Appeared in the North Shore News – December 21, 2012
SHAMELESS shilling: For Christmas, give your beloved 100 Years of The Vancouver Sun, by excellent columnist Shelley Fralic.
Yes, 35-odd years on Sun premises may torque my objectivity. But, much more than a newspaper admiring its handsome reflection in the pool of time, the book illustrates and paints a changing city and its citizens.
Understandably, the tome can’t capture all the paper’s legends and laughter. The following repeats, clumsily, some of Shelley’s anecdotes and adds a few that may be embellished or flatly fictitious.
Sports monument Jim Coleman, equally elegant in attire and prose, once noted that a staffer had the unusual habit of repairing to the washroom for lunch, consumed while he perched on the porcelain. Coleman suggested: “Why not throw your sandwich directly into the toilet and avoid the expensive middle man?”
Publisher Don Cromie threw generous Christmas parties for staff. Generous, meaning spirituous liquors were massively consumed. Until harmless spontaneous dalliances led to actual marital terminations. The party was over.
Drink? The women strove for equality with men before feminism was invented. After working hours, the door of the women’s department closed and bottles decanted.
Cromie, a whimsical gent in days when powerful publishers weren’t just imported business bureaucrats or elevated bean-counters, shuffled the staff deck with restless innovation. As Fralic notes, he sent the beauteous fashion writer Marie Moreau to interview Fidel Castro, perhaps weakening the Cuban dictator’s aversion to capitalism. Cromie madly reassigned sports writer Jack Richards as theatre critic, where he performed surprisingly well (similar beats after all), and silenced top columnist Jack Scott’s nattering about the paper’s inadequacies by promoting him to managing editor – a disaster, notably of the budgetary kind, that lasted six months.
Scott (vengeance?) became a loud cheerleader for Castro in his columns. Cromie, sincere champion of free speech, wouldn’t think of silencing Scott. Instead Cromie penned a front-page editorial denouncing Scott’s ideological fantasies. Imagine that today.
Reporters competed hard to “get” the zipper, a titillating, whacky story across the bottom of the front page. Tom Ardies, a great character, often snagged it. A classic described a sailor on leave caught in flagrante when the Murphy bed snapped shut and left him and friend helplessly pinned against the wall.
Genuine legend in his own time, orchestra leader Dal Richards, a stripling who turns 95 next month, advised me that one memorable season an amorous Sun employee slept with the players at all nine positions (I’m talking baseball positions) of the Vancouver ball team. Who knew?
Illicit assignations aside, sometimes amor vincit omnia, love conquered all. A young chap chose, perhaps recklessly, to convey a young woman on their first date on the pillion seat of his Indian (iconic brand) motorcycle. Her leg suffered a nasty burn from the exhaust pipe. Not the best start for the pair – great future Sun cartoonist Len Norris and wife Marg – one of the two happiest couples this writer has encountered (not counting my own pair of blissful marriages, of course, dear).
Once Norris and Jack Scott were assigned to roam the B.C. heartland in search of illustratable yarns. Scott’s words in print flowed effortlessly, but in numerous hotel rooms Norris witnessed the sweated agonies of its creation.
The coltish Pierre Berton, never caught out being modest, boasted he’d write the line story – top of page one – every day for a week. And did. His “Headless Valley” stories, of suspect authenticity, became a legend.
Later in Ottawa Berton did confess to the intimidating writing speed of another great journalist, Bruce Hutchison, who raced through his daily parliamentary dispatch in a quarter of an hour. Decades later, then Sun editorial director, Bruce casually remarked to me that he’d written the 1942 best-selling, elegiac and pioneering The Unknown Country, in six weeks.
Hutchison was splendidly teamed with Stuart Keate – last of the Sun newsroom-bred publishers except for his successor from the Globe and Mail, Clark Davey, who treated his five-year contract in bush-league Vancouver essentially as a Siberian prison sentence, and hastily returned to the East at the moment of its expiry. I forgo any attempt to speak of Keate objectively. His praising “blue darts” to staffers on publisher stationery were treasured.
The North Shore was and is home to many outstanding Sun staffers: Norris, a West Van institution; his awards-stuffed fellow cartoonist Roy Peterson; gloriously original current cartoonist Graham Harrop; Frank Rutter, editorial-page editor and deft handler of a motley crew of eccentrics; Nat Cole, who kept important stuff especially about energy matters in his head; master writer of the pithy, witty editorial Mac Reynolds; Denny Boyd (a genius, his former sports colleague Jack Lee declares); North Vancouver’s Charlie Warner, who took the famous “Miracle Mile” photo, and photographer and race track habitué Ralph Bower.
I’ve barely touched the surface. Get the book.
© Trevor Lautens, 2012