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."

Next: Maggie moment

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