Learning to live a hamburger life on a Chateaubriand budget

BETTY JANE WYLIE August 1 1975


Learning to live a hamburger life on a Chateaubriand budget

BETTY JANE WYLIE August 1 1975


Learning to live a hamburger life on a Chateaubriand budget


Fairy tales still come true today, in the form of lotteries. Cinderella gets the prize, not because she has naturally curly hair or stickhandles a broom better than anybody else; all she has to have is the right combination of numbers. And then what happens? Does she live happily ever after? Case in point: Audrey Robb, of Hamilton, Ontario, who won a million dollars last year in one of the Olympic draws.

“Come on in! I’m dying for a cup of coffee!” she said when 1 arrived at her home to talk about her new fortune. She led me into her large bright kitchen where we sat on folding chairs at a borrowed kitchen table — she’s waiting for a custom-made breakfast nook to be delivered. Chunky, but not fat (she has lost 30 pounds since last fall, proving that only the rich can afford to lose weight these days), she has short dark hair, unkempt eyebrows and beautiful direct eyes. Her mouth starts by being shy and ends up in a wide smile. She has a lot to smile about.

We settled down to talk about what it's like to win a million dollars. For one thing, according to Audrey, it’s a nuisance. Money may buy a lot of things but it doesn’t buy privacy, not without some effort. Audrey Robb was an obscure $133-a-week teletype operator at the Westinghouse plant in Hamilton when she bought her winning ticket from maintenance man Sid Richards. Dave Mclsaac, the office mail clerk, let ladies go first and she picked the ticket with the number next to his. She was convinced she was going to win. Heaven knows, she needed the money. Four days before the draw, she had walked out (for the second time) on her marriage of 21 years and moved into a onebedroom apartment with her 10-yearold daughter, Laurie. It had taken her almost two years to save enough to buy a $1,000 bond as backup. She had $856 in her savings account and a friendly neighbor in the apartment building — a man she had known at work for several years — who came and hung her pictures, hooked up her TV set (a 12-inch portable), took her out to dinner and asked her to marry him two days before she won the money. It’s a good thing too, otherwise she might have thought he was after it.

D(for Draw) Day was Monday, November 18, 1974. The instant the news broke, everyone began beating a path to Audrey’s door for pictures, stories and handouts. She babbled a lot that night to reporters until about four in the morning. At 6 a.m. she pulled herself out of the sleeping bag on the short couch she was sleeping on and went to work. That is, she tried to work. A few weeks earlier she had asked for a raise. Pete Forstner, head of communications services, was the first to call that morning to tell her the raise had gone through — seven dollars a week. He wasn’t the only caller. Reporters from all the major newspapers in the country were on the line trying to talk to the new millionairess. There was a similar horde staked out back at her apartment. Win a million, lose your privacy.

Wally Hill, assistant manager of office services at the plant, came and told Audrey he was going to take her away from all this. He helped her collect her mother and daughter and took them to the airport where it seems Nordair had anticipated them by providing complimentary airfare to Montreal. Audrey Robb flew off to pick up her money and her new life that morning without so much as a toothbrush.

At the Holiday Inn in Montreal, Julien Coté, vice-president of the lottery association, accepted her winning ticket and cashed a personal cheque for her so she could get some clothes for herself, her daughter and her mother. After lunch in the room — she had a hamburger, her first meal as a millionaire — they went shopping: a change of clothing and underwear for each of them, nighties and housecoats, toothbrush and toiletries. She found a $35 coat with a spot on the sleeve marked down to $10 and had the hotel clean it for her. And she bought a suitcase to carry the new clothes back to Hamilton.

She didn’t have to worry about the hotel accommodation. It was on the lottery. Audrey told reporters the night she won that she didn’t want to spend a cent because then she wouldn’t have a million dollars anymore. Once you start spending money, it’s hard to stop. Actually, it took her a while to start.

Winning Olympic Lottery tickets are subjected to a triple test to make sure they are valid. Audrey’s passed the test. A press conference was held during which she was photographed receiving her cheque. That’s the last she saw of it.

“They take it right back off of you,” she says.

A representative of the bank she dealt with back home in Hamilton whisked it away and put it in a 30-day note at 10%. From now on, she was going to be living on interest. At the end of the first 30 days, the money was put into another 30-day note until she had her bearings. In all, the 60 days’ interest totaled more than $15,000 — nice to have while you’re thinking. The bank gave her money as she needed it, and she did need it. Before Christmas she bought herself an Oldsmobile Cutlass and she gave her oldest daughter, Lynda, a Vega for a Christmas present. (She gave her '67 clunker of a station wagon to the mail clerk, Dave Mclsaac, when his car died one morning.)

By the time Audrey Robb arrived back in Hamilton, Bell Canada had given her an unlisted telephone number, as requested, and the news media had gone on to other things. A week after she won her million, she was back at work with her seven-dollar-a-week raise. She had only been able to afford to take 10year-old Laurie with her when she left her husband. Now that she could afford the groceries she was able to welcome her 20-year-old daughter. Lynda, and her 17-year-old niece Debby, who had been living with her before she left home. Her son Jimmy, 12. stayed with his father, Ed Robb, in Stoney Creek.

Betty Jane Wylie is a Stratford, Ontario, journalist and playwright.

The two older girls slept on the single bed she had bought for Laurie while Laurie went onto a rollaway. Audrey continued to sleep in her sleeping bag in the living room. She had two saucepans and few utensils so she heated a lot of TV dinners. “Have you ever tried to fry bacon and eggs in a saucepan and turn ’em with a spoon?” she asks and laughs. She was taking her time looking around, deciding how she was going to spend her money.

Lots of people wanted to help her. The news media may have drifted off, but insurance salesmen, car dealers, brokers, get-rich-quick schemers, anyone with an angle to turn, an axe to grind, a con to sell, was at her with requests for her attention and money.

The lottery officials had warned her. “Don’t answer a single piece of mail,” she was advised. “If you want to give money away, that’s your business, but let it be to someone or something you know, can verify, can see with your own eyes.” She was inundated with letters. She had gained, along with the money, a public identity. The addresses on her letters verified it. From the Philippines: “Audrey Robb, Westinghouse, Canada.” Typical from all of Canada: “Mrs. Audrey Robb, Hamilton, Ontario, Please Post Office Locate Address.” And the post office did. So did Westinghouse. The mail room was kept very busy just forwarding Audrey’s mail.

The requesfs ranged from the comic to the touching. An elderly woman wanted Audrey to send her to Florida for the winter; a would-be philanthropist wanted her to send him $100,000 to open an orphanage in India; a mother requested a TV set “to keep the kids out of the neighbor’s house”; a concerned young man wanted $3,000 to reopen an inquest because he was convinced his stepmother had murdered his father. Someone sent her his OHIP bill and wanted her to pay it. She had four proposals of marriage but she had already accepted the one she had just before she became rich.

Audrey doesn’t want to discuss her impending divorce. Her ex-husband, Ed Robb, won’t say anything either. At first he barricaded himself from reporters, but he finally agreed to make a statement if they left him alone after that. His statement made headlines: “I love my wife and want her back,” he said, claiming that he phoned her the evening of the draw, to beg her to reconsider and return to him.

“Not so,” says Audrey, “he wanted to know why I had taken the 12-inch TV which I had paid for.”

A typical plea came from Yugoslavia and in tortured English told a life story: because of “heart-infarkt” the writer needed help from Audrey right away. “I am turning you with a beautiful request.” he wrote. “If you can help me with some dollars by building my weekend house ... I am really afraid of intruding upon your goodness. But — request isn’t a sin.”

She has followed the advice she was given and has confined her charitable efforts to cases that she knows to be legitimate. She told me something of what she has already done and is doing and requested that I keep it to myself. “Them as ask, don’t get,” Audrey explained. “The ones that I can see need it, I help. No one has to know.”

At the end of 60 day?, Audrey Robb knew what she was going to do. The money was turned over to a trust company and though she has no precise figures on what it’s earning for her, she is content. When I pressed for an estimate of her income, she said. “You have to remember I spent some. It isn’t a million any more.” Allowing for the depletion of capital and taking the average on the various interest rates the money is invested at, and with the help of her boyfriend who is better at arithmetic than I am. we came to the conclusion that her income is about $50,000 a year. She has obviously let the trust company put her money in only the safest of investments because the return she’s getting on her money is not very high. She gets an allowance of $2,000 a month put into her chequing account and it seems to suffice for most of her expenditures, except the major one in January. She bought a nine-room, split-level house with a pool and change house on five acres outside of Hamilton (cash down, no monthly payments), quit her job and went to Europe for a quick holiday before she moved, telling no one except trusted friends and the trust company where she was going.

For the first time in her life Audrey Robb has charge cards. She had a little trouble with one department store. The credit manager wanted to know her husband’s position and required his permission for her to be a card carrier. She wrote back that she was separated and unemployed and the store didn’t like that at all. She told them to check with her bank. She got her card.

A psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Holmes, has come up with a scale of points that he calls life change units, to score the stress ratings of events that change one’s life. Death of a mate is highest on the scale at 100 points. Divorce or separation counts for 75; change in financial status 38, change of residence 20, and so on. The idea is that if you rack up a score of 200 or more within a single 12-month period, you’d better cool it because you could be in for serious trouble. A minor illness could turn out to be major, a slight distraction while driving might turn into a serious collision, a hangnail could be terminal. I did a quick score on Audrey Robb. As near as I can figure, she hit 209 in less than six months. I expected to meet a very uptight lady.

Since moving into her new home in February, Audrey has really taken cover. Finding her was hard enough; convincing her to let Maclean’s do a piece on her was something else. She wants to be left alone to live a private life. Very private. Even after she finally agreed to talk to me, she took precautions. When I arrived on the agreed day of the interview, I was presented with a three-page document to sign ordering me not to dwell on her private life or reveal her whereabouts. No signature, no interview. She’s a very organized and determined lady.

But she’s not uptight. We sat and drank coffee and talked for six hours. I was glassy-eyed and exhausted by the time we were done but she was fine, relaxed and happy. “Does money buy happiness?” I asked her.

“No, but it helps a lot,” Audrey said. “1 was happy in my apartment once I was on my own. Even those few days, when I didn’t know whether or not 1 was going to make it, I was happy and peaceful. Jim [her boyfriend] and the lottery [in that order] were perfect timing.”

After she finishes getting the house into shape, after her divorce is final, after she marries again in the fall and goes on a honeymoon to Japan, she’s looking forward to what she calls a “normal life.”

What’s a normal life? For Audrey Robb, it’s very simple.

Her dreams are a lot less complicated than those of the people I know. Right now she’s saving dimes to buy a mink coat. “You don’t go out and buy a fur coat,” she explained.

“That’s something you save for.” Most of the people I know are very talented at spending money. Their chief problem is learning restraint.

.Actually, it takes a lot of expertise to spend money. It's also time consuming and hard work. Audrey Robb could take lessons. But she probably wouldn’t be interested.

Audrey has “no time to read” so she doesn’t buy books. She has two stereos, one in a unit and one in components, but is not particularly interested in records (“I like Glenn Miller, things like that”). She owns two television sets, the 12-inch portable on which she watched her lottery ticket drawn, and a new color set. She has a large upright freezer, which she uses to save money on a freezer plan and to fill with the baking she enjoys doing.

She cleans her own house, with the help of Laurie and Debby. (Lynda, now 21, has gone north to get a job.) She had her first party in the new house in April, which she called a “Westinghouse Openhouse,” for some 30 people from the marketing division, and was planning another one for the mail kids and teletype operators. The painters were still in the house till noon the day before the party and she was unpacking cups and saucers, so she bought all the food at the Kitchener market: cold cuts, cheeses, breads, pickles, and Mennonite baking. She plans to do more cooking for the next one herself.

She spends less on clothes than I do and I don’t spend much. When she won the lottery she owned five pantsuits, one for each day of the week, and two dresses, all homemade. The four-piece outfit she bought in Montreal, pants, short-sleeved jacket, skirt and print blouse, cost $18 at Eaton’s bargain basement. She has two long gowns now, a $35 cream job with a sheer print jacket which she bought to wear on the CFTO/TV show Headline Hunters, and a $40 jade-green number with a “sort of cape thing.” which she bought to wear to Quebec City for the February Olympic draw (she paid her own way there). She has never gone into an exclusive dress shop. She gets her hair cut at a Hamilton hairdresser’s every six or eight weeks and sets it herself.

French perfume? Her favorite scent is Revlon's Moon Drops and she was dismayed to discover it had been discontinued. She found some in a drugstore recently and blew herself to two bottles of it.

Jewelry? Of sentimental value only more precious to her than a pearl of great price. She wears a little gold friendship ring and a diamond engagement ring, a present from her husbandto-be. and she has a jade necklace and earring set he gave her for Christmas.

Exotic food and drink? She had escargots for the first time last fall, liked them, has snail plates now and fixes them at home. She goes out to dinner with her family on special occasions such as birthdays, usually to the Golden Steer in Hamilton where she orders steak or roast. Her favorite meal is a Harvey’s hamburger. She doesn’t drink, thinks beer smells like “water a lumberjack’s socks have been boiled in” and won’t touch it. The gang at work had a surprise party for her when she left Westinghouse and toasted her in champagne. She had a sip and doesn't know who drank the rest of her glass. When she’s out on the town she orders a drink called a Shirley Temple: coke, cherry juice, a maraschino cherry and a slice of orange, on the rocks.

But she does love to travel and wants to do a lot more of it. She went to Europe in January, New Orleans in the spring, Europe in the summer, and is planning to go to Japan this fall. Someone should tell the airline that they should stock up on cherry juice.

She has a Shirley Temple doll in her bedroom, a new one Lynda gave her for Christmas. She has a Shirley Temple scrapbook she started keeping in 1943 (you can’t fake that), stored now in the suitcase she bought in Montreal to bring home her Cinderella clothes. She may seem unbelievable, but she’s for real.

It’s possible the green of her money has rubbed off on some of her former neighbors. Of the ones I spoke to, two refused to discuss her, “preferring not to take sides.” One said that her opinion was “nobody’s business but my own,” which made it very clear what her opinion was. The other said, “The less I have to do with her the better.” I asked if she thought that Audrey Robb had changed. “No, she hasn’t changed” was the grim reply.

Marilyn Curnew, another former neighbor, sees it differently. “She has changed — for the better. She didn’t have it easy. She was uptight before and she’s nicer now.”

One other neighbor, who hasn’t seen Audrey since her windfall, said “I can see why I haven't heard from her. If I won a million, Heaven knows where my head would be.”