The measure of a good book is that it tells you something about the subject that you never knew before. Especially a biography, especially an autobiography. Marjorie Nichols, the immensely talented, immensely troubled Ottawa journalist who died last Christmas at the too-soon age of 48, was one of my two best friends in life.
Jane O’Hara, who in her current disguise is masquerading as the sports editor of The Ottawa Sun, has written a biography/autobiography of Marj-Parge. It is called Mark My Words: The Memoirs of a Very Political Reporter. It will be in the bookstores early in October, it is going to raise a lot of eyebrows in Ottawa and it tells me things I never knew before about a woman I thought I knew so well for more than 20 years.
O’Hara had a difficult task. Marjorie was dying of cancer—perhaps knew it, valiantly fought it off for three years—the inevitable result for someone who, like her friend Jack Webster, once used to smoke five packs a day. O’Hara in the final months tape-recorded Marjorie—one of the great talkers of all time—and has attempted to recreate her voice.
I’m not sure it quite works. Each chapter opens with O’Hara describing what is to follow in the fabulously entertaining shifts in her subject’s life—and then Marjorie’s voice takes over, in the first person. It takes the reader a few chapters to catch on. Perhaps typography is the villain.
Perhaps, to think of it, it is impossible, ever, to translate the Nichols conversational style into print. She was the only person I have ever met who was, congenitally, incapable of uttering a single sentence without there being within it some wit, some nuance, some pun, some innuendo—arms thrashing, rage on her face, all body language, all energy. You can’t do that in print.
Here’s Maij-Parge at her best, as taped by O’Hara on “why we have such cruddy contemporary reporting. Reporters today think that scandal-mongering is journalism. They’re wrong. The art of journalism is the art of synopsis, and that art form has been lost. It’s sort of like stone carving. Cave wall painting.
It’s gone. What’s happening now is that you don’t have to have information pass through your brain to be a reporter. All you have to do is have a tape recorder and a long arm.”
Pure rage. Pure Marj. As O’Hara records, she terrified whole newsrooms, she terrified her publishers (one of whom O’Hara is kind to, obscuring the fact that he ignored the woman in her dying years). She fought, it turns out, all her life with her father, an American wealthy on his land outside Red Deer, Alta. She was so wild as a child she went to live with her nearby grandmother, a lady she adored.
What surprises this supposed good reporter and good friend is the extent of her struggles with alcohol. As I used to tell her—and O’Hara records—she wasn’t so much an alcoholic as “a loneliholic.” As her Boswell proves, she was both. When she was in Washington, I was in Vancouver. When I was in Washington, she was in Victoria. I missed it. I was dumb.
The one great Marjorie quote O’Hara leaves out is her comment, when her lung cancer was discovered in early 1988: “It’s not fair. I got the alcoholism. Why couldn’t have Webster got the cancer?”
I think O’Hara is wrong about Marjorie’s wilful, crazy and extremely youthful attempts at marriage. O’Hara says it was one. I think it was two. I was ignorant (thanks, Jane) of my friend’s life as revealed in her tapes: “God, if I were to tell you whom I’ve slept with, you’d fall off the chair. A lot of them are still in public life. Obviously, there were some people in journalism, but there were a lot of politicians, too. I’ve slept with with the husbands of some of my friends. Hell, I’ve even slept with senators.” Revenge from the grave? John Turner is going to squirm when she has him tippy-toeing up to the room of a now-senator. She even has a memory of this here scribbler that doesn’t happen to be true. A naked Jack Webster? That would turn anyone off romance for a decade.
What emerges is the portrait of a woman unique. She did everything in excess. Holder of Canadian speed-skating records as a teenager, touring Europe in meets against the Russians. The second female to appear in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. A national journalistic figure at the age of 31.
She was, as O’Hara records, uncommonly kind to any underlings she found in her trade who had talent. Her tragedy, in the analysis of O’Hara—she was so determined not to be treated like a weak member of the opposite sex that she took on the trappings of the guys
0 who could drink and smoke 1 and stay up all night—and it t killed her.
Her assessments are deadly. (Trudeau so cheap he used to give the premiers left-over cigars; Mordecai Richler: “The guy’s a mess. He hasn’t washed his hair since 1967;” her close friend Judy LaMarsh had “a serious alcohol problem.”)
Revenge from the grave? Who cares? She sometimes sticks it to me, who probably deserves it. Candid and sometimes brutal assessments from someone who, as a politician quoted here says, “no clearer eye ever held a pen.”
This is Marjorie: Just before she died at 4:45 a.m. on Dec. 29, a nurse came into the room and was startled when she saw brother Sydney and inquired who he was. “Before he could answer, Marjorie opened her eyes, and with all the formality of a queen still commanding her court, said: ‘Sydney, she is asking you who you are. Tell her your name is Sydney and that you are my brother.’ Those were the last words she spoke.” I miss her to this day.
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