The Future of Nostalgia – The Murder of Anita Robert – WKT4 #6
“The slow rhythm of reflective time makes possible the dream of freedom”
I am a part of several social media groups that broker in nostalgia. There’s one all about Montreal historical photos, that’s Mario’s site. There’s a french one called “La Nostalgie”. There are two for the Eastern Townships / L’Estrie; one in french, one in english. I used to belong to one called Montreal Memories, but the monitor – a guy named Barry – booted me off.
I’m sitting here this morning drinking from a Montreal Starbucks coffee cup. It’s one of those “Been There” deals, I picked it up at the Dorval airport last winter. I have to say, Starbucks kinda got their research right; there’s a bagel, a hockey stick, a smoke meat sandwich… the biosphere, the Champlain Bridge. But then there are things I just don’t understand; a motorboat, something that looks like the White House. There’s even product placement; a Starbucks frappuccino next to a hockey net.
What got Barry mad was my unwillingness to participate in reflective nostalgia: what the writer, Svetlana Boym referred to as “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed… a romance with one’s own fantasy.” Reflective nostalgia leans heavily on collective memory, the idea that we can all agree on – and I am simplifying things here of course – that Montreal was a better place when the Expos were playing, the Habs were winning, and you could still buy 2 sippy-sacks for 10 cents at the corner Perrette’s.
As any great contrarian can tell you – and the Montreal writer Kristian Gravenor is one of them – there is danger in collective memory. I’m no longer one of these guys who firebombs websites with my negative experiences. I will occasionally join the dance, I’ve posted in “T’es de Sherbrooke Si…” little pieces I’ve found along the way; concert notices for Harmonium or Offenbach from the 70s era, that sort of thing. But never forget that I am a troller of information on those sites. I’m not only looking for specifics of local color, I’m also watching behaviour – People have memories, and some they can’t let go.
It astonishes me how much people do remember. They will post classroom photographs from the 50s and 60s, and instantly people will come from everywhere and catalogue all the names of the people, what they are doing now, who married who, who died – so sad that was. Remember the factory at the corner of this-and-that? What was there before? Well before the factory, there was a gas pump there, with that guy who had the chip wagon…
This is collective memory. It is also selective memory. It’s amazing what people don’t remember, or choose to not-remember, or forget, or don’t tell you that they remember. It’s also worth knowing that Svetlana Boym also wrote that, “The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia.” Recall that Georges Méliès silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune – based on the Jules Verne novel – was first screen publicly in the spring of 1902.
I only go dark when I’m invited to. So someone posted, “Qui est cet ancien joueur du Canadien meurtrier” / Who is this former Montreal Canadiens player who was also a murderer? People responded:
“He was my neighbor when I was a kid, he smoked a big cigar.”
“Oh, I don’t know this story.”
“A story not so glorious for Nos Glorieux”
“Quest ce qu’il a fait”
His name is Tony Demers. And this is what he did. This is Who Killed Theresa.
Before beginning, full disclosure: There was a bit of zeitgeist-cryptomnesia going on. Some “zeitmnesia”, or “cryptogeist”, some “zeitomnesia”, if you will. Last month, Mario Pompetti posted on his site, Montreal Historic Photos a picture taken by Conrad Poirier of Tony Demers on “The Broken Bone Line”. This was a short-lived union of Demers, Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard, two of whom went on to become hockey hall of famers, Tony most decidedly did not. Dubbed “The Broken Bone Line” because Lach and Richard suffered broken limbs on the ice, while Demers broke his leg in an automobile accident.
In very short order, Kristian Gravenor posted a story about Tony Demers on his site, Coolopolis. Now Kristian has scooped me before, and I rely quite heavily on his research. Often I choose not to read what he’s written if I’m working on a piece because I don’t want to be influenced by it. In this case – I guess I discovered it about here, about mid-way through some research on Demers – and this time I decided to read it – well, skimmed it – more as a way to ensure that I wouldn’t step on his toes. Now I’m firm in telling you that I didn’t decide to do a podcast on Tony Demers because of Mario or Kristian. As I said, I got the inspiration from a french posting, and anyway I’m not in danger of pinching the Coolopolis information, there’s enough that drew me in that has not been covered, and if you’ve listened enough, I’m never really that interested in the subject I’m talking about – this is not really an episode about a hockey-player-murder. When it appears I’m talking about one thing, I’m actually talking about something else.
There are certainly better known hockey cases we could cover. There’s Bill Barilko who’s plane crashed in 1951, with investigators not finding the wreckage for over a decade. The year before that in 1950 almost the entire Soviet hockey team died in a plane that went down in a heavy snowstorm. More recently in 2011 the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash took the lives of 26 hockey players. Tim Horton and Pelle Lindbergh died in auto accidents. There’s the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in 2018. Last year, Austrian player Florian Janny was murdered.
But our story concerns a Montreal Canadiens hockey player, and the year is 1949. Here’s some details on Tony Demers.
(Portions of this story come from the 1940s Sherbrooke Record reporter, Cuthbert Jones.)
Tony Demers was close to being one of the NHL’s greatest hockey stars. He was know to have one of the hardest shots in the game. He joined the Montreal Canadiens full-time in 1939, but in four seasons played less than 100 games, and scored just 20 goals. Demers was prone to injury and illness. He was often out with the flu or a cold. Then came periods of food poisoning or mysterious “stomach ailments”. In December 1941 Demers crashed his car into a tree and broke his leg. This was all journalist-code covering for the reality that Tony Demers was a boozer. By 1943 coach Dick Irvin had had enough with him and sent him to the minors. 1944 saw Demers last professional NHL appearance, he managed just one game with the New York Rangers.
What followed was a brief period of minor league stardom, primarily in Sherbrooke with the Quebec Professional Hockey League (QPHL). The season prior to “the event” saw Demers play his best hockey, in 60 games with the Sherbrooke Saint Francis he recorded 53 goals and 58 assists, and was awarded the league’s Vimy Trophy for most gentlemanly player.
When the story broke in the fall of 1949, Demers had first only been detained as a material witness for a coroner’s inquest into the death of 32-year-old Anita Laberge Robert of Coaticook.
Anita Robert lived in Coaticook with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Laberge. Coaticook, Quebec is about a 10 minute drive south of Compton, and you know Compton because that’s where my sister, Theresa died. So, 10 minutes from Compton, 15 minutes further still from Lennoxville, and it’s 10 minutes even further south from Sherbrooke – all together, a little over a 1/2 hour drive from Sherbrooke to Coaticook, to get your beaings.
Despite residing with her parents, Anita was married to a man named Paul Robert, thus Anita Laberge Robert. Robert was living out of the province at the time working as a chef at a resort in Banff, Alberta. In fact, the morning after her death, it was Anita’s intention to travel and join her husband at the Banff Springs Hotel.
Now into the Laberge / Robert picture enters Tony Demers. The family Laberge had only met the minor league hockey player the evening of their daughter’s death. It’s not entirely clear how long Anita had been acquainted with Demers, who live in downtown Sherbrooke at the Hotel Union, which was at the corner of King street and Alexandre.
On the afternoon of the murder, Thursday, September 15th, 1949, 31-year-old Tony Demers drove his 1938 Chevrolet Coach from Sherbrooke to Coaticook to meet Anita Robert. Demers stopped for a couple of drinks along the way at the Coaticook House hotel before returning there with Robert for a couple more drinks. The couple then drove back to Sherbrooke where Demers had to call on a number of local businesses about sporting advertisements. Around supper time the couple drove back to Coaticook stopping to have more drinks with the manager of the Georgian hotel in Lennoxville.
That early evening, Demers first met Anita’s parents and her two visiting sisters at the family home in Coaticook. After introductions, Demers went out and bought three bottles of beer and a bottle of rye which everyone enjoyed at the Laberge home (by the time of the trial, this detail appeared to have been modified so that the consumption of alcohol within the Laberge home was not part of the story). When the booze was finished, John Laberge joined Anita and Demers at the Coaticook House for one more drink. An employee observed that Demers was not sober, and became belligerent. The three left the establishment with Laberge returning home and Anita and Demers starting for Magog. This was around 10 p.m. that evening.
There had been a dispute as the Laberge home before leaving. Mrs Laberge objected to her daughter going out with Tony Demers. Demers had been clowning with the family, flexing his muscles to impress all the girls. At one point he took off his shirt, “to show that he wasn’t a schoolboy.” Demers argued with both parents. Mrs. Laberge said Anita “seemed afraid of Demers and yet fascinated by him.” Her husband agreed stating that Anita, “seemed afraid of displeasing him, and did not oppose any of his remarks.” Even though she was a married woman, Demers expressed that he wished to marry Anita (earlier in Lennoxville, he had introduced Anita to the Georgian hotel manager as his wife). And yet the parents let their daughter go off with him. Mrs. Laberge remarked that Anita was “clever… well educated and popular, but her mind was turned.”
At this point in the story, as there were no witnesses, only Demers and Robert truly know what happened. In Tony Demers’ version of events, the couple then drove to Magog, about a 45 minute drive northwest through some very rural, dense forested country. They would have passed through Ayer’s Cliff before arriving in Magog, which was – and is now – a resort-ish, touristy town at the northern-most tip of Lake Memphremagog. At some point Demers said that Anita tried to throw herself out of the moving vehicle because she thought Tony wouldn’t love her anymore after having met her parents. The car landed in a ditch, then Anita Robert took the wheel while Demers tried to push them out. According to Demers she eventually fell unconscious. He then placed her in the back seat of the car. When he tried talking to her she didn’t answer. Demers went to sleep in the front seat of the car and when he woke up it was daylight.
On the morning of Friday, September 16th, Tony Demers visited a friend, Robert Pruneau in Little Lake ( known today as Lake Magog) saying he had “something serious” to show him. Demers then took Pruneau to Pruneau’s cottage – which Demers had broken into – where the badly beaten Anita Robert lay on the sofa naked and covered in a blanket. Pruneau urged Demers to take her to the hospital at once. Before departing, Demers asked for a change of clothes, then instructed Pruneau to take his blooded clothing to the cleaners in Sherbrooke. Demers drove Anita Robert to La Providence Hospital in Magog. When the doctor asked what had happened Demers replied, “I guess it was a fight.”
Demers left the hospital a number of times. On returning for the third time he told the doctor, “We would just as soon not have this known and if you don’t speak to anyone about it I’ll give you a good reward.”
Anita Laberge Robert died that afternoon at La Providence Hospital in Magog. The autopsy revealed that Robert was bruised from the legs to the head. She had a black eye and her nose had been broken. Robert suffered multiple blows, dying due to hemorrhaging in her skull. Her injuries were caused by, “blows struck by a blunt weapon, such as a fist.”
“I am not of the opinion that she jumped or fell out of a car,” the medical examiner added.
Anita’s parents were not aware of what had transpired the night of September 15th, until a reporter who showed up on their doorstep accidentally let slip the news that their daughter had died. When Mrs Laberge realized what had happened her reaction was immediate:
“I told her not to go out with him, she should have listened to me. I had a premonition that something terrible had happened when I did not hear from her all day today. But this is a frightful thing, a horrible thing…”
Then, as if from a script from Oscar Méténier’s Grand Guignol she turned to her husband, “You should have kept her from going with him!”
This story is often painted with shades of, “Oh poor Tony, he could have been such a big hockey star if it wasn’t for that one unfortunate slip of character.” One writer stated that Tony Demers plight was ” one of the sadder stories in the 100 year saga of the Montreal Canadiens.” Sadder for who? They went on to argue that the “details… remain sketchy”, when they are perfectly clear, and were documented in the court record.
At the trial, Anita’s sister, Bella testified that she had seen Demers and Anita Robert the previous year at a guest house in Montreal. Demers had an argument with Anita, struck her, broke her glasses and gave her a black eye. When Bella tried to intervene Demers shouted, “I’ll kill you and your sister too.”
Also at trial a statement was revealed from the morning of Robert’s death in which Demers told police that he “slapped her face and struck her with his fist after she had cursed him.” Demers also told the police he had known Robert for seven years, and admitted having dated her for two years.
Post-mortem photos shown to the jury of Anita Robert clearly revealed the black eye, the broken nose, the blows to her head and body. The defence counsel protested arguing that the photos were “immoral”.
For over two hours Demers commanded the witness stand in his own defence. He was described as giving testimony, “calmly, coolly, and occasionally with flashes of humour.”
Prosecutor Henri Monty called Demers “a good actor, suave and with a soft voice, attempting to impress the jury. He had a wonderful memory of what happened the night of the tragedy, but couldn’t remember to answer any incriminating questions.”
It took the jury just ten minutes to find Tony Demers guilty of manslaughter, reduced from the original charge of murder. A murder conviction would have meant Demers would hang. Manslaughter carried a life sentence of 25-years. But the jury asked for clemency, which Justice Cesaire Gervais granted, sentencing him to fifteen years in prison.
Judge Gervais tried to talk tough arguing that the sentence would “put an end to your brilliant career as an international athlete.” The truth was Demers had already played eighteen years – an eternity for most hockey players – and his career was never brilliant. Demers served eight years. He was paroled in 1959, and occasionally spotted coaching, or playing in “celebrity” old-timers games. My father probably watched him one Saturday morning at The Forum.
At sentencing the judge also argued that Tony Demers had no prior criminal record, but he was hardly a saint. Remember the car crash where he broke his leg? That incident happened coming back to Montreal from a joyride in Valleyfield after midnight. He could have killed the other passengers, his then wife (who eventually left him) and his brother and sister-in-law. Demers “brilliant career” could have ended right there.
In March 1945 Demers was charged with violent theft from a hotel keeper in Chambly, behavior that appeared consistent with his belligerence at the the Coaticook House. He was later acquitted at trial.
In the spring of 1949, the same week he was awarded the Vimy Trophy for most gentlemanly player, Demers was discovered playing in the ‘B’ league playoffs for Dorion under the assumed name, “B. Taylor”. Demers was suspended for 10 games, but in a pattern that would prove familiar – and some might argue fatal – he was given leniency, allowed to serve the suspension at the beginning of the following season, not while his team, the Sherbrooke Saint Francis was making a playoff run. Demers run of excuses and missteps was waring thin, but not enough to result in any meaningful consequence. He was learning that you could get away with bad behavior and talk your way out of things… “a good actor attempting to impress…”
As we said, Tony Demers life after serving eight years was uneventful. Here’s a photo of him playing in a Sherbrooke old timers league in 1967-68, Tony is number 5, bottom center. He was manager at a driving range, a foreman at Sifto Ice Salt… for a while he had a dépanneur at the corner of Conseil and Murray.
After his death at the age of eighty in 1997 the Coaticook Historical Society had this to say about Tony Demers:
“He not only paid his debt to society but he set an example of himself during his rehabilitation by becoming a model prisoner… All the people that knew him thought that he had really made an effort to redeem himself since his terrible business years earlier… He could have had a more storied career with the Canadians if only he had been more serious and above all, if he had known his own physical strength.”
Even if we were to believe that, Demers murdered Anita Robert six years after his professional hockey career with the Montreal Canadians was over. He was shown the door by Dick Irvin in 1943, Anita Robert died in 1949.
Memory is a powerful narcotic. You don’t want to go stepping on the mythology of Montreal’s most storied sports franchise. It’s an inconvenient truth that Ginette Reno sang at the wedding of a Hells Angel. Or that flash-in-the-pan star goaltender Jose Theodore had Hells Angels’ numbers in his cellphone. Recently, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard’s brother – Henri “The Pocket Rocket” Richard – died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most celebrated athletes in hockey – the man won eleven Stanley Cups – but by some accounts Henri Richard was a real son-of-a-bitch. His older brother never once invited him into his home in Ahuntsic. Svetlana Boym called nostalgia, “history without guilt.”
Call Duplessis a fascist, Trudeau a queer, Marois a xenophobic old cow – these folks are politicians, they’re marked targets. But don’t attack our heroes. Don’t mess with nostalgia. Don’t be a buzz kill on our collective high of the past.
Except there was nothing heroic or tragic about Tony Demers. He didn’t have a character flaw. He consistently abused his privilege. Over a period of years Tony Demers verbally and physically abused Anita Robert, and then he killed her. When you begin to chisel at what’s past-preserved its bound to make some people uncomfortable.
A contemporary Russian saying goes that the past has become much more unpredictable than the future. In an essay on friendship Svetlana Boym wrote,
“Friendship is not about having everything illuminated or obscured, but about conspiring and playing with shadows… Its goal is not enlightenment but luminosity, not a quest for the blinding truth but only for occasional lucidity and honesty.”
In her obituary for the New Yorker – Boym died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 56 – her author-friend Masha Gessen wrote, “Once, after reading a book of mine, she said, “You write very directly, don’t you?” I don’t think it was a compliment.”
Boym also writes about the exiles who dream about imagined homelands. At once homesick and sick of home. That’s a pretty apt description of me.
This is Who Killed Theresa.
“Well I’m not a scientist. But I know all things begin and end in eternity.”
Thomas Newton – The Man Who Fell To Earth
There once was a retired football player for the Edmonton Eskimos who committed first-degree murder in a restaurant. There were many witnesses. Sports heroes, or former heroes, don’t always get out of jail free, although some of them do get released before serving their full sentences. So went the life of Raymond Leo Enright.
I know that silent movie “Le voyage dans la lune” by Georges Méliès from 1902 and had seen it! Beautiful movie.
“Falling Leaves” is also a 12-minute black-and-white short film from 1912 by female French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. You should watch it, if you have 12 minutes, you can find it on YouTube.
Thanks for the David Bowie cover of “Amsterdam”…