Columns

The unalloyed joy of being John Bassett

Allan Fotheringham May 11 1998
Columns

The unalloyed joy of being John Bassett

Allan Fotheringham May 11 1998

The unalloyed joy of being John Bassett

Allan Fotheringham

One day the Seaforth Highlanders, in the North Europe theatre of war under Col. Budge BellIrving of Vancouver, were prepared to attack at dawn. Maj. John Bassett asked why they always had to attack at dawn. Well, it was explained, that was in the military manual. Bassett hated mornings. Why, he suggested, do we not have a good lunch, a small snooze, and then sally forth?

At 4 p.m., the Seaforths came upon, on a wonderful sunny day, 200 young German soldiers in their shorts sleeping on a grassy riverbank. Not a shot was fired. No one was killed. “Attack at dawn!” Bassett used to gloat at his dinner parties 40 years later.

One night, on his TV interview show, Pierre Berton had prepared a zinger for his opening question.

“Isn’t it true, Mr. Bassett,” he pounced, “that as owner of the Toronto Telegram you use it to punish your enemies and praise your friends?” Bassett replied: “Of course. Why else would you want to own a newspaper?” Berton managed to get through the rest of the interview.

One day in 1989, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney rewarded Bassett for his long loyalty to the Conservatives by appointing him, at age 74, to a three-year-term as chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees the nation’s domestic spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Beverly Rockett, the fashion photographer, confided at a party: ‘Well, he’ll certainly be good at keeping secrets. He told me about the appointment at a cocktail party two weeks ago.”

One Monday morning, in a rage, Bassett called all his senior editors into his office. On the floor he had a copy of The Toronto Star and his Toronto Telegram. He put his foot on the Star and intoned that this was a real paper because of the major scoop it had on page 1. And this, he shouted, kicking at the Tely in contempt, is not a real paper because we don’t have on our front page what they have on their front page. He raged on for 20 minutes. When he stopped, a senior Tely editor said: “Sir, the reason that story isn’t on the front page of your paper is because we had it on the front page of your paper on Saturday.” Bassett never blinked, and

with that 100-watt smile, said: “Gentlemen, happiness is when your publisher is full of shit. Meeting dismissed.”

One night at the Albany Club, the den of Toronto Torydom, at a black-tie dinner where all the Tory toffs sat at the head table, Brian Mulroney told a story: when John Diefenbaker became PM in 1957, Bassett and Finlay MacDonald came to his office. They explained, as loyal Conservative supporters, they weren’t coming to plea for Senate appointments, ambassadorships, lucrative contracts. All they wanted, explained Mulroney, was “a couple of those little TV licences.” Which turned both of them, of course, into millionaires.

One day, in 1971, he folded the Tely and accepted $10 million for the “sale” of the paper’s subscription list to The Toronto Star. Doug Creighton, leader of a small group of Tely editors who thought, vaingloriously, they could start a tabloid on the ashes of the Tely, took Bassett out for a drink.

“After the two first martinis,” he remembers, “I convinced him to give us all the Tely newspaper boxes in town. After the third mart, I persuaded him to gift us the Tely library.” Bassett’s generosity—and the marts—is the only thing that allowed the Toronto Sun to birth the following Monday. The founders worshipped him.

One weekend, Bassett invited a columnist and Julian Porter, the libel lawyer, to his retreat in the Caledon Hills north of Toronto for a grudge tennis match. Bassett, his knees crippled by arthritis, could not move but, with his six-four height, just stood at the net and batted down whatever came within his tremendous reach. Unbeknownst to his innocent rivals, he had hired a Canadian Davis Cup

junior in the backcourt who could run like a rabbit and retrieve until the sun came down. They won of course and he spent the rest of the weekend gloating, with that 100-watt smile.

One night, he and the equally handsome MacDonald, who as young officers in Holland had wooed and won most of the maidens in Paris, were in a Toronto nightclub, listening to their favorite chanteuse. He had just caused a major Toronto social scandal by leaving his wife to marry a beautiful blond Tely reporter 20 years younger who, as Isabel Bassett, is now Ontario’s culture minister.

A group of six prominent Rosedale socialites came through the door. Knowing their new feelings about him, Bassett stood up and shouted, “Ya Ya Ya!” They all turned and fled.

One night Big John and Isabel heard a speech in a private Toronto salon by a very witty, dynamic new face from Vancouver. Name of Kim Campbell. They were so overwhelmed that they mounted money for her as the obvious new Tory leader—their clout so much they killed off better candidates.

John Bassett died last week at 82. At his funeral there were two ex-PMs and the wife of a third. The two hymns were appropriate: Rock of Ages and Fight the Good Fight. He was a zinger of a personality.