KEEP PLUGGING, BARBARA FRUM

How to succeed by really trying

HEATHER ROBERTSON June 1 1975

KEEP PLUGGING, BARBARA FRUM

How to succeed by really trying

HEATHER ROBERTSON June 1 1975

KEEP PLUGGING, BARBARA FRUM

How to succeed by really trying

HEATHER ROBERTSON

She has a great voice, low and warm and sensual, a worldly and suggestive voice that’s full of laughter. “I find myself almost physically in love with everyone on the phone,” says Barbara Frum. “I empathize with everything. I try to put myself into their heads. What they’re feeling, I’m feeling too. I really get off on it.” She is a seductress. She is uncompromising, tenacious and indefatigable. “There’s not a moment when I’ll say, ‘Let that pass, so what,’ ” she says. “I see every day as the first day and the last day. I am unyielding.”

Nobody puts much over on Barbara Frum. Her passionate curiosity has made the CBC’s nightly phoneout show As It Happens the most influential national radio program in the country. She has an acute ear for lies and hypocrisy (“That’s bullshit,” she’ll say vehemently, flicking off her microphone and mugging a face of disbelief through the studio window) and utter contempt for anyone who tries to manipulate her. She stalks her quarry with the skill and finesse of Sherlock Holmes, polite, respectful, but always one jump ahead, feeding her guest enough rope to hang himself until she moves in, exposes the villain and unravels the mystery for her delighted audience.

“I’m fascinated by motive, why people do things the way they do. There are some issues that get me in my gut and some for which I feel no emotion at all. Somebody found a new atomic particle. Terrific. I’ll say hello and congratulations but I don’t get steamed. I get steamed abcfut current issues where there’s a decision to be made, and I really get steamed about stories where I don’t know what really happened. I always love it when things aren’t the way they seem.”

Her love of drama has influenced the muckraking style of As It Happens — a nightly bag of scandal, spy thrillers, political machinations, gossip and adven-

ture leavened by freaks, inventors, pirates and iconoclasts. Tantalized by a whiff of duplicity or corruption, she will return like a bloodhound to the scent. “Once a day I say, ‘This story stinks. There’s more here. I know it!’ I let a cabinet minister get by me two weeks ago and I couldn’t forgive myself. Incredibly, the next day there he was again and I could grab him. That’s why I love the program, because every night I can correct my mistakes. I’m not sloppy or careless. I don’t say ‘What the hell, I don’t care if I’ve got that right.’ I care intensely.” She flies by hunch and intuition, full of compassionate understanding for the small personal agonies she is probing. She listens. People trust her. They talk.

“There are few emotions that I can’t feel in myself,” she says, “and there are very few ugly emotions in myself that I haven’t expressed or dealt with. To that extent I consider myself a liberated person. If somebody tries to give me what’s on the surface, it doesn’t make sense to me. So I go deeper.

“I have no respect for authority whatsoever. I have respect for individuals and how they’re coping but I won’t say ‘Your lordship minister sir, can I kiss your bum!’ No! I just can’t bear that. There was just never any need to kiss anybody’s ass ever in my life and I just won’t. It’s not that I assume everybody’s a crumb. It’s just that I assume everybody’s a human being with a pair of legs until I hear otherwise. Whether you’re a premier or a prime minister or whatever, inside there you’re just the same quivering piece of meat that I am.”

Because of As It Happens’ radical political stance people tend to assume that Barbara’s a Marxist. She’s not. “I’m a liberal. I’m not for the destruction of capitalism or private property. I think that society should be efficient, productive, smart and responsive. I have no use for armchair radicals.”

Barbara Frum is rich. Her husband.

Murray, is a real estate developer; she drives a Jaguar and lives in one of the most magnificent homes in Toronto. The Frums have a live-in housekeeper five days a week and spend spur-of-themoment weekends in Florida. Her clothes are elegant and expensive; she always looks dressed up, a girl of the Fifties who grew up in a girdle. “They call me ‘fancy lady’ at the CBC,” she laughs. “ ‘Different outfit every day.’ ” Yet she always has the slightly frazzled, helter-skelter look of a woman who works hard and isn’t vain. She is tall and slim with thick black hair cut in a long shag, high cheekbones and a stunning smile, the kind of woman whose beauty lies in her radiant energy. She makes no apologies for her lifestyle.

“ ‘She’s privileged,’ people say. Well, I am. I wouldn’t want to try to be anything else. That’s what I am. I might as well see it through and take my lumps.” She takes a lot of lumps from people who can’t reconcile her social conscience with her social status. Yet in her pragmatism, conservatism and capitalism Barbara represents the aspirations, and ultimate achievement, of middleclass Canada. “I’m very square, very conventional,” she shrugs. “All I can do is give people the benefit of my honesty and take my chances.”

She talks Canajan, a slangy, vivid, colloquial jargon that instantly puts people at ease and gains their confidence. Most of her interviews (she does 15 a day) are prerecorded and ruthlessly edited to heighten tension and eliminate flat spots. She makes brilliant use of silence, turning off her microphone to edit out her own gasps, giggles and mutterings. It has a devastating effect on her guest who, faced with emptiness at the other

Heather Robertson is a contributing editor of Maclean’s. This article is excerpted from the book, Her Own Woman: Profiles Of 10 Canadian Women, recently published by Macmillan.

“There was never any need to kiss anybody’s ass ever in my life, and 1 just won’t.”

end of the telephone line, babbles on frantically to fill the void. “You develop a style.” she says. “Nothing is contrived, nothing is conscious. 1 like to think that I’m better now. 1 used to be more aggressive. more black-and-white. I’ve come to realize that the interviewer should not become the issue. I get very upset if I feel that I’ve talked too much.” She is intimate and relaxed and will talk away confidentially to people who would leave the rest of us parched and tongue-tied.

“I had a nice chat with the Queen.” she says. “I even got a laugh out of her. She’s a committed woman and I came away with some admiration for her. even though I think it’s awful that she has to wear those terrible clothes and do those awful things. Underneath it all she is a very compulsive, middle-class woman and not at all an aristocrat. She has no grace, no real dignity. She's just a working girl. I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time w ith her.”

She has an urgent sense of time; she doesn’t waste hers or anyone else’s. “There are no bogs, no slack.” she says with satisfaction. “When I get home I have no guilt that 1 didn't do anything today.” Once a week she tapes a onehour television interview which is broadcast over CBC’s Toronto station on Tuesday nights at midnight. The show is called simply Barbara Frum. She writes occasional articles and does interviews for Ontario educational TV. All her w'prk requires enormous concentration and intellectual energy.

"1 can get very exhausted.” she admits. “1 can get so tired my face feels frozen, but I can lie down for a short

while and really go again. Some nights I’ll be running around the house at 2 a.m. and my husband will say, ‘Barbara, will you sit down already!’”

The pace of her life is. to some extent, flight. “1 can forgive myself for a mistake because I’ve probably done 12 things okay today,” she says. She can be critical and contemptuous of people she considers phony or corrupt; she can be devastatingly funny at the expense of fools, but she is not callous. She doesn't use people as grist for her personal mill. And she expects the same treatment from everyone she deals with.

“I don’t want to be used. It drives me wild. When someone wants me to debate the Jewish Defense League I won’t do it. It plays bread and circuses with something I think matters a lot. I won’t use news or events as entertainment. I don't want my Jewishness manipulated for a TV audience who will just say, ‘Oh well, there are the Jews fighting.’ I am very conscious that I have a position of enormous privilege and I’m very selfconscious about how the audience sees me using the platform power that I have. I don’t want to abuse it. You can bend over backward so far that you become an enemy of your ow n people in order to show the Christian world that you’re fair-minded. A lot of liberal Jews get trapped like that. They try to play it the gentile way. they try to ignore it. It’s the only issue I’m sensitive on. The survival of the Jewish people matters to me. And at the moment it’s debatable whether they will survive or not. There have been people who have disappeared off the face of the earth because the great powers decided. That’s the position I see Israel in. And I condemn Israel every time. They have done awful things, awful things. I'm not a jerk about it. A Jew can be as big a fool as anyone.”

Barbara Rosberg was born in 1938, the eldest of the three children of Florence and Harold Rosberg, owners of the biggest department store in Niagara Falls.

“People expected a lot of me,” she says with a little sigh, as if the memory of her childhood was one of hard work. “It was because my father was one of the wealthiest men in a small town. He made himself into a ‘good’ man. He gave to charities. He was painfully shy but he sat on committees and forced himself to make speeches at meetings. It was noblesse oblige. I was very conscious of that. I was always a complete outsider. I remember at school one day standing around with a bunch of my friends, chewing gum. A teacher came down the hall and said. ‘Oh Barbara, not you!' People had extreme expectations of me. Maybe they pushed me too hard.

“My parents didn’t demand that I be brilliant. I always used to win the effort

awards. ‘You’re a plugger, make the most of your gifts.’ I used to enter oratorical contests at school. One part of me would volunteer — and then the panic! My parents wouldn’t let me back out. ‘You stay in. You can’t quit. It’s good for you!’ The contests used to be held on parents’ night, with 800 people sitting out there in the auditorium. It was exquisite agony — and I used to win. You learn something from that.”

As she talks, I am astonished at the similarities between us (I can see myself again standing in the pulpit of the candlelit church reading chapters of Matthew in a high, nervous voice, stiff with fear and self-importance) and by how little differences of race and religion really mean in this country. She, a Jew from southern Ontario, and I, a Wasp from the Prairies, are both, in a sense, children of the Depression, daughters of intelligent, energetic mothers whose own ambitions were bent by poverty and social custom into the mold of conventional domesticity. “My mother w'as sent to university in the Thirties.” explains Barbara. “It was very unusual. My grandparents wanted her to be a teacher, to break from the merchant class because so many of them had gone broke during the Depression.

“My mother was the power in the house, and my grandmother had been the power in the house before her. I am the third generation of a really matriarchal family.” She speaks with finality, as if that’s all that needs to be said. And it is. I know' what she means. I come from a matriarchal family too. I wonder how many of us w ho are driven to be powers in the world carry that burden of re-

“I used to be more aggressive, more black and white. I like to think that I’m better now.”

sponsibility toward our mothers and grandmothers who taught us to be smart and strong and self-reliant and not to take as much shit in life as they did. We are aware of the hope and sacrifice invested in us. conscious of the risk and fear of failure.

“I was born an adult,” she says. “It wasn’t until 1 got married that 1 was recognized as being the adult 1 was.”

Barbara and Murray Frum have been married 18 years. “We feel like a couple of old crones hobbling around on our sticks,” she laughs. “Our lives have fused together into an encrusted thing, a rock that’s got seaweed and barnacles on it and crevasses with mollusks living in them. Our marriage is not an issue, it's not something you pull out of a drawer and reassess every so often. The package was bought whole — there are no untidy corners that we hide from ourselves or each other.”

She married at 19. She was a student in Arts at the University of Toronto. Murray w’as a 25-year-old dentist. “We’ve changed,” she says. “What I don’t understand is how we anticipated our now selves and w'ere so right when most people seem to have made a mistake.” She finished her degree after her marriage, then her son David (now 14) was born.

“I was blissfully happy, just completely enchanted with being a mother and taking care of that child and entertaining friends and going out to dinner. I was heading into being a very scientific wife and mother. That’s what my mother had done. 1 felt that what 1 was doing was really worthwhile.”

She reminds me of all the girls I knew who quit university to get married at 18 or 19, intelligent, self-possessed, well-todo girls who married doctors and lawyers and dentists. They all had two or three children and played bridge and drove their own cars and looked very chic. They joined the Junior League or Hadassah and raised money for the symphony and art gallery. They read widely, studied sociology or art history at university and took up Indians or day care. Yet they never seemed to get anywhere. Ten, 15 years later they’re still promoting the same causes, unable or unwilling to make the imaginative leap to keep from turning into their mothers.

Barbara finds it hard to understand how and why she made that leap. “1 always knew I’d do something in the w'orld,” she says. “But 1 never had any plan. I just backed into it.” Her first job was a radio talk for CBC’s Matinee telling mums how to amuse their kids. It w'as 1963 and she made $35 a week. She bought a tape recorder. “I’ll do whatever you want,” she told producers. Through a friend she stumbled on a story about corruption in the TB seals campaign and

sold it to the Toronto Star; within two years she was working full time as a journalist and broadcaster. In an era when female interviewers were supposed to be sweet, blond and silly. Barbara’s tough, unrelenting, aggressive style shocked her audience and her employers; in 1971 she was fired from the CBC’s Toronto public affairs show Weekday because management considered her questions “too tough." In five years with As It Happens she’s won every award for excellence as a radio interviewer and has helped revolutionize the image of women in broadcasting.

“I’m not escaping into my work, back home is not a lingering chronic indictment of my life.” She has three children.

“I don’t have any sense of myself, of who I am. I have to divide my life up into pieces.”

David, Linda, 12. and Matthew', seven. The children call their parents by their first names; they are independent, outspoken and direct. “I don’t quite feel like their mother,” says Barbara. “1 feel like some person living with them. We’ve never lived for the sake of our kids. We’ve both got a real sense of the shortness of life. That’s one thing Murray learned from me. Do it now. Indulge your feelings now. Don’t bank on tomorrow. I’m beginning to fear for my children that w'e haven't built enough structure into their lives. I sense maybe there’s a craving for ritual we haven’t provided. The truth is that we've never been willing to sacrifice our lives for them. I don’t know' if that’s good or bad. Murray and I each harnessed our lives to such an extent that to harness what little time we have together seems insane, and to spend the time we can have together in the service of our children never made much sense either. But I

consider that selfish of me. So I feel I’ll get docked by God for that but I’m not willing to stop.”

She is sensitive to where she stands in relation to other people and to their feelings toward her: are they ally or invader, friend or foe? “I am intensely vulnerable. People are frustrated by the fact that I don’t have any sense of myself. of who 1 am. I have to divide my life up into pieces. A man lives a total existence. He can get out of bed and into his suit and until that suit comes off at night he’s . . . John Robarts. I go home and I change modes. At home the president of the Toronto-Dominion Bank is still the president of the Toronto-Dominion Bank.

“Some days 1 feel I’m a paler version of myself. Take Adrienne Clarkson. There’s a woman who’s total. She always has a last name. She always has a sense of herself so that when she goes out the door she’s playing the Adrienne Clarkson Story and she’s the star of it.”

But, I say, isn’t that essentially phony, alienating?

“Sure,” she says. “But for the person who can pull it off it must be very satisfying. I guess what I’m craving is a little more alienation, so I won’t be so full of my flaws and so full of my mistakes and won’t penalize myself so heavily. I guess I have a lingering admiration for people who can kid themselves a little bit better because 1 think sometimes they’re a little bit happier.”

She describes herself as a “cultural Jew.” “I believe in God only as fate, the ongoing context in which w'e live and die. 1 believe in goodness as an entity, something to be striven for. but if you think this universe is good and the good are rewarded you’re crazy. How can there be a happy ending when everyone is condemned to death? Things are so arbitrary. I identify with victims, people who lose. The fact that I won doesn't have to do with anything except luck.”

She is a hunter. She is excited by the chase, by the taste of blood at the kill, and she plays fair. “I’ll take incredible chances,” she says, “but I calculate the odds. I won't do something stupid. I know what I can do. You have to be willing to take a chance. How else are you going to develop muscle? You have to test yourself, you have to have some vested interests. I give something too. 1 did an interview with Jan Morris, you know, the man who had a sex change. She got at me. ‘You’re not comfortable with me, are you?’ And I had to admit it, 'No, I’m not.’ You can cheat, you can edit that out of the tape, but that’s what you have to leave in. That’s the bargain. You also have to give yourself.”

It’s that risk, that whiff of personal danger that Barbara Frum brings to every encounter, ÿ