The first time I heard of Gina Mallet, the Toronto theatre community was trying to get her fired.
A press conference had been called to demand that something be done about The Toronto Star’s new drama critic, a former Time magazine writer from New York who had recently arrived in town and was taking no prisoners. Amazed that anyone would be so upset with a newspaper critic that they would publicly call for her head, I went along to the press conference.
It wasn’t that Gina was incompetent or inaccurate, that is not what had raised the ire of this group, it was simply the fact that she was tough. Witnessing this spectacle, the like of which had not been seen before and hasn’t happened since, I thought to myself, This is my kind of critic.
(The public whining only ensured a major newspaper like The Star would never do anything but back Gina, which it did.)
In her heyday, Gina Mallet was a throwback to the kind of critic personified in the 1960s by Nathan Cohen at The Star and (to a lesser extent) Ron Evans at The Toronto Telegram, demanding, uncompromising writers, highly articulate, gleefully holding the feet of the arts community to the fire.
Gina was a brilliant drama critic–her perceptions of Shakespeare and what Stratford annually did to the Bard constituted some of the best theatre writing Toronto journalism has ever produced.
In life, Gina was as tough and uncompromising as she was in print. She did not suffer fools or editors, particularly, as they often did, when the fools and the editors came packaged together. Then Gina’s rages became a breath-taking performance art played out in The Star’s newsroom, a shock and awe campaign wondrous to behold–and not a little frightening, particularly if you happened to be the hapless editor on the receiving end.
Years after that press conference, I finally met Gina when I joined The Star to write first about television and then film. We became friends, joined in part by our mutual distrust of the editorial powers trying to run our lives. Those of us who worked in entertainment back then were an unruly but loving family, held together by the outside forces who daily conspired–as far as we were concerned–to cut our copy, reduce our editorial space, and generally make our lives as miserable as possible.
Small and heavyset, russet curls knit tightly to that patrician head, possessed of a mid-Atlantic drawl that would have been at home in a Noel Coward play, she was a fearsome adversary with enemies galore. There was no one she wouldn’t take on from newspaper editors to restaurant owners to landlords.
Whatever Gina was, whatever you thought of her, she was an original, and when she had an opinion on something–and she had an opinion on everything–God help you if you disagreed.
Once we auditioned together for a CBC radio show–critics sitting around discussing the popular culture of the day. Gina was so ruthlessly aggressive with her views that she sent one of the more milquetoast critics on the panel scrambling for the hills and made the CBC rethink any idea it had about allowing opinionated rabble such as ourselves onto the public airwaves.
Those of us who knew Gina also knew a softer, funnier, most generous friend. When my marriage fell apart, I soon found myself part of her regular Saturday night dinner parties, and there a calmer, sweeter Gina with a glass or two of good wine inside her, presided over delicious meals she prepared in her tiny kitchen. She had a lovely Cheshire cat smile, and when she was happy about something, she flashed that smile and nearly purred with delight.
She was a superb cook, even more knowledgeable and articulate about food than she was about theatre–a knowledge she put to good use in later years as the restaurant critic for The Globe and Mail and The National Post.
She even wrote an award-winning book, a delightful combination of memoir and cri de coeur for the fate of good food titled Last Chance to Eat. In the book, I encountered a Gina I had not known before, the child of well-to-do British parents who grew up on a farm during the Second World War, and whose family later occupied a London apartment over Harrods department store.
There was an enigmatic quality about Gina. You knew her but didn’t really know her. There were parts of herself that she kept to herself. I saw a fair amount of her in the past few years, usually at lunch along with Jim Bawden, The Star’s former television critic. We would join Gina as she invaded various eateries in pursuit of her next restaurant column.
These were delightful lunches, the three of us yet again picking over the long-ago sins of The Star editors we’d had to suffer through, trading the newspaper gossip of the day, listening quietly to Gina’s delightfully barbed political views–slightly, shall we say, to the right of the center.
I knew she had previously battled cancer, and I knew she had fallen on hard times after leaving The Star and more recently when she lost her food column in The National Post. The lunches dwindled, I think mostly because she just couldn’t afford them any longer.
What I didn’t realize until it was too late, was that Gina’s cancer had returned, and this time it wasn’t going away. She died yesterday, and I sit here today writing this in tears, remembering someone who gave her heart and soul to journalism, who pursued the written word with total commitment and endless passion, and yet got so little back. She deserved better.
But then she gave so much to those of us fortunate enough to be her friend. As sad I am today, I can’t help but smile knowing she is off somewhere making life difficult for an editor.
Shock and awe, Gina. Shock and awe. Go to it, sweetheart…