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Two Lunches with Gerda   

author: Orland French

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Carefully polishing his image after his disastrous exposure in the Munsinger affair, Northumberland MP George Hees demonstrated that in politics, there’s no easy road to success

When Lucien Cardin shouted “What about Monsignor?” across the floor of the House of Commons 50 years ago, it was a stomach-knotting moment for George Hees. The suave MP representing the serene rural riding of Northumberland was suddenly flung into a scandalous world of sex, spies and Soviets.

The cat was out of the bag. Or, rather, it was out of the bedclothes.

The press dove upon the name “Monsignor”, thinking they had evidence of some priest caught up in an illegal activity. But Cardin, the minister of justice in the Liberal government of Lester Pearson, had the name wrong. Soon enough, reporters learned they were looking for an East German prostitute – Gerda Munsinger – who was reputed to have been sharing her charms with Soviet diplomats in Ottawa and Canadian cabinet ministers. George Hees was reported to be one of them.

It was easy to believe that Hees, a tall, handsome hunk of a man, who had borne the nickname Gorgeous George from his college days, who had a charming way with everyone, especially women, and who had been dubbed a playboy by the Liberals, could have some interest in an attractive woman who was willing to share her bed.

The story was at least six years old when it broke in 1966. Cardin had blurted out the name under pressure during a ruthless attack on him by Opposition leader John Diefenbaker about another spy scandal. You should talk, Cardin said, in effect. “What about Monsignor?” he shouted.

Although the central figure in the story turned out to be Pierre Sévigny, who had been the associate minister of defence in Diefenbaker’s cabinet, the accusation eventually sullied the reputations of others, including George Hees, by then an occupier of a front-row seat in the Opposition.

Sévigny met Munsinger in 1958, George Hees was introduced to her sometime later, and she returned to Germany in 1961. For the record, Hees gave the Commons a dignified statement that he’d had lunch with Munsinger a couple of times. Sévigny denied to his death that he had had anything more than a social arrangement with Munsinger.

The story of some good old boys on Parliament Hill dallying with a prostitute (escort or call girl could be an appropriate upgrade) might not have been news – it surely was not the first such episode – but the potential espionage angle turned the story into Canada’s first national sex scandal. This was the era of Bomarc missiles, nuclear weapons and tense Canadian-U.S. relations. There was an intriguing possibility that Canada might have secrets of interest to the Soviet Union. Furthermore, according to the American Central Intelligence Agency, these secrets could have been shared as pillow talk with a spy who ostensibly shared her bed with both Canadians and Russians. This put us in the big leagues of international espionage.

The eye-popping story was so totally unCanadian, especially when it occurred in the administration of the prurient John Diefenbaker. The scandal captured the lurid imagination of the nation.

And yet Diefenbaker knew all about it. In 1960, an RCMP report on Sévigny’s involvement with Munsinger was delivered to Diefenbaker. He told Sévigny to end the relationship; Sévingy reported two months later that Munsinger had returned to Europe, and that was that. Diefenbaker did nothing else. Lester Pearson learned of the episode in 1964 and decided not to use it as a political weapon, but news of the scandal finally broke in 1966 when Lucien Cardin blurted out his question under pressure.

According to Canadian biographer and author Peter C. Newman, rumours of the Tory-Munsinger assignations had been whispered for years. There were jokes about a wooden leg going bump in the night (Sévigny had lost a leg during the war). In his obituary of George Hees in Maclean’s, Newman mentions a story that circulated around Parliament Hill: “Hees having been shown a blurred photograph of Gerda in the buff, was asked if it looked like her. He inspected the shot for a long moment before musing, ‘I’m not sure – her eyes aren’t quite right.’”

A Royal Commission was called to investigate the possibility of a security breach. In his final report, Judge Wishart Flett Spence concluded that, “Sévigny’s relationship constituted a security risk” and that George Hees's involvement with Gerda Munsinger was “casual but regrettable.” From the perspective of 2016, the cover-up of the sorry event, and the reasons for it, might have been the real scandal.

Political Ottawa in the 1950s and 1960s was a man’s realm. Until the appointment of Ellen Fairclough as secretary of state in 1957, no woman had served in the Canadian cabinet. And now, Cardin’s Munsinger allegations had breached the unwritten protocol of the House.

Christopher Young, the editor of The Ottawa Citizen, captured the moment. He suggested there wasn’t so much a sense of shame or scandal in the House when the Munsinger affair broke, but one of sorrow. He wrote:
“Behind all the giggles, leers and knowing winks, behind the raging grassfire of tittle-tattle, behind the thunder in the Commons chamber, there was a deep and genuine sense of sorrow on Parliament Hill. It was indeed a sad occasion. For many years Parliament had been in a real sense a gentleman’s club. The comradeship of the club is a commonplace of political memoirs and the more human books of history. In Ottawa today, that kind of atmosphere is as dead as Gladstone and Disraeli. It has been dying for a long time, and the knowledge of its last convulsions was the reason for the unspoken mourning on the Hill.”

Hees brought a flair to government that was otherwise rarely seen among the dull grey parliamentary suits of the day. As a showman, he outshone the dour Alvin Hamiltons, Donald Flemings and Howard Greens of the Diefenbaker cabinet.

Peter C. Newman was an admirer of Hees. “Most of the Diefenbaker ministers were old-time politicians,” he says. “Hees was the only one up to date in his dress, his manners, and deportment; he gave the Diefenbaker cabinet the only modern appearance that it had. He made Diefenbaker seem more modern; the rest of cabinet were all villagers.”

George Hees was the personification of the perfectly honed politician. Standing six-foot-three with wavy dark hair and a short-clipped moustache, Hees presented a towering figure of distinction. From the pin-stripe shirts to the glittering gold cufflinks, he was a model of gentlemen’s latest haberdashery. His sculpted 200-pound frame reflected his athleticism: he had won championships in boxing and lacrosse at Cambridge; as a professional football player he played three seasons with the Toronto Argonauts and won the Grey Cup in 1938. His academic career included education at Royal Military College, the University of Toronto and a year at Cambridge. He kept fit all his life. His parliamentary day included, without fail, a half-hour swim at the nearby Chateau Laurier.

Still, he was derided by the opposition Liberals as a physical heavyweight but an intellectual lightweight, a perpetual playboy. But whatever Hees lacked in knowledge, he made up for in overtime homework. If he was stuck for an answer in Parliament, he would promise to get the information without fail. Next day he would show up with a sheaf of papers and say with a twinkle in his eye, “I just happen to have brought my music with me.”

Hees was born June 17, 1910. The family name had been Hess, of Germanic background. The family’s wealth was based on a decades-old Toronto window-blind and window-covering business dating back to the turn of the century. Hees took over when his father died. Outside of politics he was listed as an “industrialist”. He married Mabel Dunlop of Pembroke in 1934 and the couple had three daughters. Through Mabel, Hees gained additional links to business and politics: her late father Edward Dunlop had been an industrialist in Pembroke and treasurer of Ontario in the Conservative government of Howard Ferguson.

Hees had attended Royal Military College in Kingston from 1927 to 1931, then the University of Toronto through the 1930s. He also began building a military career with the Royal Grenadiers, a militia group stationed in Toronto. When war broke out, he signed up and served in northwest Europe. Wounded by a sniper towards the end of the war, he was sent back to Canada to mend.

Home from the battlefront, Hees saw his first political action in 1945. In the federal election in June of that year, he took on Liberal David Croll in Spadina riding in mid-town Toronto and lost. Hees got his second shot at politics in 1950 with the death of Tommy Church, former mayor of Toronto and holder of Broadview, another mid-city riding. Hees easily crushed three opponents and found himself a solid seat in the House of Commons, winning the next four consecutive elections.

The rise of the Prairie populist John Diefenbaker opened the door to a cabinet position for Hees in 1957. Diefenbaker was elected to the House of Commons in 1940 after a number of personal misadventures at the polls. He pushed his way into the party leadership in 1956 and despite all expectations – especially by the Liberals – won a minority government in 1957. A year later he flattened the Liberals as the Tories swept to a huge majority.

Hees was invited into cabinet as minister of transport in 1957 and oversaw the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. He also presided over the smashing opening of the new Ottawa International Airport in 1959, when the sonic boom of a low-flying U.S. Air Force Starfighter shattered plate-glass windows and damaged walls in the new terminal building.

In 1960, at the height of Diefenbaker’s popular hold on Parliament, Hees was named minister of trade and commerce, one of the most powerful positions in cabinet. He had a favourite slogan. Its acronym was “YCDBSOYA”, meaning, “You Can’t Do Business Sitting On Your Ass.” Sometimes there was a little donkey figure attached. He had the acronym emblazoned on ties and tie clips to remind his staff to make cold calls and beat the bushes for trade deals around the world.

When Diefenbaker’s cabinet split over the issue of acquiring nuclear weapons for Bomarc missiles, his government fell on a vote of confidence. Hees was one of the ministers who had resigned prior to the vote and forced the crisis.

As it turned out, this was Hees’s first step to becoming an MP in eastern Ontario. He sat out the 1963 election which saw the Liberals under Lester Pearson come to power. For the next two years he put his business acumen to work as president of the Montreal Stock Exchange. When he returned to politics in 1965, he chose Northumberland, which he won, then redistribution bumped him around a little: he became the MP for Prince Edward Hastings in 1968, and then MP for Northumberland again from 1979 until his retirement in 1988. He was always popular; the now-distant Munsinger scandal didn’t seem to stick to him.

Hees rode out the Trudeau years (1968-1984) on the front benches of the Opposition (except for the Joe Clark interregnum) but he got along well with the Liberal prime minister. Pierre Trudeau didn’t suffer fools gladly but, no matter what other Liberals thought of Hees, the two apparently enjoyed each other’s company. Hees walked to work from his home in Rockcliffe but if Trudeau happened to roll past in his limousine on the way from 24 Sussex Drive, he would stop and offer Hees a lift.

One day in Parliament, when domestic troubles between Pierre and his wife Margaret were becoming common knowledge, someone in the Opposition benches shouted out a remark that deeply offended the prime minister. Trudeau swept up all his papers from his desk and stomped out of the House in a fury. One MP followed him to his office to attempt to placate him: it was George Hees.

Although Joe Clark overlooked Hees in his short-lived cabinet in 1979, Brian Mulroney recognized Hees’s value and in 1984 appointed him, now in his seventies, to cabinet as minister of veterans affairs. Hees supported veterans fully, and had earned his credentials in the Second World War. He was also appointed minister of state for seniors.

Clearly, the man had a zest for life. The parties, the receptions, the private posh lunches of official Ottawa were all part of the lifestyle that Hees enjoyed. It was an atmosphere in which a wandering man or woman might easily drift. But how did this fit into his representation as the MP from Northumberland? While his personal style and his business interests made him seem more suitable as a representative for Bay Street than Brighton, he worked hard to become one of the people of his rural riding.

Former freelance reporter Ron Truman recalls seeing Hees at work on the main streets of small-town Northumberland. Tall, handsome, radiating a brilliant smile, the politician would skilfully weave his way down the sidewalk like a skier on a slalom course. Hand outstretched in front, he greeted everyone he met the same way:
“Hello, I’m George Hees... Hello, I’m George Hees... Hello, I’m George Hees...”

He loved visibility. At a Santa Claus parade, for instance, he would avoid the traditional politician’s convertible and ride the fire engine instead, ringing the bell or sounding the siren. Look, here comes George Hees, the man with a big smile for the crowd, a little boy enjoying a moment of adulation.

Hees had other ways of making himself visible and memorable. Keith Bell, his former chief of staff in Ottawa, remembers that Hees would stop on the highway if he came across a construction crew. “He’d say, ‘thank you for paying my salary; I’m working for you’.” The summer was spent courting the constituency, Bell says. “From his summer home in Cobourg – which had belonged to his father – he would spend the political off-season showing himself around the riding. He’d go to all the fairs and festivals, and he made a point of meeting with the local riding associations, and asking for their views on issues. They’d have lunch, and they felt they were really part of something.”

He made his presence felt in schools too. Jim Harrison, the current mayor of Quinte West, says “He was a politician who made an effort to be part of the community. He was always very supportive of every project, and I remember he even attended several graduation exercises in our schools.”

Then principal of the Smithville school, Harrison says Hees used to give him $100 every year to be distributed among 10 deserving students. “We’d make up cheques of $10 each for 10 students who had excelled. George would write notes commending each student on their accomplishment, and the notes would be attached to the cheques which were sent to the students.” Mama and Papa were so thrilled. “When we took school groups to Ottawa, I’d try to make sure George was available. He’d always meet with the kids and buy lunch for them in the parliamentary restaurant. He was a great conversationalist with kids.”

For most of the winter, Hees spent his time in Ottawa. He would visit the riding for important events but pretty much stuck to his social and parliamentary life in the capital.

So now, 50 years later, the question arises: In today’s politics, could a character like George Hees expect to be re-elected once he had been dragged through a sex-and-spy scandal? Well, first of all he WAS re-elected a number of times after the story emerged. Second, we have become a much more tolerant society. In the U.S., for instance, Bill Clinton remains a very popular ex-president and source of support for his wife’s run for the presidency, despite his own sex scandal with an intern for which many wives would have left him.

In real life, all George Hees was found guilty of was his self-confessed couple of lunches with Gerda Munsinger.

There were no further details.

George Harris Hees died on June 11, 1996 at age 85. Eighteen years later his former chief of staff, Keith Bell, and former executive assistant, Shirley Cheevers, published an on-line memorial in honour of their former boss. Cheevers explained that the testimonial coincided with what would have been George Hees’s 103rd birthday and they just thought his accomplishments should be recognized one more time.

Hees had a joyous ride through politics, sort of like riding the fire engine of life and perpetually sounding the siren. If he had any regrets, he would include, maybe, those two lunches with Gerda Munsinger.

 

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