Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A STEWARD OF TALENT


SORTING THE GREATS FROM THE GOOFS

It ended well but it almost got derailed at the start. Thank heavens for luck and senior editors tough enough to tolerate the crap if they think you also can write and be a smart news operator.
When Hartley Steward died at 72,  and the list of his accomplishments in newspapers and magazines was recited, I thought back to the mid 1960s when it all may have died at birth for both him and me and there would have been reduced careers.
I didn't know who Hartley was that Sunday when I was Night Editor of the Toronto Telegram and he and a friend were third-year Ryerson journalism students working in sports.
Laughter drifted out of the sports department which I tried to ignore. I was the boss of the Tely night operation but not sports unless a major emergency flared.
I pieced the humour together like a jigsaw puzzle. John Robertson, a gifted scamp, had written a story about a Junior A game where if you took the first letter from each paragraph, Torontonians were told to "fuck off."
Since the gag was ruined if just one of the words was changed,  his usage was contorted.  Robertson told the humble part-time copy editors what he had done. They stupidly went along. And I was stupid too. As the senior person around. I should have stepped in.
What we should have realized was the obvious, that Robertson would never to be able to keep his mouth shut and would confide in his buddies and one of them would leak it.
A day passed. Safely. And I forgot about it. Except a  hostile account surfaced in the Varsity, the U of T student paper. Still the brass didn't know. The second day, there was a press club party honouring Ted Reeve, the garrulous and legendary sports columnist. I was standing with the three top editors when a loudmouth told them. They were horrified.  I kept my mouth shut. For once.
Doug Creighton, then the sports editor but later the key founder of the Sun empire, immediately called Maudie Stickells, the incredible head of our switchboard.  If you wanted, Stickells could get you the PM in just minutes. Maudie found Robertson immediately and Creighton yelled at him and suspended him for two weeks.
Just in time too. Minutes later, he got called by Tely publisher,John Bassett ordering him to fire Robertson after having him drawn and quartered. Bassett's arrogant temper was notorious in the publishing, social and sports worlds. Except Creighton talked him down because, after all, Robertson had already been punished. It was a management technique I never forgot and once used, to his disgust, against Creighton.
Both of us survived. No one knew my guilty negligence. And. Creighton and his colleagues found Hartley so talented in layout and writing that he was forgiven and rose through the ranks and became a junior news editor and noted freelance writer.
The very first issue of Toronto Life featured a marvellous cover story by Hartley. Once again Big John struck. He called me, not being able to get hold of Creighton, and demanded to know about the SOB who had just written for the enemy.
I pointed out that under the union contract, Hartley was allowed to write for media not in direct competition. Bassett bellowed me silent. He ordered me to fire Hartley. Before he hung up, he demanded "is this Hartley any good?" I said he was. Bassett then said: 'I hope he tells you to go fuck yourself."
I called Hartley who was shaken to his boots. Here he was a bright young hope being savaged by his publisher. He pleaded for advice. I told him from my past union experience as a Guild director and steward, he couldn't be fired. I said obviously he would want to continue and get the freelance gravy  but be careful. Very careful.
Hartley's early baptisms of fire obviously stood him in fine stead since he ended up doing just about every senior job in journalism after the Tely was sold out from under us, including starting new papers for the Sun. He had seen it all, and done a lot of it himself. Turned out, however, that journalists can have long memories.
Creighton packed Hartley off to Calgary after the Sun bought the celebrated Albertan title in 1980. Hartley told me of his first day as publisher of the new Calgary Sun. He walked into the publisher's office once occupied by such notables as a former Leaf goalie  nicknamed Ulcers.
One wall was windows looking down on the presses.  It was a publisher's office right out of Citizen Hearst. There was a huge desk. And on the desk was one piece of paper, a photocopy of the Robertson "fuck you" hockey story that Hartley had allowed in the Tely 15 years before.
Someone around the building knew where at least one body was buried and wanted the eastern bastards come to take over a western institution to know they were watching.
Hartley never accused me of being involved. But he did snarl one day that it was bloody difficult to be a publisher when there was an Editor around like me who kept telling embarrassing stories about him.
He could be a tough boss. But then being a publisher can be rough when headstrong journalists are running around tilting at windmills that belong to your very own board of directors. Yet the most demanding part of being a newspaper boss is handling the talent, whether it is hiring, protecting, disciplining, nurturing or just saying the hell with it, go somewhere else.
The writers are more important than the ads in a successful newspaper. And Hartley knew that and worked at it with flair. It helped that he was the leader of the pack.
Of course, that is why John Robertson survived that stunt which almost put Hartley's career in the dumpster before he even graduated. Robertson was so gifted, he was once dispatched to write an early feature on the Astrodome in Houston and filed a hilarious series of one-liners on stadia from Philadelphia when he wandered there on a drunk. He only got suspended. Again!
The challenging thing about Hartley as boss is that his sins were magnificent and that he came with a wider rebellious streak than most of his staff.  For example, when Toronto finally ended all smoking in office buildings, our publisher's office still reeked of cigar smoke because Harley puffed defiantly away and occasionally didn't bother to close the door.
It was just part of his enjoyment of life, about everything in life, especially food and drink. Hartley may have come from a humble background in tough northern mining country but he certainly enjoyed the party scene. He loved women and they loved him, including five wives.
He also loved golf. I once asked him to write a full-page essay when he was our European rover and he turned in an intriguing piece on the joys of a good golf swing instead of a thoughtful piece on the British election. Once again we were lucky since Creighton loved golf almost as much as Hartley did.
The publisher as golfer led to some strange problems. Andy Donato plays golf daily and is also a great artist and cartoonist. Yet he never fails to let his game interfere with his talent. I was always being called on to defend profane and scurrilous embellishments to cartoons which I never had seen before publication because he had spent the day at the Hunt.
One afternoon he called in from driving to Brampton for golf instead of staying safely (for me) in the office to await the O..J. Simpson verdict. We were discussing this with loud curses over the phone. Turned out Andy had a secret ace in the dispute because riding shotgun (and keeping mum all the time) was his partner in playing hooky, Hartley.
When I talk about Hartley as the great shield for talent, something he learned over the martini glass from Creighton, one of the greatest publishers, let's not kid the troops that there wasn't a cynical perplexing edge. There were no illusions about rogue columnists. There was always a calculation as to value, just how bendable you would be.
Creighton and I were having a fight over a columnist who had a rich expense account that he fiddled like a Stradivarius. I pointed out that he was an asshole. "All great writers are assholes," Creighton enunciated carefully. "Where does that leave me?" I snapped. Creighton smirked and didn't reply.
Hartley certainly was a great writer. He loved to paint pictures of simple scenes, like birds at a feeder, as if he was a Monet using words instead of pointed dabs of oils.
His magazine essay on cottaging near Hanover should be in every cottage library because it captured the Canadian evening as the lake cools and goes to sleep.
 I'm not so sure about that soliloquy on the golf swing, but then Hartley was a much better golfer than me.  Except even now he is complaining that certain celestial beings are standing in his way as he lines up a putt near the Pearly Gates. His putter, you see, was never as fine as his keyboard.








1 comment:

Joan Sutton Straus said...

loverly..........joan sutton straus