Blatchford Behind the Byline

When it comes to the real Christie Blatchford, reading is not believing

Diana Coulter
Spring, 1984 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

Christie Blatchford is used to being candid in print. Eleven years after her column first appeared in a campus paper known for its raw look at student life, she is writing for Toronto's irreverent newspaper, the Sun, enticing readers four times a week with a peek at her personal experiences. But just how often Sun readers glimpse her real personality is questionable because, for Christie, "life-lies and sanity go together."

Usually displayed beside the newspaper's daily tribute to a stripped down, macho Sunshine Boy, Christie's column reveals to more than 250,000 readers anything from unfulfilled ambitions (she has never rollerskated) to relationships (with her parents, Mad Kay and Rancid; her companion, The Boy; and her friend, The Cret, to name a few).

Although friends say she has mellowed in her time at the Sun, Christie's hardened, I've-been-around side still cuts through the column on occasion. She is using the same weapon, the lifelie, that helped her survive earlier times. In one five-day period during her years as a top hard news reporter for The Toronto Star from 1977 to 1982, she interviewed the horror-struck parents of a baby thought murdered by a drug overdose at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children then flew to Washington as the world and President Ronald Reagan recovered from his assassination attempt. Earlier, at The Globe and Mail in 1975, she had been hailed as the first female sports columnist in the country, and at the same time reviled particularly by one abusive Philadelphia Flyer. Newspaper writing demanded an aggressive, hard, personal style tempered with understanding. She gave the papers the necessary performance and the public bought it. It was easy to give, for a while, since she came by it naturally.

Christie's parents, Ross and Kay Blatchford, still figure prominently in her writing. They appear as Rancid and Mad Kay in her Sun column for the same reasons she once gave in her Ryerson column. Kay Blatchford is a small, sharp-featured woman in her mid-60s with the restless energy of someone much younger. Even the white streaks in her hair have yet to catch up with the blonde ones. Her attention to detail is always overflowing into the lives of those around her. She admits to the occasional check on her daughter's overdue library books and is responsible for a daily wake-up call to Christie's

apartment where three alarm clocks often fail to accomplish the desired effect. Ross Blatchford still carries himself as ramrod-straight as he did during World War II when he served in the 422nd Squadron coastal command. A fringe of white hair on his upper lip and well-worn laugh lines soften features surrounded by a bald expanse.

The Blatchfords read the Sun but only on the days Christie's column appears. Ross Blatchford prefers the Star, or the Globe for its minor hockey league schedules. He had reservations about his daughter working for such a "strange" newspaper. "There's no news in it as far as I can tell," he says with a chuckle. "It's a columnist's newspaper, though. I like to read Doug Fisher, Worthington, Porter, Buckley and link-he's almost as far right as I am." Politics is one of Christie and her father's favorite battlegrounds. In his opinion, her politics swing far left, though she claims to be more conservative than most people her age.

Although the Blatchford family loves a good argument, they stick up for their own. "I know Christie can appear to be a hard-bitten woman but some of the stories she's worked on tore her heart out," Kay Blatchford confides. A friend of Christie's agrees that her toughness is part of a "natural northern Quebec swagger that is only skin deep."

Born on May 20, 1951, Christie grew up with her older brother Lesley in Rouyn-Noranda, the small Quebec copper mining town. She describes herself then as a chubby little rink rat in a pink tutu whose father, manager of the Noranda Recreation Centre, paid her 25 cents for every figure skating lesson she attended. Although she enjoyed sports like basketball, swimming, badminton (and not the tomboy attempts at hockey and baseball her readers might now expect), she never considered herself more than an average athlete. Anyway, in Noranda athletic prowess did not necessarily help if one was trying out for the high school cheerleading squad as Christie, who had alJ the cute little moves but not the cute little figure, found out to her utter devastation. And her "most liberated of the liberated ladies" life-lie was not there to make light of the situation.

High school was interrupted in the eleventh grade when her father moved the family to Ontario and became manager of the North Toronto Memorial Arena. Christie completed high school at North Toronto Collegiate after acing English courses and dropping maths and sciences. She went on to Ryerson, she says, out of spite. Queen's, York and the University of Toronto accepted her, while Ryerson turned her down. She reapplied and was accepted. Ryerson, she remembers, was a wonderful place to make her mistakes when they did not matter.

Christie studiously avoided a lot of her courses at Ryerson. She suspects J.D. MacFarlane, journalism chairman at the time, turned a blind eye to her poor attendance in courses like sociology and typing-she was later chosen for the Perlove Award, a prize for the top graduating journalism student. She worked hard on her reporting skills.

Buck Johnson, Christie's reporting instructor for two years, remembers a fearless twosome called the Gold Dust Twins. Christie and classmate Marcy (Marcia) McGovern often went on assignments together. For one team effort they took turns posing as a pregnant teenager to do a survey of abortion services available in Toronto. They earned a centre spread in The Ryersonian, a second-year reporting prize and an entry in the Ontario Legislature's Hansard.

Now an exercise classmate of Christie's.. Marcy McGovern is a warm wide eyed young woman buried under correspondence for the United Way of Greater Toronto. She describes Christie during her years at Ryerson as most comfortable in jeans, with a crocheted wool skull cap over-it's true-a blonde, dutch boy-styled wig worn in first year and about which she is still teased. Although Christie was a popular, ever kidding, drinking and smoking personality around Ryerson, Marcy remembers her more formidable side, too. This quality was the key to her success when, just two years out of school, Christie became Canada's first female sports columnist, the object of great attention-and abuse.

Oddball sports features is how Christie describes her first assignments for The Globe and Mail in 1973. A Christmas internship and a summer job at the paper the year before had helped her get the full-time position. She went "cityside" next as a general reporter for two years until an opening at Weekend Magazine came up. But at her going-away party, a last-minute move by managing editor Clark Davey landed Christie the coveted sports column. Since "mentor" is too trendy a word, Christie prefers to think of Davey, now publisher of the Montreal Gazette, as her "angel." She credits him with the idea of a female sports columnist for the Globe, thereby giving her the biggest break of her career;

Davey remembers her as a bright, dynamic writer. Although he admits female sports writing was old news in the United States and he had already hired Mary Trueman, a religion reporter from Windsor, to cover sports, he was pleased when Christie's appointment attracted a lot of attention from the Canadian public and media. Christie acknowledges her promotion was something of a gimmick, but it worked. Barrie Zwicker, then a freelance writer for Maclean's magazine, heralded Christie, at 24, as a member of the "gutkick" school of journalism who, as one of the hottest journalism prospects around, had already lived ten days with a Canadian army unit and was not put off by locker room talk. Even today, Christie meets people who remember her best as the crusading sports columnist.

She was not always basking in limelight, though. Christie made many of the same sports realm enemies her columnist predecessor, Dick Beddoes, had. She remembers one incident with Dave Schultz, a Philadelphia Flyer who was kicked out of a playoff game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. While the crowd was littering the rink in disgust, Christie climbed close to the penalty box hoping to glimpse Schultz's reaction. Seeing her, Schultz went berserk, screaming "Blotch face, Blotchface" while his arms jerked insults. Shocked at the time, Christie finds the incident amusing now. Schultz obviously had his regrets-an apology to her was included in his 1981 book, The Hammer: Confessions of a Hockey Enforcer.

Her sports column ended abruptly in the fall of .1977 when a Globe copy editor made last-minute cuts in her copy without her consent. The following day she withheld her copy and phoned the Star to ask for a job. She feels now that she behaved unprofessionally. But changes in her personal life had also prompted the move. That June she had married Jim Oreto, a {riend from her North Toronto Arena days who many say is like her father. Her life at the Globe had been hectic. She hoped things would change at the Star.

Christie did not work at The Toronto Star. She lived there. Colleagues remember her as someone who often watched the sunrise while sweating out a story. She had a reputation for being so tough on the job she intimidated.

dated both the competition and several in the ranks of her own newsroom. Star foreign editor Joe Hall, whose British accent still sends Christie into fits of laughter, remembers her as a junkie in need of a regular front page fix. And since she always delivered excellence, many of the big breaking stories were hers. He liked to work with her, he says, because her work often reflected well on him.

Hall figures that, if she had to, Christie would do 50 interviews to find five good quotes. After the Three Mile Island radiation scare in .1979, she was sent to Middletown, Pennsylvania, where there w~re so many journalists the townspeople were wearing makeup for television shots. But Christie found Joe and Irene Wynes, a couple who had just moved from Manhattan to live in a cleaner environment for their son's allergies, And after the Reagan assassination attempt, she found Terry Moore, a young black from Washington whose brother had been shot in a robbery the same day John F. Kennedy died. Both were interesting twists necessary for a good story.

So assignments like the Italian earthquake disaster, the Bobby Sands/Ulster riots, the Royal Wedding, and the day Terry Fox ended his Marathon of Hope (the story of which she is most proud) became Christie's as well.

Rumblings that "Blatch" and a select few always landed the plum assignments were heard in the Star newsroom. She was accused of going to great lengths on a story not so much because it was good journalistic practice but because she just liked to screw the competition. Christie admits that the accusations were correct. She was aggressive and liked to succeed where others failed but says her job demanded this.

Several of her successes are still admired by those who witnessed them. There was the time the baby deaths at the Hospital for Sick Children first came under investigation. The Star rushed Christie to a small town near Owen Sound, where the parents of Justin Cook soon entrusted to her every picture they had of their dead baby son. She told the Cooks to tell other reporters to call the Star if they needed photos. Steve Petherbridge, now a journalism instructor at Ryerson, was on the Star's night desk at the time and remembers fielding calls from irate Sun and Globe reporters. The pictures, of course, were never surrendered, and Christie describes her coup that day as better than sex.

Joe Hall still remembers the day Christie was out of the office while a big story was breaking. A Mississauga man had murdered his wife and child in their home, then killed a woman driver in a car accident while trying to kill himself. In true Star fashion, Hall recalls, 15 reporters were sent to cover every angle imaginable. Upset that she had missed the action but determined to get involved, Christie sat for a moment and analysed the possibilities. Her angle, she decided, would be an interview with the husband of the innocent driver who had been killed. And since everyone reading the interview could imagine themselves as that unlucky driver, her story hit the front page. It had just the right amount of schmaltz, Christie recalls.

There was also a year-long interlude when she tried her hand at a joint column with Helen Bullock, who, like Christie, was a special status writer out of the Star city pool. While sitting at adjoining desks doing exposes on teenage crime and cults, they had become (and still are) close friends. Always plotting, the pair decided the column would mean less work for equal pay. Helen remembers being surprised when they sold the idea to the paper. But she was even more shocked to discover their plan meant more work. Since the Bullock/Blatchford Report was to be a tag for the daily top news story, they often waited hours for a good break or changed the topic two and three times as better stories came in.

Christie is glad the column lasted only a year. She remembers it as a sob sister, "poor-little-welfare-mother-of-five" column more often than the incisive reporting they had planned.

The column's death was not mourned by many. Gordon Sinclair commented that the Bullock/Blatchford Report had been creating jealous rifts in the newsroom. In his opinion, the paper was better off without it.

After five big-story years at the Star, the front-page highs began to wear off. Christie's marriage had collapsed in 1981-not, she says, because of her harried existence. If anything, she feels her career flourished because Jim understood her job commitments too well. He demanded very little. She did not work at the relationship. Still confused, she wonders if they ever should have married. But she was tired of the Star's fast pace. A life where plane trips meant only .vacations was an appealing prospect. And there was David Rutherford. She had met him through Marcy a year after her marriage broke up. She wanted this relationship to last and felt spare time would be an important factor.

Taking a $25-a-week cut in pay, she sold her column idea to the Sun (where she now earns $40,000 a year). The editors were thrilled to get her. There was an element of defusing a dangerous weapon by inviting her into the Sun's camp. Still, her friends were surprised. Most felt her talents were best showcased as a hard news reporter. Joe Hall still worries she will lose her interest in her column and be stalking Star reporters in no time. Christie says the temptation has been there but she's wary of trodding on the Sun reporters' turf.

Her new paper's lifestyle editor, Pat McCormick, remembers being slightly in awe of Christie when she first invaded his pages. He enjoys sole male rule over an all-female section, a dubious position that earned him the Lone Ranger nickname in Christie's column. But he prefers Mad Dog. Somehow that name stuck, too.

McCormick does what he calls "salami" inspections of his columnists' copy-there are a few things considered too rude to run at even the Sun. Otherwise he seldom alters their work. Christie likes to watch over his shoulder while he checks her column. McCormick found it unnerving at first, but now enjoys the ritual as long as others don't try the same trick. He too wonders whether Christie's column will continue to challenge her.

Christie agrees with critics that her column is self-absorbed. But she hopes her readers relate to her experiences because they "watch the same crummy TV shows and have bizarre things happen in their .lives too." Then again, a day when column ideas are scarce might produce "Urgent Questions About Sex"-in short, flippant expediency. Her column is far from the best work she's ever done. Still, it allows her the time to live an ordered and predictable life. It's what she wants.

She lives not-so-quietly with David, an advertising copywriter alias The Boy (he's younger), in a house near Dufferin and Dupont-little Italy, Portugal and the Caribbean, she calls it. Her plans for the future are uncertain. For now, she's happy at the Sun. But her biggest fear is that someday she will write irrelevant raunch like columnist Paul Rimstead. "What a horrible thing," she says.

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