In 1977 I published By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter, written by George Jonas and Barbara Amiel. From the outset, the collaboration of the husband and wife team was, let’s say, interesting. Both of them were highly talented, highly opinionated, and determined to produce an excellent book, so their standards were very high. If collaborating on a book puts pressure on any pair of authors, the pressure increases immensely if the authors are a married couple. I was fascinated to watch their outspoken relationship play out, often in my office,with George drawling cynical conclusions that usually ended the debate.
The book developed a very exciting momentum, as the superb chapters came in. Finally, in my role as editor I felt able to begin my copy on the back of the published book with the words, “In future years this book will be seen as a classic.” This is what happened, as the book won an Edgar Award,and provoked comparisons with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It established both Barbara Amiel and George Jonas as major authors.
This joint success did not save their marriage. Courteously, they came to my office to tell me this news in person. I reacted, as most of us would, by flailing around, telling them how sorry I was to hear it, and offering to do anything I could to help them. George dryly suggested that it would be very nice if I could help with the laundry.
Later I saw George in action as a CBC Director. After the success of Alligator Pie, the children’s book by Dennis Lee illustrated by Frank Newfeld, a new book by the Lee-Newfeld team was obviously a big story. Big enough certainly, for me to arrange a launch party one afternoon at the old Boys and Girls House Library on St. George Street, with scores of excited nine-year-olds in attendance. And big enough for the CBC to send a camera crew to cover it, under George Jonas’s direction.
Since the new book was called Garbage Delight I had arranged for a City garbage truck (you would be amazed what a life in publishing involves) to deliver Dennis, hanging on to the back, in overalls, and the similarly-clad Frank in the truck beside the driver.
We had fifty kids on the sidewalk jumping up and down outside the Library, and George and I were set up with his cameras when I signalled that the truck should start, and come down busy St. George Street, to pull in at the cleared space beside the crowd of kids, and George’s cameras.
As the truck approached, the kids (and publishers) cheered loudly. Then the truck simply ….kept on going.
Something had gone wrong with Frank’s directions to the driver, who drove on a full fifty yards beyond the kids and the cameras. I tried to retrieve the situation by getting the kids to run to greet the  now-bickering authors, but it was not a huge success.
George was philosophical. As the crowd disappeared into the library, he said.”Can we run that through again?”
A fine, witty man. I was glad to count him as a friend.


The death in December of the celebrated Toronto lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, produced many fond and admiring recollections. Here is another one.

But first, a little background information. I am on the Board of the Couchiching Conference, a worthy group that encourages discussions of topics of public interest, especially at the annual August Conference beside, yes, Lake Couchiching. In fact, with Heather Keachie I co-chaired last year’s conference on Sport.

Running a public-interest group like this costs money, so we do lots of fund-raising. One of our most effective methods is the Couchiching Gala in Spring, where members of the public can get a fine meal, and choose to sit at a table hosted by one specific celebrity guest. At Archaeo Restaurant in April 2014 among many interesting possible table companions was Eddie Greenspan, widely recognised as Canada’s leading defence lawyer. Jane and I signed up for an evening of Eddie’s table talk, along with five fortunate others.

I had an extra role. As a Couch Board member, I was asked to “host” the table, in effect to direct the discussion, to make sure that Eddie held the floor, and to keep the table centred on one conversation. I was not a bad choice for the role. Leaving aside the question of natural assertiveness (some might use words like “rude”), I was a friend of Eddie’s. We had met way back in the 1970s, when I edited By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter, written by George Jonas and Barbara Amiel. The 1977 account of what was then the longest murder trial in Canadian history was a huge commercial success, won prizes for its authors, and was useful to my career as a trouble-making non-fiction editor.

Much more important, the Demeter trial brought the junior defence Counsel, Eddie Greenspan, into the limelight, until he eclipsed the famous defence lead, Joe Pomerant. It was clear to everyone around the headline-making trial that a legal star had just been born.

I met Eddie behind the scenes in those days, and was impressed by this comfortably-built man with a thick head of hair and a very direct look. I especially liked his natural style, which included the straightforward use of simple language. This is a gift not universally shared, as we were reminded when Eddie later took on the case of Conrad Black. Sadly, the verbose Conrad proved to be a poor loser when he went to jail, and his attack on the performance of his chosen counsel, Eddie Greenspan, prompted Eddie to write a wry defence in the newspaper, where he noted that it is not unknown for people in jail to blame their lawyers.

Because of our link, I once took the chance to see Eddie in action in court. It was not an especially important case, except to Gordon Allan, Eddie’s client, who had been accused of murder. I went along for Eddie’s summing up. He said, in effect : “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we’ve been here for many days, and we’ve heard many confusing suggestions about what happened on the day of this sad event. Let me try to explain to you what really happened….” And he went on, very simply, with no courtroom theatrics, no fancy oratory, just kindly explaining it all.

When he had finished, and we broke for lunch, it was obvious that Eddie’s client was going to be found not guilty. And he was.

I began our evening conversation by recalling that trial, and Eddie described the details well. Then we were off, ranging across his cases over the years, from Demeter to Black, and dealing with wider issues such as the wisdom of juries against the errors of judges, and the whole issue of his successful fight against capital punishment. It was all frank and witty, and such a constant source of information that I had to interrupt to allow him to snatch a bite to eat. At the end of the evening, Eddie slipped off into the night, after I had ushered him to the door, trying to express the deep gratitude of all of us at the table.

I saw him again in November, when once again Eddie was slipping away from another legal-book event. We hailed each other, I clapped his arm, but we did not have the chance to chat. The Couch Gala remains a vivid memory, however, of the unforgettable Eddie Greenspan.

Remembering Brenda Davies

On Tuesday, January 14th, I went to the funeral of Brenda Davies. It was held in the University of Toronto’s Trinity College Chapel, where in 1995 the funeral of her husband, Robertson Davies, also took place.

That earlier funeral was a major national event, and I held the role of Honorary Pallbearer. It was a bitterly cold December day, I recall, and we were required to stand outside by the hearse for what seemed a very long time, while sotto voce comments were made about freezing funerals causing further losses. I, foolishly, was wearing only a raincoat, and the bitter experience led me to buy a fine warm, formal overcoat, which has seen many funerals since. This piece of sartorial history came to my mind as I solemnly put on that coat to attend Brenda’s funeral.

We all owe her a great debt. Ever since the day in 1940 when she, a young Australian, married Rob, a young Canadian, in besieged London, they were a full partnership. Not only did they raise three daughters together, Brenda brought her organising talents as a stage manager to their many stages in life. So she ran their household in Toronto when Rob worked at Saturday Night, then organised their lives in Peterborough when he was the editor of the Examiner (and thus a major local figure), then adapted to the role of chatelaine at Massey College when her husband became its founding Master, and later ran their lives in retirement in mid-town Toronto and at their country place in Caledon.

Throughout all this, she was the organising principle in his life. She was the driver in the family, and in more ways than those merely involving automobiles. Her great contribution was to clear the decks for Robertson Davies to get on with the intellectual, creative work that has enriched us all.

There seemed to be a general awareness of this at the affectionate but formal funeral, which filled the large Chapel, with many in attendance wearing the Massey College gown as a special gesture of respect. In my pew (as we sang “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah” to the grand old Welsh tune “Cwm Rhondda”), I was struck by memories of her kindness to me over the years, at Massey, at their mid-town apartment, and at the Caledon retreat, where I was a guest even after Rob’s death. Her kindness stretched to very near the present: when my book came out, she described my chapter on her husband saying “Douglas Gibson has written an excellent account of Robertson Davies as the clever, witty, wise man that he was.”

He was indeed. And we shall never know exactly how much he owed to his wife, the remarkable Brenda Davies.

Kenojuak Ashevak (1927—2013) . . . In Memoriam

Most Canadians were aware of the death of one of our greatest artists in the dark, early days of the new year. Some of our writers did a good job of explaining her importance, notably Sandra Martin in her obituary in the Globe and Mail. It made the appalling point that after Kenojuak was shipped south from Baffin Island to a TB sanatorium, she returned to find that her young daughters had died in her absence. And Patrick White added a fond, rueful account of his brush with greatness.

Sarah Milroy, also in the Globe, paid a fine tribute, summarizing Kenojuak’s career in this way: “She was one of the first of the Inuit artists, born and reared on the land, to enter into the experiment of art making at Cape Dorset, and one of the most talented. Her famous work The Enchanted Owl was replicated on postage stamps in 1970. In 1982, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.” Later, Milroy writes of an encounter with the old lady, now in a wheelchair, at the AGO: “her countenance that day was radiant with astonishment and a kind of elfin glee. While she never expected such success, she enjoyed every bit of it.”

“Elfin glee” is very good. That certainly catches the beaming old lady I got to know a little on Baffin Island. This was because my friend James Houston was the man who discovered Kenojuak’s talent, and encouraged her to turn it from sealskin bag decoration to making prints. It was James Houston (and a chapter in my book is devoted to this remarkable man “Artist, Author, Hunter, and Igloo Dweller”) who not only set up the trade in Inuit sculpture but went to Japan to learn the trade of print-making at the feet of an old master, so that he could go back to the Arctic to introduce print-making at the Cape Dorset artists’ co-op.

And Kenojuak was his star pupil. Our Hokusai, you might say, if you were to follow the Japanese theme.

In that chapter I talk about how fortunate I was to be invited by Adventure Canada to join  a cruise that was intended to follow the travels of James Houston. The cruise (along the south shore of Baffin Island), took me for the first time to the North that I had published such exciting books about, but never seen. On board ship, alongside James’s widow, Alice, and his sons John and Sam, Jane and I met “celebrities like Kenojuak Ashevak, the most famous Inuit artist of all, a beaming, tiny elder whom I got to know despite a language barrier.”

I was able to make myself useful, providing an arm when we had to walk over rough ground, on occasions such as the time that we assembled at the base of some striking red cliffs just outside Cape Dorset to scatter Jim’s ashes.

Earlier, I had been present in the historic Cape Dorset artist’s studio, when Kenojuak (then aged almost 80) entered, throwing off her parka, and heading straight for a drawing board. Sitting before it she seized a pen and with bold strokes began to draw wide sweeping lines with her left hand. I was amazed by swift, unhesitating way she drew what would soon be a new print, right before our very eyes.

Later, as my book records,

when I saw John’s film about his father, I was fascinated to see Jim talk about the fast, confident way Kenojuak’s left hand moves as she draws. Jim asked her about that, and she told him that she just follows “a little blue line” ahead of her pen.

“A little blue line!” Jim snorts. “I wish I had a little blue line would do that for me!”

At the end of the cruise, on our last morning I suggested through friendly gestures to my new friend that we should swap our Adventure Canada name tags. Kenojuak laughed happily at the idea, and the swap was made. I suspect she did not keep mine as carefully as I have kept  the “Kenojuak Ashevak” name tag that sits on our mantelpiece, not far from one of her magnificent prints. It’s like having a calling card from Claude Monet.

When the news of her death came to us, that name tag received much thoughtful, affectionate handling, often as I stood in front of my recent December birthday present from Jane. It is “Filigreed Raven” a stonecut from Cape Dorset in 2012, one of the very last prints created by Kenojuak.