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Canadian publisher Jack McClelland dead at 81

Jack McClelland, whose showmanship and business savvy made McClelland and Stewart one of Canada's most influential publishing houses, died Monday at age 81.

The list of authors who rose to fame under Mr. McClelland's influence reads like a CanLit Who's Who: Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, Leonard Cohen and Peter C. Newman, to name a few.

He died peacefully at home, said his friend and colleague Elsa Franklin.

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"He was a great promoter," she said. "And he drank a lot, and he loved his writers, and he lived a very wonderful life, in that sense."

"Jack was an energetic guy, and cared a lot about the country."

In recent years, Mr. McClelland had lost his sight and hearing, and he was very ill, said Ms. Franklin.

He had a stroke several years ago at his condominium on Marco Island, off the west coast of southern Florida.

Known for his flamboyant publicity stunts, Mr. McClelland and Sylvia Fraser once dressed in togas and rode up Yonge Street in a chariot to promote her novel The Emperor's Virgin.

In 1977, he established a competition for the best first novel. Its $50,000 purse was an enormous sum for a Canadian literary award.

He capitalized on the prize's publicity potential by having the first cheque the size of a billboard. In a year with two winners, he handed them boxing gloves so they could duke it out for the cameras.

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The annual Jack Award, given by the Book Promoters' Association of Canada, is named in his honour.

But the company's aggressive publishing programs ran into problems more than once. In 1967, financing for expansion fell through and the company teetered for several years.

In early 1971, Mr. McClelland put the company up for sale and only a loan of almost $1-million from the Ontario Development Corp. kept it from bankruptcy. The company survived, but in 1985 Mr. McClelland was forced to sell his majority stake to real-estate developer Avie Bennett.

Mr. McClelland cut his last ties with the company in 1987, even though he had agreed to stay on for five years.

"I have learned that when you sell a company you are no longer the boss. If you're used to having complete authority and no longer have it, you should get out. I should have said, 'Avie, you can have the company but you can't have me.'"

The publishing firm was co-founded by Mr. McClelland's father, John, in 1906. It was originally McClelland and Goodchild Ltd., but became McClelland and Stewart in 1918.

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Jack McClelland, born in Toronto on July 30, 1922, joined the company in 1946 after the Second World War, in which he rose to the naval rank of captain.

"It's terrible, but I loved the war," Mr. McClelland once said. "I lived every day as if it was the last. I had fun all the bloody time."

He married Elizabeth Matchett soon after the war and together they raised four daughters and a son.

Named John G. McClelland by his parents but called Jake during the war and Jack in peacetime, Mr. McClelland became president of M&S in 1961, although he had been the effective head of the firm since 1952.

Under his leadership, McClelland and Stewart became the biggest name in Canadian publishing. The company and the man also became a strong voice for Canadian culture and a national identity.

In 1963, he told 23 foreign publishers M&S would no longer distribute their books in Canada, even though book distribution was often lucrative and not as risky as publishing.

He also launched several series through the late '50s and '60s, such as the New Canadian Library paperbacks and the Canadian Centenary Series, a subscription series begun four years ahead of the 1967 centennial year.

As a result of these projects, inexpensive books by Canadian authors became accessible to public libraries, schools and students.

Mr. McClelland was also an outspoken nationalist. In 1970, he and Claude Ryan - then editor and publisher of Le Devoir and later Quebec Liberal leader - co-chaired the Committee for an Independent Canada.

Despite his years of publishing and promoting books, Mr. McClelland couldn't be coaxed to write his autobiography. And he spent little time explaining what made him tick.

"I can usually tell if a manuscript is good," he once said, "but I can't tell why."

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