THE TOUGH TELY CHICKENED OUT
I haven't thought of Billy McGuire, the scamp from the famous police desk of the Toronto Telegram, for years. Nor the story that he didn't write which would have sent shock waves through politics if it hadn't shredded the Tely first.
McGuire, a long-time-yarner at the London Free Press, died the other day. His obit and his friends recall his stories, his good humour and his National Newspaper Award in 1983. Hinted at but not dwelled on, because you don't betray the recently departed, is that McGuire did a lot of things with gusto, from smoking to drinking to working to enjoying life.
When Bill and I were the kids at the Tely, we had a certain bonding because we worried a trifle about how we stood with the laconic veterans, grizzled pros and preening hot shots around us. After all, Doug Creighton, the king of that police desk, would ascend to founding a great newspaper chain. Others, including Howard Rutsey, were like Jocko Thomas of the Star where when you listened to them, all the seamy and bloody stuff of kidnappings, murders and grisly crimes, plus a rapport with the cops, just oozed out of every sentence.
One day McGuire told me that he got a tip from some rounder about a floating crap game for big shooters which wandered around the west end after you were collected in a Chinese restaurant near Spadina and College late in the evening and driven around while blindfolded.
McGuire said he was going to infiltrate the game. It took some time to persuade the City Desk to let him change shifts and then approve this foray into the underbelly
After all, the desk was run with a big fist by the formidable Art Cole who viewed the excesses of McGuire and other blithe spirits who pretended to be bossed by him with a mix of blazing anger and a contempt that could be felt a block away.
However, if you hung in long enough, you also dug down to the resignation that only a World War Two war photog could have, that this was the way life really was, and you needed all the energies that only real characters could bring you for the war with the Star where the Globe was an occasional snooty observer.
So McGuire set off for Spadina and College to sit nursing a coffee wishing it was a beer until he made contact with a seedy looking character. After a strained conversation where McGuire made it plain he wanted to gamble, he was taken outside, blindfolded and driven around and around, although he thought they were just going up and down the same streets.
They went to an old building, which he couldn't see distinctly in the night, and then into a big room where craps was being played without much talk. McGuire hung at the edge of the circle until he got acclimatized and then pushed in.
And this is what happened, as he told me an hour or so later when I waited in the old Tely newsroom with the afternoon reporters to hear his great scoop.
He got his wallet out and looked around at the others, and then he looked across the dice into the face of Metro Chairman Frederick Goldwyn Gardiner, Q.C. , now just the name of the workhorse expressway, but then the most powerful municipal politician in the land as well as being such a power in the Conservative party that he was the key to John Robarts becoming premier in 1961 rather than Kelso Roberts. (I know, I wrote Kelso's memoirs.)
McGuire took one strained look and then got the hell out of there. And that was that.
I was too junior then, not yet on the track to be an Assistant City Editor, to know what happened after McGuire wrote his memo or what exactly was said after he talked to Cole. And, of course, the sighting of Gardiner would then be reported up to J. Douglas MacFarlane, the legendary Managing Editor, and then, of course, up to the publisher, Big John Bassett.
Three tough guys at the controls of the most important Conservative paper in the city, for that matter as important in Ottawa as the Globe arrogantly pretends to be today. Three guys who could so lash you with words that burly men would shake and later cry. Three guys tempered in war who were no
strangers to carousing and gambling in the middle of the night themselves.
I have been thinking of such anecdotes a lot lately because of the Star, and other media, being so preoccupied with huge coverage of Rob Ford's stupid antics, familiarity with banned substances and even, if you can imagine, booze. As a former mayor whispered quietly to me the other day, "Heavens, there is apparently drinking in the mayor's office these days."
I wrote a blog/column on Nov. 15 about the rogues we have had in the mayor's office since 1834. No need to repeat it. Unlike the Star, I don't believe in saying the same thing ten thousand times.
Yet there is another untold story about Gardiner that shows Toronto's leaders haven't always been candidates for sainthood or WCTU veneration.
One hot summer in the early 1960s, the Metro licensing commission decided to have a formal hearing into whether two restaurants near Jarvis and Dundas, Norm's Grill and the Spot One, should lose their licences because of all the criminal activity there.
Naturally Gardiner was a commission member. The first morning, a prostitute gave herself a shot in the washroom reserved for women aldermen and then collapsed during testifying in the committee room beside the old council chamber. Gardiner became emotional about the poor woman's plight, ordered a halt to proceedings, and shipped her to a hospital via his limousine and driver.
The noon edition of the Tely headlined my story where I described every convulsion and tear drop. The Star story, inside, by a reporter being punished for being too much of an old fart in Ottawa, didn't mention her but said instead that lawyers argued the hearing was unconstitutional.
In the next edition, the Star scalped my story three times, running the three versions in one hilarious stream, while I reported more on the poor girl who had become addicted in the restaurants under review.
I had a great run for days, even dubbing the area the "Sin Strip." The Star always kept screwing up. One night, Gardiner decided to tour the "Sin Strip" himself. So he had his usual bowl of pea soup at the National Club along with a good steam and too many scotches, and off he went to the Spot One.
The horrified patrons looked up to see the most powerful politician around staggering in the front door. They went out the back, and when they couldn't all make it, went up over the tables and chairs around Big Daddy. He grabbed the last woman by the arm, said with tears that he just wanted to be friends, and presented her with proof, the big gold serpent ring that he always wore that had jewels for eyes. She, not spaced out enough to be stupid, ran away clutching her prize.
Of course some stoolie trying to build up brownie points reported this to the cop who ran him, and every possible cop went searching for the prostitute and the ring.
The next morning, Gardiner showed up his office with quite a hangover. The press knew the office well because, conveniently, we shared an air vent. Apparently there was nothing on his desk but a sealed envelope. And inside was the valuable ring.
All these tidbits of info were shared by various sources trying to curry favour with the Tely City Hall bureau which I say modestly was the stuff of legend. We were led by Ray Hill and Bob MacDonald. Hill was a wonderful writer who didn't worry much about facts. MacDonald was one of the toughest reporters I ever worked with. This was before he stopped drinking so he didn't care much about facts either, or what anyone thought about anything.
They terrorized City Hall, and by that I include police and TTC headquarters, because their sources were legendary. But in those days, even that terrible tandem never dreamed that the Tely, which craved exclusives, would write about the off-hour escapades of a giant leader who combined a ferocious intellect and huge ego with a rascal's knowledge of reporters and the finer enjoyments of illegal life.
What a man! He would have dismissed the disaster of Ford and the breast-beating of the Star with a curl of the lip and a few cutting remarks. And then moved on to really running things.
He was beyond intimidation. I asked him one day, while we were standing beside each other at urinals, why his phone number was still listed in the book. "Young man," he glowered, "I know more swear words that any bastard who dares call me at 3 a.m."
Gardiner started the giant Metro government with just two employees, a faithful secretary and an accountant, Johnny MacDonald, who lived across the street from me. After a busy day doing such things as borrowing $100 million to keep Metro afloat, he would summonse MacDonald and be driven every evening to inspect Metro construction projects.
Those were the days, my friends, when Gardiner and a few others built the basic infrastructure of the huge city and, afterwards, maybe a few drinks, and some gambling, which didn't always happen in the posh clubs. They weren't saints, just politicians that made things work better than the present mess spawned by our dysfunctional council.
Come to think of it, throw in Queen's Park and Ottawa too!