May Cutler R.I.P.

Written by  //  March 19, 2011  //  Absent Friends, Arts and culture, Peter Trent, Politics, Westmount  //  Comments Off on May Cutler R.I.P.

See also Westmount Independent of March 8-9

May Cutler September 4, 1923- March 3, 2011

By Alan Hustak on March 6, 2011
The MetropolitaIn

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 didn’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 Kier 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  Cutler 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 mayors were really anointed,   elected by  acclamation  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, Kier,  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

19 March
Hundreds pay tribute to ex-Westmount mayor May Cutler
(The Gazette) I want a memorial at Victoria Hall. I want it on a Saturday afternoon so everyone can come. And don’t let anyone come and be depressed at my memorial. I had a wonderful life that should be celebrated.
As usual, May Ebbitt Cutler got exactly what she wanted.
With the afternoon sun streaming through a dozen large ornate windows, more than 300 people packed into Victoria Hall in Westmount on Saturday to pay tribute to the town’s former mayor.
As per Cutler’s explicit instructions before her death on March 3, no one was permitted to mope or feel sorry for themselves. Instead, the service consisted of 90 minutes of heartfelt speeches and musical tributes, punctuated by a few tearful moments as Cutler’s children, grandchildren and friends remembered the 87-year-old “philanthropist,” “pioneer” and “hellraiser” who had a reputation for never backing down from a fight.
16 March
Community celebrates May Cutler’s life this Saturday
By Wayne Larsen
The life and accomplishments of former mayor May Cutler will be celebrated in a special memorial event this Saturday afternoon at Victoria Hall.
Cutler, who passed away March 3, was responsible for several innovative projects in Westmount, including the refurbishment of Victoria Hall and the Westmount Public Library. She was also the founder of Tundra Books, as well as an author, playwright, and avid patron of the arts both locally and across Canada.
The memorial event is being organized by members of the Cutler family, and will feature several guest speakers, including Mayor Peter Trent and author Roch Carrier.
It takes place at 2 p.m. this Saturday, March 19.

Family establishes May Cutler Arts Fund
In honour of Cutler’s life and accomplishments — especially her interest in promoting the arts — a memorial fund has been set up by the family to help sponsor various art projects. This initiative came about over the past two weeks, said daughter-in-law Marina Cutler.
“As word got out about May’s passing, we had so many people contacting us to ask what they could do,” said Marina, who is overseeing the fund. “People wanted to know if they could make a donation, or should they send flowers — and if so, where should they send them?
“May and I had spent a lot of time discussing one of her dreams, which was to create an international sculpture garden in Montreal, so that was the springboard for the idea of the fund. We thought we could establish the May Cutler Art Fund in order to further her dream of this garden. Right now the focus is to follow through on that idea.”
Anyone interested in making a non-tax-exempt contributions to this fund can do so by sending a cheque to the May Cutler Arts Fund, P.O. Box 122 Station Victoria, Westmount, Quebec, H3Z 2V4. Contributions can also be made at the memorial event in Victoria Hall this Saturday.

May Cutler left a legacy of accomplishments
By Wayne Larsen, The Westmount Examiner

An appreciation

Over the past few years, whenever my home phone rang and the familiar M.E. CUTLER appeared in the call-display window, I dropped everything to answer it because I knew the caller would have something compelling, informative, or just plain delightful to say.
“Did you read this stupid piece in the New York Times…?” or “What do you think of this…?”
The last time M.E. CUTLER appeared on my phone was last Thursday, when Keir Cutler called to tell me that his mother had passed away a few hours earlier.
Instantly, the news was all over, thanks to Twitter and various other media websites. Westmount had lost a former mayor and one of its staunchest defenders, while Canada had lost a formidable figure in its literary landscape. May Ebbitt Cutler, age 87, had died at home in her Westmount Square apartment, surrounded by members of her family, after suffering from recurring bouts of ill health over the past year.
Best known among Westmounters as the City’s first female mayor, whose grassroots “May in November” campaign propelled her past the heavily favoured incumbent Brian Gallery in 1987, May took City Hall by surprise and by storm, promoting the arts and embarking upon an ambitious quest to refurbish both the Westmount Public Library and Victoria Hall — monumental projects that took nearly a decade to complete and succeeded in breathing new life into Westmount’s two most venerated institutions.
As a politician she was quirky and unconventional, a fact borne out by her portrait in the City Hall council chamber — a colourful, modernist rendering that stands out from the uniformly dull, conventional portraits of her mayoral predecessors. It breaks the tradition much the same way its subject broke not only the gender barrier but also the way the City was run.
May Cutler loved many things in her life — the theatre, art, and politics to name just a few — but when it came to fighting for a just cause, she was always ready to pick up the proverbial gauntlet and lead the charge on behalf of her fellow Westmounters.
A tale of two street names
Nowhere is the legacy of this fighting spirit more evident than at the corner of Atwater Avenue and Boul. René Lévesque, where suddenly, at the Westmount border, the street reverts to its original name, Dorchester. Though reported heavily across Quebec at the time, the story bears repeating here. May, as mayor responding to the overwhelmingly negative sentiments of her constituents when it was announced that Dorchester Boulevard would be renamed in honour of the late Quebec premier, stood up against the toponymy commission and staunchly refused to allow the name of a separatist icon to be venerated on a street sign in this largely federalist, Liberal community.
Facing pressure from all sides, enduring insults and veiled threats, May stood her ground. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things those men said to me,” she once told me with a smug twinkle of accomplishment in her eyes. “They were actually flabbergasted that this mere woman was standing up to them!”
But a street name is one thing — residential tax bills are quite another. May found herself fighting what was perhaps her most formidable foe in 1988-89, when an error in calculating local tax assessments led to hugely inflated bills in Westmount. The provincial government readily admitted that it had made a mistake — but that Westmount would have to pay the inflated bills anyway. Outraged at this blatant disregard for common sense, May went to Quebec City to argue the point, once again standing alone against a smirking panel of largely male francophone politicians.
Again, she was dismissed; again, she dug in her heels.
But this was no street sign issue — it was a matter of millions of dollars, and the City of Westmount was placed into receivership as a result. The only recourse was to take the case through a long series of court battles. Westmount finally won, but it would take nearly 10 years for the bureaucratic dust to settle. When it did, May’s successor, Mayor Peter Trent, made sure she was front and centre when the champagne corks were popped.
Always a fighter
May served only one term as mayor; when she decided not to run again in 1991, she asked Peter Trent to throw in his hat. He did, and ran unopposed. Eight years later, when Westmount faced what would prove to be the most serious political crisis in its 125-year history, Trent had a valuable ally in May. She returned to public life with a vengeance to fight the proposed “One island, one city” concept being promoted by then-Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque. The idea of losing Westmount to the City of Montreal was preposterous to her, and at age 78 she threw herself into the fray with the energy and fortitude of a woman one-third her age.
One memorable event in the ensuing series of rallies and protests occurred the day Mayor Bourque arrived in Westmount for a “goodwill” tour to drum up support for his vision of a united Montreal. He knew the odds were heavily against him from the start, he later admitted, but the hostile reception was beyond anything he expected. The moment he stepped out of his car, he and his entourage were set upon by an angry contingent of Westmounters — led, of course, by a placard-waving May Cutler — whose primary objective was to run him out of town. At this they eventually succeeded, doggedly following him wherever he went, blowing whistles and banging on the windows of Place Kensington to drown out his speech to local seniors.
I have always suspected that May’s no-nonsense personality was a combination of her childhood years in east-end Montreal, where she was born in 1923, and her later career as a journalist, the profession she practiced after graduating from the Columbia School of Journalism’s graduate program in 1946. Her lifelong love and respect for the power of the printed word was certainly behind one of her last public fights, which took place four years ago when The Examiner’s parent company, Transcontinental, attempted to move the paper’s office out of Westmount as a cost-cutting measure. Outraged that the community was in danger of losing its beloved local paper, May immediately rallied up considerable opposition to the move and voiced her protests loud and clear. This culminated in a public meeting of the Westmount Municipal Association, where I was asked to give a talk on the current situation and to assure everyone that the move would not affect local coverage.
Needless to say, May was in the front row. But also in attendance were a couple of Transcontinental officials who came to see what all the fuss was about. After all, they had moved plenty of newspaper offices out of their communities and never received a peep of complaint from readers. What was so different about this place called Westmount?
The answer was soon in coming. When offered a handshake by a smiling company official, May simply stared at the woman’s outstretched hand and shook her head. “Oh, don’t give me that — you’re not pleased to meet me at all,” she said sternly. “You just hope I’ll go away. Well, I won’t!”
She didn’t, and two weeks later The Examiner office quietly re-opened on Victoria Avenue.
A patron of the arts
Back in 2000, when May was ranked by the Gazette as one of the top 100 Most Notable Montrealers of the 20th Century, it was not only for her accomplishments in the political arena. By this time she was a noted author and playwright who had also made an indelible mark on the Canadian publishing industry as founder of Tundra Books, the company she started up in the basement of her home on The Boulevard in 1967 while raising four sons — Keir, Adam, Michael and Roger. Over the years she nurtured Tundra, guiding its growth into a successful national publishing house through her single-minded vision and, of course, her lifelong policy of never compromising or settling for second best.
In her later years, May settled into a comfortable second-floor home on the corner of Sherbrooke and Mount Stephen Avenue, facing Westmount Park. Here she surrounded herself with her books, works of modern art, and mementoes of her past accomplishments in public life. Her Sunday brunches were always a special treat, as they were organized with keen attention to the guest list in order to provide the most dynamic and interesting table conversations for all concerned. To receive an invitation was like being summoned to royal court; you never knew with whom you would end up seated, but it was always an elegant, fascinating event that might stretch long into the afternoon.
One subject that often dominated these table conversations was the theatre — May was especially fond of live performances and for years kept an apartment in New York City, where she would often head to take in the latest crop of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. She also made regular pilgrimages to London, often shunning her accustomed luxuries for more modest accommodations while checking out the best West-End offerings.
Last year, she returned from England bitterly disappointed. “Oh, it was terrible,” she complained. “All revivals — and not very good ones!”
May’s passion for the theatre did not end at a seat in the audience; she wrote several plays herself, including ‘The Man Who Killed the Man Who Killed Jimmy Hoffa’ and ‘The Traitor’s Wife,’ and she took great pride in son Keir’s career as an actor and monologist — never failing to invite a group of guests to his opening nights at the Centaur Theatre or Montreal Fringe Festival.
The final years
For the last few years of her life, May lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Westmount Square, close to the shops of Greene Avenue and the metro-level mall. She might have been slowing down a bit, but she was still extraordinarily active for her age, keeping a regular schedule at her desk in front of her iMac computer and rarely missing her weekly bridge evening with friends at Victoria Hall.
Two years ago, she announced that she was taking some time off and going on a cruise. While it’s certainly not uncommon for a Westmount senior to opt for that type of vacation, May’s choice of destination was extraordinary but typical. “I’m going to Antarctica,” she announced. “It’s the only continent I haven’t visited.” And sure enough, at age 86, she headed toward the South Pole to become one of the relatively few human beings to see first-hand the rugged coastal landscape of the planet’s most remote region.
May’s enduring passion for Canada and its modern art was a driving force behind what would be her last major accomplishment — a revealing, deeply personal biography of Quebec artist Paul-Emile Borduas, as seen through the eyes of his Refus global colleagues. Fearing that she would not live long enough to complete the manuscript, May asked me to serve as project editor — which I gladly accepted — and for the past year or so we had been discussing each draft as the book crept slower to completion. But as it did, May’s health deteriorated noticeably.
Then, one Saturday in late November, after working on the Borduas book all morning, we decided to have lunch at Chez Nick. May held my arm as we made our way slowly up Greene Avenue, but she had to stop every few steps in order to catch her breath. The street was crowded and festive for the grand reopening after several months of construction, but May was all but oblivious to it — she was determined to make it to Chez Nick and, in typical May Cutler style, she finally settled into a booth and grabbed a menu.
I saw May just once after that, in fact she was downright chipper at the opening of Keir’s latest play at the Centaur in January. At one point, while Keir was on the stage impersonating his late father — noted labour lawyer Phil Cutler — I glanced over and saw a beaming May nodding her head in loving recognition.
But this improvement in May’s health was only temporary; in February she suffered a severe relapse and was hospitalized. Thankfully, her family was able to release her from the Royal Vic for the last few days, and she was able to pass away at home, surrounded by her loved ones.
May’s many friends and colleagues will no doubt remember her in a variety of different ways. Sadly, I know I’ll never again see M.E. CUTLER in my phone’s call-display window, but at least whenever I pass the corner of Atwater and René Lévesque, I can always glance over and see the name Dorchester on the Westmount street sign — a constant reminder of a dear friend and what can be accomplished through sheer determination and strength of character.

Way to go, May!

A celebration of May Cutler’s life will be held in Victoria Hall, 4626 Sherbrooke St. W., on Saturday, March 19 at 2 p.m.

4 March
Former Westmount Mayor May Cutler passes away
( Flags were at half mast at Westmount city hall Friday to mark the passing of May Cutler, the city’s first female mayor.
Cutler was hospitalized last month and passed away Thursday at her Westmount home. She was 87.
Cutler served as the city’s mayor for just one term from 1987-91, but Montreal city councilor Marvin Rotrand said her arrival changed the political culture in Westmount.
… Gazette culture critic Pat Donnelly remembers her good friend as a fearless woman.
“I remember calling her in New York right after 9/11 because she was there,” Donnelly remembers. “She was very upset about the whole thing, but there was no question of her leaving the city or getting into a panic because of some mere terrorists.”
No, it took more than that, or a seemingly well-entrenched old boys’ club mentality, to scare off May Cutler.
May Cutler, founder of Tundra Books, dies at 87
May Cutler, the founder of the pioneering children’s publisher Tundra Books, has died at her Montreal home. She was 87.
Cutler died on Thursday surrounded by her family, the book publisher said in a statement released Friday.
Cutler’s lengthy life was marked by landmark achievements in several fields. She was the first woman publisher of children’s books in Canada, the first woman mayor of upscale Westmount, Que., and the second woman hired by The Canadian Press, the national news agency.
Former Westmount mayor dies at 87
(The Gazette) May Cutler, Westmount’s first female mayor and the founder of highly successful Tundra Books, has died in Montreal, surrounded by her family. She was 87.
… Current Westmount Mayor Peter Trent said Cutler had called him in England to run for a vacant council seat, and then to succeed her as mayor. He was acclaimed to the mayoralty in 1991.
Though he had been responsible for refusing the zoning change she’d sought, Cutler became a strong and loyal supporter when Trent fought the municipal demerger battle..
As he’s written in a forthcoming book, Cutler had “three degrees, an Irish cop for a father, and a chip on her shoulder that could make a sumo wrestler tremble.”

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