In the legends of Vancouver journalism, Father Divine, who posed as a deity, once returned to the United States from a mission to the city accompanied by a blond lumber heiress. One night sometime later the news ticker clacked out word that the divinity had wed the local disciple—news that warranted waking the city editor. And, as the story goes, the editor, Hymie Koshevoy, with scarcely a pause to shake off sleep, said, “Okay, here’s your head: ‘Local Girl Makes God.’ ” True? Who knows—and as a distinguished correspondent once remarked, “Altogether too many good stories are ruined by over-verification.” Vancouver of the 1940s and 1950s is to Canadian journalism what Chicago was to Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, the place the best stories of the sort newspaper people tell one another came from. Bright writing, big headlines and outrageous stunts got both places the name of being “good newspaper towns”—and they must have been. You could ask people who were there.
Last week Pierre Berton, dean of the Vancouver School, was at home in Kleinburg, Ont. Berton went to the University of British Columbia to work on the college paper. There was no school of journalism: The Ubyssey, the paper, was that. Doing well there, he recognized, was the way to a job downtown. Berton says he skipped lectures and just squeaked through. He was too busy putting out the paper.
He thinks competition between The Sun, The Province and The News Herald—three papers, as in Toronto, but in a smaller city—underlay the liveliness of Vancouver journalism. But as well, in a port city, and an open city, in a yeasty time, “there was a lot to write about.” And, at least at The Sun, when the story was big, they played it big. With big headlines, big bylines and lots of space. The managing editor who drove The Sun was Hal Straight, a flamboyant former sportswriter. The publishers were the Cromie brothers, Don and Sam, young as their reporters, with the same instincts. The story that was told but never proven, Berton says, was that Robert Cromie, the father of Don and Sam, stole the paper.
Allan Fotheringham, a later product of The Ubyssey, was in the Washington bureau of Southam News last week.
The stolen newspaper legend he knows is that the elder Cromie was a junior to the proprietors, who got into tax trouble and chose to divest themselves temporarily of their newspaper. “[Cromie] was the sort of boy secretary,” Fotheringham says. “They had to put the paper in his name until they got rid of these tax and court problems. When it was over, they came back to him and said, ‘Okay, sign over the paper,’ and he said, ‘What paper?’ ”
The Sun’s slogan was “The Sun has the writers.” “And they did,” Fotheringham said. “When I started there in the early 1950s, they had a string of remarkable writers. Jack Scott was the finest essayist in Canada. Barry Mather used to write a punchy little frontpage humor-satire column. And [editorial-page cartoonist] Len Norris was superb.” Straight, too, was an original thinker of note in assigning reporters
When the trouble was over, they came back to him and said, ‘OK, sign over the paper,' and he said, ‘What paper?'
abroad—as, for instance, Marie Moreau, the fashion editor, to interview Fidel Castro, and Annis Stukus, the football editor, to cover a dispute over Quemoy and Matsu off the China coast.
Stuke, as football writer, once produced a story after a party with the team he had coached, the Vancouver Lions. The story said the club, under cover, had fired the lovable old Texas line coach. Denials and denunciations followed, and in the morning a young Fotheringham, on the sports desk, went babbling in to Straight to report the paper’s too-exclusive scoop. And Straight, shedding a $400 belted camel’s hair top coat, said calmly: “Fotheringham, I don’t know what you’re worrying about. If you’re right, you’re right and if you’re wrong, you’re fired.”
Joe Schlesinger, the CBC’s Washington-based correspondent, a still later product of The Ubyssey, was in Nicaragua. He told of having found a third fate between the two spelled out to Fotheringham—to be fired without necessarily being proven wrong. He reported a posh dinner at the length he
thought it deserved, three paragraphs—a news evaluation not concurred in by the paper’s management, or the people who gave and attended the dinner, quite a few of whom were advertisers. (“It never entered my skull,” he says.) A failing community newspaper and three years at the Vancouver Province led to an assault on Toronto—and an unparalleled career as a CBC foreign correspondent.
Val Sears, Toronto Star political editor, was in Moncton, N.B., headed west by train, with stops on the way to assess what the passenger train has meant to this country. Fresh from The Ubyssey in 1949, Sears joined The Canadian Press’s Vancouver bureau, where he was thrown in with such other young reporters as Arch MacKenzie and Ray Timson. Don Ferguson, later chief of the North American desk at Reuters, London, and now CBC regional director for Manitoba, was another new reporter in the Vancouver of the day. So was Jack Wasserman, who subsequently wrote an extraordinarily popular around-town column. So was Ron Haggart, senior producer at the CBC’S the fifth estate. And a lot more. Four reporters of the times, Barry Mather (NDP), Simma Holt and Paul St. Pierre (Liberal) and a young Pat Carney (PC), became MPS. Nowadays, says Sears, the only journalists of influence are the broadcasters on “the open-mouth shows.” The most influential of all, of course, the prototypical Vancouver radio —now televisiontalker, is Jack Webster, whose first fame came as a print journalist of the 1940s and 1950s. He succeeded Berton as chief feature writer at The Sun.
And also last week, Arch MacKenzie, 38 years with CP, walked a few doors west on Ottawa’s Wellington Street and traded the title of CP Ottawa bureau chief that he had held for 14 years for the same at The Toronto Star. In the Star bureau, he rejoined his old Vancouver colleague —and brother-in-law—Val Sears. He had been lured to the Star by—by whom else?—their mutual Vancouver colleague, Ray Timson, now managing editor of the Star.
This is Vancouver’s year to look back. Among the things it has to look back on is the last flourish in North America, probably anywhere, of fireworks print journalism. It was lively, but was it good? Of course. The young journalism of old journalists was always good—at least from within.
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