Illustration: Bernie Lyon
The elevator was broken, the RCMP were watching the cook, the raspberries were soggy—I had some nerve inviting Pierre Trudeau to dinner.
I am lucky to have had slightly more than a passing acquaintance with the late Pierre Trudeau, because I wrote a profile about him for The New Yorker shortly after he became prime minister of Canada. To gather material for this daunting excursion, I was allowed to accompany him, his chief aide, Marc Lalonde, his only brother, Charles, and three pooled press members—a photographer, a Canadian Press representative and the CBC—on a tour across the Canadian Arctic, the first such journey for a Canadian prime minister in office.
I was astonished when the prime minister agreed to include me. I had suggested that on the trip I would just observe but not try to interview him if he would give me a one-on-one session in Ottawa when the tour was over. The trade-off appealed to him. For the eight days we were travelling, we had a pleasantly informal, joking relationship.
The profile was published in the July 5, 1969, issue of The New Yorker, and in the Vancouver Sun in four parts a month later. That fall, Gordon Gibson, Trudeau’s young appointment secretary, called me at home. “The prime minister is coming to New York in November, and he wants to go to the theatre,” he said. “Any suggestions?”
I was flattered to be asked, and I mentioned several musicals and plays that were big hits. As an afterthought I passed along a suggestion from my younger son, Richie Hamburger, a student in drama at Yale University, about a play by a world-famous Polish dramatist, Jerzy Grotowski, that was running for two weeks in a basement theatre in Lower Manhattan.
“It’s the hottest ticket in town,” Richie had said.
“How come?” I said.
“Grotowski is a free thinker, an original,” Richie said. “He’s the founder of a dramatic form called ‘The Poor Theatre,’ in which everything—costumes, sound effects, sets, lighting and makeup—is eliminated.”
“My goodness,” I said. “What’s left?”
“The play, the actors and the audience,” Richie said. “It’s great theatre, Mom.”
Gordon Gibson called back to tell me that the Canadian Embassy had managed with difficulty to get two tickets for the Jerzy Grotowski play. I had a slight apprehensive chill. A basement in the Village? No scenery, no costumes? Was this really Trudeau’s style? I hoped so!
“Do you think the prime minister might like to come here for dinner first?” I heard myself say.
“Oh. That’s so kind of you,” Gordon said. “I’ll ask him.”
Gordon rang back the next morning. “The prime minister is delighted to accept your invitation. He asked if he could bring a friend.”
“Of course,” I said.
“That’s so kind of you. Would six o’clock be too early? They’ll be going to the Grotowski right after dinner.”
“Yes, yes. That’s fine,” I said. I hung up, and panicked.
I called William Shawn, my editor at The New Yorker. “I don’t know how this happened,” I said. “Prime Minister Trudeau is coming to my apartment for dinner. Could you and Cecille come too? It won’t take long. He’s going to the Grotowski play. Please!”
“I would like to meet him,” Bill Shawn said reassuringly. “I’d like to know what he thinks of the SALT talks.”
I called my friend Emmy Maxwell to invite her and her husband, Bill, the magazine’s fiction editor. “Of course we’ll come,” she said. “What fun! He sounds fascinating.”
I invited Jack Pemberton, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who had been squiring me around since my divorce. Gordon was coming too.
I thought, this is going to be a historic occasion! The prime minister of Canada coming to my house for dinner! Wow! My sons shouldn’t miss this. I called Jay first because he’s the oldest. He was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, attending drama school at Carnegie Mellon University. “Great!” he shouted into the phone. “Emerson and I will be there!”
“Wait a minute, Jay,” I said. “Not Emerson. Not that dog. He’s too big and he’s not housebroken when he gets excited. I do love Emerson,” I added hastily, “but I can’t have him with the prime minister. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police go everywhere with him, and I don’t think they’ll want Emerson around. We’d have to put him in a kennel or something during dinner.”
“If I can’t bring Emerson, I can’t come,” Jay said.
I called Richie. Yale was only an hour and a half away by train. “I’ll be there,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to miss that!”
“Wear something decent,” I said. “Please!”
I have always done my own cooking, but this was different. I called my friend Nancy Sampson, a cook who helped sometimes with big parties. “I promise to make it simple,” I said. “Please!”
We planned a menu that Nancy was sure she could manage: roast leg of lamb and roasted potatoes, a vegetable platter, and a tomato aspic ring salad that I would make the day before and that we would decorate with avocado slices. Dessert would be fresh raspberries and whipped cream, a chocolate Sacher cake, coffee, chocolate thin mints and brandy. What luck—I had two jars of Beluga caviar my mother had given me. They would make the ideal hors d’oeuvre. How elegant! Caviar on toast.
We would have to dine in the living room on two small tables and our laps, because a previous tenant had divided the dining room with a partition. Richie’s bedroom occupied the half with the two windows. We ate our meals in the windowless half, on a drop-leaf oak table.
Some nerve, I thought, asking the prime minister here!
But the living room was large enough, and we could light a fire in the fireplace to make it cozy. Maybe he wouldn’t notice the battering my grandmother’s furniture had taken in there from two growing boys addicted to forbidden indoor ball games. Well, so what!
My apartment was on the eighth floor. When I went out on the morning of the dinner, the elevator suddenly closed on me when I was halfway in—one foot in and one foot out. I held the door back with my hand and pressed the Emergency button. “Let go,” a voice shouted up the shaft. I backed in, holding the door, and let go. The elevator slowly proceeded to the lobby, where the superintendent held the door open to let me out. Then he put a sign on the elevator door: Out of order. Please use the freight elevator.
“I’m having the prime minister of Canada for dinner tonight,” I said. “The editor of The New Yorker magazine is also coming, and he’s so terrified of self-service elevators that one of my other guests is coming early to run the elevator for him. I can’t even imagine what he would do if the elevator door closed on him!”
“Not to worry,” the super said. “The repairman is on his way. We’ll take your editor up in the freight elevator, and the prime minister too, if the front one isn’t fixed by then. Don’t worry.”
When Nancy arrived, muttering about the elevator, we covered the dining room table with the lovely white linen tablecloth with green cross-stitching that my mother had made me. Then we arranged buffet style the dazzling wedding gift from my father’s employer: an entire set of Steuben glass goblets, wine glasses, salad and finger bowls, in which we would serve dessert. Next came my Royal Copenhagen Blue Flower wedding china, and I added the handsome silver candlesticks from my sister, and my mixed bag of silverware accumulated from what nobody else in my family wanted. My cleaner, Mae Reynolds, arrived to serve the dinner. The three of us stood back and admired the table setting. “Doesn’t it look great?” I said.
“It sure does,” Nancy said. “I just hope the elevator is working by the time they come.”
“I wasn’t going to mention it,” Mae said, “but it wasn’t running when I came. The men are still working on it.”
I called the super periodically to inquire about the elevator. He was optimistic, but said it was difficult to work with so many police around, checking every inch of the building, inside and out.
Two RCMP officers in civilian clothes arrived at my door. They made a thorough search of the apartment, even the closets, and apologized for the inconvenience; and then one of them went away.
The other officer took up a position by the stove in my small kitchen to watch Nancy prepare the dinner. Neither Nancy nor I had been warned about this ahead of time and that normally sturdy woman became extremely nervous. “I’ve never had anybody standing over me like that, while I’m cooking,” she told me, twisting her apron in distress. “What do they think I’m going to do, poison him?”
“Yes,” I said. “They want to be sure you don’t.”
“Oh lordy,” she said. “I can’t leave you alone, but I’d sure like to go home.”
“Please!” I said. “Please don’t!”
Nancy told me later that the RCMP gentleman stationed at the stove laughed when he saw what she was cooking for dinner. He said, “The prime minister had lunch today at the home of David Rockefeller, and they had the same menu: leg of lamb, roast potatoes, string beans, raspberries and chocolate cake!”
At 5:30, at my request, the Shawns, the Maxwells, Jack and Richie—everyone except the guest of honour, his mysterious companion and Gordon Gibson—had assembled in my living room. Jack had arrived an hour earlier to give me a morale boost and carve the lamb, which he did expertly. He reported a lot of plain-clothes officers outside the building and in the lobby and one in the elevator, all of which seemed appropriate. I heard later that the prime minister arrived in a big black Cadillac, accompanied by a second Cadillac for his bodyguards, and that the two cars sat outside the front of the building throughout his visit.
We waited in the living room in a sort of funereal silence. Ten minutes later the doorbell rang and everyone sat up very straight. I was conscious of the clicking noise my heels made as I ran to the front door in our small hallway. I don’t know what I expected, but there Pierre Trudeau was, there he really was, standing outside, with a big smile. As always when I saw him, I was startled by the brilliant blue of his eyes, accentuated by a cool blue shirt. The customary red rosebud in the lapel of his immaculate blue business suit matched his red tie. Gordon Gibson, who always reminded me of the handsome young men I had known at Harvard, where he himself had attended business school, and a plainclothes police officer were standing behind him.
Trudeau kissed me warmly on both cheeks as he entered, and murmured in a low voice, “Could I use the telephone? I asked Barbra Streisand to have dinner with us, but she was out all day and didn’t get the message.” He quickly returned and said that he was sending his car for her and she would arrive for dessert.
I had observed on our Arctic adventure that Trudeau was quite shy socially, with no small talk, so I took his hand and led him right into the living room. There was no time to warn my waiting guests about the identity of the other guest. Trudeau acknowledged introductions with his usual grace and sat down next to Bill Shawn on the couch. They immediately entered into a lively discussion about the SALT agreements, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty talks between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which Trudeau was involved. The talks were meant to limit intercontinental ballistic missiles and missile launchers, and Trudeau was optimistic about the outcome. A few years later, an accord was reached between the two countries that proved to be a big advance for that time in nuclear disarmament.
Neither Trudeau nor Bill Shawn wanted a cocktail, and I was afraid if I had one I’d fall flat on my face. We settled on ginger ale while Mae passed the caviar, which she had spread, all two jars of it, on rounds and triangles of thin toast with little slices of lemon and sprigs of parsley for decoration. As I wrote my mother the next day, “Your contribution of caviar was a huge success. The prime minister likes most food, but he admitted to being wild about Beluga caviar and I am sure would eat it with a spoon like you would, if either of you had the nerve. Every time it was passed, he gobbled it down, until it was all gone.”
Trudeau was a lawyer, and had served as minister of justice and attorney general in the previous Liberal government, so we listened avidly while he and Jack Pemberton discussed the fine points in landmark draft cases the American Civil Liberties Union currently was arguing before the United States Supreme Court. One case in which the ACLU had received a favourable decision in a lower court in Boston involved the defence of a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, who refused to fight because he disapproved of a particular war, rather than all wars.
I was especially pleased by Trudeau’s interest in my Richie, who showed up in a neat brown turtleneck sweater, with what I used to call his Beethoven-style hair under control. Many times on our trip north, I had observed how Trudeau, who at age fifty was only two years younger than I, shared the values of Richie and Jay’s 1960s generation. Richie, who was eighteen, reported later that the prime minister not only inquired about the play he would be seeing that evening, but asked Richie about his opinions and experiences in theatre, and in the theatre program at Yale. Trudeau never seemed any older than the young people whose company he so enjoyed, which was part of his magic.
After thirty minutes we went into the dining room, where Nancy and Mae were standing by the table with proud smiles. Trudeau volunteered as we walked in that he had had lunch at David Rockefeller’s home. “It was very pleasant,” he said. “They were such nice people.”
The dinner looked beautiful. Nancy’s vegetable dish was spectacular: she had carved roses out of beets and turnips for decoration among the potato balls, string beans, carrots and zucchini laid out on my grandmother’s silver vegetable platter. The finely sliced lamb, tomato aspic and avocado salad and my favourite cloverleaf dish filled with olives, mint jelly, radishes and carrot sticks had certainly given me an opportunity to show off the family silver.
My dinner was apparently a success. We forgot to serve the red wine until halfway through the main course but I was beyond caring. At least I thought I was, until the dessert of fresh raspberries, still a great delicacy in the fall season, arrived washed but not drained, and floated in our bowls in a soggy puddle of whipped cream. Thirty-five years later I still grieve about that dessert! Nancy and Mae were serving it when the doorbell finally rang again. I rushed out to the hall and when I opened the door, I felt slightly dizzy at the sight of Barbra Streisand standing quietly in front of my apartment. She was an awesome presence; it was a shock to see her in person. Although she was not a pretty woman, she had a beautiful slim figure, well displayed in a stunning suit made from an exotic flowered green plush material, with fur collar and cuffs. What struck me even in my excitement was that the blouse underneath was cut down the front in a daring V, straight to her tummy.
Barbra Streisand was composed and gracious as she entered the living room and was introduced. She said she had already eaten when Mae offered her some dinner, and she nibbled at the soggy raspberries and chocolate cake. My guests appeared to be as stunned as I was when Streisand walked in and, like me, scarcely had time to recover themselves before it was time for her and the prime minister to depart for the theatre. Looking back, all I can remember about Streisand’s startling appearance in my living room was her extraordinary personal presence. She was then at the height of her fame as an actress and entertainer.
Just as Trudeau was leaving, he turned to Bill Shawn and said, “I am very grateful for the kind treatment you gave me.”
Bill blushed, as usual, and thanked him. I couldn’t resist asking, “Did you find any mistakes?”
“I am told there were none,” the prime minister replied, smiling.
“What I want to know is, did you find any?” I persisted.
“No, it was very exact,” he replied, looking amused, and everyone laughed. My close friends knew I had been obsessed with getting my facts straight.
The prime minister gave me another double kiss on his way out. When the door had closed behind them and the RCMP officer, who had stayed discreetly at the entrance to the living room through supper, we sat silent for a few minutes, as if stupefied. We agreed that seeing Barbra Streisand in our midst was almost unreal. It was as if a female Superman had descended upon us.
Everyone remarked that because of my piece they had felt they knew Pierre Trudeau even before he walked into the room. Bill Shawn, whose opinion was the one I cared about the most, said, “You really caught him completely.”
I was deeply moved. Since Trudeau had just become the prime minister of Canada when I started my reporting about him the year before, I hoped to write about the kind of person he was for people to remember later. If I had done a bad job, it would have been apparent the minute he appeared in person. As I wrote my mother, “He wasn’t just the prime minister of a country I love so much. My ability as a writer, to create his image, was being tested. I was really exposed.”
The next week I received a letter from Ottawa, from the office of the “Prime Minister/Premier Ministre,” marked personal, that said:
Your dinner last week-end will certainly remain one of my delightful memories of New York. It was a real pleasure to meet the guests you had assembled, and I would be grateful if you could pass on to them when convenient, my compliments and best wishes, for they were very pleasant company indeed.
Thank you as well for your hospitality at short notice to Miss Streisand, and most particularly the opportunity of seeing you again, and to meet your son, Richard, who, although I gather under the injunction of relative silence, impressed me as a very fine young man.
With thanks, yours sincerely, Pierre E.T.
He was too polite to mention what happened later on that night he came for dinner, but Gordon told me. Apparently the prime minister and Barbra Streisand were seated behind a big post in that tiny Greenwich Village basement theatre where Grotowski was holding forth. Whatever their reasons, they lost patience with the view, and/or Mr. Grotowski’s revolutionary theatre presentation. They got up and left during the intermission.