It was clear a job was needed immediately, after Attila Horvath from Hungary hacked me off the unemployment insurance rolls. I found one, and not a bad one, almost immediately. As I was smoking marijuana morning, noon and night—as so many others were in the ‘70s—things are a little hazy about how I got the job, but I think it happened one boozy night at the Montreal Men's Press Club, from where I got laid more often than from any other place on earth.
In the Watergate era, journalists had groupies by the score, and those who could score were admired by their fellows. Being a handsome 30-year-old with bags of charm, my reputation stood high in this area. I could not compete with the master boulevardier and bon vivant, Nick Auf der Maur, but I was only a few notches below him and well above the common herd. So I tended to be welcome at various press club tables, which were always thronged with girls, and where the party went on till five in the morning.
It was here I encountered Herbie Aronoff, who had been recently appointed to run the Gazette entertainment department. He was a cultured, curly-haired, stylish young man about my age, and we hit it off from the start. No one smoked dope in the press club, the smell being too pungent for those who would object. Only younger members imbibed and there were plenty of older members about. Yet lines of odourless lines of cocaine on the coffee tables before the richly upholstered easy chairs and couches were sniffed up through rolled banknotes. In these circumstances I was hired. Herbie principally wanted a departmental sub-editor. But more than that, he wanted his sub to double as literary editor, a task that should take no more than a third of the working day. This had been a problem as journalists are typically not the readers of books. He might have hired either a true literary gent who could do nothing else or a competent workaday hack who hadn't cracked a book since his last exam.
A number of things were revealed from the start. The first being that girls were not interested in my attentions as a UIC claimant; as literary editor, I had to shoo them away. Not long after I pulled one of the girls out of a snowbank, I took her home and we lived together three years. We would have remained together to this day had not my divorce come through, at which point she demanded we get married and I fled. I rather favoured being separated rather than single or divorced, as that in-between status offered protection from permanent entanglements.
Entertainment was a five-man department. Two were Americans: one had deserted the US Army and the other had dodged the draft. One covered movies and the other the local musical scene. Bill Mann, the pop music critic, was a blustery fellow who made a killing in the gold market as it shot up from US$35 an ounce to many hundreds of dollars more even in my time there. The other one, Jay Newquist, was a precious, effeminate soul serving as our film critic, and a most unlikely military policeman before he deserted the US Army. But effeminacy, I later learned, was no handicap for a military policeman, because it mostly involved on telling on someone for bad behavior. It came to be one of the areas the army assigned women as a method of keeping them out of the way. The common slur in my day, when they were all tough guys called "meatheads," was now completely inappropriate. US Marines and sailors, on leave in Hong Kong were organised into pods so that misbehaviour by one pod member would result in collective punishment applied to them all. Back in the day, when we passed through army checkpoints in a convoy of trucks, the old song rang out, as we went by the clusters of provosts, as the Canadian Army called its military police:
"Oh provost, oh provost
The army's disgrace
I'm back from Korea
A hell of a place
Where whiz-bangs are flying
And comforts are few
And poor men are dying
For bastards like you."
The Gazette entertainment department also had a squad of regular freelancers. Frances Goldman covered chamber music. The lovely Linda Gaboriau, who had mothered one of Nick Auf der Maur's children, was hired to cover what few legit stage productions there were in town. But she did get to New York to cover special events on Broadway. I remember she once offered to supply some hash for a typical smoke-up on the balcony off the men's washroom. But she couldn't find it. So the plan was a washout. But when she went to New York, US Customs found the hash for her. Yet she went on to cover her plays, filed copy and came home saying US Customs were so nice about it. Linda was one of those beautiful people the gods favoured. She ended up getting a high-paying bogus job at the CBC and disappeared from departmental life.
The subbing job was routine enough, though it did involve long days. To do the job properly, one had to be in the office shortly after noon and stay beyond midnight at least three days a week. One began the day filling up the pages with what was on hand, usually wire copy. It was mostly celeb news, stuff as petty as Frank Sinatra getting the flu and having to check into hospital. Much of this was to be scrapped for the later editions, when local reviews came in—often late at night.
I remember that as a child my father introduced me to Tom Archer, the theatre critic in the 1950s, saying that he had to leave Her Majesty's Theatre (now long gone) to get his review of the play into print for the paper's final edition. And so it was with other reviewers who never saw the end of performances because they had to meet the deadline of a morning newspaper. This meant subbing copy when it came in, which was easy or hard depending on the writer. Some were dead simple. Herbie called Jacob Siskind the "tailor," because he would arrive after a show and ask how much I wanted, to which I would say 18 inches. That is what he would deliver, and it would be an elegant, letter-perfect, masterful review.
But others were ready to complain about the space they were to fill—either it was too much or too little. Or they didn't know where to begin and you had to help them out. Or they came up with something too scathing that had to be toned down. One is never too hard on amateur productions, of which there were many, including three amateur companies that produced Gilbert & Sullivan every year. (There was more Gilbert & Sullivan produced in Montreal than anywhere else in the country, which was quite amazing given that the English were a 15 per cent minority at best.) Worst of all was when one of them wrote too little, and the page had to be rearranged and filled with wire copy or pictures found to fill a gaping hole.
With the exception of fiftysomething Jacob Siskind, they were a temperamental bunch, visibly in the depths of despair one moment, soaring on manic highs the next and quite bitchy with each other. Herbie, usually high on coke, was to roll in and demand this and that in Napoleonic style but soon forgot what he had ordered and disappeared from the office, where there did not seem to be anything for him to do. Which was just as well, as far I was concerned.
The rest of the paper called our department the "pansy patch," which was appropriate enough. I was not included because I had once covered the waterfront, where I was fondly remembered. Jack Marsters, still in his role as slot man and chief stone sub, liked me from my copyboy days 10 years earlier. What's more, we were often alone on the stone, save for the compositors, all ardent ITU (International Typographers Union) members, ever vigilant against editorial personnel transgressions in their sacred composing room, where only they were allowed to touch anything.
Stone subbing involved working on the stone, one of those long steel platforms where stories and pictures came together for the first time. The stone was also the last chance to make a correction before a newspaper went into print. In the large darkened hall lined with Rube Goldberg-like linotype machines arrayed in two long ranks against one wall, the air was heavy with the smell of molten lead. Visitors remarked on how unhealthy it would be to work there. The Linotype machine had been around for more than a century but was coming to the end of its usefulness, soon to replaced by phototypesetting, aka, offset lithography or cold type. The advent of cold type, followed shortly by the introduction of computers in the editorial department, rapidly linked editorial to production and eliminated the need for compositors worldwide.
In those days, newspapers were noisy masculine places. Men stubbed out cigarettes on the floor where they stood, and the roar of a roomful of typewriters clattering away, combined with the whir and clank of linotype machines and the throb of the press reverberating from the basement lair, felt like a warship going to sea full steam ahead.
In the feminised newspaper of recent years, one surviving editor told me he missed the sound of yesteryear and that the sound of computer keyboards clicking reminded him of "rats in the rafters." No longer were there dusty, dank, darkened halls with elongated reading lights suspended a few feet above rows of 20-foot long "stone" benches. They lay parallel to each other, near the linotype machines, which were illuminated by individual reading lamps for each operator, leaving most of the hall in darkness.
At the back of each linotype machine hung a foot-long lead and zinc ingot suspended on a chain and lowered into a heated crucible, where it liquefied. The molten metal was then channelled through the machine to a mechanism controlled by the operator in which the metal was separated into lines, typically a line of a newspaper column. The operator copied the manuscript line by line on the barely still molten metal slot, and once done, sent each line away as it cooled and fully solidified. Once cool enough, the "line of type" (hence the machine's name) joined other lines of type in a long metal tray called a galley, while still hot to the touch.
Headlines would be done the same way, placed in galleys with the story and assigned a page. On the stone lay heavy metal rectangular frames called "phorms", in which the galleys of type would fill, according to the page design or layout supplied by the editorial department. The stone sub would make what adjustments were necessary, trimming stories that overran the space allotted, and going to the "bank" to find secondary stories held in reserve to fill unexpected holes as they appeared.
Because news stories were written in the "inverted pyramid" style, that is, with most important elements in the first paragraphs, followed by less significant material. As hard news was written in short one- or two-sentence paragraphs, it was often easy to "trim to fit"—that is, cut from the bottom.
But that was only good for hard news. Things like theatre reviews, opinion pieces and feature articles reached a conclusion that had to be preserved. In such cases, something from the middle had to be removed. Less important than what was cut, in my view, was what was left behind for readers to read. This emphasis was useful if cuts had to be done quickly.
Sometimes, one ran into the maddening situation of having a final paragraph running over by two or three lines. At this point, I would look for a comma that could be turned into a period to end the sentence by physically cutting off its tail with a large metal cutter wielded by one of the compositors. If the last concluding paragraph did not suit, then I would look for another paragraph higher up that would.
Another trick I used in extremis, when a story failed to materialise and there was nothing in the bank to fill the hole, was to use an entire sentence from the body type as an "out take" and have the quote reset in a headline font. That was stone subbing, dealing with emergencies on the very edge of a deadline.
All this was part of the daily grind. The most lasting experience that happened on the stone was meeting Peter Leney, who later became my closest friend and remains so to this day. The Gazette was a newspaper, of course, but was also a unit of The Gazette Printing Company, which printed material for a wide range of customers, among them the weekly Financial Times. Peter came in as that paper's stone sub once a week.
More fun was my role as literary editor. As I had done when running the Montreal Star youth page, I worked out a place in the market, just as I had done with the marine pages years earlier. Each project represented different terrain, and I did my best to devise a strategy that would bring positive attention to my tiny fiefdom. With the youth page, I had focused on 18- to 20-year-olds because younger teens looked up to older teens, whereas 16- to 17-year-old teenagers had no interest in the doings of teenyboppers. I also concentrated on getting teenagers to express views on adult issues, interviewing a young white Rhodesian and a Zulu student to discuss their views of southern Africa. At the marine pages, I campaigned against federal control of the Port of Montreal, as the National Harbours Board controlled all the major ports in Canada and was not as attentive as it should be to local interests, refusing to favour one port over another.
As Gazette literary editor, I faced a serious problem. My opposite number at the Montreal Star was a genuine man of letters and a full timer unlike my part-time self. He was an erudite Englishman called John Richmond, who totally outclassed me. He even spoke Russian. The fact that I was one of the few journalists who read books hardly qualified me to stand in the same room with him. Yet he had to be beaten.
It was impossible to beat him head to head. He had more money and several pages to fill every week. I had one page and could spend no more than $50 a week, which effectively meant two reviews for $25 apiece. I then renamed the page "Writing." Mother approved, surprisingly, but the advertising department did not, so it went back to "Books." But that was enough to make it acceptable to widen the scope beyond books.
I gained a good deal of favourable attention when I used a full break page assigned to Entertainments one Saturday to an array of 40 magazine covers in five rows over eight columns, each with a little 50-word review. The magazines were taken from the biggest of Montreal's comprehensive newsstands. So they were magazines people saw but seldom if ever read. Another time, I reviewed the new Bell Telephone Book, the one book everyone had, and gleefully noted its admonition to subscribers to use the new unpopular postal codes while on another page it stated its own company address as 1050 Beaver Hall Hill—sans code postale! I had always been opposed to new measures that added to the citizen's burdens without compensation, and the postal code was one.
Such doings were only occasional. My main strategy was the deployment of an all-Canadian book page. I even had famous Canadian writers review each other’s books. In the past, I noted that at the annual "book grab," when books no one bothered to review were given to staffers, the giveaways were most often Canadian works. One I took away was called Execution by Colin McDougall. It was a fine novel about the wartime Canadian Army in Italy yet ignored by reviewers. Before I fully cast myself in the role of a scoundrel by wrapping myself in the flag, I found my decision popular with Canadian writers, publishers, book sellers and the advertising department. What's more, I stonked the Montreal Star's John Richmond, who was no longer able to crush me in my protected niche. However superior he may have been as a literary man, I was a better Canadian simply because I was one.
I went to the Montreal Book Fair, which was held in too big a hall, which made it look small. There I met feminist writer Susan Sontag in her publishers' stall, and from there I met Charles Templeton, who wrote The Kidnapping of the President, which I read before interviewing him. He once rivalled Billy Graham as an evangelist but had since slipped into agnosticism. He was as he seemed on the television quiz show Front Page Challenge and produced a serviceable interview. Susan Sontag, who was stiff and awkward over coffee, kept answering questions with "it's in the bio." Eventually I said, "I will take you back to your stall."
More fun was Margaret Atwood. On a busy speaking tour in Montreal, she agreed to meet me for breakfast in the ground floor coffee shop of the Sheraton Mount Royal Hotel. She was at the height of her fame, and when called upon to do more for Canadian letters than she was doing, she addressed the problem about her proper role as being a conflict between being the "yogi" and the "commissar." I was certainly getting enough for a story and was beginning to relax when four American conventioneers with "Hi! I'm Bill" plasticized cards affixed to their lapels sat down beside us. I was long-haired at the time and Margaret looked like a hippie with her long curly locks falling about her shoulders. I remember the conventioneers looked at us with distaste, glancing over from the next booth separated only by a low partition.
We were talking about Canadian author Farley Mowat, who Mother described as a "conscientious eccentric," and how much truth there was to his nonfiction Never Cry Wolf, which seemed to me to contain much fictitious material. Margaret sidestepped the question by saying that could not be said of his book The Regiment, which was his life going up the Italian boot with the 8th Army. Margaret and I sensed that at least two conventioneers were listening to us. Margaret was no slouch when it came to military terms, and we chatted back and forth about the essential quality of the regimental system, which was quite absent in the American Army, we agreed, and was probably a reason they were losing the War in Vietnam. We were conscious that the Americans were listening and seemed amazed that two hippies could be so conversant about arcane military affairs. We were attuned to each other, knowing that we were being overheard, and played our spoof to the hilt.
We ended our interview and laughed at our little show for the conventioneers as we went our separate ways.
Sometimes I would go to readings. I remember one by Marian Engel, who read from her forthcoming novel Bear, which won a Governor General's Medal, about a lonely librarian in northern Ontario who is sexually pleasured by a bear. The book has been called "the most controversial novel ever written in Canada." I remember coming away in shock, realising my sophistication had some distance to go.
Marian, as the founder of the Writers' Union of Canada, wanted to enlist me in promoting her cause, saying that I was a writer, too. But I demurred, saying in my present role I was a journalist. She did very well with her union, though, which is alive and well to this day. In fact, Marian managed to get the entire union membership invited to Rideau Hall to meet Governor General Jules Leger, who seemed unsteady and ailing as he put in a brief cameo appearance at the vice-regal cocktail party. It was the first—and perhaps the last—time an entire membership of a union had an audience with the viceroy. It was also the first and last time I had been to Rideau Hall. I remember that in the silver cigarette boxes on every coffee table there were no brand names of tobacco companies, only golden crowns. What's left of that day is the memory of Marian flicking ash from her cigarette while inadvertently grinding one of the pizza squares being served into the plush alabaster-white carpet.
One of my tasks as assistant entertainment editor was to fill in for any critic that was absent and whose fixtures had to be covered. One case featured opposites: the swishy homosexual Liberace and the corny but wholesome Lawrence Welk. Liberace was a one-man show. My review began: "Some say the emperor has no clothes, but in Liberace's case, it was truer to say the clothes had no emperor. For clothes there were at the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier last night" etc., etc., as I went on to cite references to "unrequited homophile love," avoiding a lawsuit by a hair's breadth, Liberace having won two big ones in London and the States. I was pleased that that august legal authority, our court reporter Leon Levinson, with whom judges consulted, thought it was terrific, though one of the compositors over the stone said: "McCormick, you are a real shit disturber, aren't you." It was not meant as a compliment.
By contrast, the review of Lawrence Welk started more cheerfully: "Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music Makers met the champagne audience of North America at the Montreal Forum last night." I remember meeting there an old guy from UPI and his wife. They were total civilians, in joyous expectation of a wholesome night out. I couldn't help thinking how this rotund aging couple looked so happy in each other’s company and how so many people that night looked the same way.
Another night, the film critic was unavailable, and I had to go to private screening at the Seville of a new film called Jaws. I was walking north on Cathedral, when a man about my age stopped me and asked if I knew where the Irish Lancer was. I said yes, that he was walking in the wrong direction, but as I would pass it, we could go there together. His name was Kennedy and he came from Boston. I told him of my mission to see a film about sharks and welcomed him along, saying he could go to the Irish Lancer later.
When we arrived, there were 30 to 40 people there to watch the film, regular critics and hangers-on. And so it began with the heroic small-town police chief trying to induce the booster mayor to close the beach, which would stop the flow of vital summer tourist dollars and spell ruin for all in the town. But the magic of Steven Spielberg’s movie making had these seasoned critics crying out at the appropriate moments when the shark loomed from the depths to devour a pretty girl or a cheeky child. My review started: "Jaws is a movie that will sweep the nation if not the world." I remember being criticised for what was thought a lack of professional restraint, but I ignored it, telling the critical to see it and then tell me they didn't agree. The film became a worldwide model for editorial cartoons for several years, typically depicting an open-jawed shark labelled "inflation" rising from the depths to devour a swimmer labelled "wage earner."
Months later, I had the opportunity to interview Jaws producer David Brown, the only person I ever met who used the term "motion picture" in normal conversation. Of greater note was his recollection of the making of Jaws, saying that when they first got the rushes back, they were sure the film would be a flop. "The shark looked so plasticky. It was hopeless. But then they put the music in, it took off—it had a life of its own." Now that I look back, I could see his point—the shark did look plasticky, but only in retrospect. With the camera panning right to left and up and down looking for the shark as the throbbing music built up, the audience was screaming well before they saw the shark and were quite unable to notice its plasticity. Nothing could be further from our minds.
More fun and controversial was my encounter with Marshall McLuhan, the author of many books on media and technology, whom I escorted into the washroom of the Windsor Hotel in Montreal. McLuhan had been the reigning communications guru for more than a decade. Although his books were impenetrable, his one-liners like the "global village" and “the medium is the message" were memorable, even though many thought him to be a fraud. I said 70 per cent of what he said was rubbish, but 30 per cent was good value.
Ten years earlier in a television interview, I heard him predict the future. He said most people worked preparing, transmitting and receiving written and verbal information. But that work would be done from workstations that did not have to be assembled in one place. I was then working at the Montreal Star, and I was sold on the idea. I could avoid going to the office and get my assignments from the telephone, interview people by phone and write my stories at home. Not always, and not in every case, but I could cut my travel time by at least half using "circuitry," as McLuhan called it. As I supplied a weekly youth section, daily trips to the office were unnecessary. I tried it for a while, but the office objected. I could see that under the present system, there was no universal method to monitor productivity. There could be, if the world were set up along McLuhanesque lines, but not back then in 1965.
Still, I was sold. My imagination ran wild thinking of implications. No longer would commuters need to rush in from their suburban caves like Genghis Khan's hordes every morning to assemble in office blocks and then rush home at night. They could do much of their work from workstations anywhere. And this was long before portable computers. The implications were enormous, when we supplanted transportation with communication. There could be urban implosion, that is, residential areas could occupy space once used for offices. Shrinking purpose-built office space need only meet the occasional requirements for meetings when sections of a company needed to assemble.
So I was excited entering the Windsor Hotel ballroom where he was speaking and very pleased to see McLuhan in the flesh for the first time. There was a big crowd, and McLuhan rambled on cheerfully in his usual unintelligible way. I grabbed one useable quote: "If the Chinese language were phoneticised, the culture would dissolve within a decade." It made sense to me, as the Chinese language is broken into so many officially recognised dialects, as different from each other as German and Dutch, that the pictogram characters were the cultural glue that held society together. The French press made audible sounds of shocked dismay when McLuhan was inevitably asked the fate of la belle langue, to which he replied magisterially: "The language of the world is rock and roll, and that is in English."
When his talk ended, as is my wont, I rushed up to the speaker to get some exclusive quotes. McLuhan was okay with that, but first wanted to go to the john. Knowing the hotel, I knew where to find one nearby, and spirited him away like a Secret Service agent, warding off all pleas for a word.
Safely in the john, he unzipped in front of a urinal. Feeling the urge myself, I unzipped before the one to his right.
He then declared, looking down: "This is funnel vision."
By this time others arrived, and a gray-suited heavyset gent took the urinal to the McLuhan's left.
"My name's Ouimet," he said. "I used to run the CBC."
I was shocked: this was a high-class urinal indeed. Alphonse Ouimet, former president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, taking a leak with Marshall McLuhan and little ole me!
"I have a question," said Mr Ouimet. "Surely, if the message is removed, the medium remains."
McLuhan zipped up and went to the sinks. "No, no," he said. "The content is the user, like clothing, like the automobile."
He then left the washroom and I followed, but he was immediately swept up by a bevy of McGill University minders who were to take him elsewhere for lunch. I wrote the story of the incident, and it ran as I wrote it, but there was a great murmuring of disapproval of the unseemliness of it all.
A routine job as literary editor was lunching with an author and an agent from the publisher. One dirty winter's day, I met Chief Dan George, an Oscar-winning supporting actor and former chief of the Burrard Salish Indian band near North Vancouver, who had recently published a book of verse, My Heart Soars.
We were in the least formal basement restaurant of the Ritz Carlton. I remember little of the interview other than that it was awkward, the Chief's answers being as monosyllabic as he could make them. It was, as we say in the trade, like "pulling teeth" to get anything quotable out of him. We must have been fairly well along, as he had reached the dessert stage, when he announced he wanted nothing more but nothing less than lemon Jello. Eventually this came, but I noted that it had arrived in a battered, scarred most un-Ritz-like heavy ice-cream sundae glass, with a less than perfect dab of whipped cream on the top. I suspected that the request had flummoxed the Ritz kitchen, which then sent a plongeur down the street to fetch what Chief wanted from an array of lesser eateries, which were thankfully close at hand.
I was debating whether to fit the lemon Jello incident into my story, there being so little material to work with from the interview, or to draw what I could from the press release and cover blurb, when I was rescued!
An elegant lady emerged from the kitchen door with an anxious look and reassuring words, followed by a small cloud of acrid black smoke.
Addressing about 20 of us in the restaurant, she told us there had been a small mishap in the kitchen, and would we be so kind as to go to the lobby until the problem had been resolved. This was followed by another, bigger cloud of black smoke as a waiter emerged from the kitchen.
I told my luncheon hosts that I would have to put on my reporter's hat and attend to the fire at the Ritz, assuring them that I had enough for a story so their needs would be fulfilled.
I was familiar with the lobby at the Ritz, as my late father had lived at the Chateau Apartments kitty-corner from the hotel, which possessed one of the finest newsstands in the city, where one could get the New York papers, The Times of London on the day of publication and the Spectator and the New Statesman. But the Ritz lobby was not large for a hotel that size, undoubtedly aiming to a achieve an intimate atmosphere for its high-end guests.
The small lobby was now crowded with the most bizarre collection of liveried, bewildered hotel servants all being questioned by guests, who milled about in great numbers. But they knew less than I did, having been summoned to the lobby by word of mouth. Kitchen staffs, some with ostentatious chefs’ hats, were the most spectacular. An elderly gent sitting ramrod straight in a throne-like chair against a wall looked like an angry field marshal. Soon police and firemen added to the clamour, tramping in in great numbers and leaving a mounting trail of dirty slush as their fire hoses snaked in from the street outside.
I phoned the office, of course, gave them a brief update on what was happening, and they said someone would be up to relieve me. I saw a young man, one of the guests with a camera, showed him my Police Press Pass (quite an impressive card, which prominently said: "SERVICE DE LA POLICE") and asked to use his camera for $5 and I would take the film. I went round the back and took pictures of flames licking up the wall from the basement windows of the kitchen.
An hour had passed and still no one from the Gazette. No one from the Montreal Star either. Not that I saw anyone from the French press, though they might have ignored it as it was an English hotel, however incredible that may seem. I phoned again, and this time received a surprisingly testy response.
"Forget it, McCormick. It's not your beat. We'll take care of it," the city desk said.
I said I would wait till I was relieved. "Send a photographer! The Ritz is on fire. It's blocking traffic on Sherbrooke. If that isn't news, I don't know what is!"
An hour had passed. Still no one from the media. The fire was under control, then extinguished, but it was still thought to be unsafe for guests to return to their rooms.
It so happened that at that very moment, the crew from a Russian Aeroflot flight arrived, and their winter uniforms with the turned-up fur hats looked remarkably like those of Ritz doormen. Of course, the hammer and sickle cap badges were the very antithesis of Ritz insignia, if anyone but me noticed. Now guests turned to them for answers, only to receive the most bewildered and weary responses from men who so wanted and expected a bed that was now denied them.
I had to go, because my duties as a departmental sub required that I lay out the first edition of the Entertainment pages. Having already prepared for that with trim-to-fit wire copy, I wrote the Ritz story and turned it into a markedly unenthusiastic desk. To my enquiries about how my pictures turned out, there was just a "they're okay" and a definite desire that I stop bothering them. All of which would have raised suspicions, had I not been so preoccupied with getting the first edition of the Entertainment pages out and going over cold, sparse notes from the Chief Dan George interview to get that out of the way.
There was nothing in the paper the next day. Nothing in the Montreal Star either. Something rotten was going on for sure, but my inquiries brought nothing forward but hostility.
A few months later, I had reason to open the Ritz Carlton file and discovered nothing untoward ever occurred there. Ritz news only concerned the arrival of a new chandelier for the Adams Room or the commissioning of a new chef. We all thought that when Southam bought the Gazette, all the sacred cows of the previous regime had been slaughtered. But lo and behold, there was at least one that had survived and was still chewing her cud on Sherbrooke Street.
My most glorious moment at the Gazette in that last sojourn was the time I interviewed PG Wodehouse. The entertainments editor Herbie Aronoff had at least heard of him, which was a plus for me because I was a big fan—had been since my early teens. I had devoured novel after novel with delight, expecting I had discovered a genre that would keep me reading forever. But I was disappointed after a brief detour into the work of Peter De Vries, which promised more of the same. I came to the sad realisation there was only one PG Wodehouse, who with his wonderful manservant Jeeves dodged the blackmailing tactics of fearsome Aunt Agatha and her schemes to marry him off to various women who would make a man out of him.
Of course, Mother warned me about Wodehouse's truck and trade with the Nazis, and how an angry British public so reviled him that he could longer safely live there and moved to the US, where this reputation was less of a problem. It was something like the falling from grace suffered by Oscar Wilde, whose lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensberry backfired by providing evidence of sodomy in 1885 and two years in jail. Both were literary lions at the top of their form but, like Humpty Dumpty, both had a great fall. Wodehouse had replaced Rudyard Kipling—another one of my favourites—as Britain's public writer No 1. The charge against Wodehouse after a period of German imprisonment, much of it in a gulag-like cell meant for one but accommodating four, was that he made a number of broadcasts to US audiences describing life in Occupied France and how unruffled it was. This was entirely truthful and backed by accounts of the French themselves, as the Nazis wanted to make life as normal as possible. Harsh restrictions on life came with the liberation, as a combative French government wanted to assert its authority over the country and did not mind how heavy-handed they were in doing it.
Immediately after the war, Malcolm Muggeridge, then an MI6 officer, cleared him. Then an MI5 officer took a colder forensic view, but in the end could only say that Wodehouse had "behaved unwisely." But British public opinion was hostile despite George Orwell providing a strong defence. William Connor, under his pen name Cassandra, broadcast a postscript to the news programme, railing against Wodehouse. According to Wodehouse's biographer, Joseph Connolly, the broadcast was "inaccurate, spiteful and slanderous . . . probably the most vituperative attack on an individual ever heard on British radio."
Official French resentment lingered longest. Wodehouse, for tax reasons, had resided in France before the war. When he was repatriated from the German prison, he transferred to a grand hotel in Berlin, paid for with his own money earned from German publishers, which had been withheld since the outbreak of war.
His postwar American life was not as congenial as he and his wife had hoped. The magazines that awaited his next submissions with bated breath before the war were no more. Even the taste for flapper fiction had abated. The short story form migrated to film, and magazines focused on nonfiction. By 1974, PG Wodehouse was as much forgotten as forgiven. Certainly, it was now safe to give him a "K." I read about his knighthood from an AP dispatch datelined Remsenburg, New York, the morning before heading into the office with plans to do a piece on it in my Books & Authors column that Saturday.
Herbie was in the office and in an antsy state, wanting to do something noteworthy. I suggested we phone Remsenburg, New York, information to see if a PG Wodehouse was listed and interview him if he was. Everything worked like a charm. Yes, indeed there was a PG Wodehouse listed, and while he did not answer the phone, an old duffer did and put me on to him. I was shocked how fast everything went. He was very pleased with his "K" and thought that past unpleasantness had passed. He was then 91, but still working on a Blandings Castle novel with the prize sow, the Empress of Blandings, still front and centre in the story. Between 1952 and 1975 he published more than 20 novels, as well as two collections of short stories. Yes, he had been to Montreal in 1911 to watch a cricket match between Harvard and McGill. It was not much of a story, and I wish I had prepared for it more than I did. He died a year later, entering a local hospital with a skin ailment, then dying suddenly at age 92.
My brush with fame was less glorious in the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of the Gulag Archipelago, as it was something that almost happened. The only good thing about it was that my Montreal Star rival got no further than I—despite his fluent Russian. But nor could my personal knowledge of his Montreal host, Prince Alexis Troubetzkoy, my old and favourite history teacher at Stanstead College. I started off with that advantage when a couple of guys who happened to be greeting each other at the airport happened to take Solzhenitsyn’s picture when he touched down in Montreal from Zurich after leaving the Soviet Union. But despite my pleas, the desk would not pay more than $25 for the shot and the young men took it to La Presse, which paid more. After a day or two of ferreting about, before discovering he had left town, we went back to our old routines.
Organisationally, things were happening at The Gazette. The old financial editor was stepping down and the assistant financial editor, Linda Howe Beck, would naturally be in line for the job, but the toweringly ambitious and determined financial writer David Tafler wanted the job and got it.
About the same time, the Gazette was fed up with Herbie, who was coked out half the time and away on some junket the other half. I might have been in line for his job, but I had no real interest in culture other than literature, and even that was not my primary interest. I was interested in foreign affairs and principally wars, of which there were about 20 going on at any one time. But no one except the New York Times and the wire services sent correspondents in those days, and with the American defeat in Vietnam, no one was interested in what wars were left. More fundamentally, it became a girl's beat, as they focused on the pain war caused rather than who was winning or losing. It was like covering a football game from the first-aid station.
It was clear that I was unsuited to run the entertainments department on anything but a caretaker basis, and Linda Howe Beck, who was passionate about dance, was better suited than I—and deserved something after being passed over for the top finance job. I was embarrassed about being passed over for a job that I really didn't want, and I allowed myself to be niggled by the changes she brought to the department, regular hours being one of them. There was a certain girlishness about the new regime, which I unfairly magnified into a real resentment, though I did not complain of it or show it in my manner.
But I did share it with my brother and his boss, Malcolm Stone, who were about to move on to great things as Sir George Williams University was to take over Loyola College. The mission was pleasing. The Information Office, known as the Public Relations Department at Loyola, was to put Concordia University on the map. This seemed to be a fun idea and a far more attractive proposition than lingering hopefully for a better gig at The Gazette.