Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Magnate David Graham made his fortune in cable TV

David Graham at his house in St-Tropez, France, in October, 2013 with Susy, a chocolate lab.

Courtesy of the Graham Family

As they were leaving a party on a yacht in Saint-Tropez, cable TV magnate David Graham turned to a debonair friend and said, "I notice you didn't have much success with the women on board." The charismatic real estate developer acknowledged the observation, saying he couldn't understand why. "It's probably because I told everybody you were my cook," Mr. Graham said.

Mischievous, and hugely generous with friends, Mr. Graham owned several opulent homes – including one in Saint-Tropez – that were purchased with proceeds from the sale of Cablecasting Ltd., a cable TV company Mr. Graham co-founded in the 1960s.

In 1992, Shaw Communications bought the company for more than $300-million. Mr. Graham spent the rest of his life indulging his passion for luxurious property, beautiful women and quiet, anonymous philanthropy. Even though he had no children, he gave to charities that encouraged entrepreneurship in youth. He also supported music programs and symphonies.

Story continues below advertisement

Gratitude from friends for some deed of kindness, such as paying for a specialized eye operation or hosting a wedding reception for a personal trainer, were met with responses like: "Okay. Great." Then Mr. Graham would briskly remove himself from the scene.

As the recipient of a gift, Mr. Graham could be like a kid. One friend remembered his reaction when she bought him socks. She said a particular hit was a couple of pairs bearing the famous Hudson's Bay Co. stripes. "He almost jumped up and down saying he was going to run right down to the Bay and buy another dozen pairs."

A man of restless energy, Mr. Graham avoided boredom. On a whim, he might decide to leave a dinner party in Toronto and head across the Atlantic to London. He always travelled coach class and was renowned for forgetting his wallet and identification. Friends often had to pony up for his taxi fare.

Mr. Graham eschewed the limelight, although he sometimes found himself caught in its glare. Marrying high-profile journalist Barbara Amiel, then editor of the Toronto Sun, brought him notoriety as did a late-in-life plan to dig four storeys below his 15,000-square foot mansion in London's swanky Knightsbridge area. The prospect of noisy construction caused an uproar from his neighbours, including author Edna O'Brien.

Mr. Graham was forced to back down but never gave up hope that his expansion plan would eventually be approved. Mr. Graham had intended to add a ballroom, a swimming pool and servants' quarters, among other facilities.

His project, however, would never come to fruition. Mr. Graham died on Sept. 2 at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto after suffering a major stroke at another of his luxury homes, on the Caribbean island of St. Barts. He was 80.

Despite his advanced age, two of Mr. Graham's final phone calls were about other property acquisitions that interested him. The process of transformation, increasing the value and beauty of property, inspired Mr. Graham. It gave him something to look forward to.

Story continues below advertisement

David Robert Graham, a 1937 Valentine's day baby, was the second of four sons born to John Graham and Susanne Graham (née Hill) of Ottawa. Charlie Graham, youngest of the four boys, says his father's family was well respected in Ottawa society although not prominent. His maternal grandfather, however, Sir Charles Fitzpatrick, had been the fifth justice minister under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and eventually became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Susanne Hill's aristocratic lineage required her to be presented at a debutante's ball. There, in 1929, she met John Graham, an investment dealer. He was eight years older than she was and he had his own small but successful firm, John Graham & Co. The two married in 1934 and bought two acres of land in Rockcliffe Park, on which to raise a family.

During the Second World War, John Graham was too near-sighted to enlist. He volunteered instead as a safety warden in the family neighbourhood, ensuring that windows were darkened against air raids and buckets of sand were at the ready in homes to extinguish fires.

Charlie Graham says the brothers' upbringing was "comfortable, but not posh." Their father's Scottish heritage made sure they all had a strong respect for the dollar.

"My father didn't believe in allowances," Mr. Graham said. "If you wanted something you had to work for it, and with two acres of land there were always chores to do: raking leaves, shovelling snow, or planting."

Young David decided to raise chickens and sell their eggs door to door, along with magazine subscriptions. By age 19, having graduated from Ashbury College in Ottawa, he was running one of his most successful operations: lots where Christmas trees were sold. When his father refused to fund him, the teenager approached a bank and secured a loan on the basis that one of the lots was across the street and the banker would be able to see whether he'd made a sound business decision.

Story continues below advertisement

The seasonal sale of trees ensured that by the time Mr. Graham got his undergraduate business degree from the University of Western Ontario and Waterloo Lutheran University, his ego, and bank account were healthy.

Upon applying to Harvard, where he earned an MBA, Mr. Graham stood up to a pompous, bow-tied admissions officer who asked why on earth the young man in front of him should be admitted to such a prestigious program. "Because I want to be able to hire people like you," was the answer. Mr. Graham graduated in 1964.

Much impressed by a Harvard course on entrepreneurship and new enterprises, Mr. Graham, sensed opportunity in cable television. He set out to learn as much as he could about the emerging field by working in the cable TV division of Westinghouse in Georgia. By the time he returned to Canada, he knew more about the business than most people. This was to be his future.

Jim Meekison, a Harvard business school alum, investment banker and friend, agreed to assist with raising capital for a company they called Cablecasting Ltd. Local investors were key. Mr. Graham amused friends with one-liners. "Never let the maybes [undecided prospective investors] be in a room together." The strategy worked. Cablecasting raised enough investment to acquire a number of licenses in small municipalities surrounding the nation's capital.

If the company was going to compete against other players rapidly coming onto the scene, however, it needed a big market. The two men were disappointed when Ottawa franchises were awarded to others. It then made sense to sell their small licenses to one of the Ottawa franchisees and pursue another major market, this time in Winnipeg. To their great delight, the Manitoba Telephone System awarded Cablecasting the license for the region east of the Red River. Next came a license in Calgary, then in 1979 a major coup with the acquisition of all licenses for metropolitan Atlanta and part of Los Angeles. Cablecasting was truly on the air.

Gregarious by nature, Mr. Graham could also exhibit shyness, and a little-boy lost demeanour that women found irresistible. Barbara Amiel, who met Mr. Graham at a Rosedale party, recalled the encounter in an e-mail to Charlie Graham.

"My initial impression was of a tall, dashing man wearing his Savile Row suit so easily under his Burberry trench coat and with a smile and a wonderful voice – I love deep, confident voices – that knocked me sideways every time he said 'Miss Amiel.' Clearly a gentile of the highest degree and theoretically off limits to a nice Jewish girl. Catnip."

Seven months later, in 1984, the couple married secretly in Nantucket. Ms. Amiel wrote that Mr. Graham was a man of marvellous taste who, curiously, often had toothpaste on his tie.

"We all tried to figure out how it got there since it would appear in between dinner courses at restaurants. Perhaps it had something to do with the little black and gold Swiss mouth freshener sprays he used. I think he was always preparing to kiss or be kissed," she said. "And very often he was."

The newlyweds settled in London, England. Mr. Graham was expanding his cable business into Britain while Ms. Amiel continued her writing career. During this period, the busy couple lived in Mr. Graham's Belgravia duplex on Eaton Place, a street scape used as the exterior for the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs. The couple hoped they might have a child but never conceived. After four years together it became apparent they were ill-suited. The intellectual Ms. Amiel was fiercely political whereas Mr. Graham was not. She moved into her own townhouse in Chelsea. The couple attempted a brief reconciliation but divorced in 1990.

Mr. Graham continued to hope for a companion who liked to travel, entertain and have fun. Ideally, like him, she would have an eye for renovation and decoration. He found that person in Catherine Schneider, divorced fourth wife of French film director and producer Roger Vadim. (Mr. Vadim's first and third wives, respectively, were Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda).

Ms. Schneider, a steel heiress, was Mr. Graham's glamorous neighbour in Saint-Tropez. She introduced him to the world of art and collecting. Mr. Graham became a regular at auction houses and art exhibits and was soon the proud owner of Bauerngarten, a valuable painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. In 1994, two years after their initial meeting, the couple married. The relationship lasted a total of 12 years. Later in life, they resumed an amicable friendship. In the interim between marriages, female companionship was never lacking for Mr. Graham.

He maintained a trim figure playing tennis, rarely drank, ate mostly vegetarian meals, and gave up smoking by the age of 50. By the age of 60 he'd installed gym equipment in his homes (affectionately referred to by all as Camp David) and had a personal trainer come to each of them. At various times he embraced yoga, Pilates and Feldenkreis, a method of mindful movement.

He believed in name-brand medicine, alternating between the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic for his annual physicals. His brother Charlie said he sometimes played them off against each other if one's results or recommendations didn't match the others.

Books on health regularly arrived at the homes of friends, with whom he could be quite intrusive. "Are you still smoking?" he'd ask. "How much exercise do you get each day?"

Mr. Graham's own father had his first stroke at the age of 56 while still running his business. Mindful of genetics, Mr. Graham made sure he sold his own business by the same age in order to enjoy his fortune. Once again, he was looking ahead.

Mr. Graham leaves his brothers, John, Anthony, and Charlie, as well as five nieces and nephews.

"David saw that cable TV was going to be a huge industry before many other people did. He was a true visionary," Mr. Meekison said.

Editor’s Note David Robert Graham was born in 1937.
Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Please note that our commenting partner Civil Comments is closing down. As such we will be implementing a new commenting partner in the coming weeks. As of December 20th, 2017 we will be shutting down commenting on all article pages across our site while we do the maintenance and updates. We understand that commenting is important to our audience and hope to have a technical solution in place January 2018.

Discussion loading… ✨