A LIFE FOR HOLLYWOOD
I've just decided to make a lot of money and write the true story of Peter Worthington's life and sell it to Hollywood as a vehicle for Robert De Niro or some star capable of handling insight stirred with whimsy and ego with a dash of fine appreciation of women.
The first time I saw Worthington, it was 7 a.m. on a fine May in 1958 and he was galloping down the street chasing a nurse from a nursing home fire that had killed four people near King and Jameson.
There were reporters and photographers everywhere, mixed with cops, firefighters, relatives and the curious. It was my second day on a big-city newspaper and I didn't have a clue as to what to do because famous bylines were scrambling everywhere led by Peter.
So I asked an award-winning Tely gentleman, Arthur Kent, what I should do. And he said come stand on that lawn with me so we won't get trampled.
Then the fire chief asked who wanted to see where they had found the dead. Peter and the other veterans said nothing. So I went. And when the firefighter put his axe in the third floor over my head and tons of stinking water poured over me, my only good clothes and shoes were ruined for all time, smelling of fire and death no matter what the drycleaners tried.
Lesson One from Peter: Don't volunteer when it's really stupid. You can go looking for trouble but keep your wits about you.
There were many others over the years. They talk of the five Ws which are the foundation of a news story: who, what, when, where, why. I learned from Peter about the other Ws: work, write, wanderlust, wacky, wary. And while I'm at it, war horse.
I was chatting with Peter after the funeral service for former mayor Phil Givens at Beth Tzedec when I turned to developer Phil Roth and whispered that all the eulogies were more about the speaker than the great politician. Peter and I decided it was only natural to concentrate on how we relate to the person in the coffin, but let's not forget the departed.
As I survey what was written and said in the last days, I half expect Peter to descend and say with that half smile, gentle but with a splash of acid, that comments were speckled with mistakes and misinterpretations and it was funny to hear fine words from a couple of blowhards among his host of friends.
Peter didn't rant or rave in person. But he knew how to prick pomposity. Some times I thought he was hard on enemies but harder on his friends.
Let's not say RIP because Peter never did that in his life, no matter what the circumstances. He's already exploring the far clouds and asking about the chances of seeing what Hades is like for an hour or so.
The reason I included work and write in my second Ws list is because Peter was a shining example of how success often goes to being there, all the time, and writing about it, all the time, and being competitive, all the time.
I once chided him in print about how he had written about Bambi Bembenek 31 times. He descended on me claiming exaggeration. I referred to the Sun computerized library. He left, not apologizing, because if he wanted to write that she had been wrongly convicted of killing her husband, again and again, he would. And if he wanted to churn out countless columns on Igor Gouzenko or Clifford Olson or the corrupt Grits or his Army, then those stupid editors better put it ALL in the paper.
A startling array of newsworthy people had confidence in Peter. That was his candid charm. Gouzenko, the paranoid Soviet spy who defected in Ottawa, came to see Peter so often that when he approached me when I was rushing through the newsroom to ask why Peter wasn't at his desk, I called him Igor rather than the cover name of Mr. Brown. He reacted like a spooked bird, but I managed to cover it up by coughing.
Peter worked and played fiendishly hard. He loved to write, but he also over the years went above and beyond in even the most basic chores.
My first shift as Night Editor at the Telegram, a TCA plane crashed just north of Dorval killing 118 around 7.30 p.m. It started badly for me too. I heard the warning summonse of the Teletype bells just seconds before Art Cole phoned. (Cole, who could terrify a daisy, was described aptly, of course, in the obit that Peter wrote about himself.) I phoned Ron Collister in Ottawa who said he had been warned by his wife that their marriage was over if he went anywhere. I told him the toll. He went. I phoned Peter and his first wife Helen and they came instantly to the old Tely office. Pickups are an awful thing to have to do. You go to the door or phone and ask the crying wife or husband for a head-and-shoulders of the spouse who died just a few hours before. Yet by the time the first edition came out 11 hours later, we had 85 pictures of the dead in the paper, 75 of them from the Toronto area.
I remember that tortuous night almost as much as the night he had to flee Moscow with his interpreter Olga (mentioned in his own obit) and we stood over the Teletype for his messages as he escaped to Egypt or Belgium or ???? because Canada wasn't welcoming him since he was travelling with the wife of a KGB colonel. So our publisher, John Bassett, who valued Peter as an star employee and friend, appealed to the PM and the bureacrats crumbled. He arrived at the Tely to acclaim as a conquering hero but there was a chill in official Ottawa which I don't think ever forgave him.
His flight from Moscow read like a John le Carre spy novel but I never thought we got to read every page. His exotic defector of a companion went on to teach Russian at U of T.
Peter always kept churning out the columns. No matter what else was going on, heart attacks, travelling, holidays, fatigue, the columns poured out.
He once told me that his famous father, Fighting Frank, the general who fathered the tank in the Canadian military, had give him a middle name of Vickers after the dependable machine gun that helped win the Great War more than the belated entry of the Americans.
An apt name! Peter shot out columns like the Vickers poured out millions of bullets without ever seizing up. As someone who has written thousands of columns and editorials, I would estimate that no one in Canada has ever written as many columns as Peter. He was a Niagara Falls of comment.
But migawd he could be difficult . Doug Creighton said he carried around a letter for months firing his friend/partner/confidant. Peter had rebelled against the sale of the Sun and grumbled that we were important to read for comment but not really for news. When Creighton pulled the trigger in the fall of 1984 after Peter had quit as Editor two years earlier in favour of his friend, Barbara Amiel, we had a new publisher just of the flagship Sun, Paul Godfrey.
Godfrey didn't know much about newspapers but he was a quick study and was told within minutes that the firing would hurt circulation. So he and some others gathered around that Friday and persuaded me to phone Creighton at his summer place, Seasons. I told the big boss that everyone knew that Peter could be a horse's ass but he was a great tilter at windmills and readers loved him.
Creighton said I was presuming on my friendship with him, since he had been a mentor, and he yelled a lot and I spluttered even more. He reminded me that I had my own history with Peter where he would call and say that he was going away the next day for some unstated period to some unstated destination and I should write the editorials and edit but, of course, continue to write my daily column.
Peter had been in Egypt sailing the Nile when Creighton walked into his office and asked what I was doing there. Where was Peter? I said he had been away for some time and I thought he was in Egypt. Creighton demanded to know when he was coming back because we're having a board meeting next week. I didn't know. Creighton said he didn't know Peter was away because my editorials now read like his. I wasn't sure he meant it as a compliment but when I told Peter later, he gave me that half grin and didn't say a damn word.
Several years later, Godfrey kept agitating to get me to ask Creighton to rehire Peter. Doug just waved one hand in dismissal when I made the case. But I think everyone from Creighton to Peter to the Day Oners knew eventually the two would kiss and make up before their next disagreement.
I tried to get Peter back when he started writing for the Financial Post, which the Sun bought, but there was no light in the window of Creighton's office. What happened finally is rather strange, when you sort the variations. Peter told me that he found out that Creighton had made him Editor of the Ottawa Sun when it came over the car radio in 1988 when he and Yvonne were driving in the Maritimes. Except Peter just wrote in his own obit that it was on the Globe's front page. And you never disagree with a guy who writes his own obituary. It is truly the last word!
It was a marvelous stormy relationship between two good entrepeneurs and great journalists. The tempest was reflected on our tabloid pages. At one point, Creighton tired of being worried about what Peter would write next and brought in, to the surprise of everyone, Doug MacFarlane, a formidable editor so famous in the country that he was known by his initials JDM.
Creighton and I had both got promoted when JDM was fired at the Tely by Bassett but we still respected him. I led the Ryerson search committee that brought him in as Journalism chair, and Creighton hired him later to watch Peter.
Peter ended any newsroom talk about his title and JDM's title and who reported to whom by going to the composing room that night and making himself Editor-in-Chief on the formal Masthead and faced down Creighton the next day when he got a half-angry half-laughing lecture,
There's enough material in Peter's life for several movies. Wars and rumours of war. Threats of arrest. Interviewing the legends. Stunts like climbing mountain, walking marathons and the day he dove into the Thames beside the thrashing propellors of the London cruise ship on a dare. He was never happier, as I said on TV, than when he was swimming one way and everyone else was swimming the other. He gloried in being a contrarian, in advising the Leafs, Jays and Argos. He was tear-wrenching when he wrote about his beloved Jack Russells. (And his buddy Donato's cartoon showing his dogs waiting for him in Heaven should bring more tears.) He cared about honest humane organizations protecting animals but even here he demonstrated his cantankerous independence by supporting the seal hunt before he attacked it.
I could go on, and will, any time the conversation over a few cold ones turns to the great people I have known. The movie could be called It's A Wonderful Life, but the great Frank Capra used it first in a 1946 movie. It won a lot of awards, but then so did Peter, because he never did anything average.