For his first two years as prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau was regarded as the Playboy of the Western World—an unfettered bachelor who dressed in outrageously mod clothes and dated glamorous stars like Barbra Streisand. Then, in 1971, the 51-year-old prime minister unexpectedly married a fresh-faced Vancouver girl, 29 years his junior. “Margie” Trudeau was not exactly a political novice. As a child she had been expected to smile in the background while her father, a onetime fisheries minister, made political speeches. During her first three years as Mrs. Trudeau, she scrupulously avoided most public exposure, preferring instead to devote her time to sons Justin, almost 3, and Sacha, 11 months, both born on Christmas day. However, when Trudeau faced the very real possibility of defeat in last July’s Canadian elections, Margaret proved herself to be his secret campaign weapon. But, as with Betty Ford and Joan Kennedy, the pressures of being a political wife exacted a price. Two months after Trudeau’s victory, Margaret was spending her 26th birthday in a hospital under psychiatric care. Shortly before embarking on her recent official visits to Europe and Japan, she talked with astonishing candor about her breakdown with Carole Taylor on Canadian television. Highlights:
What led up to your getting psychiatric help?
I was really reaching a kind of crisis stage in my life. After the election I found myself very thoughtful about what I, as a human being, could do. I didn’t want to just be caught in the role of a politician’s wife. I wanted to have a chance to think about things and to be away from the strains of household and children and just retreat. I was crying a lot. Through a family doctor I got turned on to a psychiatrist. I think it was a very positive thing I did.
It’s interesting, though, the social stigma around psychiatric help. We’re so afraid to say, “Yeah, we need help.”
I was very, very frightened when I actually went to the hospital, knowing I was now classified emotionally ill. I have studied Freud and that kind of thing. I just never thought I would need it. I was afraid they would take something away from me. But I was completely wrong. They just gave me help.
Why, if you are such a private person, did you get involved in the campaign? You could have stayed out.
Yeah, I could have, and I would have if I didn’t think that I could really help my husband, because I know him so well. He’s a very warm human being and I didn’t feel the image-makers really understood what kind of a man was offering himself to them to lead the country. And I felt that perhaps by being at his side, I would round out the hard edges. I’m private, but, boy, he’s so shy and so private that it’s very hard for him to let people know how much he cares inside.
Did it ever make you angry that a lot of the press were saying, “Gee, it is nice to have a pretty face around”?
I read one of them and I was so angry. I said, these guys are just missing the whole point. I stopped reading them. I read what I saw on the the faces of the people.
What was it like, moving into the prime minister’s official residence after your marriage?
I was completely unprepared for it. It was a total catastrophe in terms of my own identity. Well, just to begin with, we never had servants at home, and I didn’t know whether they were my friends or not. I certainly wasn’t going to order them around. I’m too much of a flower child for that. You know, I wanted to serve them instead of their serving me. And the sudden interest in me by the press. I wasn’t ready for it. I prepared myself for my marriage to Pierre Trudeau, but I didn’t prepare myself for marriage to the prime minister. And you know he’s not your average prime minister. He likes to wear his jeans as much as I like to wear mine. He helped me through it, but it was frightening.
Can you go anywhere by yourself?
I can’t really. There are two Royal Canadian Mounted police every time I leave the gates.
Couldn’t you go out for dinner?
No, no! I sometimes escape, but I’m, you know, chastised, because they say it’s a great risk. You just long to walk and not hear footsteps behind you. I envy my friends who drive around in their Volkswagens and pick up the kids from the nursery school—or just get in their cars and go for a drive and think things out. I don’t have that freedom. It’s like being a prisoner because I’m never alone.
What are you going to do about it?
There’s nothing I can do about it except accept it. Two policemen with you all the time—that’s something you can deal with. It’s the expectations of other wives, of politicians, of political organizers—things which are vague. I’m pretty much an out-front, straightforward chick, and I get a bit confused by expectations.
Do you miss being able to order in a pizza at any hour?
Sure, but one of the things about my life is that it’s very formal and set. My husband has a very, very busy day, and he has to work every night, and we have an hour and a half together over dinner—you know, it’s day in and day out. If there’s anything I hate it’s those damn brown boxes he brings home every night. They consume him.
What’s in the brown boxes?
They’re full of paper, all his secrets. It’s just, you know, I’d really like to go out dancing or drive around in the rain at 2 in the morning. Not in this life.
How have your kids been through this?
Oh, just tremendous. Justin is a very wise little boy, and he’s been very concerned about me, and I have been realistic with him. You know, I haven’t tried to pretend I was off visiting Aunt Bessy in Florida or something when I was in the hospital. He really helped out. I can’t wait until my children can live in an ordinary environment. Justin is getting very intrigued by guns, and he thinks they’re to shoot rattlesnakes. And I’m trying to tell him there are no rattlesnakes in this part of the world—and yet, why are all these men around him wearing guns? There’s this constant threat of violence in our life. I don’t want my children growing up in an atmosphere of fear.
It must be difficult for both of you to go through this period?
I think I was changing and growing up, having, I think, as my obstetrician calls it, postnatal depression. Every woman goes through it after she gives birth, when she feels the tragedy very much and the responsibility of another life. I felt I had a lot to give, but, you know, how should I give it, how should I express myself? I think the learning of photography that I’m getting into now is a positive step.
Why are you doing photography?
Well, I don’t paint and I can’t draw, but I see things, I think, quite well, and I love being able to freeze things with the camera, particularly the children. Then I discovered with the camera that you can tell a whole story with just freezing a moment in reality. I find it a very good way, a very satisfying feeling.
Are you a mystic?
I can’t verbalize it too much, it scares me, but I know I have very strong feelings. I get vibrations from other people, sensitivity, perceptions I can feel.
Are you a flower child at heart?
Oh, more than at heart, in my soul! That’s my generation. That’s what I blossomed in.
Do you find it something that you have to grow out of, or is it something that you feel is compatible with this kind of life?
I’d really hate to grow out of it. When I call myself a flower child, I think of myself as someone who doesn’t care about the unimportant things, doesn’t put too much value on money and social status—although how can I say that when I’m a prime minister’s wife? Except, you know, I didn’t marry my husband to be the prime minister’s wife. I long for the day when I no longer will be the prime minister’s wife, just Pierre’s wife. I think that there was a beautiful revolution happening with the flower children, or the hippie movement, of getting back down to earth. If this life destroyed that in me, it would have destroyed what I think is the best part of me.
What kind of food do you like?
I’m sort of a semi-health food nut. And oh, yeah, I love making French fries in the middle of the night, watching Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant movies. And I’d really like to get into my car and go down and have a hamburger and chips and a Coke. It’s just terrible, but I like it.
Can you wear a really sexy St. Laurent?
No, I’m just too much in the spotlight. It would be just too open, you know. If I know I’ll be in private, and there’s not going to be anybody watching me, I wear what I feel like.
Are there ever times that you honestly ask yourself whether you think you can last in the position with all the restrictions and inhibitions?
I suppose every person asks themselves just how much they can take. I think I can take quite a bit as long as I’m getting in return, as long as I feel myself nourished, as long as I feel that my husband loves me and that my children need me, and that I have some worthwhile thing I can do. As long as I can love myself, which I think is important, too, I know I can carry on.