TORONTO — A new biography of beloved broadcaster Peter Gzowski paints a portrait of a brilliant man who hid a private dark side, including depression, alcoholism, and a secret son from an affair.
“He was among an elite (group) of radio hosts who could engage all these listeners, and keep them interested. He could interview intelligently, he could interview in a funny way, he could go from a light interview to a serious interview. He had enormous talent,” said R. B. Fleming, whose book, Peter Gzowski: A Biography hits stores this week.
“It came as a shock to me, that there was another Peter, a much darker Peter, a side which rarely revealed itself.”
Fleming’s book shines a light on that dark side of Gzowski, examining the broadcaster’s struggles with alcoholism, loneliness and depression following the failure of his short-lived TV show 90 Minutes Live and the death of his father in the 1970s.
One low point was a drunk driving charge that led to the loss of his driver’s licence for three months in 1974, the book says.
The revelations stand in sharp contrast to Gzowski’s public persona. As the adored host of Morningside from 1982 until his retirement in 1997, the broadcaster earned the moniker “Captain Canada,” deftly handling interviews that ranged from prime ministers to Inuit throat singers.
Away from the microphone, he was a champion for literacy, founding a charity golf tournament that continues to raise millions.
Gzowski, who smoked up to 80 cigarettes a day, died of emphysema in 2002 at age 67.
Fleming — whose previous books are mostly on historical subjects — studied hundreds of Gzowski’s interviews, books, personal papers, newspaper clippings, and photos, and spoke with his producers, friends, and family members.
The author, who lives in Argyle, Ont., says he doesn’t want the personal revelations in the book to overshadow Gzowski’s professional achievements.
“I hope that people will not say ’my respect for Peter Gzowski diminished because this biographer showed that he was a human being,”’ he says.
“Frankly, Peter was not a terribly nice man in private. Some of his friends will probably throw rotten tomatoes at me for saying that, but that’s my conclusion,” said Fleming, explaining that unless fans had an interview to offer, Gzowski would sometimes literally turn his back on them when they simply wanted to tell him how much they liked his show.
The book also claims Gzowski would not let facts get in the way of a good story, and would sometimes exaggerate or fabricate anecdotes about his life.
Fleming says he is especially proud of his book’s epilogue, in which a woman who claims to be the mother of Gzowski’s secret child reveals her story.
Cathy Perkins, who now lives in eastern Ontario, told Fleming she had a son after a 1961 affair with a married Gzowski. The book says Gzowski would sometimes visit the boy, but rarely paid his $30 monthly in child support because he often drank the money away in Toronto bars or lost it at poker games.
Fleming says Perkins never came forward because the scandal resulting from extramarital affairs in the 1960s would have killed Gzowski’s career, and broken up his family of a wife and five children.
“She was loyal to Peter. She still respected him, and loved him,” says Fleming.
Gzowski does not mention a sixth child in his writings and Fleming says his book is the first to make these revelations.
“Even in his memoirs he made some allusion to difficult moments but the extent of the depression almost frightened me, and of course the fact that he recovered from that is much to his credit,” he said.
Fleming says he wanted to write about Gzowski because he enjoyed Morningside and 90 Minutes Live.
“I used to watch him and look at more or less the failure on television and the great success on radio and I was charmed by the genius of this broadcaster and I was just curious,” says Fleming.
The author says Gzowski provided a window to Canada for many who were unable to leave their homes, like stay-at home mothers, or those taking care of a dying parent as Fleming was at the time.
“I understand what it’s like to be shut in inside a house which you cannot leave until someone comes and relieves you,” he says.
“Peter did save my sanity.”