"One Helluva Year"
“I’ve had freedom, but I’ve also felt dreadfully alone—without my children, without my husband, without the life I knew. I wondered, was I right? Was I wrong? What am I doing?” Then Margaret Trudeau answers her own rhetorical question: “It’s been one helluva year.”
It began in the winter of 1977 with an anguished declaration of independence: “I’ve had enough of being public property.” And, like most such eruptions, it began just as surely years before—perhaps on the March day in 1971 when she was a flower-childlike 22, adorned in a wedding dress she’d made herself, cutting a wedding cake she’d baked herself, and beaming at her new husband, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, then 51, nearly three decades her senior.
Three children and hundreds of stiff, somniferous state occasions later, she was feeling old and troubled before her prime. “On the edge of not being able to survive” is how she remembers it now. After some in-patient psychiatric treatment and some clamorous night-crawling in Toronto with the Rolling Stones on her sixth anniversary last year, she fled to New York—burdened, to be sure, by the “terrible decision to leave my happy family,” but determined, for no less reason than emotional stability, to set about the creation of a new life.
How she has fared through the kaleidoscopic changes since then is a complicated question—even, and perhaps especially, for her. Margaret has suffered the predictable but still painful false starts. Her career in photojournalism in New York floundered because of working paper hassles. She has given up her Manhattan apartment and now travels only with an Instamatic. Romance was no easier. “I wonder all the time,” she says, “if a man wants to go out with me or Margaret Trudeau.” She has whirled through the international discothèque circuit, and seems still caught between the allures and traumas of that quickened life. And she is least certain of all about leaving Trudeau (they are separated, but with no apparent plans for divorce) and their three sons. “I miss the children terribly,” she says, “and I love my husband. It’s the best relationship I’ve ever had in my life. There was no time limit put on our separation—it was simply a statement of freedom.”
But on September 10 Margaret Trudeau turns 30, and in the process of internal debate and summing-up that watershed birthday inevitably brings, she finds reason to be pleased with the new life and career she is making for herself in acting. Her first film, Kings and Desperate Men (“a serious psycho-drama—I don’t get to smile once”), co-starring the formidable Patrick McGoohan, will be out at Christmas, and she’ll spend her birthday on the set of her second. It is director Jacques Fournier’s L’Ange Gardien, a light romance filming on the French Riviera. Beyond that, the ferment of her recent past has prompted her to begin an autobiography she’s thinking of calling Beyond Reason (“After all, it is beyond reason, isn’t it—all that I do?”) for an April publication date. In part, the book is intended to counteract her public image as “a flaky, undisciplined bird that got out of her cage,” as Margaret puts it. But in a larger sense she sees her works-in-progress as proof that “I’m proud of myself. I’m part of the active world rather than an apprentice or dilettante. I’m an adult now, starting to take hold.”
The acid test of her maturation, she says, was “adjusting to being single again,” with all the downscaling of style that has involved. “I was a very, very spoiled woman as the wife of the prime minister,” she confesses. “I had help, maids—everything I needed. It was a new experience for me to go out of the house and have very little money in my purse.” Doing laundry, shopping, cooking, taking buses—”I had to re-learn all these things.” Worse was dealing with the “terrible loneliness.” To be sure, the curative watering holes of the glitterati eased the transition. “Cruising in Studio 54 is an idyllic dream,” she gushes. “To walk around with your hands in your pockets and to see the intense life of the young moving around you is very exciting.” And if her final verdict is that “jet-setting can be very boring—I’ve certainly had enough of the fast life for a while,” perhaps that is the result of discovering disco romances (like hers with Perrier king Bruce Nevins) often go flat.
“I was very naive about men at first,” concedes Margaret, whose latest is Jean-Luc Fritz, a set designer turned actor who plays one of her loves in L’Ange. “We’re just friends, but he’s so good-looking!” she exclaims. There is still the worry as to whether she appeals for intrinsic or extrinsic reasons, but Margaret is learning to tell the difference. “I just watch,” she says. “The telltale sign is they’re not looking into my eyes and finding out what’s inside me.” Her mother, Kathleen, wife of former Canadian Cabinet member James Sinclair, has more politic concerns and recently phoned to worry: “Don’t you think Pierre is going to get awfully annoyed always seeing pictures of you and different men at Studio 54?” But Margaret says that her mother was the first to understand her decision to leave home—and the first to appreciate the change in her since. “Some months ago,” she remembers, “Mother looked at me and said, ‘It’s like you’ve been given your youth back. You’re like the same girl you were at 18 or 19. You’ve regained that spark.’ ”
The price for that continues to unsettle Margaret. Pierre encouraged her to take the role in L’Ange. “He told me, ‘Margaret, when you’re inactive is when the problems of the world rest on your shoulders.’ ” But she knew that shooting in Cassis, near Marseilles, would make her customary 10-day-a-month visit with the children impossible, and at the time of her decision on the role, she recalls, “I was desperately looking forward to spending my vacation with my children. I was tired from all the troubles that I’ve had in the year since I left.” The perks and fringes of the job carried the day. They include five percent of the gross, practice in French (she is not yet fluent in her husband’s first language), sunshine and, in the afternoons, raspberry tarts and pastis in a sidewalk cafe. Besides, she is increasingly proud of her acting considering that she has studied only six months. Director Fournier calls her a “natural talent.” But as she gazes at the kids at play on a topless beach she says sadly, “I wish the children could be here with me now.” She contents herself with calling Justin, 7, Sasha, 5, and Michel, 2, several times a week—”My phone bills are ferocious”—and defends herself vigorously from charges of desertion. “I don’t believe that children profit from mothers who sacrifice their own lives and become martyrs,” she says. “My philosophy is to be very honest and not overly protect them from facing life head-on.”
That, Margaret says, is what she has had to do herself—take an honest reckoning of her plight. “Once you come face to face with things,” she finds, “you start to understand, hey, I can survive! At the time I left, I would have described myself as someone who had a tremendous inner rage which was very well concealed—but now it’s gone. Instead of sitting at home gnashing my teeth if I’m angry, I’m angry. I just get it out.” Blunt as ever, she surveys the Riviera strand and remarks, “I’d love to go topless, but I just can’t. I don’t know if those are just inhibitions or whether it’s just that none of these women have nursed three children.” But her political-wife blues have disappeared along with the servants and Royal Canadian Mounted Police security guards. “Happiness is almost a day-to-day good feeling about loving myself. I’m full of joy, life. I’ve got funny stories to tell. I’ve got plans.”
Those plans are characteristically conflicting. “I’d love to do a movie with one of the kinky American actors like Jack Nicholson—he’s fun, he’s young,” she says. And she’d like to get into “more serious-type acting including live acting onstage—but that takes years more of study.”
As for where in that bifocal vision Prime Minister Trudeau could fit, Margaret remains relentlessly ambivalent. “I really have no idea what will happen,” she says. “I know I can never leave him. Whatever relationship we can work out together will be good and right for us—whether it be a marriage relationship or just the closest that two people can be in helping one another survive in a life that isn’t easy. We’re ever hopeful of getting back together.” As proof, she points out that her official residence is still 24 Sussex Drive, the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue of Ottawa. But Pierre often manages to be out of town when she visits the children, and her Canadian pied-à-terre is in Montreal. Her wistful summary of the situation seems finally to bely her professed hope for a reconciliation. “Maybe one day a thunderbolt will strike me,” she says, “and I’ll go back to my loved one, my truest one, Pierre.”
Just as frequently, in her mercurial way, Margaret approaches 30 talking about “revamping marriage to fit this day and age. If it were within my power to wave a magic wand, I’d be happily married with lots of little children at my feet—baking bread, canning preserves, pickling, singing—happy. To hell with suitcases, planes, the whole thing. I’m still the flower child. I hope that I’ll never give that up.”