Claire Pratt

Born Mildred Claire Pratt (1921-1995), daughter of two writers/editors, E.J. Pratt and Viola Whitney Pratt, Claire became a “vanguard of mid-twentieth century Canadian publishing.”

At age four, Claire contracted polio in her right leg. For the next 11 years, she wore a leg brace and underwent operations to try to straighten it. When she was eight, one of these operations resulted in a staphylococcus infection and osteomyelitis. At the time, antibiotics were unheard of and she barely survived the winter. Within the year, the osteomyelitis travelled to her left arm and left hip. Numerous operations and infections followed, leaving Claire with a truncated hip.

By 1944, Claire had undergone over 40 operations.

From 1920 to 1936, Pratt’s parents kept a cottage in Bobcaygeon on Sturgeon Lake, where the family spent their summers.

After graduating from the University of Toronto, Pratt pursued graduate work at Columbia University. She returned to Toronto, where she, and Olive Smith, started the Claire Pratt Book Service. Their company was a “specialized book shipping and addressing service.”

As a child, Claire was around prominent writers, including those who she saw every summer when they returned to their cottages, the Bobcaygeon Boys (Arthur L. Phelps, Frederick Philip Grove, William Arthur Deacon) and many others.

Also among her parents’ friends were famous artists.

Frederick Varley, one of the founding members of the Group of Seven, was the artist for E.J. Pratt’s Newfoundland Verse (1923). When Varley and his family were evicted from their Toronto house, Pratt let Varley, his wife Maud and their four children camp in a tent on the lot next to the Pratt’s cottage.

Claire would have been two at the time, but when art became her pastime, this wasn’t her last encounter with Varley or other members of the Group of Seven.

The Pratts owned at least four pieces of Varley’s art. All now housed at the McMichael Gallery.

Claire Pratt, 1950. Box 46, file 8, MCP fonds, Special Collections, E.J. Pratt Library, Victoria University in the University of Toronto.

In 1952 Claire became an editor for Harvard University Press, but the need for further surgeries forced her to leave the position in 1954– the year she was forced to make the toughest decision of her life: to have the experimental spinal fusion surgery or die.

The surgery was performed in New York at the Hospital for Special Surgery, where John F. Kennedy was a patient in the next room, Jackie Kennedy walked the corridors, movie stars arrived for cosmetic surgery, and one of her surgeons had a stroke in the middle of her operation.

She spent two years in a body cast fighting pain, depression and despair. Turning to art for refuge.

Following her recovery, Claire joined McClelland and Stewart as an editor, where she took on major responsibilities. She travelled out of town to meet authors, and regularly worked through evenings and weekends to meet publishing deadlines.

Claire worked alongside Jack McClelland and Malcolm Ross for the development of the New Canadian Library. This line of paperbacks reissued the works of notable Canadian authors with introductions by contemporary notable authors. The series launched in 1958 and continues today.

The Bobcaygeon Boys were well represented. NCL printed many of the works of Frederick Philip Grove, the biography line included a volume on Claire’s father, E.J. Pratt. But not all of her father’s friends were so easy to work with. Claire “performed a near feat of magic when she managed to expand W.H. Drummond’s Habitant Poems to 110 pages. When editor Arthur J. Phelps stubbornly refused to include more than twenty-two judiciously selected poems, [Claire] Pratt devised to spread out the verse and pad the slender 1960 NCL edition with indexes.” (Toronto Trailblazers. page 117.)

Other notable writers that Claire worked closely with during her time at McClelland & Stewart: Leonard Cohen, Peter C. Newman, Margaret Laurence, and Irving Layton.

The following note Claire wrote to Margaret Laurence shows Claire’s editing style and handling of writers. As a result of this note, Claire won Laurence’s trust and Laurence sent her work-in-progress, The Stone Angel, which went on to launch Laurence’s career.

One of the best things that has happened to me in a long time is your manuscript of short stories. I wish there were some way in which I could put across to you you how really enthusiastic I feel about them, Margaret. Depth of compassion and insight, combined with stylistic beauty and the use of the word or phrase that is exactly right, make each of them a pure gem, a true union of the artist and the craftsman. In short they are marvellous.

Claire Pratt to Margaret Laurence, 20 February 1963, series Cae, box 12, file 7, M&S fonds, Mills Memorial Library, MU. (Toronto Trailblazers, Ruth Panofsky, 2019. p. 123.)

Layton’s work, under Claire’s editorialship, won the Governor General’s award in 1959.

In 1970, Claire received a Canada Council grant to support her genealogical research of her father’s ancestry. The result landed on Jack McClelland’s desk and the manuscript was published the following year as The Silent Ancestors: the forebears of E.J. Pratt.


The Silent Ancestors: the forebears of E.J. Pratt (1971)

Further Reading:

“Claire Pratt: Art and Adversity.” The Devil’s Artisan: A journal of the printing arts, issue 46. Robert C. Brandeis. (2000) (This article contains many examples of Claire’s art.)

The Graphic Art of Claire Pratt.

“I am being taught my own work”: Editor Claire Pratt of McClelland and Stewart. Ruth Panofsky (2023)

Toronto Trailblazers: women in Canadian publishing. Ruth Panofsky (2019)

One thought on “Claire Pratt

  1. Pingback: Viola Whitney Pratt

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