An Officer and a Journalist

J.D. MacFarlane led the Toronto Tely in the country's last great newspaper war. When it ended, he was lost

Ken Carriere
Spring, 1996 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

The wire machines flash bells-the sound that signalled the biggest stories had been ringing all afternoon. The high-pitched noise penetrated every corner of the crowded Toronto Telegram newsroom. The area where the machines were located, just off the big, high-ceilinged newsroom, was packed with reporters smoking and staring silently at the the four teletypes. There was no sense of panic but the atmosphere was tense and electric-everyone knew that the biggest story of their lives had just occurred. Editor-in-chief Doug MacFarlane shouted to his new assistant city editor, Jerry Pratt, "Go down and stop the presses." "How do I do that?" Pratt asked. "Stick your goddamned fingers in it if you have to!" MacFarlane yelled. It was late afternoon, November 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald had just been arrested for the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy.

The first wire reports had been confusing and contradictory. An almost overwhelming number of stories needed writing: the reactions of Robert Kennedy and Prime Minister Lester Pearson; the stock market's plummet before its early close; Lyndon Johnson's swearing-in. Time was running short: many east-coast papers had been putting together their final editions when Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Doug Creighton, then an assistant city editor, remembers that day: "MacFarlane grabbed the city editor, Art Cole, and said, 'I'm going to help you."' Translation: Get the hell out of my way. "He put on a marvellous performance. He was saying this and doing that. He remembered everything he'd said and checked back a couple of minutes later to make sure it was being done."

MacFarlane tore out pages and pages of the paper's previous edition, even the usually sacred ads, and laid out and constantly revised the final. He had already ordered three or four replatings by the time of Oswald's arrest. In the end, he filled 12 pages with the story. More importantly, the Telegram beat its hated rival, The Toronto Star, to the street by 20 minutes. Telegram reporter Jock Carroll called it "one of the last great virtuoso performances of its kind."

It was also MacFarlane's last virtuoso performance at the paper. Since taking the top editorial position in 1952, he had made his name as the toughest, smartest, loudest editor in Canada. His initials, JDM-James Douglas MacFarlane-were the most famous in the business. He led the Tely in the country's final newspaper war, and for a while it seemed his underdog paper might actually upset the bigger, richer, more arrogant Star. By the time of Kennedy's assassination, though, MacFarlane's legend was beginning to fade. He would be at the paper for six more years, but his glory days were behind him. When the publisher, John Bassett, realized this and fired him, MacFarlane was almost destroyed.

Creighton remembers that day as well. It was October 14, 1969, and MacFarlane had just returned from a convention in Bermuda when Bassett walked into his office. "Bassett told him this was the end of the game," recalls Creighton. "Everyone was in shock." The most shocked was MacFarlane. For 20 years he had been at the Tely; he had put in 12-hour days, sacrificing his health for the paper. Bassett did not return the loyalty-the severance was $15,000 per year when MacFarlane turned 65 (still a dozen years away), but only if he agreed never to work for any Toronto paper or The Canadian magazine. "That ends my career here," MacFarlane protested. "That's the way it is," Bassett calmly replied, then turned and walked out.

MacFarlane had been fired in a similarly high-profile way a quarter of a century earlier. In 1940, he had volunteered for the army and gone overseas as an officer in the public relations department. The top brass decided in 1944 that the troops in Europe needed a newspaper to boost morale. Twenty-eight-year-old Major J.D. MacFarlane, by virtue of having seven years' experience as a reporter at The Windsor Daily Star and The Toronto Star before the war, was made managing editor of The Maple Leaf-a position for which he was awarded the MBE in 1946.

At war's end, the army began returning men by unit, meaning that some who had been in Europe six months were going home before soldiers who had been fighting six years. Outraged by the obvious unfairness, MacFarlane wrote a page-one editorial slamming the policy. Within hours of the paper's distribution he was called to headquarters to explain. As he left the Maple Leaf offices, he handed a second editorial on the subject, equally as damning, to a reporter and ordered that it also go on page one. By the time it ran the next day, MacFarlane had been fired.

When MacFarlane returned to Toronto, the Star offered him his old Queen's Park beat at the same pay. Thinking his Maple Leaf experience should have earned him something better, he rejected this job and headed half a block west to The Globe and Mail. He started as copy editor, but just three months later was made city editor. In 1949, Globe publisher George McCullagh bought Toronto's third-place daily, the moribund Toronto Telegram. His first move was asking MacFarlane to come to the Tely as city editor; MacFarlane said yes after McCullagh agreed to pay him a managing editor's salary. McCullagh's next move was bringing in another former army major, John Bassett, as advertising director.

The paper needed all the talent it could get. As MacFarlane later recalled, "The whole weight of the news coverage at the Telegram then was way out of balance. They were still clinging to the idea that the Orange Order was the important force in the world and devoting pages and pages to things like the July 12 walk." MacFarlane changed that. On one of his first days, he entered the newsroom and saw reporters eating lunch and playing cards while a fire burned in western Toronto. "If, within five seconds, I see one person in his chair, he is fired!" MacFarlane roared. The room emptied in four.

Six months into MacFarlane's reign, circulation had risen from 200,000 to 260,000. The growth was in part due to the Tely's coverage of stories like the Boyd Gang. Since 1949, the city had been captivated by the antics of the bank-robbing foursome. Three members were arrested in 1951, but quickly escaped from the Don Jail. While on the loose, two of them shot and killed a police officer. The police captured them a second time in March 1952. The first newspapermen on the scene of the second arrest were a Tely photographer and its police reporter, a young Doug Creighton. Amazingly, the gang escaped from the Don Jail again, and as former Tely and Star reporter Val Sears recounts in his book Hello Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite, "Doug MacFarlane ordered everyone in the city room,'Get the hell out and find Boyd."' The Telegram got an exclusive interview with the leader Eddie Boyd's wife. When the gang was finally arrested in a North York barn, the Tely scooped the Star again: the story in Eddie Boyd's own words.

When McCullagh died in 1952, Bassett set up a trust to buy the Tely. He became publisher and MacFarlane managing editor. So began what MacFarlane would remember as "the days of whoop-de-do."

In August 1954, the city was scandalized following the bloody murder of a 17-year-old girl. No one was arrested; the local and provincial police were stumped. MacFarlane's decision was genius: the Tely brought in the former chief of Scotland Yard murder squad, the legendary sleuth Robert Fabian. Everyone in Toronto was soon talking about "Fabian of the Yard," but the Star couldn't cover the story without publicizing the Tely. It ran small stories that predicted-correctly, as it turned out-that Fabian wouldn't solve the murder. However, he succeeded in boosting circulation: two days into the story, it leapt to 60,000. When Fabian returned to Britain, the paper held on to 10,000 of those readers.

A month later, MacFarlane was even more brilliant. In September 1954, 16-year-old Marilyn Bell was attempting to become the first person to swim Lake Ontario. The Tely was late to realize how big the story would be, and by that time the Star had signed Bell to an exclusive contract. "The Star had the girl," MacFarlane recalled years later. "The best way I had of competing is what is now called probably over-reacting. It was to blanket the story, take over the story, and make everybody feel it really is ours. In line with this, I figured that if we could get every reporter that was anywhere involved in this, and they would contribute whatever they heard Marilyn say yesterday or today or at any time during the swim to [reporter] Dorothy Howarth, who would do an overall first-person story. But we had to do something to make it reasonably authentic." MacFarlane ordered a reporter to Bell's school to get her signed name from the inside front cover of one of her text books. "We didn't say'By Marilyn Bell' on the article, we just ran her signature 'Marilyn Bell' and then with Marilyn's own story. In the meantime the Star was so exhausted in protecting her that nobody got around to writing the real story that they paid a lot of money for." (Years later Bell told MacFarlane, "I liked my story better in the Tely than I did in the Star.") Late in life MacFarlane would say of that signature, "I had no trouble justifying it at the time, but I sure as hell do now." He was probably very relieved in retrospect that another part of his plan didn't succeed. He sent Howarth dressed as a nurse in the back of an ambulance to the spot Bell was to come ashore. The idea was to trick Bell's aides into putting her into the Tely ambulance, then to spirit her away. In essence, to kidnap her. At the last moment a Star reporter recognized Howarth and foiled the scheme.

A month after that, the city was being ravaged by what is still the worst natural disaster in Toronto's history. On October 15, 1954, both the Tely and the Star carried only small warnings about Hurricane Hazel. But that evening MacFarlane left the office only to have the pounding rain and wind force him back. He didn't get home for three days. All Toronto's rivers were flooded, sweeping dozens to their deaths. Cars and houses were picked up and carried for miles. Lake Simcoe overflowed and swamped Holland Marsh, north of the city. When the storm subsided, MacFarlane, envisioning a great headline, sent Sears out in a helicopter with orders to "rescue someone" from the floods; the Star had Buck Johnston out in a plane trying the same thing. Neither succeeded, but the Star, with more reporters and more money, didn't match the coverage of the Tely's Creighton, Sears and Philip Murphy.

In style, MacFarlane was the stereotypical tough newsman mixed with an ex-army officer. "He had a kind of military attitude about running things," says Toronto Sun columnist Bob MacDonald. MacFarlane could be physically intimidating?he was six-foot-two, with the shoulders of a Dallas Cowboy lineman and the temper to match. As John Downing, now the Sun editor, recalls, "He didn't suffer fools gladly. A reporter who didn't use his head would be something that would infuriate him." Many times MacFarlane reduced lazy reporters to tears. A favourite of his was the intercom system, known as the squawk box. If MacFarlane found something in the paper he didn't like, the managing editor would hear the machine scream. "He'd say, 'There's a story on page 12 of the Star, why haven't we got it?"' remembers Andy MacFarlane (no relation). "I'd say, 'On page one we got an exclusive, the Star didn't have that.' And he'd say, 'Well, that's what I pay you for.' MacFarlane compared what we'd done with what they'd done and complained bitterly if we hadn't done as well."

Another device he used was the daily assessment notice, which he pinned to the newsroom bulletin board. The notices critiqued the day's paper, sarcastically pointing out what MacFarlane felt was missing; occasionally he might compliment a reporter on a good story. (MacFarlane knew someone leaked the notices to the Star, so he intentionally misspelled the name of that paper's top columnist, Pierre Berton, whenever it came up.) A reporter who was a target of MacFarlane's wrath might find it hard to believe, as Doug Creighton does, that MacFarlane's bullying style was in part an act. "He read somewhere that fear makes it work. He practiced that from time to time, although actually it was contrived on his part because he was quite warm-hearted once you knew him."

Which is what you might expect of a minister's son. MacFarlane was born in Ottawa on October 4, 1916, the third of four children. (The youngest, George, worked at the Tely and helped get the Bell story.) The family moved to Chatham when MacFarlane was a child. In high school he was a great athlete, particularly in football, but classes bored him and, after twice failing Grade 13, he left school when he was 17. He volunteered at the Chatham bureau of The Border Cities Star (now The Windsor Star), although soon the other reporters were paying him $2 a week out of their own pockets. In the late thirties he got a job with The Toronto Star covering the provincial parliament. In 1940, MacFarlane married Kathleen (Kay) Kendrick, a Chatham girl, to whom he would stay lovingly devoted until her death more than 50 years later.

His other great object of devotion was his job. "What always motivated him," recalls Downing, "was to get the news right and to get it first and to fuck the Globe and the Star." During these years, he was at the paper 12 hours each day and he expected others to work as hard as he did. It was characteristic of him that, when he suffered a debilitating stroke in his office in 1960, he demanded the attendants take him out the back so the staff wouldn't see him. He was seriously affected: for a while afterward he was unable to write his own name, which depressed him greatly; when he went for a stroll around the neighbourhood, he needed the help of his six-year-old twin sons. Yet just four months later he was back on the job, working as hard as ever.

By the middle of the decade, though, MacFarlane's fierce drive wasn't enough to keep him ahead of the times. A former Tely staffer, then in his 20s, recalls sitting with Andy MacFarlane one day when JDM's voice boomed out of the squawk box. "Andy, I see we have a picture of Marilyn Monroe on page one." "Yes, sir." "Someone has cropped it at the neck. In the next edition, make sure that photo is uncropped." In the whoop-de-do fifties, cheesecake had been just the thing to keep the Tely competitive. Now it was passe. Readers were more sophisticated-they wanted substance. The Tely's circulation began to slide, as did its reportorial edge. In 1966, the paper was humiliated when the Star broke the story of Gerda Munsinger. She was the former German prostitute who had had a long-term affair with a minister in John Diefenbaker's cabinet and who was rumoured dead. The Star's Bob Reguly and Ray Timson tracked her down quite alive in Munich. In 1968, the Tely, which had always been profitable under MacFarlane, lost $1 million. The loss was similar the next year. Bassett didn't wait to see if MacFarlane's edge would return.

MacFarlane may have been devastated, but a number of his colleagues-including some people he had personally hired-were not. "I was quite happy when he got fired, because I got promoted," recalls John Downing frankly. "And I remember a celebratory party-it wasn't to say 'the wicked witch is dead,' but we all got together in saying, 'Isn't it nice that we've now got better jobs.'"

MacFarlane spent the next year organizing a diamond jubilee for his sons' private school, Appleby College. (Neither Richard nor Robert, now 41, has chosen to follow their father's path in journalism. Richard is a records clerk with Metro Toronto and is currently writing a biography of his father. Robert is a Kitchener lawyer.) MacFarlane was then saved from underemployment by one of the former Tely men who had toasted his firing. In early 1971, John Downing was heading a committee to find a new chairman of the Ryerson journalism school. The member felt that the applicants were okay but wished they had someone with a larger reputation. Downing approached MacFarlane. JDM's pride was still intact: he told Downing that with his stature he shouldn't have to go through the normal application process. The committee readily agreed and offered him the job. Some of the faculty were less enthusiastic about the arrival of the legendary JDM. At their first meeting with him, they told him he was not to deal with them as he had dealt with his reporters. "They figured they better get Doug MacFarlane before he got them," recalls Downing. They needn't have worried. Miriam Maguire, MacFarlane's secretary at the time, recalls that he always brought her a present when he got back from his yearly cruises. When her son was born, MacFarlane threw a surprise baby shower. "He always made me feel good," she says. "He was a real gentleman with wonderful manners." Joyce Douglas, an instructor since 1969, recalls that MacFarlane sent her a handwritten note of condolence when her husband died. "I'll always remember the gentleness with which he treated me."

MacFarlane was a different man with the students too. One day when he was being visited by an old colleague from the Tely, student Mark Bonokoski (now the Ottawa Sun editor) walked into MacFarlane's office. He slapped MacFarlane on the back and asked, "How you doing, sir?" MacFarlane smiled and the two began chatting. The old visitor couldn't believe that some young punk would be so familiar with the ferocious JDM. "He seemed to be able to generate a respect, reaching to affection, even almost to love," says Downing, "as much as you can ever get in love with journalism professors. I was quite proud of what our search committee did." MacFarlane's presence immediately boosted the school's reputation. He changed the theoretical program into a more practical one. Current Toronto Sun columnist Christie Blatchford remembers, "He was intimidating. Kind of scary at first. He set high standards for doing journalism properly. I think he enjoyed working with young people. I think he found it inspiring to be with some of us." At Ryerson MacFarlane influenced, among others The Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno, Dave Perkins and Alan Christie, CityTV's Jojo Chintoh and CBC TV reporters Tom Kennedy and Paul Workman, just as at the Tely a generation earlier he had mentored the likes of Creighton, Sears and Peter Worthington.

They were no doubt on his mind when the Tely folded in October 1971. MacFarlane was genuinely saddened by the death of the paper. "I can't say how badly I feel about the death of the Telegram. You can replace a lot of material things, but a metropolitan newspaper is irreplaceable."

When MacFarlane's five-year contract at Ryerson expired in 1976, he fully expected to sign a new one. Then Doug Creighton, publisher of The Toronto Sun, called and asked him to join that paper in a senior editorial position. MacFarlane accepted. The irony was that he had been asked to replace Creighton as publisher two years earlier. Some inside the Sun felt that Creighton wasn't keeping a tight enough rein on the newsroom, and big JDM was the man to do just that. Eddie Goodman, a lawyer who had arranged a lot of the money to launch the Sun in 1971, took MacFarlane out for lunch in 1974. "Would you consider being publisher of the Sun?" "You've already got a publisher," MacFarlane replied sternly. "What if we didn't?" Goodman asked. "I'm not prepared to deal in 'what-ifs,'" MacFarlane said. He had never liked connivers and backstabbers and was not going to do to Creighton what he felt was done to him at the Tely five years earlier.

The Sun in 1976 had Creighton at the top, with three men just below him, each of whom saw himself as second-in-command: editor Peter Worthington, news director Hartley Steward and managing editor Ed Monteith. Creighton believed a war with the Star was rapidly approaching, and he felt that none of the three could see the Sun safely through. He reached back 20 years and hired JDM as editor-in-chief. Monteith, who had been a junior editor at the Tely under MacFarlane, offered the least resistance of the three. But Steward, who is now the Sun 's publisher, quit and eventually ended up at the Star. Worthington was more canny: as soon as he learned of MacFarlane's hiring, he hurried to the composing room and had the masthead changed to read "Peter Worthington, Editor-In-Chief." MacFarlane settled for the title "editorial director" and put his name at the bottom of the masthead, purposely outside the paper's hierarchy.

Other staff members didn't welcome MacFarlane either. "Some of the senior editors had worked with Doug MacFarlane in the old days and really didn't like him," Downing says. "They were determined not to let him make their life hell again. I was writing a column on page four, and I wasn't about to take orders from Doug MacFarlane on anything. I was reporting directly to the publisher. And [page-five columnist Paul] Rimstead was out of control, no editor could tell him what to do. So Doug arrived at a newspaper where the first two columnists in the paper didn't pay any attention to him." The Sun newsroom split into pro- and anti-JDM factions, although Creighton was pro-JDM and that was all that really mattered. MacFarlane won over young reporters by speaking with them personally about his appointment. The anti-JDM group was made up of senior staff who considered MacFarlane a rival and resented having him parachuted in. "I'm sure he was one of the great newspapermen but his time was past," Les Pyette, then the Sun's city editor, told Jean Sonmor for her Sun history, The Little Paper That Grew.

Like at the Tely, MacFarlane wrote an assessment notice. The first began, "Before I was so rudely interrupted...." Some of the Sun staff, among them Bonokoski, began mocking MacFarlane with an "alternate" assessment notice. Whenever he read one, he would laugh-MacFarlane was a different man. And one who was no longer on his form.

"I didn't notice until he got to the Sun, but he was not the tough operator that he was at the Tely," says Creighton. "I think he professionalized the paper. I think the paper when he left was better than the paper he arrived at. But I thought he would be more dynamic."

When MacFarlane turned 65 in 1981, he retired from the Sun. In Sonmor's book, after pages and pages on MacFarlane's arrival, his name comes up just twice, and his retirement isn't mentioned at all. For the next five years he did PR for Royal LePage. MacFarlane was apparently glad to have a job, but he didn't like all the paperwork and bureaucracy. And for someone who had headed a major paper, it was clearly a comedown. A year before he left, he suffered the further indignity of a position change that was in effect a demotion. It may have been some consolation that that same year he was inducted into the Canadian News Hall of Fame. After retirement, MacFarlane stayed involved in the industry, judging the National Newspaper Awards and the Sun's Dunlops. He filled his time playing golf at the Mississaugua Golf & Country Club or strolling down the veterans' wing of Sunnybrook Hospital visiting the old soldiers.

But the man who used to storm into the Telegram offices was walking at a slower pace, with a measured step. On April 28, 1991, his beloved Kay died. MacFarlane had had a minor heart attack at the Sun in 1979; in February 1995, he suffered one that kept him in hospital for two weeks. The next attack, on April 27, killed him.

All three Toronto papers ran lengthy obituaries; two of them contained serious errors. The Star claimed he was survived by a daughter. The Sun wrote that his initial "J" stood for "John." As editor, MacFarlane's favourite saying had always been, "Get the news first, but get it right first." The writers of these obits are lucky they didn't have to face the anger of The Toronto Telegram 's legendary JDM.

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