The Toronto Star, where I used to work, takes itself a bit less seriously than, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post. Last year, for example, it published the obituary of an accomplished colleague with the irreverent headline: “Former Star editor remembered for legendary caper in Canadian journalism.” Although the secondary heading respectfully adds, “Alastair Dow died this week at age 77 after distinguished career in business writing,” I prefer the tone of the hed and this lede:

“One day in 1977, Alastair Dow and fellow Toronto Star editors Bruce Garvey and Jim Rennie decided over a booze-soaked lunch to fly across the Atlantic, just because.”

As Staff Reporter May Warren noted, details of that tale depended on who was telling it (and probably on who was listening). But as Saturday editor of the Star back in 1977 I was a confidant on the same level, with whom the three could share information and feelings they wouldn’t have volunteered to people for whom they worked or who worked for them. We used to hang out together in the bar conveniently located on the first floor of the Star building along with the bank where our paychecks were automatically deposited. So I can provide some context about the management moves that ticked off this trio of senior editors and sent them on their merry way.

Top Star management had a habit of moving people around to different assignments, apparently just to see what worked. Publisher Beland Honderich and Editor-in-Chief Martin Goodman were brilliant and successful newspaper people, but from time to time orders would come down the line that appeared arbitrary and capricious. Those of us lower in the chain of command believed that they came from Bee Honderich and that Marty channeled them.

Anyway, as I recall, at this time Dow was business editor, Garvey was national editor and Rennie was news editor, although the obit suggests Dow was national editor. In any case, Bee Honderich apparently took it into his head that the paper would be better if these senior editors came in at oh-dark-hundred to close the earliest edition of this afternoon newspaper. None of the three was a morning person and all had advanced far enough in their careers that they were used to keeping more congenial hours. Honderich also might have switched a couple of their roles in this process, further disgruntling them.

So Ray Timson, the managing editor, was assigned to persuade this trio of his top editors that Bee’s latest flash of enlightenment was brilliant. Timson could match drinks and stories with anyone (check out this memoir by his daughter), and he got along famously with his staff. So he took the trio out and treated them to lunch at the Salty Dog down the street. The luncheon lasted well into the afternoon, possibly evening. I was told the bill was above $200, a lot in those times. As the sun threatened to set, Ray decided to go home. He had an inflexible rule, which was that even if he got drunk as a lord he could function the next day as long as he got X hours of sleep—as I recall, seven. But in this case he didn’t ensure that his trio of senior editors followed that rule, nor that they had been persuaded by his eloquence. We will never know what he had said to them. “This too will pass? Bee won’t even remember it a couple of days from now”?

As noted earlier, details of this story vary depending on who was telling it. The following is pretty much the version Cathe and I got immediately afterward from Jim Rennie and Bruce Garvey. We never got Al’s version.

Ray Timson paid the restaurant check and went home, confident that when he arrived early the next morning his three top editors would be on hand to greet him and close the first edition.

No such luck. The three went instead to Toronto airport and tried to get on a British Airways flight to London. They were turned back because the British staff somehow detected they were drunk. They managed to get aboard an Air Canada flight, whose more tolerant staff agreed to carry them if they sat in the back of the plane and were quiet.

The rival Toronto Sun later published a story that the three wanted to go to Israel, “in search of the perfect orange,” but the Sun was an irresponsible tabloid that printed all kinds of claptrap. No, no, Rennie and Garvey assured me and Cathe later.

All three editors had been born in the United Kingdom. They were turning their backs on their adopted country—whether temporarily or permanently isn’t clear—to go back to their homeland, like Jews who show up in Israel and claim the right of return. Their specific destination was Scotland. It was “the call of the pipes.” Although Garvey was born in London, his father had served in Scotland’s famous Black Watch regiment, and Rennie was from Glasgow. Dow was born in England, but apparently far enough north that he too heard the call of the pipes. So that was where they were headed.

Actually they got only as far as London’s Heathrow Airport. Their first obstacle was immigration. They were stuck in a line for arriving passengers including various foreigners from the Commonwealth. This of course enraged our UK-born trio although they of course lacked passports and visas, and had precious little identification. At one point, Rennie presented a credit card. It was from a Canadian Tire store, sort of like Sears. He cleverly put his thumb over the word “Tire,” thus showing only the word “Canadian” along with the distinctive red maple leaf logo. “See? Canadian!” he said. Didn’t work.

So finally they had to ask the immigration officials to call the Star to verify their identities.

At this point Ray Timson re-enters the picture. He took the call. Although he had confidently expected his three senior editors to take his avuncular advice and show up on time for work, the Brits informed him they were at Heathrow. Did they belong to him? What should immigration do with them?

Send them home, Timson decided. Easier said than done, because they were still pretty drunk and obstreperous. So Timson called the Star’s London correspondent, George Bain, to get some money to pay for the flight back and babysit them in the meantime. Bain was by all accounts an estimable journalist, but not exactly cut from the same cloth as our errant trio. (To give you the idea, he had a sideline as the Star’s wine columnist, talking about “nose” and “bouquet” and like that. So they regarded him as something of a priss.) Anyway, Bain got them back aboard a flight to Toronto.

What to do? The Star was being penalized for its dumb decision to mess up the biological clocks of three senior editors whose services it needed. The trio of course had to be penalized in turn. So the Star suspended each for two weeks without pay.

Celia Garvey, for one, considered that appropriate. She thought it served her husband right, and during those two weeks he had to do useful things around the house, like painting or wallpapering or whatever.

The careers of the errant trio continued after that, mostly uninterrupted. They were good at what they did. Could be that Bee pretty much left them alone.

© 2016, J.V. Reistrup

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