Weathering a storm of life and loss, Margaret Trudeau takes a turn toward serenity. As Joanna Schneller discovers, a passion for family, philanthropy and mental health advocacy became Trudeau’s answer to regaining her happiness.
Her final words were the most telling. Margaret Trudeau was in a Toronto hotel room, hugging me goodbye. She was wearing a blue suit, hip white brogues and a (signed) scarf Michelle Obama gave her. Her eyes were bright blue. Heading for the door, she tossed this over her shoulder: “Please don’t make a fool of me.”
Margaret Joan Sinclair Trudeau Kemper hasn’t lived 68 years—50 of them in public—for nothing. She knows that she’s candid, and that candour can get her into trouble. She flirts, even with women. She casts her eyes up, charmingly. She whispers words for dramatic emphasis and erupts in frequent peals of laughter. Her sentences are dense tangles; a single one might encompass four topics and time periods. Yet quotable phrases flutter from them like cherry petals. In the last 90 minutes, she’d called Barack Obama “a flirt” and Mick Jagger “an arrogant asshole.” She admitted that, often, she speaks aloud to her son Michel, who died in November 1998, and she cried unapologetically. (We both cried.)
But here’s why her request was so touching: there is no reason to make fun of Margaret Trudeau. There never was. She has always been what we all wish to be: unabashedly, organically herself. It’s the rest of the world that was out of step. She was a Flower Child and Earth Mother before they were trendy. She’s been raising awareness about the need for clean water since she hauled a jug across Vancouver’s Jericho Beach during the Habitat Forum in 1976. She opened dialogue about mental health issues when others only whispered about them. Her four books were instant bestsellers (the latest is The Time of Your Life: Choosing a Vibrant, Joyful Future). She delivers 20 to 30 speeches a year on clean water, mental health and women’s issues, and she always kills.
“The best test is, when does a speaker get the most applause?” says Martin Perelmuter, president of Speakers Spotlight, Trudeau’s agency of nearly two decades. “Margaret gets a standing ovation when she arrives, but she gets a bigger one when she finishes.”
“She’s got more charisma than anyone I’ve ever met,” agrees Andrea Helfer, VP at WaterAid Canada, an organization Trudeau has worked with for 20 years. “She draws people to her.”
Wherever she goes, cameras follow, “and that’s a tremendous help. I credit her with a great deal of the success we’ve had.”
Perhaps the times have finally caught up to Trudeau. Maybe this, at last, is Maggie’s moment. But since she’s never stopped evolving, there’s no reason to think she’s finished yet.
Trudeau didnt get to dance with Barack Obama last March, when she accompanied her eldest son, Justin, on his first visit to Washington, D.C., as prime minister, with his wife, Sophie, and their three children. Though Margaret “would have loved to have been in the President’s dancing arms,” as she puts it, there was no dance floor at the dinner. She was charmed by the First Couple nonetheless.
“Pictures don’t begin to show what a beauty she is,” Trudeau says of Michelle. “He’s a flirt and cute. They’re friendly and warm. Even though it was a formal occasion, he said, ‘Think of it as having supper with us.'” He gave her a personal shout-out in his welcoming speech: “Justin, we also see Canada’s spirit in your mother’s brave advocacy for mental health care—and I want to give a special welcome to Margaret Trudeau tonight.”
At Blair House, the U.S. president’s visitors’ residence, someone had opened the guest book to 1977, to the page Margaret had signed with her then-husband Pierre Elliott Trudeau, when he was PM. “It, like everything, was surreal,” Trudeau says, then singsongs, “I’m baaa-aack.”
She cops to feeling “a bit smug” about being the first Canadian to be both wife and mother to a prime minister. “It takes a while for a revolution to catch up,” she says. “In order for Pierre to have his Just Society, with its ideas of equality and humanity, we had to raise Justin properly because he and his peers would be the ones to deliver it. You can see that now. The changes Justin is planning are the ones we dreamed about 40 years ago. It took a long time to raise that boy, and it took a country.”
Justin and his mother are famously close, and it’s hard not to see parallels between her and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. Both are passionate, fashionable, yoga enthusiasts, whose outspokenness causes the occasional media ruckus. They even survived similar singing scandals—Sophie’s last January, when she crooned a song she wrote for her daughter at a Martin Luther King Day event; and Margaret’s back in the 1970s, when at a state dinner in Venezuela she sang a song she’d written for the president’s wife. And both rely on their sense of self-mockery to weather the storms they cause.
The Blaire House scandal
Margaret’s first visit to Blair House caused one such scandal. Unbeknownst to the public, she and Pierre had decided to separate. The state dinner was their swan song. To commemorate that, Margaret wore a dress from her wedding trousseau, a white column studded in pearls. “Six years and three babies later, it fit me like a glove,” she recalls. But she woke up to headlines declaring that, because the dress showed “a naughty bit of ankle,” she’d insulted then-president Jimmy Carter.
It wouldn’t be the last time the media would focus on the shallow side of something Trudeau did and overlook the deeper reason. But DressGate elicited a positive feminist response: the activist Robin Morgan phoned to congratulate Trudeau “because women never make the front page.” For a party that night at Blair House, the actress Elizabeth Taylor rallied the women to wear short dresses, in solidarity.
“In those 40 years between my first and last visits, I’ve come a long way, baby,” Trudeau says now, laughing. “I’ve been told so many times that I was ahead of my times. I was not. I was present in my times. I live in the now. My present has always been wonderful.”
From their earliest childhoods in Vancouver, Trudeau and her four sisters were raised by their mother, Doris, to think for themselves. “Margaret didn’t grow up as a princess, and she doesn’t act like one,” says Ann White, a friend of nearly 40 years. “She’s the kind of person you can call at 3 in the morning, and she’d welcome the call. She celebrates your triumphs and never brags about where she’s been. She’s unpretentious.”
Her father, James Sinclair, a Liberal federal MP and minister of fisheries and oceans, lived mostly in an Ottawa hotel and rarely made the 13-hour flight home. “My mum hated being a politician’s wife,” Trudeau says. “We heard nothing but about how terribly lonely she was. She was a very authentic person. She thought a lot of the people were phony.”
Still, Trudeau felt akin to her father, “a fiery man, passionate about his causes.” He assigned his girls daily chores, urged them to earn their own money and warned them away from what he called “the snotty people.” Their home was always bustling—”people dropping in, always extra people at dinner, always someone to laugh or cry with,” Trudeau remembers.
Margaret meets Pierre
As is now legend, on a family visit to Tahiti, 18-year-old Maggie caught the eye of rising political star Pierre Trudeau, 29 years her senior, who was there waterskiing. “Oh, I loved Pierre. Oh my goodness!” Margaret says. “He was charming and darling. I fell in love with his mind, but he was so fun and he loved me so much. I lit up when he came in the room and vice versa.” They kept their romance private well past his 1968 election, nearly up to their wedding day, March 4, 1971. She was 22—wearing a dress she’d made herself, speaking vows she’d written—and, it turned out, days away from getting pregnant. He was the same age as her mother. “My mother did not want me to marry Pierre,” Trudeau says. “My dad did. But then she got caught up in it like I was.”
Like everyone was. “Margaret Trudeau brought a youth and glamour to political office that hadn’t been seen in Canada,” says Iris Tupholme, Trudeau’s editor and publisher at Harper Collins Canada. “She was so young, so beautiful, so vibrant. Everyone loved her immediately. Then she had these three sons, two of whom were born on Christmas Day. It had a fairy-tale quality.
“At the same time,” she continues, “there was a reaction against all of the above. She wanted to have her own career, further her education. Those things are now the way we see women in the world. But not then. The reason other women in public roles can be who they are”—Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama spring to mind—”is partly because of Margaret.”
Trudeau, however, felt as lonely as her mother had. “I was isolated, hoeing a row that my husband had designed for me, to be a good Catholic wife and mother,” she says. “He really didn’t like that I had any celebrity. He kept telling me I was nobody. Not unkindly. But the PM’s wife doesn’t have a role, except to run a huge house with seven live-in maids—so many people and no intimacy.” His intellectual Quebec friends patronized her. He found her friends immature.
The Trudeau family
After Justin was born—followed by Alexandre (Sacha) and Michel, two and four years later—Trudeau spent her time “writing 2,000 thank-you notes to the people who sent knitted booties,” she says. “Not cooking, sewing, gardening, the actual things I’m [whispers] quite good at. I’m a Virgo, a doer. And I’m expected to sit in my pretty clothes and do nothing? It hurt me. I didn’t deserve this magical life because I didn’t know how to live it.”
“A lot of women identified with what Margaret was going through,” Tupholme says. “She had a top position in our world. But was she who she could be? Was she fulfilling her potential?”
Philosophically, Pierre was a feminist; equality was a key component in his Just Society. But personally, as a Jesuit Catholic, he felt a woman “should be very happy to serve her husband and, in doing so, serve God,” Trudeau says. “He had a lot to teach me. Perhaps I was more of a daughter than a wife. He was more of a priest than a husband. He was abstracted from real life.”
She offers two examples: though he was the most well-read person she knew, she saw him read only one novel, one she’d just finished—and only because he’d run out of work on vacation. It was Erica Jong’s proto-feminist Fear of Flying. “We had a lively discussion,” she deadpans.
Years later, when Margaret had remarried (she and Pierre remained close friends; she was at his bedside when he died in 2000), they met for lunch in Montreal with Margaret’s young daughter. Pierre leaned down and said, “You must get your mother to take you to this wonderful store I just heard about. It has marvellous clothes for girls. It’s called Eaton’s.”
“He really knew nothing,” Margaret says, chuckling. “But he didn’t need to. He was our Philosopher King. For him, Trudeaumania was a huge astonishment because he wasn’t that guy. He was a quiet professor. He was ahead of his time, no question. But he was way behind mine.”
Margaret was suffering from much more than discontent, however: after Sacha’s birth, she sank into postpartum depression. Later, she learned she has bipolar disorder. But neither she nor her country realized that at the time. “I didn’t understand the weeping depression, the grey that wrapped me, the lack of any interest in my life,” she says. When her brain tilted toward mania, she didn’t understand that, either: “I was just on this, whoo, fast track of shiny brilliance. Except it wasn’t.”
Partying with Andy Warhol
By 1977, she could no longer bear the life she was living. She decided to study photography in New York City with Richard Avedon. Stopping in Toronto, she hit the El Mocambo bar—with the Rolling Stones. “Suddenly our split wasn’t amicable,” Trudeau says. “Pierre was angry.” He accused her of being a party girl. “Darn right!” she replied. “I want to be a girl! I can’t live like an old man.”
She boogied with a vengeance: fuelled by booze and party drugs, she hung out with Andy Warhol at his atelier, The Factory; studied acting with Wynn Handman, artistic director of The American Place Theater; and had relationships with Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood and U.S. senator Ted Kennedy. She spent two weeks each month with her sons, secreted away in an attic suite at 24 Sussex, unbeknownst to Canadians. “There was a lot of scuttlebutt that she’d abandoned her children but she had not at all,” White says. “She saw her children constantly.” The other two weeks of the month, she made headlines in Manhattan—most scandalously, for dancing at Studio 54 on the night that Pierre’s party lost the 1979 election. “I got to do most anything I’d ever dreamed of,” Trudeau says. “But I was in defiance.”
Worse, her lifestyle exacerbated her mania. “One symptom of the manic mind is lack of judgment,” Trudeau says. “I was lucky enough to run off with the Stones. It could have just as easily been the guy from the 7-Eleven.”
Soon after receiving the proper diagnosis and medication, she quit New York and bought a house near 24 Sussex. “I was an Earth Mother. That was all I ever wanted to be,” she says now. “At 24 Sussex, that wasn’t possible.” With her own home, “the boys had the best of both worlds. The extraordinary life with their beautiful father—no television, wonderful education, living frugally and cleanly. And I had them on the weekends for pizza and sleepovers and Star Wars.”
“I always felt for her because when we’d pick up our children at school, people would either scurry up to make themselves known to her or hang back and stare,” White recalls. “If Pierre or Margaret were coming to the Christmas concert, about four times as many people would show up. There was a lot of looky-looky.”
Joint custody was a relatively new concept; so was no-fault divorce. Trudeau did both. “We were newly single at the same time, both in our mid- to late-30s,” White says. “Still attractive, still interested in life and dating. She’s a fabulous cook, always had the children’s friends over. We had dancing parties in those days. We took turns hosting. She’s a really good dancer.”
Trudeau’s divorce was granted April 2, 1984. Sixteen days later, with her three sons by her side, she married Ottawa real estate developer Fried Kemper. He was a year younger than she, smart, athletic, attractive. “They shared a deep-down basic warmth and love of family,” White says. “He would flip her boys around, play ball.” Margaret and Fried had two children: Kyle, born in 1984, and Alicia, 1988.
For a few blissful years, Trudeau slipped out of the public eye. “The biggest luxury is not an Hermès scarf or a fancy watch,” she says. “It’s privacy—being able to be yourself, in your life.” But on Nov. 13, 1998, tragedy swept her back into the news: her son, Michel, was caught in an avalanche in the mountains near Nelson, B.C., and died at the bottom of Kokanee Lake.
“Everything ended for me then,” Trudeau says. “Everything I’d ever thought and knew and been ended for me at the moment of his death. I couldn’t find myself. I lost my faith. I lost everything. I was so, so angry.”
“I don’t think I would ever have gotten better…”
Trudeau fled to Victoria where her sister and mother lived; she also stayed with White. “She couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t read. She just hid under a duvet,” White recalls. “Or she would pace back and forth. Skinny, skinny, skinny. Not eating. Smoking cigarettes, half a puff and then butting them out. Broken-hearted.” Trudeau’s grief triggered a massive depression; it took her five years to climb out and cost the Kempers their marriage.
Eventually, Trudeau found a sliver of hope: “If Mich hadn’t died,” she says now, “I don’t think I would ever have gotten better. I wouldn’t have faced up to how sick I was.” Until his death, her psychiatric visits were just to appease her family. “I never meant it,” she continues. “I only went so that people would still love me.”
Once she accepted her disorder, she made the changes to her medications, diet, sleep and exercise that allowed her to live with it. “My enemy is compulsion,” she says. “I had to learn to be measured and to take sober second thought.” Almost five years to the day after Michel died, Trudeau was in Cuba with Sacha, “and suddenly, joy just started spewing through me,” she remembers. “I let all the grief go.
“As soon as I did, I understood that Mich never left,” she continues, her eyes filling with tears. “That his force has been with me, more than any of my children, more than anybody who’s ever loved me. He’s with me. When you lose a child who hasn’t had a chance to have his life yet, there’s this feeling, ‘I have to keep living, because he’s at my side now.’ That’s why I got the help I needed. I had to live for him.”
She wipes her eyes. “The energy I get from my love for Mich and his love for our family—I guess it’s what we call resurrection. It’s not what the old farts told me it was. It’s the love, the pure love. I say this lightly but I don’t mean it lightly: he’s the only one of my sons that I never worry about.”
His loss also took away her fear of death. “I think every mother who loses a child wishes to be with the child,” Trudeau says. “I don’t have a death wish. But I’m not going to be sad to join him.”
Many years, on the anniversary of Michel’s accident, Trudeau makes the three-hour climb to Kokanee Lake (which she calls Michy’s Lake) to visit his grave. Anyone who’s ever hiked those mountains knows how much effort each step takes, how much time it allows for thinking. Put yourself in Trudeau’s head for a dozen steps of that climb, and you’ll never make fun of her again.
As third acts go, Trudeau’s is a humdinger. In 2006, at age 58, she went public with her bipolar disorder. “I’ve always felt that I had a job to do but I didn’t know what it was until then,” she says. “I’m here to help people with mental illness. To show them there is hope, there is correction. I want the families to hold onto these precious, wounded souls. Learn to accept. Help the person become the best they can be.” She lets out a shaky sigh. “Everything I do is to stop the suicides.”
When she lectures about mental health—without notes, for 90 minutes—people respond. “She has a gift to communicate,” Perelmuter, her speaking agent, says. “She tells her story in her own words, unfiltered and authentic, the good, the bad, the ugly. She’s not perfect. But her ability to move forward, have a positive impact—she’s an inspiration.” Afterward, emotional audience members write him letters or surround her to share their stories. “That can’t be easy, to listen to someone you don’t know, pouring their heart out,” he says. “But she’s engaged. You can’t fake that. In Canada, there aren’t a lot of icons. But she’s one.”
“Men and women, young and old come to her,” Tupholme, Trudeau’s editor, agrees. “She’s an informal person. She likes things to be casual. She works really hard. And she has one of the best memories I’ve encountered in my professional life. She’s able to recall dates and details, the assistant’s name to a famous person, in a way that’s absolutely astonishing.” Last fall at a Writers’ Trust dinner, Tupholme introduced Trudeau to the novelist John Irving. “Immediately, she started talking about a specific scene in The World According to Garp,” Tupholme remembers, “in great detail, though she had not read it in many years.”
The honourary president of WaterAid Canada
As the honourary president of WaterAid Canada, Trudeau has travelled to Uganda, Ethiopia and Mali—always trailed by TV cameras, to maximize education and fundraising. The CTV special she and Sophie shot in Ethiopia in 2006, A Window Opens, aired repeatedly for years. “We could always tell when it had been on because there’d be a tremendous spike in website traffic,” Helfer says. “You can see the joy in her eyes and how she connects with women. A lot of mothers in the developing world have needlessly lost children to water-related diseases. She identifies with their loss. It’s an acutely personal thing for her.”
As dedicated as Trudeau is to her causes, her greatest passion is for her seven grandchildren. “I was not expecting it,” she says. “My life was full. But when I held Sacha and Zoë’s first little boy in my arms, 10 minutes after he was born, my heart exploded. There’s something huge moving through life, a continuity, a legacy. I wanted to make the world a better place.”
She often takes her grandkids for weekends in her Montreal condo. She gets down on the floor with them, makes forts, bakes their birthday cakes. “Yes, I’m tired on Monday, but who cares?” she says.
“I can sleep all day. I’m grateful that my children allow me to be part of their children’s world. I know friends who don’t have this luxury. It’s a warning to young mothers and fathers: be kind to your children or you may lose the best part of your life.”
Trudeau knows she’s “helpful to Sophie because I know one or two things” about being a prime minister’s wife, but she keeps her advice to a minimum. She has advised her to not hire staff until she needs it, so as not to have to let people go. “Sophie has no problem with staff. She loves staff. She loves people around her,” Margaret says. “But you need to hold onto the balance of privacy. And no staff at Harrington Lake [the PM’s vacation home].” And she applauds Sophie’s resistance to being told how to live. “When people suggested that Sophie build a kitchen island [in the PM’s current residence] to make it easier for professional chefs to work in, her reaction was to roll out a beautiful huge Persian carpet in said space, where they all can play and do yoga,” Margaret reports delightedly. “She has a real family home, one that’s filled with children and laughter.”
Margaret’s bucket list
Because Margaret Trudeau has always done what she wanted, her bucket list is sparse. Her travel itch gets scratched by all her touring (her next trip is to Nepal, with WaterAid). She dates occasionally but doesn’t yearn for a relationship. “I’m a ‘fraidy cat,” she says. “I know how emotional I get and how devastatingly distant I can become. That kind of love I used to feel – deeply, madly, wholly in love—that was my hormones on the hunt for a mate. Now I’m on no hunt for no mate.” She giggles. “If I was lonely, I would have a husband. Of course I would. But I don’t have any room for one right now.”
In her latest book, she stresses the importance of libido. So how does that work without a relationship? “This is going to sound too honest,” Trudeau says. (That makes me sit up.) “I often felt quite awkward sexually. The choreography of the madness of an intimate sexual experience, it was wonderful and exciting, but I’m not there anymore. An awful lot of complications go along with it. I had my share of complication.
“Of course, who doesn’t love a great orgasm?” she continues without a breath. “But it’s not what moves me.” She smiles. “Oprah [Winfrey] says that to have a healthy sex life, you have to make love 200 times a year. My question: Does it have to be with a partner?”
We both chortle at that one. “Something happens to a woman after menopause, I know it,” she sums up. “You feel happy.” She sure looks it.
If Margaret Trudeau could go back and tell her younger self one thing, it would be this: “I wish I’d known that being me was going to be all right,” she says. “That I would be allowed to be me, holding onto my own quirky self, my own ideas. That I’d have to fight hard to be me. But I would make it.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue with the headline, “Maggie’s Moment,” p. 38-45.