Margaret Trudeau on Justin, Melania, Drugs, Studio 54, First Ladies, Bipolar Disorder—and Survival
Margaret Trudeau talks to Tim Teeman about Melania Trump’s G7 gaze at her son Justin, as well as bringing her life—Canadian first lady, drugs, Studio 54, mental illness—to theater.
On a trip to Mexico, Margaret Trudeau recalled smiling, “All I kept hearing from people was, ‘Your son is so good-looking, your son is so good-looking.’”
She laughed. “I wanted to say, ‘Yes, but he’s smart too.’”
She also laughed merrily when recalling the picture of Melania Trump, taken at last month’s G7 summit, about to kiss her son Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada.
In the frozen moment captured by the cameras, Mrs. Trump’s expression, as noted by many on social media, appeared lusty, dreamy. Her husband President Trump stood, stony-faced, to her side.
“Angela Merkel looked at Justin in just the same way and there were no pictures of her,” Margaret Trudeau noted.
Still, Mrs. Trump seemed happy to see Justin Trudeau that day.
His mother, today dressed in a white shirt, with knotted scarf, roared with laughter. “He is a tall glass of milk. Everybody likes to look at someone nice. They have met before. They have a friendship. He and Sophie (Grégoire-Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s wife) like Melania very much. He’s always been my prince charming. But this is real life. He’s not just a pretty face, although that doesn’t hurt. I think he is one of the world leaders who can bring the world around to peace, and talk and work together in a democratic way—and there’s not that many of those kinds of leaders left.
“That photograph was cute, but it was one flash, one moment. A picture tells a story but doesn’t tell the whole story. Donald Trump was right in front of Melania. She was getting ready for a cheek-peck I guess.”
“He’s pretty good-looking,” his mother conceded to The Daily Beast. “He has also lived a full life, he’s also bright. He loves his family, and I love my grandchildren. But I have four children. My second son Sacha (birth name Alexandre; journalist, author, and filmmaker) is more revolutionary, more of a change-maker than Justin could ever be because Justin is trapped within politics, and Sacha is completely free.”
Margaret Trudeau is both diplomatic and mischievous, very open and very discreet. A conversation with her flows, then can stop suddenly. She speaks her mind, but carefully when she must; she was married to Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s charismatic Prime Minister from 1968-79 and 1980-4. She left him in 1977 while he was still in office, scandal swirling after her. She was a first lady determined not to be stifled by the conventions and expectations of that loaded title.
And now her and Pierre Trudeau’s son is Prime Minister, meaning Margaret Trudeau has made history in Canada: the first woman to be the wife of one prime minister and mother of another. She notes she is like Barbara Bush in this respect.
Trudeau, 71, is an engaging and expressive storyteller, as her one-woman off-Broadway play, Certain Woman of an Age, shows. Having toured other cities to critical acclaim and appreciative audiences, it will play for three days later this week at the Minetta Lane Theatre, where it will be recorded live for Audible Theater.
The 80-minute show—co-written with Alix Sobler and directed by Kimberly Senior—takes the audience through a triple-mega rollercoaster life. When she was First Lady (she was married to Pierre from 1971-84, though the couple separated in 1977), Trudeau chafed against the restrictive nature of the role. When they married, Margaret was 22, and Pierre was 51.
She smoked marijuana, drank, danced at Studio 54, and notoriously partied with the Rolling Stones. After she and Trudeau separated, she had relationships with men including Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, and entrepreneur Bruce Nevins (who bought Perrier water to America). She was a favorite subject of the paparazzi, who she claims to have loathed passionately then and continues to loathe passionately today. In her 1979 memoir, Beyond Reason, she detailed her infatuation with Senator Ted Kennedy (he denied they had had a relationship).
Then, as Trudeau discusses on stage, tragedy brought her to her lowest ebb: the deaths of Michel, her youngest son with Trudeau, aged 23 in 1998 caused by an avalanche, and then Pierre Trudeau in 2000. She contemplated suicide. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder and treatment at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Center helped save her life, and Trudeau is now a passionate mental health advocate.
Trudeau is “so proud” of Justin as a prime minister and father. “He makes time on Sundays for all of us. We go to a lovely country place where we get out the Lego, art, and homework, and there are cuddles and reading and being there together.”
Does she think her son will win a second term? “I don’t know. Who am I to predict?”
“It’s our family life—politics. Pierre Trudeau’s mantra for all of us was, ‘You have to contribute. None of us are businesspeople, none of us are greedy or after money. We are all trying to make the world a better place.’ Justin knew from the time he was small what his destiny was.”
Trudeau said she did not know Melania Trump, and would not know what advice to give her as a fellow first lady who had also not played the conventional first lady role. “But I wish she’d talk to her husband. I think she’s in charge of an anti-bullying campaign. Perhaps she should share some of her wisdom with him.”
What does she think of Trump? Trudeau sighed. “I raised four boys. Boys can be absolute bullies, exaggerators, and liars. But they grow up. I don’t know Mr. Trump. I’ve never met him, but my advice to him would be: ‘Be yourself. Be honest. Be truthful. Don’t be phony-baloney. Just tell the truth. Don’t get caught up in lies. They’ll catch you out.’”
In contrast, Michelle Obama is “one of my heroes. Her time as first lady saw her being incredibly pro-active—not only being a fiercely proud mother but also gardening, getting real, and getting down—and getting into people’s hearts. There’s an aloofness and quietness that means we don’t know much about Melania.” Trudeau “cannot imagine” what it must be like to be married to President Trump.
Trudeau recalled attending the state dinner the Obamas threw for her son before President Obama left office, which she also attended. Trudeau was impressed by how “intelligent, bright and fierce” Sasha and Malia Obama were, “just like their mother.” The work the Obamas are doing now they have left the White House is “right and honest, they’re great people.”
The role of the first lady is changing, Trudeau thinks. “Sophie does not have to be at Justin’s side while he campaigns, if she doesn’t want to. It can even be to the husband’s detriment if his wife is by his side,” Trudeau added, referencing Melania seemingly swatting away Donald Trump’s hand.
“We don’t have to be standing next to our husbands beaming. What first ladies have to be is strong women living our own lives, giving support to our partners in terms of being married to them but not being their clone or servant, or responsible for what they are saying. It’s changing. Women have a different role. We’re not just serving. We’re going to be right up there at the frontline.”
As for women in politics, “It would be wonderful if a woman could take the presidency of the United States. It would be the beginning of peace in the country. Maybe it’s far off. I don’t know.” Elizabeth Warren is her favorite candidate.
“Who would not want Elizabeth Warren?” said Trudeau. “I do not have a choice. I do not have a vote. But I think she is honest, forthright, and has good visions of helping women gain equality and pay equity—and good ideas on most levels. I am watching from the outside. I have no stakes in the American election and nobody to vote for. Some of other candidates are great, and who doesn’t love Bernie?” She extended the middle “r” into a little, extravagant roar.
How did Trudeau view the prospect of a second Trump term?
There was a long pause. “Scary.”
‘I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin. I felt phony’
After watching her theater show, women in the audience have told Trudeau she has inspired and helped them by being so open.
Trudeau has left nothing of significance out of the stage play, she insists. “It is honest, no question—every bit of it is the truth, because the story I am telling is about being authentic and realizing what is within yourself when you’re not doing well and then seeking help and getting better. So many people have mental illness, and just cover it up, mask it up, pretend it will go away or they’re smarter than it. No, we’re not.”
Trudeau smiles as she says this, and looks away. She is a natural storyteller, yet also discreet, putting emphatic ends to topics she does not want to elaborate on, and ending answers with sometimes a sweet smile, and sometimes looking very serious, head turned away.
Trudeau grew up with “four mean sisters,” and a “wonderful” father (James Sinclair, a politician and businessman) and mother Doris. “I had a good life. I was never labeled as having a mental illness. I had such a good mom, who made sure we ate, played, had balance.” Now, Trudeau tries to ensure “family legends” are made for her grandchildren through happy camping trips, “so they can look back on them later and say, ‘That was my childhood.’”
She wanted to be an actress or foreign correspondent, because she thought it meant “getting into a plane and recording exciting things in Paris and Berlin. I was so unfinished when I was picked by Pierre Trudeau. I was very, very young. I had no idea where I was going.”
When they met in the ocean off Tahiti in 1968, she was not attracted to him.
“Goodness no. No, he was the same age as my mom. I was much more interested in the young water ski instructor. I did not have that kind of attraction to Pierre Trudeau. He grew on me. He was a beautiful man, so intelligent. We dated for three years before marriage, but secretly. I never had any desire to be in the public eye before marrying him.”
She was almost 30 years his junior, and not a traditional first lady. She was from “a feminist generation, with a mother who had raised all her daughters to have their own opinions, exercise their own choices, and be in charge of our bodies and futures. We did not have to ask the churches or our fathers how we should live.” Trudeau did not want to be, as she famously put it, “a rose in my husband’s lapel.”
She was also part of the anti-Vietnam War hippy generation, whose “gentle kindness” she appreciated.
“I didn’t know how to do it,” she said of being first lady. “I tried my hardest. I did my best. I learned how to do it. You just do. I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin. I felt phony. I didn’t know what support to contribute. I knew I was supposed to be quiet, I knew I wasn’t respected because I was so young. I knew my opinions didn’t matter. These feelings kept coming again and again, and they were wrong feelings. That isn’t the way I was raised.”
She left the marriage because she wanted to be “a whole person” for her children, “not part of a person.”
Her husband thought he could mold her, she said. “He underestimated me.” She is adamant that their marriage was not open; she only met other men once they separated. She knows she was judged as a parent and person with her affairs and partying. She seemed to relish the fame and flashbulbs. Apparently not, she claims today.
“People were not me, living my life,” she said sharply. “They were voyeurs. They don’t have it right. I don’t like people to be judgy. Everybody has to find their truth and struggle to be real, happy, and complete. The British paparazzi are the worst, the Americans second worst. We have never had any of that in Canada. I hated it. I hated them. They were invasive, rude, provoking. Greedy.”
If the impression was that Trudeau was reveling in being the “it girl” of the moment, that was not the case, she said.
“I wanted out. I didn’t want to be the person to be pushed, pulled, and hit by cameras. I was not allowed to be. I valued my privacy more than everything. I’m absolutely a freedom fighter, so to be used, exploited, and abused offended every one of my sensibilities. I knew that beauty was the price of admission for that world, and learned much more as I got wiser about the meaninglessness of that world.”
Her marriage to Pierre broke down, she said, because “he was 30 years older. He worked 14 hours a day. We had one hour together every day. I was alone all the time. I was struggling with undiagnosed mental illness. I also had three children in six years. As First Lady I was mostly either pregnant or nursing. My life was not as anyone imagined it was. We weren’t in the same place, not at all Pierre and I.”
Trudeau felt “neglected,” but insists Pierre was a “gentleman,” who had a choice between leaving office to be with her or staying doing the job he was elected to do. “What choice is that? He had a big important job, which he was certainly not going to give up and come live with me. He carried on being prime minister for another eight years after I left him.
“When you marry someone so young and your brain hasn’t stopped developing you grow out of each other. I impressed upon all my children to be teenagers until they were 30, to not have children till they were 30 have all the fun they could in their 20s.”
‘I lived for 25 years in denial of my mental illness’
Her truly wild years came after she left Trudeau. “I had left my husband so my life was in turmoil. I had to leave him.” As she has said before, 24 Sussex (the Canadian Prime Minister’s official residence), was “the crown jewels of a penitentiary,” and in New York she was “learning to be an actress” with Wynn Handman, artistic director of the American Place Theatre.
“People saw paparazzi shots of me in a pretty dress and my hair well done. That took one minute. Most of my life I was struggling to find balance and purpose, to try find the truth of who I was and what was going on. It took a long time. I lived for 25 years in denial of my mental illness.”
Trudeau said of her affair with Jack Nicholson that she liked how free he seemed. They’re no longer in touch, but “I love Jack. I love his movies. He was a very sweet person and I’m sure he still is.”
Studio 54 was “amazing really incredible. I used to go late at night, and dance for a few hours. Everyone was free to be themselves, express themselves. There were a lot of drag queens, a lot of great music, a lot of action, and a huge mixture of people form every walk of life. Immediately before AIDS hit felt like a time when people were at their most free and expressive. Then it was wiped out. You turned around and everyone was gone: Halston, Way Bandy. Actors, artists, gone, gone, gone. So many friends. It was the worst thing.”
She married again (to real estate developer Fried Kemper, from 1984 to 1999) and had two more children. “Happily. It was wonderful. He wasn’t an intellectual. He didn’t have a big important job. We just had a happy life raising the five children. It was very good, but my mental illness, still undiagnosed and undealt with, and the death of my boy shattered everything again. The marriage wasn’t strong enough to withstand.”
Of her grief for Michel, Margaret said, “It’s not natural to lose your child. It is a battle. We are not taught in western society how to grieve, how to get over loss, how to deal with it. We don’t even deal with the bodies. Some cultures sew the shroud, and in that time with other women women express their grief, finality, making closure. People don’t know to react to us when we have had a loss.”
However, Trudeau also did not want to “give up to a life of mourning. You feel a bit guilty having fun when they’re gone. But wouldn’t they have wanted that, unless they were horrible? My son certainly wasn’t that. Nor was Pierre.” She has found “the right places” for both dearly loved, and missed, men all in her “very good spiritual world,” which is not Catholic. She left the Church (having converted to Roman Catholicism when she married Pierre), because of its attitude to women.
Of the MeToo movement, Trudeau said, “It’s about time. But we knew the rules. Beauty was the price of admission to all that nonsense: the parties, high lifestyle. I think we have to move on and recognize that men have absolutely no right to abuse or harass women.” She herself has not suffered any sexual abuse or harassment, she said, “but many women have.”
‘After my husband died and my boy died I had no more hope in me’
Trudeau has had three “huge, big, manic episodes” that were life-changing. “I have had much more depression that is life-changing, because it isolates you. Most of my life I have not been in the throes of mental illness but at times yes, it can pop up, be triggered, and aggravated. I had the first episode of clinical, really deep depression after the birth of my second child when I was living the most extraordinary, wonderful life. It’s nothing to do with that, your lifestyle, and who you are. It’s all in your brain. The good news is: if you right away get the treatment and close the neural pathways of depression, you will not relapse over and over again when life goes awry.”
People with depression and other mental illnesses must get over the fear of being ridiculed, said Trudeau. “The shame is not having a mental illness, the shame is having one and not doing something about it.”
Did Trudeau ever contemplate suicide? “Oh yes. That’s why I finally got the help I needed. After my husband died and my boy died I had no more hope in me. I didn’t do it consciously. I mimicked the last week of life, so no food or water, to a point where I was emaciated and dying in hospital. It took me five years to get well.” (In previous interviews she has described living with anorexia nervosa.)
“It was an intensely unhappy time in our lives. I couldn’t swallow any more. When the doctor told me I was in the throes of committing suicide, I got terribly angry because I wasn’t conscious of that. I had four beautiful children and I was not planning to leave them. It was my brain. I had worn myself out battling my mental illness without any success, and then there was the grief, the horrible grief, and inability to find any hope, and the substance abuse.
“All the things you can do wrong I did. And then I finally got the help I needed and took it on. And I took it on with a vengeance. It took five years of pharmaceuticals and cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the best thing in the world, and changing my habits, the way I eat, everything. The brain is amazing—it takes five years to heal itself after trauma.”
Trudeau recalled suffering from psychosis, while in a psychiatric hospital. “It’s like not connecting to reality, not knowing why I would brush my hair or brush my teeth. With psychosis you completely unlock access to reason. You don’t have any reason. It’s not that you’re an axe murderer or violent person. You’re just nothing. You have delusions, not reality. It didn’t take them long to get me out of psychosis, which is a good thing about modern medicine.
Trudeau dates her return to wellness to 2006, when she started working as mental health advocate. As well as this work, Trudeau has contributed to aid work in Africa.
“I got my joy back. I started laughing again. I wasn’t going to be one of those women who just put black on and mourned my whole life for my lost boy because I had real life all around me.”
Trudeau said she “monitored” her bipolar disorder now. “If I feel dark, sad thoughts start to pull me down to a place I do not want to go, I say ‘You’re not going to take me there’ to my brain, and start cooking, go to a movie, see a friend, go for a walk, because I’m not going there. I’m not going to ruminate and make myself unhappy.”
If she finds herself getting too “high,” she makes herself go to sleep. “Sleep is my most important weapon. Everything the next day depends on my sleep. The reason I put my head on the pillow is exercise. I am so tired I have no choice but to go to sleep.”
She takes “a tiny bit of medication, I always will,” and has a therapist (“Of course, don’t we all?”), but she said she was also fortunate to work around the brightest neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and mental healthcare workers. Their wisdom is always welcome.
Trudeau tried to be “present” in her life, and recommends others be aware that feeling confused or negative can be “a warning sign” to seek help and not retreat. “I have been in both places: the depths of despair and depression which is so awful, and in the heights of mania and psychosis even. I have a memory that remembers every minute of everything. I don’t want to go back there.”
‘I have romance, of course I do, but I’m not going to have marriage’
When asked if she is in a relationship now, Trudeau said she was “beyond politics, beyond men. I am quite single. I haven’t got time. I have had two marriages which when they were happy were very, very happy, and when they were miserable they were miserable. I have nine grandchildren and a lot of work to do. Because I’m bipolar, when I’m ‘out’ and ‘on’ I have to have time at home and be ‘off’, and be really quiet.” She laughed. “I guess there is not much time for me to wash men’s socks and clear up their clothes.”
She has “no idea” if she will marry again. “I don’t think marriage is what most women think about at my age. What we ultimately want is to be free.” Does she miss sex, romance? “Not at my age, I don’t need to miss anything. I have romance, of course I do, but I’m not going to have marriage.” She laughed again. “There has been romance and there possibly will be again.”
Trudeau doesn’t get nervous before performing the play, or emotional. It’s been great to work with strong American feminists, she said. The difficulty was compressing everything into 80 minutes; she had enough stories for four hours, she laughed. “I’m grateful to have a good memory. I cultivate my memory every day, by taking what happened, smell it, see it, put a color on it, and file it away.”
She said she feels as young as she always did, and doesn’t fear aging—just losing control over her own life. “I am going to fight for my wellness. I am never going to have a geriatric assessment. Ever.” She laughed. “Death is death. If you don’t accept death you don’t accept birth. I used to fear death, but I don’t any more, because I faced it head-on and I know you can survive.”
Trudeau paused. “I think that having a death wish is something we need to think about if we have bad habits, like smoking. Ask yourself. Is this a habit or is this a death wish? Do I really not want to live a whole life? Am I testing the gods? Am I trying to get myself sick?”
Dealing with her drug and alcohol problems meant understanding they were affecting how her brain was functioning. “You can label someone an alcoholic or junkie, but you need to go deeper and find out why this person is the way they are.” One reason she hardly drinks alcohol now is that “you have to be cognizant of the amount of sugar you’re eating, and there are other ways I like my sugar.” Cannabis is no longer a big part of her life, though she swears by CBD oils for helping ease the pain of an injured knee.
Trudeau is writing her fifth book, a mixture of non-fiction and fiction, and is selling the rights of her books to be made into movies (she has no dream Hollywood star in mind to play her).
Her life, Trudeau said, is “a work in progress. Change is the only constant. That’s the one thing I have absolutely learnt. You can’t depend on anything staying the same. It’s not going to. Be ready for change. Be ready for transitions. Be ready. Courage sometimes means taking a step out of life to nothing, to find more. Some people don’t have that courage.”
Did she? “Oh yes, I’ve always had it. That’s why Pierre underestimated me, thinking he could turn me into a nice little Catholic, servile wife.”
Trudeau lives in Montréal, with three of her grandchildren just a few blocks away. “I had no idea grandma would be my best role,” she said, smiling. “I adore them. I don’t have to raise them—I just have to love them. I see my children in them. I see the past and the future in them. They make me laugh so much. They call me ‘grandma yummy.’ I give them car candies.”
Does she feel fulfilled? “Oh yes. Every day I wake up happy and ready. We all have worries and fears. I think I have got mine in proportion only because I got the help that I got.”
In 2013, in honor of her mental health work, Trudeau received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Western Ontario. To those concerned with their own mental health, she recommends sorting out sleep patterns if they are disturbed, because sleep is so rejuvenating. “Then talk to somebody who isn’t your mother, sister, best friend, who has a vested interest, who isn’t going to be shocked, hurt, or surprised by what you say. Get someone disinterested—a therapist, guidance counselor, someone outside your circle. They won’t repeat what you say or offer phony words to appease you.”
Feminism is, indeed always has been, important to her, “not even as a word—just as in being a strong woman, nobody pushing me around and not listening. Strong women with strong voices. And I seem to be surrounded by a lot of women out there who have pretty strong voices.”
Trudeau laughed again, heartily. Were those women’s voices sustaining for her? “Yes, absolutely. Let’s hear more of them.” Another merry laugh, and then Margaret Trudeau was off to her next adventure.