BOOKS

The private side

An autobiography reveals personal tragedy

HAL QUINN January 7 1991
BOOKS

The private side

An autobiography reveals personal tragedy

HAL QUINN January 7 1991

The private side

BOOKS

An autobiography reveals personal tragedy

WEBSTER!: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY By Jack Webster (Douglas & McIntyre, 247pages, $22.95)

To the current generation of under30s, if any of their number actually watch the CBC’s television fossil, Front Page Challenge, panelist Jack Webster may seem like their grandfather in a bad mood. To their elders, particularly those living in British Columbia, the 72-year-old transplanted Glaswegian must appear to have mellowed just slightly in his latest TV role.

They will remember a younger Webster for his muckraking postwar articles in The Vancouver Sun newspaper—where he replaced Pierre Berton, who had ventured east—or his gravelvoiced, acerbic wit on his radio talk show. He was also the rumpled interrogator on his own local daily TV show and provided West Coast reports to the CBC’s This Hour Has Seven Days national affairs program of the late 1960s. And many in the business of journalism will recall agreeing with Maclean ’s columnist Allan Fotheringham’s assessment that Webster was “the best reporter in Canada" until his retirement on May 1, 1987.

But precious few—even among his closest

colleagues—knew the tragic, private side that drove and haunted Webster each step of his pugnacious scramble to the top of his field. The story of the other side of his life punctuates Webster!, and separates it from the rash of journalistic memoirs that annually clutter preChristmas bookstore shelves across the country.

Webster! is not strictly an autobiography. Though a journalist for 40 years—26V2 of them as a radio and TV broadcaster—rather than put keyboard to paper, Webster turned the microphone on himself and dictated his life

story into a tape recorder. In an interview, he explained that he did not actually write the book because there was “too much vulnerability.” And in his preface, he expresses his appreciation to former Globe and Mail reporter Ian Mulgrew for giving him his “literary voice and style.” The reader should be grateful, too. Those who have met or, more accurately, experienced Webster in person can almost hear the resonant thunder of the real voice on every page. And they can sense the pain. The book opens with the simple, forthright statement “My world fell apart on Feb. 22, 1985.” That was when Webster’s wife, Margaret, died. They were teenage sweethearts and lovers in Glasgow during the waning years of the Depression. But they acquiesced to strongminded parents and gave up

for adoption a child bom in 1936 before their marriage. They wed three years later and raised a family, but the loss of their firstborn, whom Margaret came to call her “stolen” child, tormented her, coloring and shaping their lives. Webster blames himself for not marrying Margaret when the child was bom, and blames the loss of their child—and his trouble dealing with her grief—for his wife’s subsequent severe emotional traumas, leading to shock treatments, a form of lobotomy operation in 1960 and eventual full-blown agoraphobia (fear of open places). With novel-like timing and power, Margaret’s trials and triumphs, including finding her “stolen” daughter, Joan, in 1972, are touching-

ly, and candidly, interwoven with his own.

As Webster and Mulgrew write: “Hers was an intensely personal universe, mine incredibly public. She admired those who made people laugh; I admired those who made history.” And throughout this chronicle of their life together, the reader meets a who’s who of history makers whom Webster interviewed. Webster repeatedly asked then-justice Minister Pierre Trudeau if he smoked marijuana—never getting a direct answer. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney refused to be interviewed on Webster’s TV show during the 1984 federal election campaign, allowing Liberal Leader John Turner, who did face Webster, to present his inquisitor with a T-shirt reading “I’m not afraid of Webster!” Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos wined and dined the Websters in Manila in 1965; former B.C. premier W. A. C. Bennett called Webster “a liar”; and Yippie Jerry Rubin tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to convince Webster to take LSD.

Webster admits to “vanity,” an ego-driven need to be at the front lines. And for 40 years, that is where he was. It earned him fame—and the Order of Canada in 1988—death threats and fortune. Attributes, like a “brass-neck approach to reporting,” also meant life on the run, on the edge away from home and family. Margaret Webster once told a reporter doing a profile of her husband that if she were doing the interview, she would have only one question: “Webster, where have you been all these years?” Five years after her death, Webster! provides the answer.

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