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d. 13 June 1917 in Westmount, Que.


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DAVIS, Sir MORTIMER BARNETT, manufacturer, financier, and philanthropist; b. 6 Feb. 1866 in Montreal, third son of Samuel Davis* and Minnie Falk; m. 12 June 1898, in San Francisco, Henriette Marie Meyer, daughter of Charles Meyer, a banker and philanthropist of that city, and they had one child who survived infancy; divorced in 1924 and m. in the same year Eleanor Curran, Countess Moroni (d. 1963); d. 22 March 1928 in Cannes, France.

Mortimer Barnett Davis was born into a family of Jewish immigrants in Montreal. His father had settled there around 1861 and had soon made his mark as one of the largest cigar manufacturers in the metropolis. Mortimer Barnett grew up, then, in increasingly affluent surroundings. His bar mitzvah in 1879 was held at the Spanish and Portuguese congregation of Montreal, Shearith Israel. After studying at the High School of Montreal, around 1880 he followed his elder brothers Eugene Harmon and Maurice Edward into the family firm, S. Davis and Sons, to learn the various aspects of the cigar industry. On finishing his apprenticeship, he seems to have set out as a travelling salesman.

In 1888 S. Davis and Sons purchased another Montreal firm, D. Ritchie and Company. This acquisition enabled it to increase its production capacity, thanks to a factory located on Rue Dalhousie near the Lachine Canal, and to diversify its products by adding pipe tobacco and snuff, as well as cigarettes, which were beginning to be made in Montreal. Cigarette manufacturing was experiencing rapid changes as a result of technological progress, including the introduction of the Bonsack machine which made it possible to roll cigarettes mechanically; D. Ritchie and Company began using this device in 1888, just a few years after its invention. A partner and part owner of this firm, Mortimer Barnett also became its manager in 1894, according to Montreal illustrated.

At that time, the North American cigarette industry was also going through extensive restructuring, which had a major effect on Canadian firms. In 1895 the American Tobacco Company, an enterprise founded by James Buchanan Duke that controlled about 90 per cent of the American market and held the rights to the Bonsack machine, purchased D. Ritchie and Company and the American Cigarette Company, another Montreal cigarette manufacturer. Its Canadian interests were transferred to the American Tobacco Company of Canada, which was formed on 1 September. The Davis family became a minor partner of the Duke family, with 25 of the 10,000 shares issued by the new corporation. Samuel Davis retired from S. Davis and Sons the following month and Mortimer Barnett also left the family firm, which remained in the hands of two of his brothers. Shortly afterwards, Mortimer Barnett was named president of the American Tobacco Company of Canada.

Under Davis’s direction, this company established a virtual monopoly of tobacco, buying up firms that made a wide range of tobacco products and extending its geographical base beyond the confines of Montreal. In 1898, for instance, it purchased the Empire Tobacco Company in Granby, and in 1903 the B. Houde Company Limited at Quebec. At that time, with its subsidiaries, it controlled 80 per cent of the Canadian cigarette market and 60 per cent of the market in chewing tobacco, pipe tobacco, and snuff. Its imposing factory in the Saint-Henri district of Montreal, which was also the head office, was built in 1907.

During these years, conflicts between the two great tobacco corporations, the American Tobacco Company, based in the United States, and the Imperial Tobacco Company in Great Britain, led to their sharing the international market. The British-American Tobacco Company Limited, which was jointly owned by the two corporations, was formed in 1902. Six years later it purchased the American Tobacco Company of Canada, which became the Imperial Tobacco Company of Canada Limited. Davis was its first president.

Inspired by the practices of the American Tobacco Company and the cigar company founded by his father, Davis combined consolidation of production with a marketing strategy that was both skilful and ruthless. He attempted to control the distribution networks for tobacco products by requiring wholesalers to sign exclusive contracts. Imperial Tobacco even set up its own network of tobacco retailers at the beginning of the 1920s. The firm counted on advertising and promotional campaigns to boost its brand names and win customer loyalty. The financial power of the industrial empire presided over by Davis earned him the title of “Tobacco King,” but he had to share it with his great rival, Montreal businessman Sir William Christopher Macdonald*.

Davis was also the driving force behind the consolidation of the Canadian cigar industry, which was severely shaken by World War I and by increasing competition from cigarettes. In 1916 he had bought out the family firm (then in the hands of his brothers Maurice Edward and Melvin Henry and being liquidated), and he had become the principal shareholder and president of the reorganized company, known since 1908 as S. Davis and Sons Limited. To restore its finances and reduce the costs of cigar production, Davis turned to subcontracting, signing numerous contracts in 1919 with small cigar manufacturers in Montreal. He also moved part of his production to Port Hope, in Ontario. Such a strategy was clearly designed to reduce fixed costs, but also undoubtedly to bypass the powerful trade union of cigar makers. In 1920 Davis coordinated the formation of the General Cigar Company, which would merge his company and his major rivals into a large cigar trust. In addition to acquiring S. Davis and Sons Limited in July 1920, General Cigar had absorbed the Brener Company Limited of Farnham on 30 June, and would take over Vallens and Company Limited of London, Ont., on 4 October. Davis was chairman of the corporation’s board of directors and its majority owner. In keeping with his policy of concentration, he persuaded the shareholders of Imperial Tobacco to buy up a majority of the shares of General Cigar in July 1921. Davis remained at the head of Imperial Tobacco until 1926, when he was succeeded by a long-time business associate, David Patterson.

While the tobacco industry in all its forms remained Davis’s main sphere of activity, his interests extended to other fields that promised substantial profits. In 1905 he had invested in spirits and incorporated, with some other businessmen, the H. Corby Distillery Company Limited in order to purchase the Corby distillery, a firm near Belleville, Ont., that had been founded by Henry Corby*. He served as president from 1907 to 1922. He seems to have been involved also in organizing the Canadian Industrial Alcohol Company Limited, which was incorporated in 1918 to produce industrial alcohol; he was its president and then chairman between 1918 and 1924. He also had interests in mining, being part of the senior management of the Nova Scotia Silver Cobalt Mining Company and the Consolidated Asbestos Mining Company, and he owned shares in mines in the gold-rich region near Porcupine, Ont.

Well known for his administrative and financial skills, Davis was also invited to sit on the board of directors of the Union Bank of Canada from 1906 to 1910 and the Royal Bank of Canada from 1916 to 1928. Around 1917 he was a director of the National Car Company in Hamilton and, in 1928, a director of the Crown Trust Company, the United States Rubber Company, and its Canadian subsidiary, the Canadian Consolidated Rubber Company. He was also a member of the Montreal Board of Trade and the Montreal Stock Exchange.

Like most of the upper class of his generation, Davis adopted a way of life in keeping with his great personal wealth. He took up residence in the Square Mile in Montreal, as his father had done, and he built an immense and luxurious residence on Avenue des Pins in the neoclassical style, which was finished in 1907. There Davis and his wife hosted fashionable receptions and numerous balls. He associated with the Duke of Connaught [Arthur*], the governor general of Canada, and he belonged to the most exclusive private clubs. Horticulture was one of his great passions and he took part in the activities and exhibitions of the Montreal Horticultural Society and Fruit Growers’ Association of the Province of Quebec. While his wife collected works of art, Davis acquired a full stable of racehorses. He also owned an imposing country home, Belvoir, in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, and during the last years of his life spent more and more time at Les Glaïeuls, his villa in Cannes.

In November 1919 Davis summed up in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle the principles guiding his philanthropic activities: “Every man of means owes a duty to his fellow-men. Every Jew owes a duty to his fellow-Jew.” His generosity extended to a variety of causes and institutions in the province of Quebec and the rest of Canada. Especially affected by the fate of his co-religionists, he was one of the most important philanthropists in the history of the Canadian Jewish community. He held leadership positions in a number of associations and chaired fund-raising campaigns. He was interested mainly in charities promoting public welfare and health in Montreal: the Baron de Hirsch Institute and Hebrew Benevolent Society of Montreal, of which he was a benefactor and the president in 1908 and 1910; the Mount Sinai Sanatorium in Sainte-Agathe-de-Monts, of which he was a principal sponsor; and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, to which he donated $400,000 in 1926 for the construction of a community and sports centre. He gave particular support to efforts at rationalizing social services and their financing. When the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of Montreal was established in 1916, he was named honorary president.

Davis also supported Canada-wide and international charities and these activities brought him into contact with the leaders of the Jewish communities in France and Great Britain. From 1907 to 1913 he was president of the Canadian committee of the Jewish Colonization Association. In 1915 he helped organize the Canadian Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Sufferers, which sought to help the Jews of Russia. He served as honorary chairman of the campaign and contributed $19,000 to it.

His activities in the political and cultural fields were more modest and less frequent. For a few years he was vice-president of Temple Emanu-El, which his father had helped found. He made a donation to McGill University to finance a course in Hebraic religious and literary studies in the faculty of arts, and he supported the Montreal Jewish press and Jewish education. For a short time he was honorary president of the Federation of Zionist Societies of Canada, which was formed in 1899 [see Clarence Isaac de Sola*].

In a letter to William Lyon Mackenzie King* in 1916, Montreal lawyer Samuel William Jacobs* described Davis as “the leading Jew in Canada.” In recognition of his success in business, his philanthropic activities, and his status in the Canadian Jewish community, he was knighted by King George V that year, becoming the first Canadian-born Jew to receive such an honour.

The lack of family archives makes it impossible to do a thorough analysis of Davis’s private life. In 1898 he married Henriette Marie Meyer, a young woman from a well-to-do San Francisco family. They had a son, Mortimer Davis, who was born in 1901. A second child apparently died at birth. In the years that followed, they adopted her nephew Philip, who took the name Philip Meyer Davis. At the beginning of the 1920s, when he was in his fifties, Davis is believed to have fallen in love with a beautiful young woman of very modest background, Eleanor Curran. He decided to seek a divorce, which led to lengthy negotiations and a settlement requiring him to pay his wife more than $1 million. According to some sources, in order to enhance the social standing of his beloved, he arranged for a brief marriage between her and an Italian count. After they were both divorced, Davis was then able to marry the Countess Moroni in 1924. Thereafter he seems to have devoted himself to worldly pleasures on the French Riviera, but not for long, since he died suddenly, of a heart attack, at the age of 62. On 12 April 1928, thousands of people came out to watch the funeral procession from his residence on Avenue des Pins to the Temple Emanu-El in Westmount.

Sir Mortimer Barnett Davis is remembered as a competent and determined man who was bold and energetic, but also as a fighter who brooked no opposition. At the time of his death, his personal fortune was estimated to be at least $50 million. His will provided for numerous bequests to relatives and friends, as well as a sum of $400,000 to be divided among four Montreal institutions: the Montreal General Hospital, the Notre-Dame Hospital, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. His principal heirs, however, were his son and his widow, who shared the income from his estate. The will stipulated that at the end of 50 years the capital should be paid to Davis’s children and their offspring. By 1978 his few descendants had long since died, his son in 1940 and his adopted son during World War II. Davis had, however, anticipated such an eventuality: the will provided that his fortune should then be used for philanthropic purposes and that three-quarters of it should go to finance a hospital in Montreal. He wanted the hospital to bear his name and serve the needs of all the people in the city, but be run by a board of directors on which the majority would be Jewish. In 1978 it was decided to give $10 million to the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, which had opened in 1934. Thereafter, this institution would be known as the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital.

Joanne Burgess

The Allan Raymond Coll. at the Jewish Public Library Arch. (Montreal) and the Sir Mortimer B. Davis fonds (P0045) at the Canadian Jewish Congress, National Arch. and Reference Centre (Montreal), hold numerous documents and press clippings relating to Davis and his successors. Information about the evolution of S. Davis and Sons, S. Davis and Sons Limited, and General Cigar can be found in the Imperial Tobacco Canada Limited Arch. (Montreal). Of particular interest are minute-book no.1 and a letter dated 14 June 1921 in file 12499.

ANQ-M, CE601-S97, 14 févr. 1866; TP11, S2, SS20, SSS48, vol.13-o, 11 mai 1888, no.1158. LAC, MG 26, G: 116039-40; H, 327: 193229-32; J1, 32: 28228-808; RG 95, ser.1, 1356. Janice Arnold, “Historian collects memorabilia on businessman,” Canadian Jewish News (Montreal), 30 April 1998. Le Devoir, 18 avril 1928. Gazette (Montreal), 2 Dec. 1895, 27 March 1930. Jewish Times (Montreal), 20 Dec. 1897; continued as Canadian Jewish Chronicle, 22 Oct. 1915; 1 Sept. 1916; 20 April, 18 May 1917; 7 Nov. 1919; 4 March, April 1921. Montreal Daily Star, 10 April 1928. “Noted humanitarian Lady Davis, cbe, dies,” Montreal Star, 23 Dec. 1963. Noel Wright, “Jewish General gets windfall,” Montreal Star, 6 May 1978. W. H. Atherton, Montreal, 1534-1914 (3v., Montreal, 1914), 3: 375. S. [I.] Belkin, Through narrow gates; a review of Jewish immigration, colonization and immigrant aid work in Canada (1840-1940) ([Montreal, 1966]), 49. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Canadian who’s who (1910). Directory, Montreal, 1869-71, 1874-78, 1884-95. Encyclopedia Canadiana, ed. K. H. Pearson et al. ([rev. ed.], 10v., Toronto, 1975). The Jew in Canada: a complete record of Canadian Jewry from the days of the French régime to the present time, ed. A. D. Hart (Toronto and Montreal, 1926), 305, 309, 337. J.-L.-K. Laflamme, Le centenaire Cartier, 1814-1914; compte rendu des assemblées, manifestations, articles de journaux, conférences, etc., qui ont marqué la célébration du centenaire de la naissance de sir George-Étienne Cartier et l’érection de monuments à la mémoire de ce grand homme d’État canadien (Montréal, 1927), 48-50. R. D. Lewis, “Productive and spatial strategies in the Montreal tobacco industry, 1850-1918,” Economic Geography (Worcester, Mass.), 70 (1994): 370-89. Montreal illustrated, 1894 . . . (Montreal, [1894]), 324. P. C. Newman, The Canadian establishment (2v., Toronto, 1975), 1: 262. Prominent people of the province of Quebec, 192324 (Montreal, n.d.). S. A. Thomas, “Three Montreal residences by the architect Robert Findlay” (ma student paper, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1976). Gladys Wilson, Memoirs of a Canadian duchess (Montreal, [1986]), 25-26. H[irsch] Wolofsky, Journey of my life: a book of memories, trans. A. M. Klein (Montreal, 1945), 54, 68-71.

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Joanne Burgess, “DAVIS, Sir MORTIMER BARNETT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 13, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davis_mortimer_barnett_15E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davis_mortimer_barnett_15E.html
Author of Article:   Joanne Burgess
Title of Article:   DAVIS, Sir MORTIMER BARNETT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   June 13, 2024