the point of reaching beyond his means and into his shareholder’s pockets. Mirvish, who clearly loved his wife Anne with similar intensities and devotion, built a
whole Toronto universe-Mirvish village-to approximate New York City, where she would, it is said, have preferred to live.
Now, I must confess that I never quite got Conrad Black. I found him, at best, more entertaining than admirable or profound. He was distastefully arrogant and high-handed, and he treated people badly, often for no good reason. Nearly all the inside stories I
caught as the trial proceeded-they are plentiful-made him sound worse than advertised. The two serious books he’s written, one a biography of F.D. Roosevelt and the more recent attempt to renovate the reputation of the disgraced Richard Nixon, are simultaneously intellectually substantial, laughably over-written, and, well, Oedipal. Whether either book will stand the test of time is probably impossible to predict in the present climate. Black’s
other cultural contribution, the short-lived but relatively entertaining transformation of the Financial Post into the National Post, was, in the end, more fun for the right-wing smartasses it brought out of the closet than for the rest of us. It’s main contribution, on balance, was to draw Canada’s cultural discourse into the fundamentally stupid and unproductive squabble over how far the metaphor of the marketplace can be imposed on the public realmbefore we either start rioting or rebirth Nazi fascism. Ultimately, it all came to very little except to improve the quality of cultural journalism at the rival Globe and Mail. The sale of the National Post to the Asper family’s CanWest Global media monopsony has resulted in a bizarre meld of the old Financial Post with the Jerusalem Post, along with a cultural discourse that seems diffident to everything that doesn’t say something positive about Israel.
One should not, meanwhile, fail to measure the National Post fun against the journalistic misery Black’s newspaper empire brought to every other newspaper he owned, partly by the
profit-sucking downsizing of editorial staff it brought and partly by the imposition of the National Post as a de-facto cultural news service and corporate censorship apparatus-the country’s first.
Ed Mirvish’s contribution to Canadian culture, by contrast, has been mainly in theatre, which he is said to have saved by bringing it to the service of Broadway musicals and things dear to people like Garth Drabinsky. I don’t want to seem ungracious about this, but it’s
hard to get anyone beyond Richard Ouzounian and a few gay Rotarians to talk about Mirvish’s sense of theatre without hearing grumbles and audible grimaces and “yeah buts” trailing from every sentence. It can be argued that the true benefits of Mirvish’s theatre achievements aren’t cultural or artistic, but mercantile: he got a whole lot of suburban and tourist bums into Toronto’s theatre seats. He saved a lot of jobs and created more than a few, but suggesting that he saved Canadian theatre opens a large and bitter argument no one really wants to have during the period of mourning.
I’ve got to admit that I never did get Ed Mirvish’s theatre any more than I got Conrad Black. The one time I was dragooned into going to a musical in Toronto I nearly died of intellectual
embarrassment. I honestly can’t remember anything about the show I saw beyond the tuxedos in the vestibule at half time when I went outside for a smoke.
Okay, I’m lying about this. I also remember how desperately I wanted to make a break for it, and that it was weeks before I forgave my wife for talking me into it.
But maybe dumbing down Toronto theatre wasn’t Ed Mirvish’s real contribution to Canadian culture. The day after his death was announced, I happened into Tom’s Place in the Kensington Market, where I’ve bought most of my clothes since I moved to Toronto in 1991.
The proprietor, Tom Mihalik, is probably Ed Mirvish’s closest contemporary comp in Toronto. Like Mirvish was a generationago, he’s a mercantile showman without a shred of prejudice and without any fear of kitsch. He also has Mirvish’s inclusive sense of community, and the ability to communicate to people he barely knows that he understands and respects exactly who and what they are. People are loyal to Tom for the same reasons people were loyal to Ed Mirvish-they see that he isn’t going to duck out on them, and that he’ll offer them as much value for their money as he can.
Tom happened to be holding forth about Mirvish when I reached the store’s cash register with my purchase, and what he was saying struck me as true in a way nothing else I’ve heard since has been. Tom was suggesting that Ed Mirvish’s labour practices were a more powerful reflection of his personality and values than his showmanship, and that in the end, they would be a more profound contribution to our cultural practice than his support for corny musical theatre.
I asked Tom to elaborate, and he did. “If you look at how he ran his businesses,” Tom said, “you see a pattern of promoting people from within. Every manager at every level of his
store began on the floor and worked his or her way up. Mirvish didn’t care where you’d come from and he didn’t care about ethnicity or race-so long as you were honest and you worked hard. People recognized that about him, and they saw that he was putting his earnings back into the community. That’s why his customers and his employees were so loyal to him. If he was talking the talk, he was walking the walk. Always.”
Tom didn’t have to explain it, but when he used the term “community” he was talking, as Ed Mirvish did, about the full community, not his own people or people who like to go to musicals. Ed Mirvish was a true meritocrat-unlike the avowed plutocrat Conrad Black.
Along with Tom Mihalik, that’s the Ed Mirvish I’ll miss. I can’t think of anything about Conrad Black I’m going to miss while he’s doing his time.
1365 w. September 7, 2007