At Margaret Trudeau’s ‘Crazy,’ Charming One Woman Show

Her early life was burned by the spotlight. Her Chicago show is an exercise in directing it, drawing on lessons from the Queen to Castro to life with Pierre.

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Margaret Trudeau leans into a mirror to check her hair backstage at Second City

Photo, Kirsten Miccoli/The Second City.

It is as unfair to Margaret Trudeau as it is inevitable to frame her as the wife of one Canadian prime minister and the mother of another. But, look, I’m just going to start out by telling you that the current Prime Minister’s mom led an audience at Chicago’s The Second City in chanting “F–K YOU!” on Thursday night, and it was entirely charming and everyone there seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves and feel that this was something they all really needed.

This swearing symphony occurred on opening night of Trudeau’s solo show, Certain Woman of an Age (tagline on the posters: “A crazy thing happened on the way into history…”), which is being workshopped at The Second City over Mother’s Day weekend.

The production is a storytelling memoir with a sprinkling of stage directions and a set comprised of screens displaying photos from Trudeau’s life. The images are a disarming mixture of iconic photos of one of Canada’s most famous political families and personal snapshots that feel like they might never have been touched by the public glare before.

It appeared that about half the audience were women who had achieved the same age of certainty as Trudeau, who is 70, and many of them responded to her with that shamanic enthusiasm that Oprah inspires: not merely a celebrity, but a beloved friend they just hadn’t met yet.

Trudeau spent much of her early adult life gobbled up by the press and the public at large—married to Pierre Trudeau, so young, so beautiful, so glamorous and so obviously on the edge of shatter, more infamous than famous, possessed of an untamable wildness that she would only realize years later was undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. Trudeau’s animating cause now is mental health, and her show is wrapped intimately around that issue.

Anita Rogers bought a ticket because she remembered the Studio 54 visits, the skimpy outfits, Pierre Trudeau dating Barbra Streisand, the whole swirl of it. The bi-polar news years later was unsurprising to her. “I thought she was nuts,” she said. “I thought she was kind of inappropriate considering who she was.”

Kay Collins, the friend Rogers attended the show with—both are from Chicago, and exactly Trudeau’s contemporaries—had watched the antics of a young Margaret Trudeau through a different lens. “Her life was so much more interesting than mine,” she says. “I was sitting in a dumpy government office retiring people, and, I mean, I was in an office 40 hours a week, my life was so drab, and you’d read the paper and you’d read about her and she’s close to my age, and my god, she can do all of this stuff.”

When the show started, Trudeau literally leaped out of the wings to land on stage: ta-da, here’s Margaret! Her entrance, like the entire show, felt like an exercise in choosing, directing and using the spotlight that had burned her earlier in life.

“Maybe you heard whispers about me,” she said, cupping her hands around her mouth and leaning conspiratorially toward the audience to hiss, “Margaret is crazy!” Then she continued cheerfully: “You don’t have to whisper. I was crazy!” The audience was hers.

Trudeau’s beauty is nearly its own character in this show, but lest that sound distasteful, it comes across as both winsome and razor-sharp: Yep, I was stunning, and the world treated that as a natural resource to be strip-mined, but now it’s mine and I’m going to have some fun with it. The posters and programs for the show feature a photo of Trudeau surrounded by a flower-child crown, and the photo is remarkable for how it is both luminously beautiful and making zero attempt to blur out the years she’s earned.

There is a sense that Trudeau perhaps wants the show to be one thing—an exploration of mental illness, an exercise in lifting stigma and exhorting people to take better care of themselves through touchingly ordinary measures like getting a good night’s sleep and some exercise—while the audience has an endless appetite for stories about Being Margaret Trudeau. There’s enough of both in the show, and a few moments when Trudeau elbows the audience in the ribs (“I was dating a famous actor. I’m not going to say who because he’s not important,” she said, then literally leaned into it: “Ryan O’Neal.”), to satisfy both urges.

One of the devices Trudeau used to give shape to the evening were questions from the audience—questions she had helpfully prepared herself in advance and distributed, which is certainly one way to handle an unruly press conference.

The first question was “Are you a feminist?” Trudeau affirmed that she was, then described how when she was younger, the message was that women were delicate creatures in need of protection. As she spoke, a black-and-white photo appeared on the screen beside her: a 20-something Trudeau, almost painfully luminous and doe-like. “What a load of B.S.” that woman’s older self drawled from the stage.

She was made an “accidental feminist,” she said, by virtue of moments like attending a dinner at the White House when, with her marriage disintegrating beneath her feet, she chose a dress she thought would lift her spirits, only to learn from the next day’s newspapers that she had insulted Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter with her too-short hem.

“These days, young women are born into their own ‘f–k yous,’” Trudeau said appreciatively. Her own first attempts were a beseeching question—f–k you if that’s okay?—before she learned to own it. “Say it with me: F–K YOU!” she exhorted the audience, waving her arms like an eccentric symphony conductor, and they enthusiastically joined in.

In terms of the political men against whom Trudeau is often defined by proxy, Pierre looms large, but unflatteringly, in the show: he was, in Margaret’s telling, tight-fisted, cerebral to the point of absurdity (“What do you think of Plato?” as a pick-up line is an interesting choice), retrograde and disengaged from her suffering in the glare of his political spotlight. But she also portrays him as charismatic, compelling and an excellent co-parent once they realized they were better off not married.

Whether it’s because all parents want to ensure the sun shines equally on their children or because the last thing a politically beleaguered Prime Minister needs is his mom riffing on his private life in public, Justin gets only glancing mention in the show, and then mostly as a set along with his four siblings. There’s a good joke early on, in which Margaret muses about what has drawn the audience out that night. “You’re probably here because you’ve heard of my son,” she said, pausing while the photo on the screen beside her flipped. “Kyle.” Another photo flip. “Or maybe my son Justin, who also has a pretty important job.”

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune before the show opened, Trudeau said all her children had been very supportive of this venture. “My honesty about mental illness has helped open a door for real conversation, and I think Justin wants to continue that conversation,” she said. “He has put no restrictions on me. His father couldn’t. Why should he try?”

Margaret Trudeau, of course, has incredible stories to tell. Her tales are maybe not so different from those of average people in terms of the what, but the who rockets them into a stratosphere of fascinating weirdness.

There was the time she attempted to curtsy to Queen Elizabeth while wearing a “very high, very fabulous” pair of heels, then felt herself keeling over, on the verge of humiliation; the monarch maintained a steely grasp on Trudeau’s hand and, without ever dropping her rope-line smile, wrested her back to a vertical position.

Then there was Pope John Paul II talking politics and faith with Pierre at length, then turning to literally pat Margaret on the head and congratulate her for being blessed with three sons, which led to her furiously disavowing the Catholic Church on the steps of the Pope’s summer palace, Castel Gandolfo.

And in the category of don’t believe everything you see in a photo, “I didn’t even like Mick Jagger,” Trudeau said. “He was an arrogant ass.”

Then there is the epic scale on which you can have a manic breakdown if you are the prime minister’s wife. During the 1974 federal campaign, Trudeau was struggling emotionally following the birth of her second son, Alexandre; after the election, she decided a day of shopping in Montreal would be just the thing. Then she got to Montreal and found it wasn’t quite the thing, but Paris surely would be. And since you could get on a plane with no passport or money in those days if you were the prime minister’s wife—again, Margaret said, Pierre had sent her off to Montreal with no cash, only a department store credit card—off she went to Paris. But then of course Paris wasn’t the tonic she needed, but Crete just had to be. Pierre finally tracked her down when she went to the Canadian consulate to ask about a passport.

“I thought I was just rebellious and restless, but it was much more than that,” she said. When she was eventually hospitalized, she found an odd number of parallels—fleets of staff who speak to you like you’re a child, a space that isn’t really your own, protocol for everything, constant surveillance—with life at 24 Sussex.

“Do you know what prepares you for the mental hospital?” she asked. “Being a prime minister’s wife.”

**

Margaret Trudeau is photographed wearing a flower crown.
Photo, Kirsten Miccoli/The Second City.

In spite of the more obvious parallels with his father, Justin Trudeau has said he is his mother’s son, sharing her sense of adventure and spontaneity and her drive to connect emotionally with people around her. “I’m definitely proud that I’m more like my mom in many ways,” he told Maclean’s in 2012. It is precisely that emotive and expressive quality in the Prime Minister that seems to have curdled for the public in recent months, as his government has been rocked by scandal and upheaval and his personal approval ratings have plummeted.

That made it all the more arresting to watch the mother from whom he inherited those qualities be goofy and earnest and antic and utterly exposed and have a crowd lapping it up. After the show, when much of the audience had left the theatre, Trudeau emerged to mingle with those who remained. It was impossible to tell which of the people she was greeting were personal friends and which were strangers and fans, because there was mutual hugging and gushing and intense emotional exchanges all around.

Collins and Rogers were among the audience members remaining. When Trudeau made her way toward the two women, Collins asked a question she’d been mulling over: was the crisp white shirt Trudeau was wearing from Max Mara? Trudeau grasped the front of her shirt, stretched it forward and proudly declared that it had cost $65 and come from Madewell. “Max Mara is too expensive!” she hollered.

Rogers had been surprised the show was as heavy and serious as it was because she expected something more akin to standup comedy. Indeed, the weightiest and most heartfelt moments in the show arrived when Trudeau spoke about the loss of her son, the funny, gentle, animal- and nature-loving Michel, who was skiing when he was killed by an avalanche in 1998 at the age of 23.  Trudeau recalled the last time she saw him, when they said goodbye and he drove away, but then inexplicably slammed on his brakes and ran back to sweep her up in a hug and tell her he loved her. “Some things you don’t want to live through,” she said.

A year after Michel was killed, Pierre was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but Margaret says he refused treatment even though it was caught early. And so she found herself standing beside his casket in the fall of 2000 with their two remaining sons, buckling under the weight of her own compounded grief. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder; it was Jimmy Carter, quietly insisting she was strong and could withstand this. Then she saw Justin collapse onto his father’s casket, and this time another hand fell upon her shoulder: Fidel Castro exhorting her to let Justin collect himself and stand up, as a man should be allowed to do.

In the months that followed, her children would call and she would click back into place the mask she had needed at various points in her life; Justin would say, “Mommy, that’s so good!” when she lied and said she had cookies in the oven for a bridge club meeting that did not exist. “The worst thing imaginable had happened,” she said. “I’d lost my child. A part of my soul was gone.”

But eventually, slowly and painfully, she realized that she had her four surviving children, and her friends, and, ultimately, herself to live for. In preparing for this show, Trudeau said she had finally opened the boxes of photos that she hid away after Michel died, and they made her weep and then smile and laugh. She had hoped to help others in writing and performing this show, she said, but she figured she ended up helping herself, too.

Trudeau’s parting message to her rapt audience on opening night was that there is always a reason and way to go on, and she is living, certain proof of that. There is always something you can do to make it better, always a reason to keep going, always someone, somewhere who will offer a kind word or a firm hand on your shoulder right when you need it.

“If your life has been utterly bizarre,” Trudeau said. “Sometimes it’s Jimmy Carter or Fidel Castro or the Queen of England.”