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City Unique by William Weintraub

Winner of The QSPELL Prize for Non-Fiction in 1997


In City Unique, William Weintraub introduces the reader to many of the extraordinary characters who gave Montreal its singular flavour. They include Camillien Houde, the mayor who was interned during the war for advocating treason; Lili St. Cyr, the ultimate striptease artiste, who mesmerized men and boys; Maurice Duplessis, the dictatorial premier who could evict individuals from their homes if he suspected they were communist; Harry Ship, the czar of illegal gambling dens; and Anna Beauchamp, the flamboyant madam who operated a string of at least a dozen brothels.

Montreal was a “wide-open town,” the vice capital of Canada, where the amply bribed police and politicians connived to resist all attempts at reform. But two crusaders, Pacifique Plante and Jean Drapeau, were determined to clean up the city and Weintraub gives a lively account of their battle with the vice lords.

During the era, far-reaching changes took place within the communities that comprised Montreal’s three solitudes – the English, the French, and the Jewish – and the author examines their effects. He also describes the city’s passionate ideologues, both communist and fascist, their struggles and changing fortunes in the aftermath of the Second World War. He examines, too, the emergence of a generation of novelists, playwrights and poets, including Hugh MacLennan, Gabrielle Roy, Irving Layton and others who set a new standard for Canadian literature.

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