Frontlines

Warner Troyer takes time out for kids

Warren Gerard September 24 1979
Frontlines

Warner Troyer takes time out for kids

Warren Gerard September 24 1979

Warner Troyer takes time out for kids

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Warren Gerard

What happens is, a man and a lady get to meet. And they get to fall in love. And they get to marry. And they buy a house. And they get to have some kids. And they get to be divorced. And they live happily ever after.—A five-year-old speaking to a three-year-old about the facts of life. From Divorced Kids by Warner Troyer.

It was four years ago, six days before Christmas. Warner Troyer, journalist and television personality, had been filming in Europe. Now he was on his way home via Munich, Zurich and New York. Tired, assignment complete, he chose the very back seat of the aircraft on the short flight from New York

to Toronto. About 20 minutes after takeoff a carefully dressed, pale young girl, about nine years old, stood by Troyer’s seat as she waited to use the rear toilet.

“Do you like the back seats?” she asked Troyer, tossing her long brown hair with a jerk of her head. “There are a couple of empty seats up there, just over the wing. That’s where it’s the smoothest. It’s usually much rougher back here in the tail, you know. And it’s always much noisier.”

A few minutes later, looking for a magazine in the forward book rack, Troyer noticed her again, this time in

earnest conversation with an elderly man and as Troyer passed by he heard the man say, “Yes, I’m going home to visit my son for Christmas.”

Two or three rows ahead was a boy about the same age as the g He was turned out in his Sunday best blue blazer, grey flannels, a white shirt with a tartan, clip-on bow tie hanging loose at one side of an open collar. He, too, was travelling alone.

On arrival at the airport, Troyer waited in his seat and was the last to disembark. A few steps ahead were the two children, both in the care of a stewardess who was taking them to the baggage-reception area, where each was being met. As they walked along the seemingly never-ending byways of Terminal 2, the girl turned to the boy and said: “I don’t know about you, but I really prefer to fly American Airlines rather than Air Canada when I come to visit my mommy, because American flies into Terminal 1. It’s so much more convenient; because it’s round, you see, and you don’t have to walk nearly so far; and you can just take an elevator to the car park. Besides, American flies from La Guardia in New York, and it’s a lot closer to Manhattan than Kennedy, where you have to go on Air Canada. But I really don’t like Terminal 2, here.”

Troyer recalls his reaction at the time. “I was really tired, the jet lag and all that, and it hit me. I was shocked at the sophistication of that kid, the unnatural sophistication that seemed to me wrong, and it bothered me. I went on thinking about that for a hell of a long time off and on. I can still see and hear her; still marvel at her worldliness, at an age when skipping ropes seemed more appropriate than DC-9s and luggage carousels.”

He is telling the story on the back deck of his comfortable old house on a sedately maple-lined street in WASPish north Toronto. He chain-smokes and occasionally sips a gin and tonic. At 47, and he looks every minute of it, this old pro, a veteran journalist who has interviewed a thousand faces on and off camera, is nervous at being interviewed himself. He chain-smokes his nervousness away and talks quietly in the manner of the understated Troyer seen so often on such programs as This Hour Has Seven Days and the fifth estate.

The pale little girl on the plane stayed in Troyer’s mind. She was a child of a broken marriage. Perhaps she reminded him of the children of his own broken marriages. Troyer had six chil-

dren, one adopted, from his first marriage. A year after the flight from New York his second marriage fell apart. He had another two children with his second wife. Eight in all. It was the girl on the plane that sparked the idea for his new book, Divorced Kids (Clarke Irwin), but his own guilt was the initial driving force.

“Sure there was guilt,” Troyer says. “Pretty the word up and you can call it responsibility.” He admits that when his marriages broke up he didn’t handle

the situation well with his kids. “I didn’t handle it. I’m sure that there are going to be some people, probably some critics, who are going to say the whole book was nothing but a prolonged and self-indulgent catharsis for Warner Troyer. But I didn’t handle it. I screwed it up with both my families, both those sets of kids. I’m only now beginning to understand the dimensions of that screw-up and I only came to understand it by talking to other people’s kids and then going back and talking to my own kids and saying, ‘Hey, did this happen with you?’ ”

Troyer interviewed more than 300 kids, teen-agers and adults, all from broken marriages. Divorced Kids is their book as much as it is Troyer’s. Sometimes their stories are funny; mostly they are tragic. Troyer’s method was to tape their interviews and use what the children said in a dressed-up transcript form, protecting their identities. “I had looked at a couple of books about divorce and children written by psychiatrists and sociologists. I thought they were crap, pretentious and pompous and probably not very useful.

Moreover they were mostly about kids with severe trauma, emotionally screwed-up kids, and it didn’t seem to me that they dealt with the ordinary ones who don’t show overt signs of major trauma, but who are probably pretty badly cut up inside.”

After his second marriage broke up he told an interviewer that young journalists should remain single. “If the typewriter is your mistress, you’re bound to make a lousy husband. And believe me, we journalists do indulge

ourselves terribly. Whatever interview we’re doing this moment is the most important thing in the world. We think the assignment allows us absolution from normal responsibility and we keep abusing that privilege. It’s an absorbing fix, an all-consuming disease.”

This self-indulgence, Troyer’s fix, as he puts it, led to neglect of his family. “I went through years and years and years depriving my kids of me. During This Hour Has Seven Days there were 104 weeks in which there were only 12 days I didn’t work. From ’61 to ’671 averaged more than 100 hours’ work a week. Twice I woke up in my car on the 401 highway with my forehead on the steering wheel, the car moving at 80 m.p.h. I guess it was my whole life. The same was true when I produced W5.

“So I deprived them of myself, the most important thing I had to give them. I did the classic North American thing.I made up for it, I thought, I supposed, with books, bicycles, with a house. Which was bullshit, of course. I

still have the same sense of urgency about the work I do but I have a hell of a lot more fun now with the time I have with them, and I have more time with them. I suppose I was running from something that wasn’t working very well. I was hiding from it.”

He has stopped running these days. His work load has lightened. The telephone hasn’t rung with the BIG OFFER, but this is another of Troyer’s cycles. “Every couple of years I’m rediscovered by a magazine-show producer as though I’m a great find.” Until then, he is literary editor of CBC radio’s Sunday Morning, and tucked away in his mind are four more books. More important, perhaps, his house is filled with children-his own.

His own childhood was happy. His parents were happy. Maybe it works that way. At 13, trauma struck. His right leg was amputated below the knee. “I had a bone infection and a bad diagnostician.” He read (that was before TV) and wrote bad fiction with O.Henry twist endings. He still had a squeaky voice at 18 and played the juvenile lead in Jane Eyre four times in three years in radio-play productions in Calgary and Edmonton. He was developing a taste for news and it was in Edmonton that he got his first scoop, but he didn’t know what to do with it. So he did nothing.

Marilyn Monroe had broken her ankle at a cast party while filming River of No Return with Robert Mitchum. The film’s crew was hip to Troyer’s jazz program every night (he was fired a few days later for not playing the top 50) and they phoned nightly for a request. One night the chief cameraman called and said Monroe had broken her ankle. “She was stoned and went out to have a leak at a cast party and put her foot in a gopher hole. I phoned the Banff hospital and they finally admitted she was there. I was afraid to run the story, for fear of libel suits or something. I was just a kid. The next day a press release explained how they’d been filming in the river with Mitchum and she’d been swept away and her leg had been caught between two rocks. They said she had been drowning and Mitchum had saved her. Curiously there were no cameras rolling.”

Troyer wandered. Most everybody of Troyer’s years in journalism did the same. They wandered, worked hard, whored and drank themselves into stupors. The kids have changed now. They’re serious, for the most part dull, and they think journalism is a profession. Troyer worked as a newsman, the only man, at a radio station in Fort Frances where he reported, wrote,

edited and announced the news from 7 a.m. to midnight and then free-lanced. He worked for the Portage la Prairie Daily Graphic and the Winnipeg Free Press. He did some television work, election-night coverage, and a publicaffairs show in Winnipeg.

And then he met Patrick Watson. Watson went to Winnipeg to interview Troyer for a TV public-affairs program in Ottawa. “He got off the plane at Winnipeg and I started to giggle because he was on crutches with his pant leg pinned up [Watson lost his in an accident] and he didn’t know that I had an artificial leg.”

It was the beginning of the glory days for Troyer. He was on Inquiry until 1964, Seven Days until 1966, The Public Eye until 1968, W5 until 1970. After that he set up a film production company which was active until 1975. Then he hosted The City Show on the first season it was on CITY TV, a local Toronto station, for 10 months, three hours a night, five nights a week. “After 10 months I typed up a resignation and gave it to Ron Haggart [the producer] one night and he said, ‘Why?’ and I said, T was just sitting in the studio and I heard myself telling the same anecdote I told last night.’ ”

He worked for fifth estate for a year, travelling 180,000 miles in that time. One night after a 14-hour filming day in Kitchener, Troyer returned to his hotel to find producers Ron Haggart, Robin Taylor and Glenn Sarty waiting for him. “I had a steak and they drank and told me they weren’t going to pick up my option. We went through a two-hour session of very intensive bargaining which had to do with how much they were prepared to pay me so that I would

go quietly. But when I asked why, the only reason I got from Sarty was ‘You don’t sparkle much now.’ I was in shock that night. I went back to the hotel and cried for about two hours until I went to sleep.”

Only a week earlier Troyer had won two ACTRA awards for a film story on mercury poisoning in northwestern Ontario. Now unemployed, he decided at the urging of John Pearce, an editor at Clarke Irwin, to write a book on the subject. “Having made the film for fifth estate I realized how much more there was to say, how inadequately I had covered it. You know, we’re really hit-andrun artists, and that story was going on but it wasn’t being covered.”

It took Troyer eight months to write No Safe Place with the help of fifth estate researcher Glenys Moss, with whom he now lives. The book was praised by reviewers. It was good journalism but it made no sales records, selling about 5,000 hard-cover copies. Troyer estimates he lost between $9,000 and $12,000 by writing the book.

A good friend read No Safe Place in manuscript form. “He wrote me an agonized letter saying, ‘Please, God, don’t publish that book. Rewrite it, there’s too much of you in it. You’re too naked, too vulnerable,’ and I wrote back saying, T don’t know any other way to write that would feel like it mattered.’ ”

He wrote Divorced Kids in the same personal way and worries slightly about it. “My kids might think I’m exploiting them—but I don’t think they will when they read it.”