Remembering Nick


Mordecai Richler


The next big event was the October Crisis, and many of those same

journalists sent here because of their previous Montreal experience sought

me out. My status was enhanced by the fact that I had been one of those

arrested under the War Measures Act and, arguably, I knew as much about the

radical movement as anyone, police included.

Nick Auf der Maur, Gazette, April 27, 1996


Rooted in a sprawling house on Kingston Hill, Surrey, in 1970, one evening

I took a phone call from Life magazine in New York. Could I leave for

Montreal immediately? I flew into town two weeks after the funeral of then

Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, who had been kidnapped and murdered

by the FLQ. Those copycat revolutionaries were still holding British Trade

Commissioner James Cross. The evening of my arrival in Montreal

enthusiastic friends drove me past consulates, public buildings, and

certain rich private mansions, where battle-ready soldiers stood guard.

"There are a lot of people who are insulted," I was told, "because they

aren't considered important enough to have troops posted outside their door."

Strolling through Westmount it was impossible not to note the plethora of

mountain mansions for sale, seemingly unmovable at fire sale prices.

Everybody knowledgeable, according to the gossip, was going liquid. A

French Canadian novelist I had known for years invited me to lunch at his

house in Outremont. "It is no longer a question," he assured me, "of if we

separate, but when. Our children no longer call themselves Canadian, but


I met Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for lunch in Ottawa. I ate breakfast

with Claude Ryan at the Ritz-Carlton and the admirable Senator Thérèse

Casgrain gave me an hour of her time. John Scott, who was then editor of

Time Canada, arranged for me to meet René Lévesque for drinks in an East

End bar. "I should warn you," said Scott, "that he will be at least an hour

late." But Lévesque, who was still running in place on the political

periphery in those days, turned up on time&emdash;not for me, certainly, but for

Life magazine.

On first meeting, I took the chain-smoking, obviously high-strung Lévesque

to be an authentic people's tribune. As I wrote in Life, he struck me as a

man effortlessly in touch with the bookkeeper with sour breath, the wasting

QLC clerk with dandruff, the abandoned mother of five, the truck driver on

welfare, in fact with all the discontented lives. Later I did learn that

the man had many sides to him. But, back in 1970, we were hardly into our

second drink when Lévesque, determined to dissociate the Parti Québécois

from the FLQ, dismissed them as "a bunch of bums." At the time, I had no

idea that seven years earlier, when the FLQ was much given to planting

bombs in mailboxes that could explode in the faces of children, Lévesque

had had said to André Laurendeau, "You've got to hand it to them, they're

courageous, those guys."

I read off a list of political notables already interviewed to an old

friend. He was unimpressed. "I think you should check things out with Nick

Auf der Maur," he said.

"Nick who?"

"Auf der Maur. It means 'Off-the-Wall' in German."

"He's a German?"

"Of Swiss origin, actually."

So I became another one of those reporters, who, taking the Montreal

pulse, made sure to consult Dr. Auf der Maur. In those days Nick's surgery

was the now defunct basement Le Bistro on Mountain Street, and that's where

we first got together. Terry Mosher was also there. At the time Nick and

Terry were both involved in producing an irreverent political monthly

called The Last Post. Nick was both entertaining and informative that

evening, but I took him for an unreliable charmer, quick but lightweight,

and it never occurred to me that one day we would become good friends.


After I quit England and settled in Montreal with my family in 1972, I did

run into Nick from time to time&emdash;at Au Cépage, Woody's, Winnie's, or other

stations of the imbibers' cross&emdash;where I had usually gone to shoot the

breeze with other journalists who were already good friends, Ian Mayer or

Doris Giller; and I continued to keep my distance from Nick. But slowly,

inevitably, I did succumb to his irreverence, his gifts as a raconteur, his

sure eye for the absurd, his jaunty manner, what I took to be an

unacknowl-edged inner sadness, as well as his unmatched knowledge of

Montreal lore. To come clean, in need of confirming some recherché Montreal

factoid, I sent a bucket down Nick's memory well more than once. As he was

a compulsive peddler of inane jokes, I also came to rely on him for

knee-slappers that would make an intelligent reader wince, if I required

one for a novel-in-progress.

Nick was a throwback. An atavism. One of the last of a breed of

hard-drinking, honest but cynical reporters, usually divorced and

scrabbling to keep up with child support payments, who&emdash;when Nick was still

a bright-eyed copy boy&emdash;used to seek succour from their sorrows in the

Montreal Press Club in the old Mount Royal Hotel. If an irate wife or

girlfriend phoned the club, asking for somebody called Ian or Sam, Joe

Servant, the incomparable bartender, would cover the mouthpiece, look

directly at whichever delinquent was wanted, and ask in a loud voice, "Is

Ian/or Sam here?" As a rule, Ian or Sam would respond with a throat-cutting

gesture, and Joe, uncovering the mouthpiece, would report, "Sorry, he isn't


Those, those were the days when the tabloid Montreal Herald had already

folded, but the Star was still with us, as were Weekend magazine and Time

Canada. Reporters from La Presse and Le Devoir were also Press Club

regu-lars, as were Tim Burke, Bobby Stewart, and many a CBC hack who then

laboured downtown in the old Ford Hotel.

By common consent the most respected Press Club regular was Dink Carroll,

sports columnist for The Gazette. I remember once sailing into the club for

a nightcap in the early morning hours, and joining Dink at the bar at a

time when airplane hijackings were our daily dread. "Three things worry

me," said Dink.

"Terrorism. Inflation ... and Peggy," who was his wife.

"Why Peggy?" I asked, concerned.

"I promised her I'd be home by 7 o'clock tonight."

Nick, of course, seldom got home before 4 a.m., if then.

Item: Retired MUC detective Kevin McGarr once told me that, years ago, when

he and his patrol car partner wanted to know where the illegal after hours

drinking clubs were they relied, in the absence of a bird dog, on Nick.

Parked near whichever watering hole Nick favoured in those days, they would

wait until he emerged at closing time, usually accom-panied, said McGarr,

by a fetching young woman. And, inevitably, Nick would lead them to a blind


The unelected spokesman of after dark downtown Montreal, Nick was alert to

its pulse, his ear attuned to its voices. He seemed to be on convivial

terms with everybody, from the city's movers and shakers, through its nuns,

detectives, and professional athletes, to its layabouts, felons, pimps,

drug dealers and call girls. All of them, it seemed, responded to his

appetite for fun.

Item: Nick once told me that years ago he and Conrad Black, out on the

town, inadvertently repaired to a gay bar for drinks. Taken for unwelcome

intruders, they were asked to leave, but an irate Black insisted on their

democratic right to stay as long as they pleased. And so they did.

Nick had a real gift for writing fluent, anecdotal columns, but too much

should not be made of them. He never threatened to become Montreal's

Mayhew. So I sometimes scolded him for not working harder at his stuff. For

being guilty of clunky sentences. For being satisfied too often by prose

that was no more than functional. For accepting the first adjective that

came to mind. His laziness irritated me.

Item: Seated on his customary bar stool at Winnie's with his usual stack

of newspapers, sporting what had become his signature Borsalino, one day

Nick asked me: "How many hours a day do you work?"

"Three," I said.

His eyes lit with glee. Nick said, "I only work three hours a week."

The truth is Nick knocked off his columns on the fly, and I gradually came

to accept he put most of his energy and art into being Nick. Endearing

prankster. Boulevardier. Bar-room raconteur. Bottom-pincher. But beyond

what came to be role-playing of a sort, Nick was also a serious reader and

an intelligent observer. A reporter with a forgiving feel for the human



Florence and I had Nick out to our cottage on Lake Memphremagog more than

once, but he seldom ventured outside where there was no asphalt, no

intruding traffic, no twitching neon signs. Instead, all those goddamn

flower beds. Intimidating trees. A threatening lake. Unlike Crescent or St.

Denis Street at 3 a.m., it could be dangerous out there. Hedgehogs and

porcupines were not unknown. A guy minding his own business, nursing a

vodka and cranberry juice, just might be confronted by a deer.

During the summer months when Florence and I are rooted in the Townships,

we spend one day a week in Montreal. We usually drive into town early

Thursday morning, and then I would look forward to catching up with Nick at

Winnie's late in the afternoon. I could count on finding him seated on his

customary bar stool, fielding phone calls. Or pronouncing on our fevers for

a reporter from Stockholm or Madrid. Or sifting through his stack of

newspapers. Or trading insults with our mutual friend Richard Holden. The

two of them hollering. Eventually, in dire need of exercise, we would cross

the street to Ziggy's Pub, where we would continue to mull over the day's

political idiocies; and I saw no good reason why our enjoyable Thursday

afternoon bantering should not go on forever. Then, a week before Christmas

1996, Nick wrote in The Gazette, "...while in the shower, I felt a small

lump in my neck, near the jawbone." It proved to be a malignant tumour,

squamous cell carcinoma, in the back of his left tonsil, near the larynx.

So Nick had to be zapped with some heavy duty radiation treatments, which

left him with no taste buds and only a 50-50 chance of survival. He gave up

his 40-to-60 Gitanes-a-day habit and found it all but impossible to swallow

one vodka and cranberry juice, never mind his daily ration. His manner,

once boyishly reckless, was now tentative, under-standably apprehensive.

Then the carcinoma recurred, and the following autumn Nick was obliged to

endure a 14-hour operation in the Montreal General, and he was hardly over

that ordeal when he was struck by a brain tumour. And lung cancer.

And a tumour pressing on his spine.

I phoned Nick from our flat ln London last spring to say we would be home

in a few weeks. "We both hope to see you then, Nick."

"I will no longer be here," he said.

Nick went to an early grave, his departure from this world&emdash;for which he

had such appetite&emdash;protracted, punishing, but managed, on his part, with

uncommon grace. Nick was a cherished friend. An original. And the columns

collected here are as near as we will ever get to a self-portrait of an

endearing, if sometimes exasperating, man, blessed with all the right

instincts and prejudices.

When Nick's death was announced our two truculent cultures were in

agreement for once: Montreal was diminished.