A Writer On the Cobblestone Streets of Ibiza at Midnight

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The Wallflower at the Orgy Meets Jimmy Stewart


James Stewart in Ann Arbor, Mich., 1970. Photo: Bill Bishop


61rr7b5dljl-_ac_us240_ql65_1Toronto writer Marni Jackson has written a novel about celebrity. Rose, the protagonist in Don’t I Know You? keeps having encounters with real-life famous people, the novelist John Updike, actors Bill Murray and Gwyneth Paltrow, singers Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young.

I’ve known Marni for many years. Her novel, actually a series of interlocking short stories, attempts to come to grips with the phenomenon of fame and our unending preoccupation with it. It got me thinking about my own encounters with celebrity, the fascination with it that has marked my life.

The first movie star I ever met was James Stewart, a true Hollywood legend who had been making movies almost since they began to talk. I’d grown up loving him in such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Winchester 73, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rear Window and Vertigo.

Standing outside Stewart’s hotel room in Ann Arbor, Michigan, accompanied by my pal Ray Bennett and photographer Bill Bishop, I actually hesitated for a moment, overwhelmed with a sense that as soon as I walked into his room, my life would never be quite the same. The fantasy I had enjoyed on the screen was about to become reality. The prospect was both exhilarating and daunting.

The door opened and standing there in the flesh was a rather formal, elderly looking gent (although Stewart was only sixty-one at the time), who didn’t seem to know who I was, even though I had known him for a lifetime.

Eventually, he warmed up, told great Hollywood stories, and the three of us spent a delightful afternoon together. Nonetheless, it taught me a valuable lesson that would help me with future encounters: reality never quite lives up to the fantasy found on a movie screen, although, I must admit, Stewart came awfully close.

As did Henry Fonda a few years later. Following him upstairs to his hotel suite, I stared at the back of his neck thinking: I’m looking at the back of Henry Fonda’s neck!

Seeing those early stars for the first time hit me with an almost physical force. Long before celebrities became ubiquitous via television and the Internet, movie stars were almost never seen except on a big screen in a darkened theater.

Exposure has now reduced them almost to the point of extinction, but back then stars like Stewart and Fonda were so removed from day-to-day existence, it was initially hard to fathom they were sitting right there in front of me.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time attempting to come to terms with my feelings about this celebrity fascination, wondering about a kid who could get excited about the back of Henry Fonda’s neck, forcing myself to admit that it was in fact a fascination (obsession?) and not simply journalistic pursuit.

Journalism, if I’m to be honest, was the convenient excuse that allowed me to indulge in that fascination (obsession?) over many years—perhaps too many years. What was missing from my own life that I so badly needed to be part of someone else’s life?

Originally, I believe, it had to do with a lonely teenager’s desire to get closer to the stars I saw in a small town on a large movie screen. I didn’t so much go to the movies as I inhabited them. Somewhere off in the misty distance, I imagined, lay an Emerald City filled with the beautiful women and handsome men I saw captured on celluloid. Somehow, I would make the journey and meet my heroes and my insular life would change for the better.

That journey began in Jimmy Stewart’s hotel room, and I was right, my life was never quite the same afterwards. I travelled many places, met many people, finally reached the Emerald City only to discover, perhaps not surprisingly, that it didn’t really exist beyond the confines of a youthful imagination running wild in a small Canadian town.

The stars within the city’s confines could do many things, but they could not make my life better. You could meet these people and talk to them, but you were never going to be part of them. You were, as the writer Nora Ephron noted so memorably, the wallflower at the orgy.

In those days, I had plenty of company reporting the orgy. It was something of a golden age of celebrity journalism. Not only did I want to meet the stars, but, fortunately, I was driven by my betters to try to write about them intelligently—or as intelligently as a young fellow not yet fully formed by the world could write.


Wallflower with Rex Reed

Rex Reed as a freelancer for the New York Times was, to my mind, the pioneer in writing about the famous without the gee-whiz enthusiasm of his predecessors. Rex possessed a gimlet eye, an acerbic wit, and a novelist’s innate ability to turn a phrase that provided unexpected insight into the people he was talking to.

Over the years, one of my great pleasures has been getting to know Rex. To this day, I remind him how much he influenced me. His pieces on Tennessee Williams and Warren Beatty in Esquire remain classics of celebrity journalism,  instruction manuals for anyone interested in writing magazine profiles.

Marci McDonald, who wrote celebrity profiles for the Toronto Star and then Maclean’s magazine, was also someone whose prose I greatly admired—and envied. The same is true of New York writer Tom Burke who wrote for Rolling Stone.

Gay Talese wrote the most famous celebrity piece of all time for Esquire, titled Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. At the bar one night at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, I spent a great deal of his time informing Talese about how much his journalism meant to me.

Alas, those golden days of fine celebrity writing are gone, partly, I suspect, because the days of easy access to the stars are long gone. When I interviewed Jimmy Stewart for example, there wasn’t a publicist in sight. That has all changed. Writers appear to be much more tightly controlled than they were back in the days when I was writing.

Often I was able to spend days hanging out with someone like James Garner or Tom Wolfe in order to write about them. Now it’s all red carpet interviews and television sound bites. The magazine writer is fortunate to get lunch with the star during a photo shoot.

Or maybe it’s simply that no one has come along to replace the likes of Rex Reed, Tom Burke, and Marci McDonald. I finally exhausted my penchant for celebrity in a blur of hotel room interviews for the Toronto Star. I came into the job wanting to profile everyone under the sun and proceeded to do it to the point of exhaustion.

I am no longer the wallflower at the orgy, although I suppose my fascination lingers. As readers of these blogs know only too well, I continue to spin the celebrity stories that informed so much of my life. Did I waste much of that life, sitting in a hotel room waiting for Cher to call (she never did incidentally)? It has crossed my mind from time to time.

At least Marni Jackson in Don’t I know You? has managed to find a new use for celebrity stories, incorporate them into your fiction; the wallflower joins the orgy, at least on the printed page.

Why didn’t I think of that? But then, hey, I got to interview Jimmy Stewart, and I saw the back of Henry Fonda’s neck.

Close up.


Buy Don’t I Know You? HERE

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Baby, The Rain Must Fall: Remembering Glenn Yarbrough


The singer Glenn Yarbrough died in August at the age of eighty-six after suffering from dementia for years. His voice and his songs were such a pivotal influence on my adolescence, I can’t imagine how I missed the news of his death, but miss it I did.

When I think back now, it amazes me that a group of teenaged guys sitting around late at night so avidly embraced his songs. While everyone else favored groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Mamas and the Papas, we listened to Glenn singing songs like “Stanyan Street Revisited,” “The Warm and Gentle Girls,” “The World I Used to Know,” “Rose,” “Lonesome,” and his only top-twenty hit, “Baby the Rain Must Fall” (from the Steve McQueen-Lee Remick movie).

A high tenor voice infused with angst and longing, a gentle poet singing of loves that slipped away, ambitions that went unrealized, illusions shattered, wanderers constantly moving on, and loneliness. We would later encounter all those things in our lives, but at the time we really hadn’t had to deal with any of it, except maybe the loneliness.

Perhaps that was the essence of his appeal for us. I certainly felt alone and cut off back then, locked away in a small town along the St. Lawrence River. I’m not sure any of us realized it, but in a way those songs prepped us for the future, sending out signals, warning of what was to come in life, the messages embedded in a bittersweet romanticism that I soaked up.

His voice echoed constantly through our apartment over the bank my father managed on King Street West, so much so that even my brother Ric, not ordinarily obsessed with thoughts of love and loneliness, became addicted.

Recently my niece Lindsay married. Ric arranged a surprise dance with his daughter as Glenn sang “Rose,” a somewhat soppy ballad, I must admit, that my poor niece and nephew grew up listening to. It contains the refrain: “That’s okay, Rose would say, don’t you worry none. We’ll have good times, by and by, next fall when the work’s all done.”

The Bases sang along lustily, memories and tears flowing. Everyone else thought we were nuts. And we were. Just a little.

Born in Milwaukee but raised in New York City, Glenn first gained notoriety as a member of the Limelighters folk group (a college appearance by Woody Guthrie was an inspiration). He never strayed far from his folk roots after he left the group and struck out on his own. He was particularly adept at interpreting the songs and poetry of Rod McKuen with whom he collaborated often over the years.

I met Glenn when he came to Ottawa to do a concert. I persuaded the entertainment editor at the now defunct Ottawa Journal to let me do a story on him. I doubt the editor knew who I was talking about, but nonetheless he agreed to run an interview.

I hurried over to where Glenn was performing on a double bill with the Everly Brothers. Don and Phil came on first. Most of the crowd was there to see them. Unfortunately, they were not there to see Glenn.

The audience remained polite enough through the first few songs in his set, but as it became apparent Glenn Yarbrough was a long way from the Everlys, the booing started. I couldn’t believe it. Those songs meant a lot to an eighteen-year-old kid, how could these people not be swept away? But they weren’t.

To his credit, when I saw him backstage, Glenn took the hostility more or less in stride. “They came to see Don and Phil,” he said. “It probably wasn’t a good idea to put me on the same bill with them.”

A small, stocky man with short-cropped hair and a round, boyish face, Glenn stood for most of our time together, moving his arms restlessly around, snapping his fingers, courteous enough, but a bit remote—or maybe he was more shaken by his encounter with the Ottawa crowd than he was willing to admit.

That night also marked one of the first times I heard anyone angrily criticize the war in Vietnam. This seems extraordinarily naïve today, but in 1967 the anti-war sentiment that soon roiled the United States had yet to take hold. At least it had not gotten through to me. Until I met Glenn, I pretty much bought the Time magazine view that the war was necessary in order to stop the communists from taking over the world.

After that, I went on with my life, experiencing firsthand many of the things I previously had only heard Glenn sing about: loves and losses, disappointments and disillusion, all those beautiful strangers who came along and then were gone.

Glenn faded into the background.

37677-4285681But then years later, now working at the Toronto Star, I came into the newsroom one afternoon and there, standing at the reception desk, was a bearded Glenn Yarbrough.

I went over and introduced myself. He shook my hand, friendly, but as he was the first time we met, somewhat remote. He said he had become a lot more interested in sailing around the world and helping others than he was in performing. Now he only sang on occasion so he could pay the bills.

I accompanied him to the photo studio where he was getting his picture taken for something or other. Later, as he came back through the newsroom, he waved and I went over and walked him out. As we said goodbye, I tried to tell him how I admired him, and how much his music had helped me get through lonely adolescent nights.

Then he was gone and the next thing I heard about him was the belated news of his death. So as I sit writing this, I am listening to that warm tenor voice reciting the words that have stuck with me for a lifetime:

“Alas the nights so blue and bright, have wandered into dawn, and all the warm and gentle girls have come along and gone. . .”

Ah, but one of them stayed Glenn, the warmest and gentlest. You got it just about right.

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The End of Movies?


Cary Grant was a made-up character according to—Cary Grant.

“I’m playing a part,” he told interviewer Jim Bawden. “It’s a part I’ve been playing for a long time, but no way am I really Cary Grant.”

Gloria Swanson said Billy Wilder approached Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo before he finally cast her as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Roy Rogers admitted he had no idea how to act when he started in movies. Cast as a villain in his first picture, all he could think to do was frown.

Van Johnson remembered the day Clark Gable, MGM’s top box office star for many years, left the studio. “He was considered too expensive at $6,000 a week…(I) watched from an upstairs window as Gable drove his convertible right around that loop. Then he stood up and saluted and drove away and with him went the studio’s glory.”

512wncbs7vl1These and dozens of other anecdotes and memories of a bygone age fill Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era by Jim Bawden and Ron Miller. The book, published by the University Press of Kentucky, gleaned from interviews both authors conducted with various stars over the years, is at once a delicious wallow in nostalgia and a sad reminder that movies no longer matter the way they used to.

I devoured Conversations with Classic Film Stars as the movie summer of 2016 wound down, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and Hollywood wondering if there was any future at all in the wake of the failure of so many blockbuster behemoths.

“Cinema Is Dead?” asked a recent New York Times headline, before hurrying to reassure that maybe it isn’t—maybe.

Now that September is upon us accompanied by the arrival of the Toronto International Film Festival, the start of awards season, and a clutch of films that don’t rely on special effects or comic book heroes in tights, there is a burst of optimism. Yet a shadow hangs over film; if the movies are not dead or dying, they are at least unhealthy and possibly on life support.

Wired magazine in its critical appraisal of this past summer’s offerings concluded that this could well be “the worst. Year. Ever.”

Referring to the avalanche of mediocre box office duds littering your local Cineplex over the past four months, Wired critic Brian Raftery wrote: “These movies didn’t just fail; they almost seemed to never exist in the first place, having been dismissed or disposed of immediately upon impact.”

Certainly the glamor and excitement that used to accompany going to movies has, for me a least, long since slipped away. The slippage began in the 1980s when I was writing about film. Those of us who covered cinema could see that something was going seriously wrong. The high profile failures of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate spelled the end of the autonomy many directors had enjoyed throughout the seventies and which produced what is generally regarded as the last great age of American cinema.heavens-gate1

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Hollywood studios, taken over by conglomerates, had begun to turn out mostly big, lumbering noisy industrial products that could appeal to everyone but in the end satisfied no one. As the years went on, things only got worse until now the studios have no interest in anything but expensive sequels, remakes, and animated features designed for family audiences. Most of the movies I grew up loving would never get made by a major studio today.

Even as I devoured movies, there was a great deal of talk about their death. The studio system that sustained Hollywood and nurtured and manufactured their stars through the 1930s and 1940s, was disappearing as theater attendance plummeted and television kept audiences at home.

Ironically, television is once again the culprit. This time, however, it’s because television, to the astonishment of a writer who used to write despairingly about the medium, has become the pop cultural touchstone of our time. Movies have been left in the dust of the dozens of special effects cities Hollywood blockbusters insist on destroying every summer.

Original writing, brilliant acting, cinematography that captures the light and shadow of contemporary life, all that is found on your home flat screen. Movies, on the other hand, have become impossibly difficult to produce and finance, and, worst of all, dull.


As I exited the task of writing about film at the end of the 1980s, I reported that the cost of the average studio movie had doubled over the decade to twenty-three million dollars. I was shocked—shocked!—that a new Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action movie, Total Recall, had cost an astronomical fifty-five million dollars.

I naively worried that “there was concern that even if the summer movies were hits, they could never make enough money to recoup their production and marketing costs.” I quoted one studio executive as saying, “What’s going on is insane.”

Ha. What little did he—or I—know of what was to come.

The latest X-Men installment was budgeted at over two hundred and fifty million dollars, and that’s not unusual in this surreal movie age.

Because pictures have become so expensive, the stakes so extraordinarily high, any signs of originality or unpredictability have been bled out by herds of writers and studio executives intent on making them palatable to the largest worldwide audience.

Ostensibly, it has been left to independently-financed films made outside the studio system, to provide the original and the unpredictable. But the independents, too, are often hobbled by a lack of the audacity that seems to come so naturally to television. The writing is better, the acting often superb, but everything independent appears to have to be based on a true story in order to get made. What the super hero movie is to summer, the true story has become to the fall.

Brian Raftery in Wired makes the point that it isn’t just television that has captured the cultural zeitgeist, it is unexpected phenomenon like Pokémon Go or the Broadway smash, Hamilton, that get everyone talking.

No one much talks about movies any more. Even so, no matter what they do to me, I can still be found most weekends at the multiplex with my popcorn and my optimism. I’m still yammering away about movies—these days extoling the many pleasures contained in Bawden and Miller’s delightful book about movie stars from another age who remind us of a time when movies really mattered.


You can purchase Conversations with  Classic Film Stars at Amazon. Please click…


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A Desperate Author…A Controversial Book…A Midnight Escape…

You can order an autographed copy of The Escarpment, Ron Base’s gripping new mystery thriller, by CLICKING on the LINK below…


It will take you to Ron’s Facebook page. Once there, simply click on the SHOP NOW button the top of the page. You will receive a copy of the book, personally autographed by Ron…

Escarp front

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Five Years Later: Still Brian

Brian and Nancy Visit (July 3, 2010) 036

Looking through old photos stored on an auxiliary hard drive, I came across pictures of my old friend Brian Vallée when he and his partner Nancy Rahtz visited my wife, Kathy, and me at our home in Milton on a sunny summer weekend in early July 2010.

 I’d forgotten about that weekend and seeing those photos again of a happy, healthy-looking Brian was heart-wrenching. Less than a year later, he was terminally ill with cancer; little more than a year later, on July 22, 2011, he was gone. Looking at those photos today it is hard to believe this is a man with only a year left to live.

 On the fifth anniversary of his death, I thought I’d post some of the photographs from that Milton weekend, as well as repost the remembrance I wrote at the time of his death. Five years later those of us who knew him, loved him, and valued his friendship, still mourn him.

 Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Brian; he’s still here—in pictures, certainly in memory, and, on a day like today, in a lingering sense sadness.

 Rest well, BV. You are not forgotten…

Brian and Nancy Visit (July 3, 2010) 030

The digital readout on the phone said: “Vallée B.” In addition to everything else he’d accomplished, I told him, he had become a rap artist. He liked that idea.

When he called, I knew it was time for my daily dose of the Vallée B news: another old newspaper pal gone; a new piece of information unearthed for the Edwin Alonzo Boyd book; the trouble editing the Conrad Black biography; the endless frustrations with a publisher over his latest book.

I always got the chapter and the verse. More than I sometimes wanted to know. But that was okay. He was Brian, after all, Vallée B. We talked nearly every day for over forty-two years. I don’t think we ever exchanged an angry word. Lots of jokes and arguments and jibes. But no anger.

The 70-year-old more formally known as Brian Vallée was a great newspaperman, an award-winning broadcaster, and a best-selling author. But to me he was simply and inevitably, Vallée B, that reassuring humor-filled voice on the phone, my closest and dearest friend.

He got me married twice (the second time as best man), helped me through a divorce, ran interference with various girlfriends when I was single, and when no one else was interested, resurrected a publishing company he helped create, West-End Books, rolled up his sleeves and set about publishing my novel—an act of kindness and unwavering generosity that has quite literally changed my life.

It wasn’t just me, though. Brian was like that with everyone. If you needed help, Brian was there to provide it. He spent too much time trying to help everyone—dying pals, unemployed newsmen, frustrated writers, and wannabe journalists. Brian seldom said no to anyone.

He was handsome and charismatic, larger than life. Everyone he met just naturally gravitated to him. He was one of those people who existed in this special aura that acted as a magnet drawing in everyone he encountered.

With Brian (July 3, 2010) 040

I remember the moment I met him— lunchtime in 1969 at the Windsor Press Club. We were both reporters at the Windsor Star. I remember thinking he was somewhat shy and quiet. The next thing, I started hearing rumblings, stories from the late night front lines about this new guy Vallée. Not so quiet, as it turned out. Not so shy. A character.

He liked to play the piano late into the night. He did a little Johnny Cash and less Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a singular fault when it came to piano playing: he did not know a single tune. This, however, did not stop him. He played with ferocity and passion. So what if he didn’t quite know the whole song—or even half of it.

The amazing thing is, no one seemed to mind. Rapturous audiences would demand more. I used to wonder what they thought they were hearing. It wasn’t the music of course—there was no music—it was Brian. Everyone loved Brian.

But there was much more to him than his ability (as impressive as it was) to hold court around pianos. He also worked harder at his craft than just about anyone I ever knew. He took the business of journalism very seriously; the necessity to be accurate and true was paramount to him.

Brian and Nancy Visit (July 3, 2010) 025I don’t think he started out as a good writer, but he certainly finished up that way. The mellowing effect of the years, as well as his enduring relationship with his partner,Nancy Rahtz, provided him with a gravitas that opened the way to his finest work.

His last book, The War On Women, is also his best, a well-researched, eloquent cry for help for the victims of domestic violence.

In the past two years, he had become a passionate advocate for vulnerable women,and traveled the country speaking out for them. His fight for more awareness of domestic violence substantially raised the profile of that issue. He leaves a real legacy, a record of achievement few journalists can ever lay claim to.

There was so much more he wanted to do. Brian’s phone calls were filled with ambitious future plans both as an author and as a publisher. I marveled at what he wanted to do, wondered how he would ever get it all done.

But at the same time, those calls were filled with increasing complaints about back pain. He thought he had pulled something exercising. Instead of getting better, however, the pain grew worse.

His doctor sent him to physiotherapists.  They provided no relief whatsoever. He could not work he was hurting so much. Now when he phoned his voice sounded weak. He seemed much older. Something was wrong, I said. This had to be more than a pulled muscle. Finally, blood tests were done. His doctor ordered him to get to a hospital.

He went into St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, May 14. He never left. Yesterday morning at 10:33 a.m., with wonderful Nancy at his side, Brian went away. I got there a moment before he left. I took his hand in mine, and he was gone.

So that is how forty-two years of friendship slips off; how the best friends leave. As he escaped away, I shouted how much I loved him, and how much he had meant to me—how I would miss him.

He just kept going. I hope he heard me.

Brian (July, 2010)

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The Escarpment: A Video

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