All Bill Weintraub expected out of life, he once wrote, was "to earn a living as a journalist, and live an interesting life – perhaps a very interesting life." Mr. Weintraub, who died on Monday in Montreal at the age of 91, succeeded admirably on both counts. Not only did he mine Montreal's social history and strike gold with his bestsellers, City Unique and Crazy About Lili, he also worked on more than 150 documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada.
He was by turns wonderfully funny, sentimental, rueful, an engaging gossip and a first-rate cinematic storyteller.
"He had a talent for friendship. He was born that way," said the late short-story writer Mavis Gallant, a long-time friend. "He was very witty. And he never threw away a scrap of paper, he kept all his correspondence and all his life he cultivated people. It is as simple as that."
William Weintraub was born in Montreal on Feb. 19, 1926, to Louis and Mina (née Blumer) Weintraub. His father, an investment broker, lost everything in the 1929 market crash. William was raised in the blue-collar neighbourhood of Verdun, where his father was reduced to running a corner grocery store during the Depression.
He studied English literature and political science at McGill University and wrote for the McGill Daily. While still at university, he landed a job as a ski reporter for the Montreal Gazette, a beat that took him on expenses-paid vacations to the Laurentians. After he was fired from the paper for insulting the paper's managing editor and trying to start a union, he turned his escapades at The Gazette into his first bestseller, Why Rock The Boat?, which was made into a movie in 1974.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Weintraub went off to Europe as a free-booting radio journalist, who counted among his expatriate friends Mordecai Richler, Ms. Gallant and the Irish novelist Brian Moore. His extraordinary correspondence with these writers during this period formed the basis of his literary memoir Getting Started, which was published in 2001. Mr. Moore's widow, Jean, told The Globe and Mail that getting to know Mr. Weintraub was "one of the bonuses of being Brian's wife. Bill was one of the most charming, engaging conversationalists I've ever met, his stories delivered in that delightful sonorous voice of his."
Mr. Weintraub returned from Paris to write for Weekend Picture Magazine, a supplement that was included in several newspapers across the country. In 1954, while researching an article about the National Film Board, he became captivated with the idea of producing documentaries. At 27, he began doing freelance writing for the film board, eventually working as a producer and narrator as well. His 1962 documentary, Nahanni, was awarded first prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
In 1975, Mr. Weintraub spent a year in Kenya as a United Nations film consultant. His trenchant satire The Underdogs, about Quebec's language wars, was published in 1979, three years after the Parti Québécois came to power. It envisioned an independent Quebec in which English-speaking residents, who were once "lords and masters" of the province, were forced to live in an impoverished anglophone ghetto, where children were forbidden from even thinking in English. Funny at the time, it had lost much of its bite by the time it was turned into a play almost 20 years later at the Just For Laughs Festival.
From an early age, Mr. Weintraub was afflicted with bouts of depression, for which he eventually sought help through psychoanalysis – which he calls "a habit even more expensive than alcohol" – and through electroconvulsive therapy.
"I continued to feel lousy until it finally occurred to me – some years later – to stop drinking and avoid starting the day with a black, throbbing hangover," he wrote in Getting Started. He went on to note that sobriety also did wonders for his finances. He was 70 when he really hit his stride as an author with City Unique, a social cultural, political and economic history of Montreal in the 1940s and 50s. He followed that success nearly a decade later with Crazy About Lili, a light-hearted novel about the legendary stripper Lili St. Cyr, who put Montreal on the map in the 1950s.
When he was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2004, the citation noted: "[Mr. Weintraub] brings sensitivity, a keen wit and a strong sense of place and community to his work, adding a unique voice to the tapestry of Canadian culture."
At the time of his death, Mr. Weintraub was working on a novel set in 1933, when Italo Balbo, the marshal of Italy's air force, flew a fleet of planes into Montreal as part of an international tour.
Several years ago Mr. Weintraub joked about being fired from The Gazette for a second time. He had been commissioned to write a freelance piece about a trip down the Rhine for the paper's travel section. But when he submitted it, he was told that because of budget constraints, the newspaper couldn't afford to pay him for it. It was never printed.
Mr. Weintraub's first marriage, to Bernice Grafstein, ended in divorce after four years. His second wife, the former Madga Landau, whom he married in 1967, died five years ago.