Eleanor McCain and Jeff Melanson were the city’s most influential arts duo—an heiress with deep pockets and powerful friends, and a charismatic executive known as a turnaround king. When their marriage fell apart, the fallout was explosive
The last time I saw Jeff Melanson, he was stretched across a chaise longue on the balcony of his waterfront condominium. At six foot six, Melanson has an actor’s stage presence, smooth rhetoric and a seductive, modulated voice. But that day, he appeared drained, with a two-day growth of gray stubble. He wore the look of a man who’d taken a beating and knew there was more to come.
Downstairs, his girlfriend, Caroline Drury, was tidying their 1,600-square-foot apartment for a showing. He’d bought the place a year earlier, for $830,000, when he was riding high as president and CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. That was before his estranged second wife, the torch singer and food-packing heiress Eleanor McCain, had fired the opening legal salvos in the war to end their turbulent nine-month marriage. Soon after, he’d listed the apartment for sale at $1.2 million, needing money for the fight ahead.
McCain wasn’t asking for a simple divorce. She sought to annul their marriage. If granted, the annulment would not only formally undo the union but could also cancel the $5 million she had pledged to Melanson in their pre-nup. To that end, her statement of claim depicted him as a modern-day Svengali: a duplicitous, manipulative, skirt-chasing, hard-drinking, emotionally unstable narcissist who had tricked her into matrimony following a whirlwind romance. None of her allegations—or Melanson’s responses—have been proven in court.
Four weeks after her petition was filed, Melanson’s 17-month tenure at the TSO was over—a mutual decision, according to the orchestra. On the condo balcony, Melanson removed his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. “I feel like the universe is trying to get my attention,” he said. “In a really nasty way.”
Jeff Melanson met Eleanor McCain in the fall of 2006. Melanson, then 33, had parlayed a successful run as dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s community school into a position as co-CEO of the National Ballet School, earning a reputation as a visionary arts executive. It was at the NBS that he got to know Wallace McCain, the Maple Leaf Foods magnate (now deceased) who was said to be worth nearly $2 billion at the time. McCain and his wife, Margaret, were NBS royalty. She was the school’s most significant donor and a long-time board member; together they had co-chaired the $100-million Project Grand Jeté capital campaign. Little of consequence happened there without their consent. When Wallace asked Melanson if he might offer his daughter Eleanor some professional advice, Melanson could hardly refuse.
The youngest of Wallace and Margaret’s four children, Eleanor was raised in Florenceville, New Brunswick, the tiny farming hamlet where her father and uncle had built the family fortune, first in potatoes and later in frozen foods. Family lore says she started singing at two or three years old. A few years later, on a trip to New York, she saw a Broadway production of Annie and caught the performance bug. She took voice lessons in Fredericton and studied classical singing techniques at Mount Allison University. She has released five albums, featuring standards like “Ave Maria,” “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” and “Shenandoah.”
When she met Melanson for coffee, McCain, then 37, had recently divorced her second husband, Greg David, a Bay Street financier. They have one daughter, now 14. Melanson was married to pianist Jennifer Snowdon, and has a son and two daughters. After the coffee, Melanson sent an email saying he “cherished” meeting her and considered her “a kindred spirit.” McCain thought the note slightly over-the-top, but—in romance and his career—over-the-top is Melanson’s default setting. He is fond of quoting the 19th-century American architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood…. Think big.”
To his credit, he does. Unlike many arts administrators, Melanson recognizes that gutsy, innovative content generates buzz. And buzz sells, attracting audiences and donors who are anxious to be part of the conversation. At the Royal Conservatory, he helped build one of the largest community arts schools in North America. He launched the World Music Centre, which offered classes in Chinese instruments, African drumming, Brazilian percussion, sitar, sarod and tabla. At the National Ballet School, he helped provide free training to youth in community housing, filmed ballet classes and shared them with public schools across Canada, and established a fundraising network for small dance companies.
It was during his tenure there that Melanson started to earn media attention—and with it, the stirrings of a backlash. Two distinct circles formed: those who viewed him as a cultural messiah, dragging musty institutions into a new era of creative enterprise, and those who found him narcissistic and self-serving. Underlings who challenged him were often marginalized or fired. “Melanson would tell us the board had forbidden us from attending meetings,” recalls one former executive, “and we’d only later learn the board had no knowledge it had made that decree.” At least two ballet school employees sued for wrongful dismissal and won settlements—one of them was a fundraiser who had supposedly done the heavy lifting while Melanson took the credit (Melanson insists this is entirely false). In another instance, he was fêted for wresting an annual $2-million grant increase from the federal government, even though the groundwork had been laid by his predecessor, Robert Sirman.
Melanson is smart and charismatic, but even his fans concede he has a tendency to act first and think later. In 2008, he proposed a new international award intended for emerging artists—a supposed partnership with several major arts organizations. When he announced the award without consulting most of those institutions, the entire project was scuttled. Then there was a misunderstanding with the National Ballet. Using $100,000 in funding from RBC, the ballet school and the ballet co-created YOU Dance, a program for disadvantaged youth. A year later, the NBS withdrew from the program, and Melanson asked RBC to transfer its portion of the funding back to the school, angering the National Ballet in the process. “It wasn’t underhanded,” Melanson counters, “though I can see how it might be perceived that way.”
In 2010, mayor Rob Ford’s advisor Nick Kouvalis read a profile in Canadian Business that painted Melanson as a turnaround guy. A few months later, he was named Ford’s arts adviser. The position was unpaid but came with something better: official validation. Melanson seemed to be a rare hybrid, combining business savvy with artistic pedigree, and a likability quotient that beguiled boards and donors.
His growing reputation soon led to new opportunities. In 2011, he was offered one of the most prestigious arts jobs in the country—CEO of the multidisciplinary Banff Centre. He had barely arrived when he proposed an audacious, $900-million plan to transform the centre into Davos West, hosting global summits on leadership and innovation, and incubating the full smorgasbord of cultural endeavours.
There were skeptical voices on the board—the centre had recently struggled to raise $123 million in another capital campaign. But Melanson was nothing if not persuasive. The expansion, he insisted, was entirely scalable and would be built over 10 years. “It would have been the perfect marquee project for Ottawa and Alberta to celebrate the sesquicentennial,” he says. Banff’s directors stepped on board, and the sleepy campus was, for a time, re-energized by Melanson’s dynamism. “Jeff promoted a robust, almost American-style ambition for Banff,” notes Barry Shiffman, former director of the centre’s summer classical music programs. “Does Banff need redevelopment? Yes. Was his vision scary ambitious? Yes. Was it crazy? We won’t ever know.”
Defying board chair Jeff Kovitz, Melanson shared details of his grand vision with a local newspaper. Kovitz was furious; the donor community knew nothing of the plan, and the board had yet to approve it. He offended others, too: one day, the centre’s master-plan architect, Jack Diamond, saw that Melanson had put out a general call for design proposals. “I received no note, no thank you, nothing,” he says. According to Melanson, both of these charges are untrue: he claims he spoke to the paper only after discussions with the board, and that Diamond’s firm had been invited to participate in the design competition.
While champions applauded his innovations, a growing chorus began to see him as a gifted con man, seducing board directors and patrons with smoke and mirrors. Melanson often cut ties with subordinates who questioned the project’s viability. He got rid of a dozen senior staff, give or take, out of a 50-person team. “Looking back,” says Kovitz, “hiring Jeff was a terrible mistake.”
Meanwhile, Melanson’s personal life was unravelling. After a stressful year in Banff, his three kids returned to Toronto to live with his wife. The marriage, already rocky, soon collapsed, and Melanson initiated a series of liaisons, which McCain details in the statement of claim she filed for the annulment. The first, in the summer of 2012, was with a Banff staff member for whom he created a new position, director of government affairs. According to McCain, Melanson relentlessly pursued this woman, sending dozens of flirtatious and flattering emails, and suggesting at one point that they would rule over Banff as a couple.
In October, they took a trip to Australia. Shortly after their return, McCain alleges, Melanson marginalized his girlfriend’s role, ignored her, and froze her out of critical meetings and decisions. The following May, she was placed on paid leave and, in September, terminated. A few months later, she threatened a sexual harassment suit against Melanson. A settlement was eventually reached.
When Melanson returned from Australia, he met Spanish film distributor Kathryn Bonnici at a Banff festival. Their affair lasted until the following summer, with Bonnici flying between Alberta and Spain every month. McCain later alleged that Melanson dumped Bonnici after she returned to Spain to pack up her belongings with plans to move to Banff.
Bonnici is pragmatic about the split.“I was in a loving relationship with Jeff and was naturally very upset when it ended. But he’s not a bad person… . He didn’t set out to deliberately hurt me. I bear him no ill will. I don’t regret it. I learned a lot.” Melanson says he never deceived her.
Then came a short fling with the Calgary management consultant and triathlete Tamara Loiselle. McCain says that Melanson ruptured Loiselle’s relationship with former Alberta MP Lee Richardson, but Loiselle denied it, insisting that Melanson was not a factor in their split.
McCain maintains there were other affairs, including a tryst with a married woman in Banff and a second sexual harassment case. As McCain’s bid goes forward, her lawyers will attempt to subpoena the Banff Centre’s relevant files.
In November 2013, seven years after they met, Jeff Melanson invited Eleanor McCain to a Banff Centre event. She couldn’t attend but agreed to a cappuccino date in Toronto in December. In the days that followed, they exchanged a flurry of emails and texts. Suddenly, Melanson’s posts on Facebook and Twitter hummed the sappy melodies of romance. He sent gushing cards and poured out his love at every opportunity. “You are making me a better man,” he wrote. “You’re fucking brilliant.”
McCain alleges he had deployed the same lines with his ex-girlfriend from Banff, but, at the time, she was besotted, describing life with Melanson as “a fairy tale.” In January, after a quick holiday in Cuba, they started discussing marriage. Melanson had a vasectomy reversed because McCain, he says, desperately wanted to have more children. Within weeks, he had formally proposed, on bended knee in her late father’s den in Florenceville. By April 4, less than four months after their first date, they were engaged.
Six days later, to a stunned Banff board, Melanson submitted his resignation, saying he was moving back to Toronto for his children. Less than two weeks later, on April 24, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced him as their new CEO. The orchestra had approached him several months earlier about the job, but at that point, he’d refused. Once the board heard about the end of his Banff tenure, they made another offer. This time, he accepted.
The same day, he and McCain signed a prenuptial agreement, its terms carefully sculpted by independent counsel. With significant assets at stake and two failed marriages behind her, McCain had insisted on it. In a partial financial disclosure, she listed her net worth at $365 million. Melanson listed his at negative $456,000. In the event of divorce, he would be entitled to a $5-million settlement, tax-free. Critically, the contract also contained a clause expressly stipulating that all terms, including the $5-million settlement, would remain in full force even if the marriage were subsequently annulled.
Two days later, Melanson and McCain were married in a private wedding ceremony at Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church, officiated by McCain’s minister, Brent Hawkes. The only guests in attendance were Melanson’s best friend, the palliative care physician Kevin Bezanson, and McCain’s, the soprano Cindy Townsend.
Why the hurry? There are several possible answers. McCain claims that Melanson left Banff not for his children but to forge an alliance with the McCain family, one that would protect him socially and financially in case he faced a sexual harassment lawsuit—a career-ending threat. He says they were simply in love. Either way, McCain was 45: her desire for another child was growing urgent. During the marriage, she had three unsuccessful rounds of in-vitro fertilization.
Romance is easy; life is hard. Weeks into the marriage, McCain found her new husband moody and depressive, while he found her willful and demanding, cursed with a hair-trigger temper. McCain, he says, had a particular problem with his middle child. She barred her from attending their public marriage celebration in November and refused to allow her to join a planned Christmas vacation at the McCain compound in Jamaica. As a result, Melanson stayed home. He went so far as to rent a separate apartment to spend weekend time with his children, blaming the friction in the marriage.
McCain says it was Melanson’s own strained relationship with his daughter that had turned toxic—so much so that they mutually agreed the girl should not attend the wedding nor join the Jamaica holiday. As evidence that she was not the evil stepmother, McCain cites a Facebook message she received from the child after the couple separated: “It was an amazing experience being your stepdaughter, even if only for a short while. You are an amazing person and I hope you find great happiness.” The rented apartment, she says, was their therapist’s idea—a place where he and his daughter could re-establish a bond.
Almost to the end, Melanson continued to profess undying love. A Christmas note thanked McCain for “a year of joy, change, challenge and growth… . Looking forward to more years of learning from and with you. All my love, Jeff.” His New Year’s Eve Facebook post voiced gratitude and appreciation for Eleanor, “the love of my life.” And when she returned from Jamaica, he welcomed her home with a handwritten message: “I cannot imagine what I did before you were at the very core of my life and being…. You are my home, and I will follow you to the very ends of the earth and beyond.”
On January 23, 2015, they met with a marriage counsellor—and four days later, they parted. McCain alleges Melanson left her by email. He admits to the email but insists it simply recognized the inescapable truth: that the marriage was already over.
He soon met Caroline Drury, a PR associate at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. By July, she had quit her job, left her husband (VSO cellist Cristian Markos), moved in with Melanson in Toronto and applied for work at the TSO. She was named manager of social media on July 15.
Melanson says he played no role in hiring her, and that he declared their relationship to the board chair and human resources. “We covered the bases procedurally but not in terms of social optics,” he says. “It was ridiculously Pollyannaish to think that would not come back to bite me. It put Caroline in a horrible situation and the institution in an awkward spot.” Three months later, at the suggestion of then–board chair Richard Phillips, Drury resigned.
When lawyers began negotiating the separation agreement, Melanson promptly asserted his right to the $5 million as laid out in the pre-nup. Later, acknowledging the brevity of the union, he agreed to abandon the claim—as well as his share of any increase in the value of the matrimonial home in Lawrence Park, which McCain bought in 2012 for $5.9 million.
But another dispute emerged. In honour of the sesquicentennial, McCain was planning to record a Canadian songbook album with orchestras across the country (not including the TSO). While at the TSO, meanwhile, Melanson secured $7.5 million in government funding for a similar project—the orchestra would perform new and old Canadian orchestral music with 36 symphonies. He says he had proposed the idea earlier and shared it with McCain, while she says she told him her idea for the project in Banff. After the split, McCain’s counsel sent the TSO a letter informing the board of her intellectual property rights to the project.
In July 2015, in an interview with the Toronto Star, she promoted her Canadian songbook program and publicly alleged that Melanson had dumped her via email. It was a de facto declaration of war. McCain alleges that after the draft separation agreement was fully negotiated, Melanson refused to engage in further discussions. And earlier this year, he stated through counsel that he was, in fact, staking his claim to the $5-million settlement under the marriage contract.
For McCain, the breakup was a battle fought on several fronts. She retained a private detective (former homicide cop Mark Mendelson) to locate and interrogate Melanson’s old colleagues and girlfriends. She also directed her lawyer, Donald Jack, to send two letters to Toronto Life—long in advance of this article’s publication—cautioning the magazine not to violate her privacy.
Jack is also her point man on the annulment bid. Legally, it seems like a long shot, since annulments are rarely granted in Canada. On the other hand, a 2015 amendment to the Marriage Act created new grounds: the absence of “free and enlightened consent.” McCain will have to persuade a judge that Melanson was machiavellian enough to trick an educated, financially independent woman—with a team of legal experts at her disposal—into marriage. Only such a finding will nullify the clear language of the pre-nup, which affirms Melanson’s entitlement to the payout even in the event of annulment. Her court submissions go to great lengths to make her case. They’re legally protected—meaning both parties can say just about anything without risking libel, an opportunity they have fully exploited.
Among her charges is that Melanson bragged about how easy a McCain connection would make his TSO fundraising efforts, that he was prone to depression, that he was a serial womanizer who frequented the Ashley Madison adultery website, that he drank excessively at business functions. She went so far as to have a CAMH physician suggest that Melanson had narcissistic personality disorder, based solely on a description she provided.
He categorically denied all of her accusations, then lobbed several grenades of his own. In his filings, he essentially calls McCain a bush-league performer who buys her gigs with orchestras, making donations for which she earns charitable tax receipts—she agrees that she makes donations but argues that she’s subsidizing her own career rather than taking government grants. He disparages her treatment of locals who access the public beach near her $4-million summer mansion in Hackett’s Cove, Nova Scotia. According to Melanson, McCain has hired security guards to deter what she calls these “low-life” trespassers. A letter from McCain’s counsel tells Toronto Life that she never used that language, and explains that she took steps to protect her privacy because people were trespassing and vandalizing her property when using a throughway to access the beach.
Melanson’s friends believe the $5 million is inconsequential to a woman worth 70 times that much. McCain’s real motive, they contend, is vengeance, and to that end, she has mounted a campaign to bleed him financially and ruin him professionally. Once again, McCain denies this accusation. “Ms. McCain wants the marriage annulled as a matter of principle because of the depth of Mr. Melanson’s deception,” her lawyer, Donald Jack, wrote to Toronto Life. “This action is about the marriage, not Mr. Melanson’s reputation, nor is it motivated by vengeance.”
The TSO may be the forgotten victim in all of this. There, as elsewhere, opinion on Melanson was sharply divided. But even his critics largely liked what he was doing. Reinvigorated, the orchestra was selling out its main performance venue, the cavernous, 2,600-seat Roy Thomson Hall. They were attracting what the TSO desperately needed—a younger, more diverse audience. Melanson raised more than $2 million in pledges, and the company posted a surplus during his tenure.
“Jeff made us fresher,” says Renette Berman, a TSO board member. “The status quo was not an option. We needed to move into the 21st century.” He had also promoted another go-big-or-go-home project: a $166-million (U.S.) state-of-the-art sound stage for film scoring, which might have given the TSO a lucrative new revenue stream.
When his marriage ended, Melanson was compromised. Translating even the most promising ideas into reality rests ultimately on a single skill: fundraising. And the optics of Melanson’s very public battle with McCain jeopardized his ability to attract donors.
The board decided that Melanson had to go. He made their task easier by offering to resign. “I sat on the beach in Florida during March Break and read the news stories and thought, ‘Whoa,’ ” he recalls. “It was pretty clear my continued presence would become a distraction. You can’t have a CEO going into fundraising meetings not knowing what people have read.”
Jeff Melanson’s Canadian chapter is coming to an end. He is planning to move to the States—far enough to get away from the scandal but close enough to visit his kids. In May, he sold his condo (for $1.175 million) and bought a golden retriever puppy. “I’m having many conversations on what comes next,” he says.
While he’s about to salute farewell to the maple leaf, McCain is wrapping herself in the flag. She recently recorded 33 songs for her Canadian songbook double album. It will be released next year, along with a coffee table book of photographs of Canada and of McCain wearing a wardrobe of Canadian-designed outfits.
It may take years for the annulment case to be adjudicated. If the pair can’t come to an agreement, a judge will have to decide whom he believes more, and where exactly on the thorny Melanson-McCain continuum the better part of the truth lies.