Ottawa inside out

MICHAEL CLUGSTON November 4 1985

Ottawa inside out

MICHAEL CLUGSTON November 4 1985

Ottawa inside out


It was one of the most elaborate Ottawa parties in a remarkable political era. An Edwardian-period dress ball at the posh Royal Ottawa Golf and Country Club last December attracted the stars of Ottawa’s political and bureaucratic society. Partisan tiffs were forgotten as NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, dressed as a turn-of-the-century schoolteacher, danced with Liberal Leader John Turner’s wife, Geills, while John Crosbie and Jean Chrétien, immaculate in white tails and toppers, swapped witticisms amid a whirl of dancers. The host, Richard Gwyn, political columnist for The Toronto Star, had helped plan and finance the event to celebrate the publication of The Private Capital, his wife Sandra’s portrait of Ottawa a century ago. Observed guest Robert Fulford, Sandra’s editor at Saturday Night magazine: “You don’t see it every day of the week—a husband who looks on his wife with that sort of pride.”

The Gwyns, in fact, are one of the most remarkable couples in Canada’s writing establishment. Reading, editing and rewriting each other’s work, they have accumulated most of the nation’s top awards for journalism and books. Last year Richard, 51, won the National Newspaper Award for column writing, his second such honor from the organization of publishers and journalists. As well, both picked up a joint National Magazine Award for investigative journalism for their Saturday Night article on then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s peace initiative. Sandra, 50, won the 1984 Governor General’s Award for nonfiction for Private Capital. And now Richard is promoting his fourth book, The U9th Paradox, an examination of Canada-U.S. relations.

A remarkable couple is leaving the capital after winning major awards for their journalism and their many fine books

During his 11 years as the Ottawa political columnist for The Toronto Star, he drew on the special insights he had gained into the capital’s inner workings during a five-year stint as a senior bureaucrat in the department of communications in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1980 he published a best-selling study of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, The Northern Magus. Her accomplishments are equally impressive. A prizewinning magazine journalist, she turned to books with The Private Capital, a social history of Ottawa from Confederation until just before the First World War. But there has been a price for the productivity. Said Sandra: “We would both like to get away from that pace of work for a while. It has really felt like a bloody factory.” This fall, after almost three decades of chronicling Canada, they will get their wish. The Gwyns will move to London, England, where Richard will take up the post as the Star’s columnist on international affairs and Sandra will freelance articles and work on a sequel to The Private Capital.

When they leave they will be abandoning a comfortable niche in Ottawa. Easily identifiable—Richard with his distinctive Julius Caesar haircut and Sandra with her big glasses and pageboy bob—they turned their home in the leafy west end into a meeting place for the city’s political and cultural elite. The books on the shelves in their home testify to their many shared passions —from murder mysteries and Edwardian novels to history and federal government reports. Photographs of the Atlantic coast and paintings by the vibrant Newfoundland realist Mary Pratt establish the Gwyns’ links to Newfoundland, where they have a cottage in a small northeastern fishing outport.

Professionally compatible, both are also Canadian nationalists—with accents. Richard’s is a clipped Oxbridge English while Sandra’s drawl gives away her Newfoundland origin. Her language is still spiced with such provincial phrases as “it drove me foolish.” Born in England, Richard spent his first 11 years in the outer corners of the empire—first in China’s British concession and later in India, where his father served as a brigadier in the British army during the last years of the Raj. Like three generations of Jermy-Gwyns before him, Richard attended Sandhurst, the British military academy. But his father had to buy him out of his commission before he had completed his 18month term. Said Richard: “I realized that I was not cut out for military life. Having disgraced myself in the eyes of my family I had no choice but to come to the colonies in the classic way.” On arriving in Canada in 1955 at the age of 21, he dropped the “Jermy” from his name.

At first, he took odd jobs. He hustled snacks on CN trains in Quebec and peddied a Catholic periodical door to door around Newfoundland’s outports. Then, in 1957, while working as a travelling salesman, he went to a tourist information kiosk in Halifax to ask for a city map. He got the map—and eventually the girl in the booth as well.

Her name was Sandra Fraser. She was 20 and had just completed an arts degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She was born in St. John’s, where her father, Claude, was a deputy minister of natural resources in the island’s pre-Confederation government. He died when she was only 9. After her mother remarried a career navy man, Sandra lived the life of a typical service-family member, living in Victoria, Ottawa and then Halifax. “I was brought up by a bookworm—my mother,” said Sandra. Indeed, worried about her daughter’s shyness, Sandra’s mother lured her into going to parties by offering books. Her wide reading was one thing she had in common with the travelling salesman. “Richard was an early beatnik,” said Sandra. “Absolutely different from anybody I had met or gone out with.”

Soon, abandoning sales, Richard got a job as a reporter with British United Press, the forerunner of United Press International, in Halifax. He married Sandra in 1958, and they moved to Ottawa. Then, in 1962 Time hired Richard as a parliamentary correspondent, while Sandra freelanced cultural affairs articles for the same magazine.

The Ottawa press gallery of the 1960s was in the midst of a period of creative self-discovery. Starting with Peter C. Newman’s Renegade in Power, a critical analysis of the Diefenbaker years, newspaper and magazine journalists began to turn their talents to books. The genre suited the combined talents of the Gwyns. At Sandra’s urging, Richard, who had covered the scandals of 1964-65 that rocked the administration of Prime Minister Lester Pearson, rewrote his Time research into his first book, The Shape of Scandal, published in 1965. Three years later a second Gwyn book appeared, Smallwood: The Unlikely Revolutionary, a biography of Newfoundland’s controversial first premier. Unlike Scandal, Smallwood grew entirely out of original research, one reason why, of his four books, it remains Richard’s favorite. It also reflects his attachment to Newfoundland.

From 1968 to 1973 Richard dropped out of journalism and worked first as an executive assistant to then-communications minister Eric Kierans and then as a director general in the department of communications. When he finally returned to print as a Star columnist, that inside experience stood him in good stead. Said Gwyn: “I had the benefit of having seen how things really happened, which of course is not at all the way most people think they happen.”

Then, in 1979, disillusioned as only a former insider could be, he began writing Northern Magus, his analysis of the Trudeau years. As usual, it was a joint effort. Richard did the research and the first few drafts, then both he and Sandra shared the rigorous rewriting process that they had learned working for Time. “Sandra is a more graceful writer than I am,” said Richard. “She is more likely to say outright, T don’t think this works.’ ” Indeed, for the first six months after Richard began writing his nationally syndicated Star column, Sandra edited most of his work. “A lot of people could not handle having another writer down the hall,” noted their friend Fulford. But Sandra said: “I do not think either of us could have written any of our books without the other. But each book is that person’s, ultimately.”

By the time Richard gave up the Ottawa beat last January, he had acquired a syndicate of 26 papers and national stature from his print, radio and television work. Last year, when Carleton University’s school of journalism polled the 325-member Ottawa press gallery, a majority said Gwyn’s column was the country’s most informative, and 47 per cent added that if they could read only one Ottawa column it would be Gwyn’s. Said Walter Stewart, head of journalism at King’s College in Halifax: “You had to read Gwyn to be really informed.” One of Gwyn’s most famous columns, an open letter calling on Trudeau to resign, was one of the submissions that won him the 1984 National Newspaper Award for column writing.

On occasion the column may even have influenced public policy. Richard himself said that he thinks a 1982 column in which he published the results of a suppressed Statistics Canada study could have helped impel the Liberals to introduce their Six and Five restraint program on the federal and provincial governments and their suppliers. The study showed that almost all Canada’s inflation was caused by federal government pricing. Said Richard: “I know that the article was circulated at a cabinet meeting when they were talking about inflation and I think it had some part in shaping the cabinet’s decision.” Still, there are some prominent Liberals who differ. Senator Keith Davey, a friend of the Gwyns, said, “That claim is rather grand of Richard.”

While Richard was providing pointed analysis of federal power, Sandra was giving it a human face in the pages of Saturday Night. Said the magazine’s former features editor, Robert Collison: “She brought a new dimension to reporting Ottawa, giving politicians and bureaucrats some depth and humanity.” In 1979 Sandra’s sympathetic profile of New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield won a National Magazine award.

In the course of her Saturday Night research, Sandra discovered the columns of a social commentator of the 1880s who wrote about Ottawa under the pen name of Amaryllis.“I felt we had the same sort of bead on the town,” Sandra recalled. She used Amaryllis as a major source for The Private Capital, weaving her gossip and scandal into an elegant but disturbing proof that power and influence have changed little in Ottawa over time. “At least half a dozen senior bureaucrats came up to me after reading the book,” said Sandra, “and said, ‘My God, nothing’s changed at all.’ ”

Soon the Gwyns will be unpacking their books and paintings of Newfoundland in their new flat in Little Venice, in north central London. Said Sandra: “In Ottawa we get so turned in on ourselves that it becomes obsessive. I hope Richard is right about Canada looking outward.” If any journalists can help to focus the country’s gaze, they are Richard and Sandra Gwyn.