Her elements of style

She could argue over a comma for half an hour

Her elements of styleIt was a truth universally acknowledged among Barbara Moon’s colleagues at Maclean’s magazine that no one had the right to be both that beautiful and that brilliant. In the 1950s and 1960s, beauty was not totally unknown at Maclean’s, nor was brilliance. But she demonstrated both, and to an unforgettable degree. When she died last week, at the age of 82, of viral encephalitis, I remembered my first impression when we met in the mid-1950s on the staff of a now long-defunct monthly, Mayfair. It was as if a bird of paradise had alighted among sparrows.

She came from St. Catharines, Ont., but looked like one of nature’s Parisians, a woman who made chic self-presentation seem easy and inevitable. She was elegant in clothes, hair, speech, and, above all, prose. She turned a sentence as gracefully as she arranged a scarf. She was educated at Trinity College at the University of Toronto but spoke with an accent that seemed to issue from some mythically perfect corner of the Empire. Later she added an imperious tone, for use on those who dared to mess with her prose.

She came into Maclean’s as a clerk-typist in 1948, a 22-year-old novice in the elite core of national journalists gathered by the editor, Arthur Irwin. Her shrewd comments on the magazine’s contents impressed her bosses, notably Irwin’s protege, Pierre Berton, who encouraged her writing. A few years later he demonstrated his high regard after an editor in New York rejected a Berton manuscript on grounds of shoddiness. Berton asked Moon to give him a paragraph-by-paragraph critique, then rewrote it as she suggested. Knopf published The Mysterious North, opening a new phase in Berton’s career.

In scores of articles for Maclean’s she combined careful research and a relaxed sense of authority with an acerbic wit. As the entertainment writer, she once wrote a piece about a TV personality that was so abrasive it frightened even Ralph Allen, who had replaced Irwin as editor. He suggested to Berton, the managing editor, that if either of them should leave the magazine and become famous enough to justify a profile, “Let’s promise right now that neither of us will ever assign such a piece to Moon.”

When science attracted her interest, “The nuclear death of a nuclear scientist,” about the fatal radiation poisoning at Los Alamos of a young Winnipeg physicist, won her the 1962 University of Western Ontario President’s Medal, given for the best magazine article of the year. In 1970, her book, The Canadian Shield, defined our brutal landscape’s place in the national imagination: “Canadians are a shield race. They live with bedrock and bush and a million hidden lakes always at their backs. They live with a greedy secret of riches. They live with a vast waste space. They live with terrifying Boreal, god of the cold void.”

As a science journalist she wrote dozens of scripts for The Nature of Things and other TV programs. At the CBC she both delighted and infuriated producers, as she delighted and infuriated magazine editors. She was a star turn, a virtuoso who could bring style and intelligence to almost any subject, but she was also the proprietor of a writer’s block the size of Mount Kilimanjaro. When she met her deadline, which wasn’t always the case, she met it with seconds to spare.

Having edited or helped edit Mayfair, Canadian Bride and Toronto Calendar, she abandoned writing and became a full-time senior editor at Saturday Night in the 1980s and 1990s. Later, she and her husband of 41 years, Wynne Thomas, operated a freelance business, Editors-at-Large, from their farm outside Milford, east of Toronto in Prince Edward County.

Why do first-class writers stop writing? Editors often speculated on the causes of Moon’s block. Perfectionism was one suspect; she could argue over a comma for half an hour. Had she set her standards so high that even she couldn’t meet them? No one could say. She had a favourite line she delivered to young writers when trying to stimulate them: “Everyone has a secret. Your job is to find it.” The reason for Barbara Moon’s writing block was one secret she never divulged.

Robert Fulford was on staff at Maclean’s in the 1960s. He has contributed stories to Maclean’s for almost 50 years.

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