May Cutler 1923-2011

By Alan Hustak on March 6, 2011



Not  only was May  Cutler  the  fearless  Quebec  champion of kids lit  who  pioneered the market for quality  children’s  books  in Canada through  her  publishing house Tundra Books  she was also the girl from the other side of the tracks, the outsider,  who in 1987  became the  hell-raising  Mayor of Westmount, the  first  woman  elected to run the tony Montreal suburb.  

May_Cutler_photos_4.jpgCutler, who  was  87 when she died  on March 3, was a rock:  solid and uncompromising.   Her name  was  often mentioned in the same breath as Vera Danyluck, the  Mayor of the Town of Mount Royal, who died in November.   But there are no  comparisons; if Danlyluck was a Iron  fist in a velvet glove, May was an steel  fist in a boxer’s glove.  She was frank,  headstrong and outspoken.  Her saving grace was her  discriminating good taste,  her  curious mind,  her  wicked sense of Irish humour and her  self-deprecating charm which allowed her to convert  her enemies into friends.  She had a  twinkle in her eye, and even if you din’t agree with her, she seemed to be having so much fun you wanted to be complicit in whatever mischief she was up to.   “She bucked the establishment, she took on the old guard, she had no hidden agenda.  Her mind was forever working on THE next project” said former Westmount Mayor Karin Marks, “Her  latest idea was to have Montreal become an international centre for women against violence. Once you met May, you always remembered her.” 

May Ebbitt  was  born  Sept 4, 1923. Her father was a Irish protestant, a beat cop,  and she grew up in a tough French-Catholic  east-end Montreal  neighbourhood.   She received her arts degree from McGill University in 1945, then  headed to Columbia University for a degree in journalism. It was while working as a receptionist at the United Nations in New York  that she learned to appreciate  the aggressive entrepeneurship  that she experienced  in the United States.  By comparison, she said, Canadians were  cowards and syncophants. “Americans are horse traders,” she said, “and we’ve got to become horse traders too.”  When she returned to Montreal  she wrote for the defunct Montreal Herald and The Standard while taking her M.A. in English literature. In 1952 she married labour lawyer Phillip Culter, who was later appointed to the bench. They had four boys.  Determined to produce quality literature for children, she founded her own publishing house, Tundra books in 1967 and self-published  her own book, The Last Noble Savage. She also turned out such classics as Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater and Willilam Kureluk’s A Prairie Boys Winter.  Culter  had a good head for business and  a keen marketing sense.   At  Hallowe’en  she would hand out her  books to children who  showed up at her door instead of candy.   Not all of the children appreciated the gesture.  “She was independent, she was aggressive, she could wear people down,”  her son Keir admits,  “But she also turned a lot of her enemies into friends.  She was so into charity, helping other people and giving back.  When she started Tundra Books, she hated the Canadian inferiority complex, the attitude that we weren’t as good as the Americans.  In the end, the world came to her.  By the time Cutler sold her publishing house to McClelland & Stewart in 1987, it had a solid international reputation.  

May_Keir.jpgCutler’s decided to run for mayor out of spite  after the City of Westmount refused to let her to move her publishing house into a building that had been  zoned for 17 professionals  including dentists,  engineers and chiropractors.  The city’s position was that if publishers were allowed, pornographers were sure to follow.   Instead of getting  angry  Culter decided to get even.  The city,  she claimed, was treating its  residents  “like high strung neurotics and needed a shake-up. “   Historically  Westmount  had been run as a private club.  Its mayor’s were really anointed,   elected by  acclaimation  from within its own ranks.  Cutler defeated Brian Gallery, who was then acting Chairman of Canadian National Railways.  Gallery  thought he was a shoo-in and  had recently undergone surgery. Trailing  late in the race, he was  forced  to campaign on crutches.  Image was everything.   Cutler won.   On her first day in office  she refused to sit in the mayor’s chair, claiming it was too ostentatious.  “Cutler briskly began  (her term) by shaking up council. She sparked with the pyrotechnical brilliance of a high voltage wire,”  Sherrill Maclaren wrote in, Invisible Power: The Women who run Canada.  After Quebec premier René Lévesque died, Cutler adamantly refused  to  have the  section of Montreal’s  Dorchester Blvd  that runs through Westmount  renamed in his honour   “I despise nationalism – Quebec nationalism, Canadian nationalism,  Toronto nationalism.  It’s all the same.   Jingoism!,” she told the Globe & Mail in an interview.   Her lasting legacy as mayor was to spark the restoration of  Westmount`s  library, a handsome Victorian building that opened in 1899.  During her term however,  she  alienated the entire city council with her brash, uncompromising  style.  “In her desire to clean up city hall, to brush it clean, instead of using a broom, she used a torch,” complained one councilor, Rhoda Vineberg.  When council demanded she resign,  Cutler went on strike.  In a forthcoming book about Quebec Municipal politics, Westmount Mayor Peter Trent writes  Culter “had a chip on her shoulder that could make a Sumo wrestler tremble.”   Cutler called a public  meeting  to resolve the issue where she appealed  directly to the city’s residents for their  c ontinued support.  They gave it to her.   Having scored her point, she stepped down as mayor after one term and hand-picked Peter Trent as her successor.

May_Cutler_photo_press.jpgHer reaction to growing old was to  lead  public  protest demonstrations against forced municipal mergers on the Island of Montreal and  to write a couple of plays, Aah-pootee! That’s Snow and The Man Who Killed the Man who Killed Jimmy Hoffa.  When she was 86 she travelled to Antarctica, and as she was dying she completed a biography of Quebec painter Paul-Emile Borduas.  She was also an inveterate writer of  letters –to the-editor.   Typical was one she sent to Gazette publisher Michael Goldbloom  after the English language daily ignored a story that she and most of its readers  considered important. “Who decides what play is given to your news stories. Has that person dropped in from Mars and knows nothing of what happens here,” she thundered. “Am I telling you how to run your newspaper? You damn well right I am.” 

 Her husband died in 1987. She leaves her children, Keir,  an actor, her twins, Adam and Michael, and Roger. A memorial service will be held at Victoria Hall in Westmount 2 p.m.  March 19



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