Two months into his new role as cohost of CBC
Radio's This Morning, I'm sitting with Michael
Enright in Fran's diner near Yonge and St. Clair. His trademark
bow tie and suspenders have been replaced by a grey pullover,
with a crisp blue and red plaid collar peeking over the top. As
he speaks, he fidgets-with his collar, with his goatee, with his
Grudgingly, he has begun talking
about himself. But when I'm halfway through my questions about
the many jobs of his checkerboard career, he stops talking and
leans dramatically toward me. "You have to understand something,"
he says, his eyes narrowing. "On the scale of things, what I do
now is very unimportant." At first, I think he means that being a
cohost on This Morning is insignificant,
except then he says that what he did before was unimportant also.
"But don't you have the power to change things?" I ask.
"God, I hope not," he replies, his trombone of a voice filling
the room. He sits back and locks his eyes on mine. "Because I'm
such a swell guy, I'd only change things for the better, right?"
While Enright talks he often stops
mid-sentence to tell me how boring he is and how he would much
rather ask questions about me (he does). I'm not sure if he's
being modest or just wants me to think he is, but I do know that
he hates reading about himself and has never saved a copy of
anything he's written. He's not without ego altogether, but
self-aggrandizing doesn't seem to be his thing. There's also
something distinctly bad-boyish about him in person-like an
ageing James Dean-that doesn't come across on the airwaves. He's
playing with a jackknife.
As he edges away from my
personal questions, I find myself thinking of a poem called
"Alone," by Edgar Allan Poe (From childhood's hour I
have not been / As others were -I have not seen / As others saw-I
could not bring / My passions from a common spring...).
Only, I'm not yet sure why. Maybe the answer can be found in
something said to me earlier by Enright's friend, Ernest Hillen,
author of The Way of a Boy. When I asked him
why Enright is so respected for his writing and yet hasn't
written any books, he said, "You need to become fairly quiet
inside to write a book, and I don't think he's a quiet man
inside." Hillen also said that with friends, Enright is often
introspective but with other people he's usually on, like an
actor, with one-liners coming around the corner very fast.
If this is true, then Enright is treating me like a
friend, because the man I'm having coffee with is more
philosophical than funny. And when he does say something funny,
there is never laughter in his eyes. His wit "is a very serious
wit," says Jack McLeod, a university professor and an old friend
of Enright's, "in the sense that humour usually comes from some
deep culture or sadness." And this is one of the most striking
things about Enright. He seems to wear torment like a heavy coat
Three hours after sitting down to coffee, we
are standing in a posh specialty store around the corner from
Fran's. Enright needs to buy a replacement martini shaker. He's
just taken one off the shelf and he's explaining to me with
self-taught erudition that a real martini should be served in a
shot glass. A slender male clerk, who has been lurking in
Enright's shadow, steps forward and slips it out of his hand.
"Let me get you one without fingerprints," he says, heading for
the back room. "I don't need the box," Enright calls out after
him, then strolls over to the counter. The cashier, a polished
blonde, demands his name and phone number. "Why, will I win a
car?" he drawls, and avoids giving his name.
paying, he asks her why there's a whole shelf dedicated to
martinis. "Where are you from, another planet?" she asks.
"Martinis are in."
"That's unfortunate," Enright sighs.
"I'll have to find myself a new drink."
If there's one
thing Enright can't stand, it's being like everyone else. While
writing this piece I often wondered if his sole purpose in life
is just to go against his notion of the status quo. Enright has
spent his life questioning things and, through his career,
questioning people. In the late 1950s he even questioned his own
religion, dropping out of a monastery in Dunkirk, New York, after
his first year. "He's determined to see through the bullshit and
you can relate that back to his abandonment of the Holy Mother,"
says John Gault, a former journalist and fellow disaffected
Catholic, who worked with Enright at Maclean's
back in the mid-'70s. "He's a deep questioner in a society that
doesn't begin to question enough, in a media that's become
embarrassingly homogeneous." Gault says that it is this suspicion
and cynicism that enables Enright to question everyone-from
celebrities to world leaders. And George Jamieson, a senior
producer at As It Happens for the past 10
years, says Enright becomes cynical the minute "he smells the
aroma of going along to get along." Enright calls this brand of
journalism approaching things on the bias.
controversy," says Cate Cochran, who worked with him as a
producer at As It Happens for more than five
years. "He was impish in many ways about saying things that were
deliberately provocative. Bratty is what he is." But, more often
than not, there's value in Enright's brattiness.
example, in 1988, while Enright was the host of As It
Happens, three whales became trapped in the ice off the
coast of Alaska near a village called Barrow. It quickly became a
media zoo with more than 150 journalists from at least 26 TV
networks worldwide. But while everybody else was talking about
saving the whales, Enright was thinking about eating them. So he
did an interview with a native from the village-the man who first
told the community about the whales-who said if he had known
there was going to be such a fuss, he would have killed them and
hauled them out for food.
"If it doesn't have a little
grit in it, it's not for him," says Jamieson. "This makes him
endlessly entertaining to be around. It can also make him a
horrendous pain in the ass if he gets on a tear about something."
At As It Happens, the tedious issue for
Enright was the environment. He thought the topic was
boring-producers had to fight hard to get their stories aired.
Tensions exploded behind the scenes on occasion because producers
believed that the show's listeners were interested in hearing
about environmental stories, even if Enright wasn't.
But Enright says he now regrets the times he's taken a stand just
to be stubborn-a curse he says that comes with being Irish. "I
sometimes oppose things for the sake of it. Just for the crack of
it. You'll say it's black, I'll say it's white. You'll say it's
up, I'll say it's down. Just for the hell of it. I like a good
fight," he says. "That's cost me a lot." Surprisingly, one of his
biggest regrets is the stance he took in an argument he had back
in the late '60s with Michael Valpy, about the war in Vietnam.
"It was stupid," Enright says, shaking his head. When I spoke to
Valpy, he was touched that it had stayed on Enright's mind-after
all, it was almost 30 years ago. Then he said he had felt very
hurt and put down at the time. "Michael got into a spirited
defence of the Vietnamese war," Valpy later explained, "but we
were at a bar and there was lots of drink." In an earlier
interview, Valpy had mentioned Enright's rapier wit. "If you were
on the wrong end of it," he had said, "it could be painful."
Enright's contrary nature may also have cost him his
diploma in high school, where he was always in trouble. And
where, he jokes, his only ambition was "to fall in love with a
beautiful woman whose father owned a bar." He failed Grade 12
twice and it still seems to bother him (when I bring it up he
immediately mentions that Robert Fulford didn't finish high
school either, "but he's a very smart man"). It also bothers
Enright that he didn't go to university. Instead, he taught
himself about politics, history, literature and art, and tried to
cram a degree's worth of education in Chinese history and law
into a Southam Fellowship he was awarded in his 30s. He is
currently taking an opera appreciation course at night with his
best friend, Joey Slinger, a Toronto Star
columnist. (Slinger and Enright are so close they have been
referred to as an old married couple, and Enright once told me
that if he writes something and it makes Slinger laugh then he
knows it's good.)
When I mention this self-taught
knowledge to him, he peers at me through a veil of smoke.
"Christ," he says, "I've been doing this for 35 years and I don't
know anything. I know how to saddle a horse, I know how to push
cattle and I know how to ride a motorcycle. That's about all."
Then his lips curl into a boyish grin. "I'm probably the only
radio host who knows how to cut a cow out of a herd," he says.
"Gzowski couldn't do that."
Gzowski seems to be
Enright's only real competition; the media have been comparing
the two for years. They're both frustrated writers, their career
paths have been similar and for 10 years the two of them anchored
the CBC day-the sun rising just before Gzowski's
Morningside and setting with Enright's
As It Happens. Then Gzowski left, and because
he was so closely identified with the show, the CBC couldn't just
replace him. Morningside was dismantled, fused
with Sunday Morning and reproduced as
This Morning-a show with faster-paced
interviews and two hosts. Enright cohosts the show with Avril
Benoit, a newcomer from a private radio station in Montreal, but
he is considered the heavyweight of the two.
has played this role before. Twenty-four years ago, Gzowski
stepped down as the host of This Country in the
Morning, Morningside's predecessor,
to try television, and Enright stepped up to give it a shot. His
ratings were good, but he was given the boot at the end of the
season. Enright likes to say it was because he wasn't "warm," but
John Gault believes it was because the job was tailor-made for
Gzowski. "Michael was a triangular peg in a hexagonal hole,"
Gault says. "He was stuck." I ask Enright about this and he nods.
"You have to reconfigure a program according to the strengths of
its host," he says, "and they didn't change the program at all.
The whole thing was just a nightmare." So why, then, has he come
back to give it a second shot? Gault thinks it's to prove that,
on his own terms, he can do it as well as Gzowski. "It is a
long-held suspicion on my part," he says, "that Peter is
Michael's Moby Dick. He's hunting his great whale and he won't be
satisfied until he achieves the kind of status that Peter
"Is Moby Dick supposed to be the guy or the
whale?" Enright jokes, when I work up the nerve to ask him.
There's an uncomfortable silence. "It's an interesting point," he
says slowly. "We've done so much that is in parallel, even down
to the places we worked." These included The Toronto
Star, Maclean's, the CBC and
small-town papers. "But I'd never want to copy Peter on the
radio. I'd never want to copy him in any way but-" Enright's
voice trails off. "It's like one of those things where you turn
around and there he is. I don't know the answer. I haven't
thought about it."
While it's doubtful that Enright's
identity is at all influenced by Gzowski, This
Morning's identity still seems torn between the two.
Enright's appeal lies in his wicked wit, and so far he hasn't
been given enough elbowroom to really be himself. Anyone who
listened to him on As It Happens knows the CBC
gurus must be reining him in. But Ian Brown, the former host of
Sunday Morning says that "given the strength
of Enright's points of view and his unwillingness to air bullshit
or be any part of it, I think you'll see the show mutate more
than you'll see Enright mutate."
Brown also says there
are some people, maybe including Gzowski, who believe that taking
on the job as host in the same time slot where Gzowski performed
for 15 years is a suicidal act. Gzowski was deified for his warm,
fuzzy, rambling interviews with everyday Canadians. Enright is
famous for his edgy, in-your-face interrogations of world leaders
and his pseudo-serious interviews with bizarre guests on
As It Happens. "He can take the clothes off an
emperor without the emperor even knowing they've been taken off,"
says writer David Cobb, who worked with Enright at
Maclean's. "And he can also ring the notes of
pathos until you're virtually weeping into the set." But, unlike
Gzowski, he doesn't exactly have a morning-cup-of-coffee
personality. It's more like an interesting scotch.
biggest difference between Enright and Gzowski seems to have more
to do with personality than anything else. Gzowski's exterior may
be soft and Enright's exterior may be tough, says Brown, but he
suspects that, in private, Enright is the more sentimental of the
two. McLeod agrees. "Michael has a much wider and deeper circle
of friends than Peter ever had," he says. "There's a bunch of
feeling there-a whole bunch of heart."
"It's like that
old New Yorker cartoon about life in New York
and life in L.A.," Brown says. "In New York, the guy walks down
the street and says to somebody OEDrop dead,' but he's thinking
OEHave a nice day.' Then, there's life in L.A., where the guy
says OEHave a nice day,' but he's thinking OEDrop dead.'"
Whether these personal comparisons are true or not, I
don't know. But as far as the Moby Dick theory goes, even if
Gzowski is Enright's great white whale, he isn't the driving
factor behind his radio career. The driving factor is the
frenetic pace that keeps him anchored securely in the present.
When Enright's in the studio, time is measured in
adrenaline-pumped broadcast minutes-five minutes to this, two
minutes to that. Live radio is almost a high, Enright tells me,
and he often crashes for awhile once the show is over. Now that
he's at This Morning, his friends worry about
him keeping up this pace-he gets up at 5 a.m. and often works
well into the afternoon, taping segments for future shows or
reading the books of featured authors. Enright, who's 55, isn't a
morning person. George Jamieson is concerned that, with the
intensity of getting a new show up and running, "his brain is
going to turn into guacamole." He says there are times in the
year when Enright gets really tired and starts to get a string of
colds. "I think at some point he's going to have to take a
sabbatical-just shut down and read 20 books in a row or
Sleet gushes down as Enright
and I walk along Yonge Street. He looks as if he wants to get rid
of me and I don't blame him. It's dinner time and we've been
together all day. Walking next to him, I feel like a midget. He's
over six feet tall and his black trench coat flutters behind him
like a cape. Collar-length grey hair sticks out from beneath a
black cap and his goatee is carefully trimmed. He looks like a
jazz musician. But his feet make it hard for me to take him
seriously. Beneath the smartly ironed cuffs of his slacks he's
wearing Birkenstock sandals with mismatched grey socks.
He's too polite to tell me to get lost, and now he's talking
about the fallacy of security-the way people take their vitamins
and worry about getting the right job. He often jokes that the
reason he's had so many jobs is because he can't hold one. But
mostly it's because he bores easily. Paul Rush, the former chair
of the School of Journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University,
says Enright's mind "hops around like a frog on a griddle."
When he was a teenager, Enright had thought it would be
"neat" to write novels. While clerking for an insurance company
(his first full-time job), he took a creative writing course in
night school. "I loved Faulkner," he says. "He was a white-haired
old guy who smoked a pipe and drank a bottle of scotch every day.
He had an understanding of human weakness that I thought would be
fascinating. That's why I went into newspapers. It was amazing
someone would pay me money to write, because it was so much fun."
His first writing jobs were at the Times
& Conservator in Brampton and the
Kitchener-Waterloo Record; then he took off to
England for a year, soul-searching. When he returned in 1966, he
landed a job at The Globe and Mail. Enright
was considered one of the best writers at the paper, and there he
met many of the people who are still his closest friends,
including Slinger. All he remembers about that time is laughing
and writing-which isn't surprising, considering the
Globe was at the corner of York and King and
was surrounded by bars. Drinking was synonymous with journalism
in the late '60s.
After he left the Globe
in 1971, Enright jumped around a bit: in Montreal, he
was a writer at Time and a morning host on
Daybreak; in Ottawa, he was the "official
press guy" for Keith Spicer (then the first commissioner of
official languages); and after that he moved again to take a
reporting job with The Toronto Star. In 1974,
he did his stint hosting This Country in the
Morning, then after he was fired, licked his wounds as
a senior writer, then the assistant managing editor at
Maclean's. In 1980, he became the celebrated
editor of Quest-an award-winningcontrolled-circulationmagazine that
folded in 1984. D. B. Scott, who was the managing editor for the
final months following Lynn Cunningham's five-year stint, says
that Cunningham and he did the same job-sweeping up behind
Enright. "He put out a heck of a bow-wake," Scott says. "He was
then one of the least organized people I had ever met, and didn't
make any apologies for it."
Maybe this is one of the
reasons Enright's been so successful in radio. It's a team
effort. Enright's ideas and dramatic ability are supported by the
producers' attention to the bow-wake.
Enright seems to
have always followed his interests, without a minute's thought to
climbing the career ladder. Well, maybe a minute. In 1985, after
walking out on Report on BusinessMagazine during its launch (he lasted two
weeks), he did try on the job of managing editor of CBC Radio
News. He ditched it two years later to take on the troubled
current affairs program As It Happens-the show
had floundered after losing its star host, Barbara Frum. By then,
he felt he had screwed up every opportunity he had had at radio
and wanted to find out once and for all if he had what it took to
make it. He did. As It Happens turned out to
be his showcase. Like Enright, the show was edgy and restless.
His sardonic humour was celebrated and it allowed him to do what
he liked best-argue-and get paid for it.
Where are you going now?" Enright asks, in his world-weary voice.
I tell him I'm looking for a subway. "God," his voice booms,
"you're freezing. Come to my house and I'll drive you to one."
Soon, we turn down a street lined with maple trees. "It's a
pretentious street," he says. But his house is not. Daniel,
Enright's 20-year-old son, is there and they go into the kitchen
to chat. I take a quick look around the main floor. The carpets
are well-worn and the white paint above the door is cracking. I
peak into the front room. It's small and scattered with toys.
There's a fireplace, a bookshelf, a rocking chair and three
couches that don't match the walls or each other. But it doesn't
look trashy, it looks comfortable-lived in.
nothing in the house that reflects the tragedies that Enright has
endured. In 1990, Janet, his wife of 16 years, died after a long,
difficult struggle with cancer. He was left to raise their three
children-Daniel, Anthony and Nancy-on his own. Nancy, who is 15,
has Down's syndrome and lives in the house for two weeks out of
every month. Now, Enright has another son-two-year-old
Gabriel-with his partner Karen Levine. He met Levine at
As It Happens where she was a senior producer;
she now works with him at This Morning.
This house is not far from the place where Enright
spent his teens (around Bathurst and St. Clair). When we were
talking at the diner, he told me that he used to run with a gang
of kids for protection. The Toronto of the '50s was very
different from the Toronto of the '90s, he explained. There was a
lot of conflict between Protestants and Catholics then. It wasn't
just in his teens, either. When he was around 10 another boy hit
him in the head with a stone. "I've got a scar right here," he
said, pointing to a small scar on the side of his forehead. He
then went to a jock high school, St. Michael's-known for its
hockey players-and he wasn't a jock. "I think I was pretty wild,"
he said. "I hated high school. I hated every
second of it." He spent more time at pool halls and in the
Rosedale ravines around the Don Valley than he did in class.
Whatever his rebellion was about, Enright says it was an awful
experience-more for his parents and teachers than himself.
At home there were problems. "The Irish don't get along
with each other," he explained darkly. His father came from a
huge family, eight boys and two girls. He worked for the Liquor
Control Board. "He was outgoing and a very funny guy," Enright
said. "My mother was different. She was sort of like a character
in a Tennessee Williams play-very retiring and gentle, easily
hurt." He wasn't close to her, but he was crazy about his
grandmother, whom he described as "tough as Kelsey's nuts and
Irish to the bone." She raised her family alone after her husband
died in his 50s. She lived to 96. "I loved her a lot," Enright
said. "She taught me about surviving."
next time I see Enright it's at This Morning's
bright, spacious home on the third floor of the CBC
building-where a wall was knocked down to accommodate the roughly
30 staff. I'm in his office. It's small but it has a window, the
sunlight illuminating his packed bookshelf. His desk isn't nearly
as messy as I expect it to be, though there are lots of papers
and three folders-one for each hour of the show. Taped on the
wall next to the desk is a list of voice mail instructions
scrawled in red magic marker. Enright is a self-admitted
technophobe. He also says he can't add double digits.
It's 7:15 a.m. and he's checking his e-mail. "I love Michael
Enright and miss him on As It Happens," he
reads aloud. "But is it really necessary for him to swear so
early in the morning? He said 'hell' twice before 10 a.m."
Enright seems pleased with that one, but then he stops typing and
looks at me over the top of his black-rimmed glasses. "Sometimes
I get e-mail that says: 'Bring Gzowski back,'" he says. "That
really sets me up for the day. It's terrific."
walls are plastered with pictures of horses and cowboys. There's
one of him on a horse named High Topper on a hillside in Montana,
where he has taken part in a couple of cattle runs. He first
started going there soon after Janet died and fell in love with
the people. "Cowboys are disappearing from the face of the
earth," he says. "They're like Borneo tribesmen or something." In
the picture, with his hat, boots and suede chaps (pronounced
"shaps," Slinger had warned me earlier, with an impressive
rendition of Enright's baritone voice), he looks as if he were
born on a horse.
Many of the people I interviewed
thought that Enright had taken up riding in the past 10 years
just to be different-which wouldn't be out of character-but he's
been riding horses all his life. When he was a kid, he mucked out
the stalls at a riding stable that used to be where the Don
Valley Golf Course is now. In return, he got to ride for free. He
likes riding for the same reason he likes cattle herding and his
Kawasaki 1500 motorcycle and all forms of risk, including live
radio. "It keeps you in the present," he says. "And since all
fear lies in the future, you can't be afraid. So you're moving
fast in order to run away from fear." What happens, then, if he's
left alone with himself and he has to think? "I usually pick up a
book," he says. "I don't know myself very well. I don't think I
spend a lot of time trying to figure out if I'm this or that."
He avoids introspection but admits that he worries a
lot-especially about his kids. He also says that, growing up
Irish, you go through life covered in guilt. He always seems to
be feeling guilty about something-about not writing or even about
not feeling guilty. So when Enright starts to think too much
about the things that have happened in his life, or the things
that could happen, he turns to a book or he gets up and does
something. "If I sit around and brood," he says, "I will go into
a complete funk." But self-pity isn't in his repertoire. In the
time that I spent with Enright I never once heard him lament the
bad fortune that has shadowed his life. As one friend of his put
it: Enright is a man who endures, both on a personal and a
Avril Benoit has the
day off, and Enright is alone in the studio. The five-minute
countdown is on. He bends forward and puts his lips close to the
mike. "Are you sure the reverend is going to show up?" he asks,
referring to Bill Phipps, the controversial new moderator of the
United Church of Canada.
"Yes," the associate producer
replies calmly from the control room, smiling at him through the
"You have faith, my child. Has he arrived in the
building yet?" She shakes her head no. He takes a big swig of
water and pops vitamin C tablets like candy.
control room, Marika, the studio director, reads the greens,
laughs, and asks Enright if he's seen the opening. He nods,
stonefaced. It has him saying that he spends all his money on
booze and handguns, the latter probably a reference to a running
feud Enright once had with hunters after saying on the radio they
were all "bombed." As the countdown continues, Enright complains
about the yellow stickies left behind from a show that used the
studio the night before and mutters, "I'd rather be bowling."
With one minute to air, Bill Phipps breezes in. "Watch your
language, everyone," Enright jokes. He is starting to look
nervous, swallowing and taking deep breaths. (He tells me later
that he always gets nervous one minute before the show. "It's
panic time," he says. "It's like the moment between when the
pilot says, 'Holy Christ' and the airplane hits the mountain.
That's what it feels like.")
After Phipps comes the
"Unconventional Wisdom" panel; one of the guests, Harvie Andre, a
politician from Calgary, keeps calling Enright "Peter." The
second time he does it, Enright says, "There you go again! I want
you to write it down on a piece of paper M-I-C...." Andre
apologizes by saying that it's early in Calgary. "It's 1957 in
Calgary," Enright jokes, then begins calling Harvie "Ralph."
After two more hours, Marika signals the end of the
show. Enright takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. They're
bloodshot. He stretches, cracking his back and rolling his
shoulders. "I think I had too much horse on the weekend," he
says. Following the show there's a story meeting. The entire
staff gathers together on couches and chairs in the centre of the
room. Ira Basen, This Morning's executive
producer, sits in the middle. He rolls up his sleeves and asks
what they thought of the day's show. "I could actually hear
Michael thinking today," says one producer. A compliment, as
Enright tends to sound bored when he's not interested in a
subject. Basen agrees, then says that a caller complained that
Enright cut off the financial expert in one of the segments.
"It's because of the cutaways," Enright explains; he ran out of
time. He takes the rest of the examination in stride, but to an
outsider like me it seems a humbling experience to have to go
through every day.
After the story meeting,
Enright walks with me to the subway. As he leads me through the
underground labyrinth of corridors, he tells me that no matter
what the profile says about him, he won't like it. "I take
criticism better than compliments," he says. I'm not sure if he's
assuming I'll be complimentary or inviting me to be tough on him.
When we get to the station he shakes my hand, then heads for his
train. I watch him as he steps through the doors, his imposing
figure moving gracefully, and there's one thing I can't get out
of my mind. It's something that Enright said over coffee that
first time at Fran's. He had gone up to his friend's farm near
Shelburne the day before, to help him move 120 head of cattle.
And he told me about his favourite horse there, Mooney, who is 15
or 16 years old.
"He's getting on," Enright said, "but
he likes to run. And he runs with the idea that he hasn't got
much speed left in him, so he wants to use it up." And when he
said this, his eyes flared with passion-and what I realized later