Herbert Marx: from the pool hall to the corridors of justice

Frequenting pool halls and bowling alleys that were part of the fabric of the old immigrant district around Mount Royal and Esplanade did not prevent its young denizens from achievements as adults, in business, the academy, and the professions.

Just ask Herbert Marx, the former Quebec Liberal Justice Minister, who recalls spending many hours of his teenage years playing snooker at the area’s four pool halls and hanging out at bowling alleys when he was growing up there, as he recounts in his new memoir.

Though a lackluster pupil, Marx went on to become an award-winning law student at the Université de Montréal, distinguished law professor there and legal scholar of some renown, Liberal member of the National Assembly, Quebec Justice Minister, and Justice of the Quebec Superior Court.

But while he was having fun in the pool halls, and working odd jobs in the neighbourhood and beyond, it was far from certain that he would become one of the many illustrious graduates of Baron Byng High School on St. Urbain.

How he turned his early life around into an outstanding academic, political, and professional career is told in the revealing memoir, launched last month to a crowd of some 200 at the last event of the annual Jewish Book Month at the Jewish Public Library. It’s called My Story (Les Éditions Thémis, 156 pages), published simultaneously in English and French. The area, since gentrified, was home to the bulk of the Jewish community, the so-called downtown Jews of mainly working class families.

As Marx writes, “while we were struggling financially, we never thought of ourselves as poor…We felt rich, culturally and socially.”

Marx, 86, credits, as an early influence, his eighth-grade teacher, Esther Feigelman, whose married name became Boskey (mother of former Montreal city councilor Sam Boskey). Marx said he followed up on her suggestion and read two writers whom he later discovered were Communists – U.S. novelist Howard Fast (Citizen Tom Paine) and British historian Rajani Palme Dutt (India Today).

He also notes that rather than read The Gazette or the Montreal Star, he read a leftist newspaper, the New York Compass. When he graduated in 1950, his profile in the Baron Byng Year Book The Echo was “The Agitator.”

Since that time, Marx reflects, “my views were always somewhat left of centre.” In a video on his life, Marx laughs about his “excuse” for having to repeat Grade 9, saying he cut his fingers badly opening a can of tomato juice while a counter man at the old Miss Montreal Restaurant, had to be treated in hospital, and missed almost two weeks of school.

In Grade 10 at 16, he displayed an adventurous spirit, hitchhiking across North America on U.S. Route 66 from Chicago, and did it again in Grade 11, ending up selling ice cream on a Dickie Dee motorbike. His French was so poor at the time that he initially did not get a High School Leaving Certificate, his final mark being 33. He recovered from that blow when he took the Algebra exam instead of French and got 90, earning the coveted certificate.

“Too much fooling around,” he jokes in the video on his life. “I was not interested in school at all, too much in the pool room, too much trying to get into the Gaité (where they had racey burlesque shows).”

He worked as a pinboy, a wrapper at Steinberg’s and worker on its delivery trucks, and as a clothing factory shipper. While at McGill, for two years he sold Encyclopedias and Bibles in the summers in the Atlantic provinces.

At McGill, he could not pass Latin so he had to leave, and began selling light bulbs for a company owned by his brother-in-law, Harry Rappaport, who was married to Marx’s sister, Lina.

He also began taking night courses at Sir George Williams University where he not only earned his B.A. but met his wife, Eva Felsenburg, on a blind date. That marriage was, in his words a “game changer” because she was his “life-long partner, friend, and confidant.”

She became a high school teacher, earning a B.A. at Sir George as an evening student, and M.Sc. in Sociology from the Université de Montréal much later. They’ve been married 58 years. Their daughter Sarah, a chemical engineer, lives in Toronto, and son, Robert, a surgeon, lives in New York. They have four grandchildren.

Marx had obtained an M.A. from the Université de Montréal in English Literature, which he completed during evenings and weekends. His thesis was on political morality in Gulliver’s Travels. He loved literature, but Eva was skeptical when he sought admission to U.S. universities for a PhD, instead encouraging him to follow his more analytical and practical bent and apply to law school.

He was accepted at McGill but chose the Université de Montréal because he had had more success there and it was “a chance to become part of the French community, where it was all happening.” He was now 32, about ten years older than most of his classmates, but this was a new Herbert Marx.

“Life was all about studying. The Quebec Civil Code was my Bible,” he writes. He earned a Master of Laws degree from Harvard University and came first in the Québec Bar exams in 1968.

This evolution, from that of a young man who was drifting to a seriously dedicated scholar who had found his niche, is one of the most inspiring aspects of Herbert Marx’s story. And it’s only the first chapter! He became a “workaholic” professor and when Victor Goldbloom retired as the Member of the National Assembly for d’Arcy McGee riding, Marx won the nomination and was elected and re-elected, serving as Minister of Justice under Robert Bourassa.

As most readers know, that career, discussed in anecdote-rich detail, came crashing to an end when he refused to vote for Bill 178, making French the only language on signs. Bourassa invoked the notwithstanding clause to sidestep a Supreme Court judgment that said it was contrary to the Charter of Rights to ban the use of English on signs. The law was later amended to allow English, but half the size of the French. Marx writes that he understood Bourassa’s position, and Bourassa understood Marx’s.

“Bourassa remembered his electoral defeat in 1976. In 1988 he had to prove to French Quebec that he was even more protective of the French language than the PQ.” And he quotes with approval an article then in Le Devoir: “Mr. Marx had explained that he did not want to be seen as a wimp by his electorate.”

Marx says that as a politician, he is most proud of his role in establishing a government supported network of 17 battered women shelters in the province. “I introduced that program,” he told the audience. Victims of spousal violence now have access to Quebec shelters, he said, to sustained applause.

After retiring as a judge, he decided that rather than join a prestigious law firm, he would devote himself to supporting non-profit organizations and travel with his wife around the world. They have visited 60 countries.


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