A fractured look at the CBC broadcaster’s year at U of T
Before he became one of the most distinguished journalists in Canada, before he entertained millions of Canadians as host of CBC Radio’s Morningside, before he was known as “Mr. Canada,” Peter Gzowski landed his dream job.
At age 21, in 1956, he became editor of The Varsity. Those of us who held the job after him believed he made it not just the best student paper in the country, but U of T’s “unofficial school of journalism.” He left a legacy that countless Varsity staffers – Thomas Walkom, Linda McQuaig, Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff, Barbara Amiel – later sweated blood to uphold.
Gzowski died on Jan 24, 2002. But his spirit endures.
This is a look at his year as Varsity editor.
Peter Gzowski appeared “out of the blue” to be elected the 1956-57 editor of The Varsity, then a daily, during a closed-door session of the Students’ Administrative Council. “It was all a bit vague,” says Mike Cassidy, who was the Varsity staff’s “obvious candidate” and first choice for editor.
The barest facts were known about Gzowski: he had left U of T after first year in 1952-53, had already worked for The Timmins Daily Press for two years, was currently a stringer for the Telegram and, according to Cassidy – who later became leader of the Ontario NDP from 1978 to 1982 – he suddenly popped up enrolled at University College.
Then, the editorship of The Varsity was “a stepping stone to a major-league career in journalism,” says Harvey Levenstein, Gzowski’s university affairs editor, later a history professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
After accepting the appointment in front of 50 fuming Varsity staffers who had been locked out of the meeting, Gzowski said that he was “very honoured” and that he was going home to bed.
Gzowski chose Mike Cassidy as his managing editor.
In one of his first editorials, Gzowski applauded President Sidney Smith’s message to first-year students to study hard and achieve excellence – then one-upped the president. “Surely, raising the standards of admission to our seats of highest learning is the first and most important step.”
It was about that time that Gzowski adopted the pseudonym “Mr. Smith.”
A favourite Gzowski editorial theme was campus shenanigans: “In this vastly monotonous world,” he wrote, “it is the duty, not the right, of the undergraduate to have a good time.”
One slow news day, Gzowski sent two reporters to steal Ontario Premier Leslie Frost’s homburg. When the students successfully grabbed it, Gzowski made them call Frost’s office and report they were holding the hat for ransom. “He believed that if there was no news, a good journalist goes out and makes it,” says hat-napper Harvey Levenstein.
Gzowski’s editorials and reporter Cathie Breslin’s columns (“Cathie Breslin Meets.”) set the tone for The Varsity that year, according to the paper’s associate editor Doug Marshall, now science editor at The Toronto Star.
Breslin, later a distinguished magazine writer and novelist in New York, “broke all the journalistic rules,” says Marshall. Gzowski gave her free rein, and her columns gave the paper a professional panache. “She would interview campus personalities by talking at them for an hour or so, then she would come back and write a great column.”
Breslin wrote this about Gzowski’s editorial-writing technique: “His editorials had a painful prelude (three trips to the washroom for an average one, and five for a really good one) – but once the idea lighted, the typewriter would clack from the inner sanctum, and a few minutes later the editorial was done.”
Gzowski’s first editorial on The Liquor Control Act of Ontario in 1956: “This wondrous, wealthy, booming province of ours has the stupidest liquor laws imaginable.”
Gzowski on The Liquor Control Act of Ontario in 1956, yet again: “The act is the laughingstock of the continent, and a disgrace to those who claim maturity for Ontario.”
Gzowski on The Liquor Control Act in 1957: “The people of Ontario have grown fairly accustomed to the LCBO’s stupidity, and they tolerate it with bemused understanding, as a dog-owner will sometimes take pride in exhibiting his pet’s goofiness.”
A number of romances flourished during Gzowski’s tenure. Two led to marriage. Features editor Sam Ajzenstat and arts/music/drama editor Janet MacDonald married, as did associate news editor John Gray, later the Moscow correspondent with The Globe and Mail (he retired from the paper last year) and reporter Elizabeth Binks, who became a noted CBC radio host. Both couples are still together, although the Ajzenstats differed after Gzowski’s death. “We couldn’t remember if he was in pharmacy or forestry,” says Janet. “But what did it matter? He didn’t go to classes.”
Gzowski preferred the informal classes held at the King Cole Room at the Park Plaza Hotel. “Many young people got an education there,” says Cassidy. “They never asked your age.”
Perhaps drawing on high school memories at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario, Gzowski criticized the protocol of note-taking: “It is impossible to follow a delicate line of thought while writing down the words used to develop it. An educated person is a thinking person, not a stenographer.”
Though the only degree Gzowski received from U of T was an honorary doctorate in 1995, many staffers considered him their best teacher.
“We all learned to write from Peter,” says Janet (MacDonald) Ajzenstat, who would become a political science professor at McMaster University. “He still influences me: don’t bury your lead, cut to the thesis right away, get your precious idea up front. I still write that way, even in scholarly essays.”
Gzowski’s pedagogical touch? “He wasn’t nasty, but he wasn’t nicey-nice,” says Levenstein. “He’d just say, ‘Look, this is a piece of shit, this is why, and why don’t you rewrite it?'”
Apparently, Gzowski honed his fuzzy, warm ‘Mr. Canada’ image well after leaving U of T, according to Howard Mandell, then assistant sports editor, since retired as chief of anesthesiology at Centenary Health Centre in Scarborough, Ont.
“He sat at one end of the offices, and sports was at the other. I didn’t really have much to do with him except when he didn’t like how we set up our pages – then he certainly let us know it,” says Mandell. “But when he was chancellor of Trent and my daughter graduated, he looked up and pointed and smiled when her name was called. I was in the third row. I hadn’t seen him in 40 years.”
“Praise from Gzowski,” says Sam Ajzenstat, “was a great thing to get.”
One of Gzowski’s favourite late-night topics of conversation was destiny. Staff put the paper “to bed” around midnight, then a case of beer would appear and Gzowski would “hold forth,” according to Sam Ajzenstat, who would become a professor of philosophy at McMaster University. “He had a strong feeling back then that our fathers’ generation had seen the Depression and the Second World War, and we were never going to be the heroes our fathers and mothers were. He used to urge us to find the challenges that would bring out the best in us. Those talks were always inspiring, especially in the middle of the night.”
Gzowski as a psychic: “The growth of radio and television coverage, and the advances in the agency system that serves the day’s news across the continent, are leading us toward a new era.. Not long from now, teletype service to the living room will supplant the home-delivered newspaper.”
A scene from a Gzowski weekend: “The masthead would get paid, but there used to be a tithe on our salaries,” says Levenstein. “Ten or 20 per cent would go into a beer fund, then every Thursday, when we put the Friday edition to bed, we’d adjourn to Peter’s apartment on College Street, which he shared with a Canadian Press rewrite man. Peter would send a cab to the beer store and get five or six cases of beer. A nonstop party would ensue, basically for the whole weekend. A lot of professional newspapermen from the Star and Globe and Tely would pass through. The rest of us would talk about religion and God and other ideas, but Gzowski never did. He just talked about journalism.”
Gzowski, often referring to The Varsity as Toronto’s “little daily newspaper,” wrote several editorials chastising the big-league Toronto dailies. On their failure to denounce rising student fees, Gzowski wrote: “[They] have been chewing the issue like a child chewing bubble gum – occasionally producing a snappy little bubble, but more often just rolling it around to get the taste of it.”
Gzowski on Canadian politics, after covering the Conservative leadership convention that elected John Diefenbaker: “The drabness of Canadian politics lies not in our stars but in ourselves. If a politician were to speak out frankly in this country, he would lose more votes than he would gain. And so we shall probably have to keep choosing between different shades of grey.”
Gzowski stirred up one of the first real expressions of student protest in the ’50s, writing a series of relentless editorials calling the Hungarian Revolution “our generation’s Spain.” He urged students to rally in support of Hungarian university students protesting the Soviet invasion of their country, and according to Cassidy, he was “in the heart” of student rallies at Hart House.
In one editorial, Gzowski called on Students’ Administrative Council, colleges, faculty association and students to send money, and on the university to create scholarships for Hungarian students. In subsequent editorials, he “reminded” various constituencies to follow his advice – then harangued them until they did.
Gzowski on letters to the editor: “People who have violent opinions and time on their hands [to write letters] have something lacking if they do not join in activities related to their interests. Therefore, most people who write letters to newspapers are fools.”
Gzowski criticized the English- and French-backed Israeli invasion of Egypt that year and slammed the dailies for not explaining the issue: “Israel has ignited the fuse to a bomb that may blow up the world. There seems to be no complete grasp of the situation.”
Then he accused Canada of following on the “coattails” of the United States and Britain and called on the government to take a clear stand on the Middle East crisis: “Where does Canada stand? Is our own very competent Minister of External Affairs going to make a statement?.Does it seem unfair to ask for leadership?”
Gzowski was fired from his part-time job of reporting on campus news for the Telegram after he criticized that paper, and the other Toronto dailies, for their sensational coverage of the trial of 17-year-old murder suspect Peter Woodcock. Gzowski called the coverage not only “despicable” and a “disgrace” but a “trial by headline,” and suggested that the papers were in contempt of court.
Gzowski on Remembrance Day: “Twice within the memory of our fathers, the young men of this country have been called to fight for a cause they can hardly understand. When you have been brought up in freedom, you do not know that it is worth fighting for.. Think of that for two minutes. If they died in vain, you may be called upon to do the same.”
Gzowski had to be carried from the train on arriving back from a student-exchange weekend in Montreal. But once staff got him back to The Varsity‘s offices, he ordered them to lead him to his desk. That evening, “Mr. Smith” wrote what is often considered his most inspired story of the year:
“Varsity visitors were whisked to a reception, the start of a three-day flow of French-Canadian hospitality.. Even the staid Ontario visitors watched the sun come up in Montreal. Arguments were too lively, music too danceable, songs too voluble for anyone to go to bed..”
Gzowski on Toronto: “Toronto, they say, is dirty: Chicago is by degrees filthier, and yet few people express an intense hate of Chicago. Toronto is aloof and unfriendly: New Yorkers are renowned for their inability to make strangers feel at home, but New York is spoken of in reverent tones. Toronto is a hypocritical town, ‘the city of churches’ with a flourishing red-light district: Montreal has more churches per capita and probably more prostitution. Toronto is boring on Sundays: have the critics ever been to Salt Lake City?.
“Whatever its cause, hating Toronto seems to have lost most of its point in a country as mature as ours pretends to be.”
Gzowski on Timmins, Ontario: “Of all the features that combine to make a beautiful feminine body, none are more attractive than ankles. What could possibly be prettier than a well-turned ankle climbing on a bus?.
“But on this campus, perhaps the only place in the world, this fact is not appreciated. Girls wear knee socks.. In Timmins, they wear silk stockings when it’s 50 below zero.”
Breslin on Gzowski: “In the few flamboyant months that Peter has been editor, a lot of people have come to know him. If nothing else, they have not been bored.. On Sunday night, he leaves for The Times-Herald in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to be ‘the youngest goddamn city editor in Canada.'”
Three staffers who worked under Gzowski would become Varsity editors: Mike Cassidy, Sam Ajzenstat and Doug Marshall.
“When any particular night ended, a lot of us would not bother going home,” says Ajzenstat. “We would just push aside all the typewriters and lay coats down on the desks and go to sleep right there.. He helped make us an extremely tight-knit social group. We shared our money freely. We all smoked and shared our cigarettes freely.
“He was a romantic. We [reporters] were outsiders in society, but society needed us.to punch holes in the system.. It was a kind of Humphrey Bogart image, with the cigarette hanging out of the mouth, and we all wore trench coats.
“Those of us who left [newspapers] thought that journalism had to be romantic, or it was nothing at all.”
Gzowski dropped in on Varsity staffers two decades later, in 1979, after the paper had published an editorial that “took exception” to CBC-TV firing one of its former editors from “90 Minutes Live,” Gzowski’s brief foray into late-night TV.
“It was a tongue-in-cheek editorial that kind of acknowledged that the show wasn’t very good, and we probably weren’t very respectful. I think we called him a klutz,” says George Cook, a former editor of U of T Magazine, who was Varsity editor at that time. “Gzowski didn’t make any comment about the editorial or express any sensitivity. He just hung around and talked for a bit. I think he dropped by to say that when you write these things, you should remember you’re writing about a real person.”
Gzowski on that year at U of T: “On the university rolls, I was a student in General Arts, headed for a degree, but in practice I went to no classes and wrote no essays. I was editor of the student paper, and that was my life.”
Margaret Webb (BA 1985 UC) was editor of The Varsity in 1985-86.