The life and bravado of Allan Fotheringham

Robert Lewis: From humble beginnings, Fotheringham’s satire and wit burst on the national scene like fireworks on Canada Day. He redefined political writing in Canada.

Robert Lewis is a former Editor-in-Chief of Maclean’s and author of Power, Prime Ministers and the Press, just released as an audiobook by Dundurn Press. 

The gall of the man.

Here he is, just out of UBC, working as a reporter at the Vancouver Sun and the chief honcho offers him the job as sports editor. With that, Allan Fotheringham, a cub of 24 unseasoned years, promptly quits and bums around Europe for three years. “I knew I could make it in the business,” he rationalized.

Bravado and insouciance rode with Fotheringham throughout his drive to the pinnacle of Canadian journalism. He became the best-paid columnist of his era, a star on TV and the speech circuit, author of nine books. But more than that, in the style of a Mencken or journalist Pete Hamill, he redefined political writing in Canada—even as he dressed like Gay Talese. He became the self-styled “Dr. Foth”, a satirist of the high and mighty who entertained readers and outraged politicians for half a century. He was the five-foot-seven ego who walked like Goliath and wrote like the Bard.

As a friend and one-time boss, I was sad when Murray Allan (Scott) Fotheringham died this week at 87, but relieved that his suffering was over and that this loquacious and active public figure, his voice stilled by dementia, his once-rugged physique hobbled by age and illness, had found rest.

It all began in the hamlet of Hearne, Sask. “The town was so small,” he often said, “it couldn’t afford a village idiot. Everyone had to take turns.” There his widowed mother, Edna, raised four children during the Depression, supporting them by running a post office in her home and giving violin lessons. But the world opened to young Fotheringham, born on Aug. 31, 1932, when he read the newspapers and magazines borrowed from the post office boxes of the locals. He decided then that he wanted to see the world. What he didn’t know at the time was that he was born to write.

READ MORE: Allan Fotheringham was loved and loathed but never ignored

After high school he went to UBC where he was a track star and editor of The Ubyssey. A vicious parody of the Vancouver Sun in the campus paper earned Fotheringham a job at the Sun, publisher Don Cromie citing his “skill and ruthlessness.” By 1968 he was the swaggering political columnist—at $35,000-a-year—helping to bring down a civic government and giving ulcers to the provincial pols. One of his favourite targets was Premier Bill Vander Zalm, an eccentric who ran the province with an uncertain hand. “Do you know why Bill Vander Zam wears wooden shoes?” he wrote. “It’s to keep the woodpeckers away from his head.”

Fotheringham’s satire and wit burst on the national scene like fireworks on Canada Day, first with the national FP News Service then with Southam chain of papers and the Toronto Sun. But what put him over the top was editor Peter Newman’s decision, against senior staff advice, to install Fotheringham on the back page of Maclean’s in its reincarnation as a newsmagazine in 1975. Subscribers soon adopted a unique habit: opening the magazine to the back page first.

Fotheringham claims, with some legitimacy, that he “invented” Brian Mulroney, “the jaw that walks like a man” by spotlighting him early as the next likely Conservative leader. He also said: “His alarm clock didn’t ring; it applauded.” Mulroney took it all with good grace and hosted “the Foth” at his Harrington Lake retreat. “He was the best and most influential journalist in his day,” Mulroney told me last week. Even when they had a falling out over free trade, he added, “I continued to admire his body of work.”

In the same way, Fotheringham predicted the rise of another putative Prime Minister, Paul Martin. And he observed of Jean Chrétien: “The only man in Canada who can’t speak either of the two official languages.” He reserved his harshest barbs for Conservative Leader Joe “Jurassic Clark” and Pierre “Elliott Reincarnation”—both Prime Ministers he actually admired.

All of that brought accolades: national magazine and newspaper awards, a regular panelist spot on CBC’s Front Page Challenge, the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award. Plus barrels of cash: in one year alone his total income from all sources, he wrote, was $492,000. He boasted that he had been to 91 countries, always on expense accounts. I signed a lot of those cheques.

And yet, there was the little known private Foth. He loved being with women and had a ton of female friends. He said he found them more interesting than men. “He’s told everyone in North America that I slept with him,” said one, “and I didn’t!” His colleague at FP Mary Janigan said, “he never spoke as much as he listened.” His relationships with men tended to be the jock-locker-room style of friendly barbs and insults. His dear friend and book publisher Anna Porter, wife of his libel lawyer Julian, acknowledged that Fotheringham often confided his self-doubts to her. “He was very insecure,” she noted. He once alluded to this trait indirectly: “Most humourists are inherently troubled people, or very sad inside.” Lashings of wine and gin often fuelled his writing sessions.

And the Foth faced adversity: he never knew his father, who died when he was two and competed with his siblings for his mother’s attention. His first marriage to Sallye Delbridge ended after 17 years, he lost a son to a heart attack, he himself stared down death after botched surgery in 2007. But he had the good fortune to meet and marry Toronto art maven Anne Libby. She not only curated his image but supplied the loving support—and ego boost—he needed to keep going. He called her “the gem.” Of their 22-year marriage, she said: “Allan gave me a life beyond my wildest imaginings. Like all marriages, it was not perfect.  But the one thing that stands out is he never left me behind.  As the inside of my wedding band says, ‘Pari Passu’ which means ‘Side by side, equals together.’ ”

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