Columns

A blustery, combative and shameless titan

The Nation s Brisiness

Peter C. Newman May 11 1998
Columns

A blustery, combative and shameless titan

The Nation s Brisiness

Peter C. Newman May 11 1998

A blustery, combative and shameless titan

The Nation s Brisiness

Peter C. Newman

A few decades ago, when Toronto was truly bicultural—British and Irish, except for the bankers, who were Scottish—the acknowledged leader of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite was an exuberant, profane, funny and charismatic animator named John White (I swear) Hughes Bassett. He died last week, at 82, all but forgotten by the city he once dominated like a mythological titan, running its hockey team, football team, most exciting newspaper and most popular television station.

Toronto was a closed and provincial place in his time, and he was a fierce partisan of its absolute supremacy. When I asked him in the early 1980s what he thought about Western Canada, he hesitated not a moment before booming out: “I don’t care how much God damn oil they discover in Alberta,

Toronto—and not Calgary—is the place you do the deals. You get out to Western Canada, you know, Vancouver and all those places—and you’re away from the action.

This is where it’s at.”

John Bassett, who cut an imposing figure (six feet, four inches, 206 lb.), was so compelling because he overcame his natural WASP prejudices, and was, for example, an enthusiastic booster of Israeli independence. In recognition of his contributions, the Toronto Jewish community’s exclusive Primrose Club, then just as adamantly antiWASP as the Toronto Club was anti-Semitic, made an exception and invited him to join. When his name went up on the Primrose’s notice board as a prospective member, Bassett scribbled beside it the anonymous warning: “You know what happens when you let one in!” and laughed uproariously as he watched members read his little mes-

sage, wisely nodding to themselves as they walked away.

His family’s Canadian roots extended back to 1909 when his father arrived from Northern Ireland and joined the Montreal Gazette, where he eventually became publisher. John Bassett Sr. served as a major during the First World War and then purchased the Sherbrooke Daily Record, which later passed from the Bassett family to Conrad Black. In his book Duplessis, Black characterizes the elder Bassett as “political, combative, blustery, pro-French, unscrupulous, shameless”—a description that equally fit the younger Bassett.

Like his father, Bassett worked as a reporter—for The Globe and Mail—and had his journalistic career interrupted by war, and he, too, rose to major’s rank. He purchased The Toronto Telegram in 1952 in a unique partnership with John David Eaton, then running the family department store. The two men created a trust named Baton (named, according to Bassett, not after parts of the partners’ last names, but for the intersection of BAy

Toronto-centric John Bassett was so compelling, in part, because he bluntly overcame his natural WASP prejudices

and WellingTON streets) leaving their corporate assets to their children. In February, 1984, the Eatons bought out the two surviving Bassett children, but in the intervening 32 years the families dominated Toronto’s power structure.

Bassett made lightning decisions. When the CIBC was building its $100-million Commerce Court head office in the early 1970s, it needed to buy a piece of real estate Bassett owned, but none of its executives dared approach Big John. Finally, the bank’s chairman, Neil McKinnon, called him to see if he could strike a deal.

“Sure,” said Bassett. “My price is $3,200,000.” “Well, my price is $2,800,000,” said McKinnon. “Let’s split the difference?” “OK.” The transaction, a big one for its day, had taken exactly 60 seconds.

Bassett was a great if sometimes overbearing father. Johnny F, his eldest and most accomplished son who died at 47 of brain cancer in 1986, inherited his father’s bluntness. “It’s not a handicap being John Bassett’s boy,” he once said. “I have an excellent relationship with Dad. He’s a hell of a sounding board and he’s a bright, bright son of a bitch. I don’t remember ever feeling pressure from being John Bassett’s son. We’re two different people.” (Johnny F.’s younger brother Doug has had his own moments of his father’s bluntness, like the time he told Toronto’s Cardinal Carter: “I just can’t believe that Mary was a virgin.”)

The Tely was the most exciting and most eccentric newspaper Toronto ever had, reflecting its publisher’s joie de vivre and quixotic politics. He was an ardent Tory, ran unsuccessfully for the party twice and seriously considered contesting its leadership in 1967.

I remember being told by Beland Honderich, when he named me editor-in-chief of The Toronto Star in 1969, that we had one and only one editorial objective: to “beat the Tely." We did, and in 1971 it folded. Left without a personal platform, Big John was never the same after that. I recall meeting him about a decade later at a party given by book publisher Anna Porter. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and when I asked what he was doing these days, Bassett—who never learned to whisper—bellowed: “Oh, not much. Mostly making love to Isabel.” (Isabel Bassett, his wife, was a Telegram reporter when he divorced to marry her. She now is a Mike Harris cabinet minister.)

Bassett became a partner in Maple Leaf Gardens (then known as the Carlton Street Mint), the Toronto Argonauts football team, and was granted the city’s first private television licence, for station CFTO, which turned into another mint.

So many of our business leaders seldom say what they really mean and defer to anyone within radar range. That’s why we treasure the memory of John Bassett. He was a giant in a land of pygmies.