Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Why Write a Biography?

May 13, 2013

The other evening I was giving a talk about Louis Taylor, Vancouver’s longest-serving mayor, to an audience downtown. As often happens on such occasions, someone asked me why I chose to write a book about Taylor. (My biography, L.D.: Mayor Louis Taylor and the Rise of Vancouver was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and won the Vancouver Book Award in 2004.) Most biographies are written about people who are well known – artists, politicians, porn stars, whatever. But as I explained to my questioner, Louis Taylor appealed to me for exactly the opposite reason -- because he was hardly known at all. Taylor first ran for election in 1902 and finally retired, or more accurately, was retired by the voters, in 1938. In between, he served eight terms as mayor for a total of eleven years in office. Yet the first thing that intrigued me about him was that although I’d grown up in the post-war city, I did not know his name at all. And when I started nosing around in his life, I discovered that to the extent that he had a reputation – and he didn’t have much of one -- it was for personal corruption, public malfeasance and dangerously left-wing tendencies. All catnip to a biographer. How had such an interesting character disappeared from the public memory? My biography would in part be an attempt to answer that question.

Setting to work, I learned that while it was going to be easy enough to find out about Taylor’s public career, there was no stash of the kind of private records – diaries, letters, memoirs of former lovers, etc. – that give insight and texture to most biographies. I attempted to track down a living relation, but the trail went cold with Taylor’s granddaughter in California who did not respond to my queries. At that point I thought the project was dead and put it aside for other things.

Years passed. Then one day my phone rang. It was someone named Roy Werbel phoning from California. Was I the writer interested in his great-grandfather, he wanted to know? Sure enough, Roy was the granddaughter’s son. She had died and he had found my letter among her effects. Unlike his mother, Roy was keen to see a biography of his great-grandfather written. Well fine, I said, but there don’t seem to be many records to go on. You mean like the 20 boxes of letters and stuff I’ve got in my garage, asked Roy innocently? And suddenly the biography was back on the front burner.

In photographs, Taylor cuts an unremarkable figure. He was short, slight and balding and favoured heavy, three-piece suits that gave him the appearance of a mild-mannered bank clerk, which is actually what he was in his younger days. Yet the 20 boxes in California, when I sifted through them, revealed a much more complicated character than that. For instance, while Taylor had always maintained that he came to Vancouver from Chicago in 1896 almost by accident, on his way to the Klondike, letters revealed that in fact he arrived as a fugitive from the law, wanted by authorities in Chicago on charges of fraud related to the failure of a bank in which he was a partner. There were also details about bigamy (his own) and drug abuse (his wife’s). All in all, Vancouver’s longest-serving mayor turned out to be full of surprises.

In his political career, Taylor championed several progressive causes, among them the eight-hour day for civic workers and the vote for women, and was in office during the planning of important infrastructure projects, the international airport and the Stanley Park Causeway to name just two. His opponents called him a socialist -- indeed, he sometimes called himself one – but he was more of a populist and a maverick than a doctrinarian.

To circle back to my original question, then, why was Taylor so quickly forgotten? I concluded that it had something to do with the whiff of corruption that tainted his years in office. He was sometimes accused of being soft on crime and it is true that he did not go in for self-righteous moralizing. He did not believe in cracking down on vice crimes – gambling, drinking, prostitution – preferring to regulate rather than abolish them. He thought that the police should pay attention to violent crime instead. As a result he was often the target of zealous moral reformers who wanted to shut down the bawdy houses and drinking dens. Taylor relied on the east side, working-class vote for his success. The financial elites, the various newspapers, and the “respectable” voters of the west side neighbourhoods (“those people” as he used to call them) always opposed him. He was, in other words, a classic outsider, unconnected to members of the city’s dominant social circles who found him a bit pushy, a bit radical, a bit embarrassing. And so when he was gone, they closed ranks and dismissed his achievements, even his memory.

One of the joys of writing my biography was to rescue this interesting figure from the condescension of the past and make him alive once again in the historical record.