HE HAD A NOSE FOR GOSSIP
As Larry Zolf never forgot, I was the first to write about him. And he loved it. He hungered for publicity because he was never happier than when he was telling you, or anyone, even the waiter, what he thought about just about any topic.
And now his voice and his intellect have been stilled. But not the memories.
He and some college chums had dreamed up some wacky political skit which was being performed somewhere so they phoned the old Toronto Telegram looking for publicity. It was early on a pleasant evening and nothing was going on so the night editor, Doug Stuebing, sent me off to U of T in case the students had some good lines.
They did. Wonderful biting political commentary, the kind that tumbled out of Zolf if the CBC or some editor didn't panic and resort to the libel lawyer. So a small story appeared, and Zolf was grateful. He ignored that the Tely was CONSERVATIVE and I was a conservative and he was a labour-loving refugee from the Jewish-Polish community of Winnipeg.
For decades, Zolf called me regularly to find out what was going on. And I returned the favour. Often he was feeling lonely and just wanted to talk. In a hurry, on deadline, we would use each other as a resource on what had happened in Toronto politics decades before. I could Google Zolf's memory. He worked at it, talking, gossiping, drinking, reading, pontificating electronically, skewering, writing books and columns and an early blog, often driving those close to him to frustration because he was untidy about everything even to his clothes.
Before an election, Zolf would call columnists like me and political insiders like Senator David Smith and get seat projections. It was a useful call for me and for him because you traded what you really knew for ridings where you had no idea.
When I was Editor of the Toronto Sun, in the days when the suits didn't insist who the columnists were, I had Zolf write some columns. He wasn't popular with our right-wing readers, even though he would slash away at all parties and philosophies. Doug Creighton, the ultimate reader of Sun columns, recognized Zolf's wit but not necessarily his wisdom.
Creighton regularly urged me to fire Walter Stewart, whose parents had been CCF/NDP leaders, but understood when I didn't on the grounds that any real newspaper needs a range of views. So I knew that adding Zolf weekly to the editorial mix was really tilting at the windmills, since Zolf was occasionally like Stewart on speed.
Zolf was used as a resource by his main employer, the CBC, because he had a wealth of home phone numbers. He also was a trusted insider for the anchors. The secret for all this was that Zolf never tried to get major politicians to speak only to him, to lock up his sources. And he talked to everyone, even if he would hoot incredulously - you could recognize his laugh even in the turmoil of Question Period - if the ideas got really strained.
He was a guru in his beloved Beaches. Tom Jakobek when he was just a trustee trying to step up appealed to me to help end the rumour he was a Scientologist. Zolf was spreading it, he said. So I told him to have the family church minister be photographed with him for campaign literature and to phone Zolf and tell him that I said to knock it off. He descended on Zolf's house and delivered the message at the door. Zolf phoned me and said he almost had a heart attack when this tall "spooky" guy loomed over him at the door. But Zolf stopped the assault and Jakobek won. (I can just hear Larry saying that the line really should be that the city lost. )
I've seen PMs, premiers and ministers spar with Zolf, some times with exasperation tinged with affection. Yet what the politicians and his colleagues all recognized is that Zolf liked nothing better than yarning about what was making politics tick in Canada, and that he really cared.
He was, he said, the ugliest Jew around. Ah yes, that was a nose that even Cyrano would have envied. But what a passion for politics.