People and Places

24 SusSEX: A building that might well blush

Above photo: Margaret Trudeau and Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the fall 1972. Credit: Duncan Cameron/Library and Archives Canada/PA-175941


If a building could blush, 24 Sussex’s beige limestone would look more like pink granite.

Think of the Valentine’s Day tales 24 Sussex could tell: ill-fated romance, whirlwind courtship, May-December love, passionate affairs and the children they produced.

And that’s before we even consider the varied and exhausting romantic life of Canada’s 15th prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. There is more fire in the hearth of 24 Sussex and in the hearts of those who resided in her than we might imagine.

When the home was built in 1866, it was the culmination of a love story as Gothic as its original architecture. It was built by lumber baron Joseph Merrill Currier as a wedding gift for his third wife, Hannah Wright, the charming and accomplished granddaughter of Hull-founder Philemon Wright.

Currier called it Gorffwysfa, Welsh for “resting place” or “place of peace,” a peace he keenly desired. His first wife had died of a broken heart after three of the couple’s four children perished within 10 days during an outbreak of scarlet fever. His much younger second wife had barely returned to Ottawa from her honeymoon when she was killed in a freak accident at Currier’s grist mill in present-day Manotick. To this day, her ghost is said to haunt the heritage museum we now call Watson’s Mill. Gorffwysfa was Currier’s charm against future tragedy.

The stories of those who have called 24 Sussex home in the 64 years since it became the prime minister’s official residence are perhaps not quite as florid as the home’s founding, but they still have their moments.

When John and Olive Diefenbaker moved into 24 Sussex in 1957, they were 62 and 55 respectively, but still in the first blush of married life, having wed less than four years before. They had originally courted three decades earlier in Saskatchewan, but were parted when Olive’s family moved to Manitoba in 1921. John married Edna May Brower, a prairie school teacher, in 1929. Her warmth and liveliness offset Diefenbaker’s dour demeanour, and she became an enduring political asset, if not always happy in her marriage.

When Edna died of leukemia in 1951, John reconnected with his first love, Olive, and it is she with whom he is buried.

John and Olive Diefenbaker outside 24 Sussex. Credit: Malak/Library and Archives Canada/PA-151038.
John and Olive Diefenbaker outside 24 Sussex. Credit: Malak/Library and Archives Canada/PA-151038.

And if that love story isn’t enough, there are the ongoing rumours that Diefenbaker, despite his stern manner, let passion lead him astray during both marriages. Some DNA testing in recent years indirectly supports arguments that Diefenbaker fathered a son with his housekeeper in 1938, and another with a former Progressive Conservative Party worker in 1967. In the fall of that same year, he famously told the Star Weekly magazine, “You press people only know about 10 per cent of the real John Diefenbaker.” Indeed.

The romantic lives of later Progressive Conservative tenants at 24 Sussex are more decorous, though both Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney were no slouches when it came to wooing much younger wives.

In 1972, Joe Clark was a 33-year-old rookie MP from Rocky Mountain, Alberta. That fall he hired a 20-year-old student named Maureen McTeer as a research assistant. By June of 1973, they were married.

Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer in 24 Sussex. Credit: Ted Grant / Library and Archives Canada / e002712822.
Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer in 24 Sussex. Credit: Ted Grant / Library and Archives Canada / e002712822.

In the summer of 1972,  Brian Mulroney, then a fast-rising partner in a Montreal Law firm, fell for Serbian-born Milica Pivnički. He was 33, she was 19. She dropped out of school, they were engaged by Christmas, and married by May.

Mila and Brian Mulroney talking with Pierre Trudeau at the swearing in of Jeanne Sauvé as Governor-General. Credit: Robert Cooper/Library and Archives Canada/PA-152416.
Mila and Brian Mulroney talking with Pierre Trudeau at the swearing in of Jeanne Sauvé as
Governor-General. Credit: Robert Cooper/Library and Archives Canada/PA-152416.

An earlier Liberal prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, worked even faster. The young history lecturer at the University of Toronto was only four years older than the 22-year-old Maryon Moody, when she enrolled in his tutorial early in 1924. They were engaged within five weeks.

Their marriage was later described as stormy and it is believed both may have had affairs. Mrs. Pearson was renowned for a caustic wit that was regularly aimed at her husband, including her most famous barb: “Behind every successful man there is a surprised woman.”

Lester B. Pearson, as Secretary for External Affairs, and Maryon Pearson, with Blackfoot Chief [Rufus Goodstriker]. Credit: Library and Archives Canada/C-090478.
Lester B. Pearson, as Secretary for External Affairs, and Maryon Pearson, with Blackfoot Chief [Rufus Goodstriker]. Credit: Library and Archives Canada/C-090478.

These whirlwind romances were well before any of the principals took up residence in 24 Sussex, but their stories might have been better known today if they had not been eclipsed by the prodigious romantic adventures of Pierre Trudeau while he was actually ensconced in the prime ministerial digs.

Not only did he conduct an entire fairytale romance while at 24 Sussex, featuring a beautiful flower-child bride 30 years his junior, and the birth of three adorable sons (two of them Christmas babies, no less), but he presided over its stormy conclusion even while entertaining new young paramours at the official residence.

Margaret Trudeau and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, fall, 1972. Credit: Duncan Cameron/Library and Archives Canada/PA-175941
Margaret Trudeau and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, fall, 1972. Credit: Duncan Cameron/Library and Archives Canada/PA-175941

Romantic multi-tasking was nothing new for Trudeau. He was having sleepovers at 24 Sussex with the likes of Barbra Streisand while secretly courting the young Margaret Sinclair in 1970.

After (and during) the marriage breakup, the list of women he entertained at 24 Sussex includes Gale Garnett (the singer/songwriter of 1964 hit We’ll Sing in the Sunshine reports frolicking in the snow at with Pierre at the residence after heating up in the pool sauna), actress Margot Kidder (then at the height of her Superman fame, the liberal activist wielded undue political influence on Trudeau, according to biographer John English), and guitarist Liona Boyd (her memoir says she left 24 Sussex during one visit with Trudeau so as not to embarrass Margaret, but that the impetuous Pierre followed her to the Chateau Laurier, clambering up the fire escape to her room).

And while John Diefenbaker’s extramarital progeny were mere rumour,  Pierre Trudeau’s daughter, Sarah, with constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, is an acknowledged fact — if never quite acknowledged by Trudeau himself during his lifetime.

So there you have it: 24 Sussex and those who have called it home are no strangers to the romance and passion that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day.

Writer Tony Atherton continues to explore the history and future of 24 Sussex Drive in a special series for Ottawa Magazine. Watch for his special report in our spring issue, on newsstands in March. Think you know a lot about the residence of the Canadian prime minister? Try our 24 Sussex quiz.

NEED SOME ROMANTIC INSPIRATION?

♥ Treat your Valentine to a special meal from the Red Apron.  Visit www.redapron.ca/valentines-menu.php to pre-order your Valentine’s Dinner, or pop by the shop at 564 Gladstone to pick up dinner and dessert.  Your Valentine will feel loved.

♥ Book an out-of-town getaway: Fairmont Chateau Montebello is a short one-hour drive to horse-wagon rides, dog-sledding, XC skiing, and more. Or, stay inside: canoodle by the six-sided, eighty-foot stone fireplace in the world’s largest log cabin.