The worst week ever

A few more words about Christie Blatchford and Anne Kingston

There’s no way around this. It’s been an awful week and I simply can’t deliver the usual newsletter (and I apologize again for what, with Sonny Mehta and Florence Richler, has been a morbid start to the year).

Our dear friend and former colleague Christie Blatchford (above) died of cancer on Wednesday. It was something of a surprise. I knew she had been sick but when we were last in touch (before Christmas) it seemed as though she would pull through and be back at the National Post early in the New Year. I learned at the beginning of this week that things had taken a turn for the worse, that Christie was in palliative care. Before I could comprehend, it was all over.

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I’ve spoken to dozens of journalists since then, some who knew her well, others not so much, and with one exception (someone who didn’t know her and disagreed with her politics), the sense of loss has been profound. She was a small person but she occupied a huge space within the profession. I wrote about her here.

I also recommend you read Rosie DiManno’s column from the Star. Rosie and Christie were best friends. I recruited them both when we were launching the National Post in 1998, Rosie (who we wanted for our sports department) unsuccessfully. It was a weird episode for me because each seemed more interested in what the other would do than herself. Each was also fulsome in praise of the other and humble about herself. They would tell the same stories, like the time they rode around topless on a cart at a golf tournament and won a prize for best foursome. I became friends with both and for a while afterward, they would send me dirty postcards when they traveled together on assignment.

I didn’t write anything about Christie’s role at the early National Post. The things I remember most clearly about her from that time seemed too silly or trivial for a published tribute.

She had a thing for our deputy editor, Martin Newland, and had a system of alerts set up in the newsroom for when Martin was walking around in his gym clothes.

At one of our first parties, she taught our arts critic, John Bentley Mayes, a man who had written extensively about his depression and who was perhaps the oldest member of the staff (late fifties), how to chest bump. It took them four or five ungainly attempts to properly execute a chest bump but once accomplished, it was like they’d invented it. They repeated the feat, drinks in hand, every ten minutes or so for the rest of the night.

Another time we were at a pub, a bunch of National Post people, and I stood up to say a few words. As I did, the front flap of my suit jacket got caught behind the end of my belt. So I was standing there with the end of my belt poking six inches in front of me. “That’s a little too louche even for my taste,” shouted Christie.

I had hired her specifically to cover trials. O.J. Simpson, Menendez brothers, and the Clinton impeachment proceedings were fresh in mind. It seemed every few months there was another trial-of-the-century. Christie was to be for the National Post what Dominic Dunne was for Vanity Fair, the courtroom drama specialist.

She did cover some major trials (that’s her at a Reena Virk hearing below) but balked at living constantly in a hotel. She yearned to report breaking news and work her Toronto police contacts, and cover sporting events (especially Olympics), or whatever else would get her byline on front page. We accommodated her. It’s not like we had a choice. Christie was going to do what Christie was going to do.

Here is another fine remembrance of Christie that you may not have seen because it was posted on LinkedIn. It is by Siri Agrell who was at the National Post back in the day and now, alas, is doing other things.

I had been asked last weekend, when word got around that Christie was in palliative care, to prepare a tribute to her. I had done nothing when news came on Wednesday that she was gone. I sat down and started writing around noon. I had just about finished at 5:56 p.m. when a friend texted:

“Now Anne Kingston?”

“She was the best.”

I was stunned. I’d known Anne was sick, although little else. We’d been working on a book together over the last eight months. We’d been communicating by email. When I had asked her how she was doing back before Christmas, she was abrupt and evasive. I didn’t push. She’d always been a private person. In mid-January, I emailed her again, asking if she was ok.

“I’m sick right now,” she replied. “Don’t want to go into details. In Mount Sinai, hoping to get out of here in next few days.”

She had continued to respond to emails on the book project as though everything was fine right through last week.

“That can’t be,” I texted back.

“She died twenty minutes ago. She had been in palliative care the last six nights.”

Anne obviously wanted to deal with her illness in her own way, and while all the journalists who loved and admired her respect her wishes, we all feel terrible about not having had the chance to say goodbye. She had been in the same ward of the same hospital as Christie. They died less than eight hours apart.

By next morning, I was writing a second tribute, this one a more conventional obituary, on Anne Kingston for Maclean’s where we worked together for the better part of a decade. You can read it here. Or read a better piece by the great Sarmishta Subramanian.

I mentioned in my piece what a great colleague she was. I didn’t include, for various reasons, the following anecdote from Martin Patriquin, who worked for Maclean’s in Montreal:

We were at the National Magazine Awards one year and we were both pissed off at the cash bar and the ticket system it required to get a drink. It was like ordering from the Canada Revenue Service.

At the same time, I got obsessed with the gold-plated signs affixed to the walls outside the toilets that read ‘bathrooms by Kohler.’

We decided that we needed payback for the cash-bar atrocity. We also thought it was a crime that our colleague Nick Kohler had not been nominated for anything when he really did deserve an award.

So Anne and I devised a plan. She stood outside the bathroom on lookout, distracting everyone from coming in with her sparkling conversation, while I ripped the sign off the wall. It took way longer than I expected, and a good chunk of wallpaper came with it.

But we got the sign for Nick Kohler.

I can’t stop thinking about Anne and Christie who, at 63 and 68 years of age respectively, were so vital and full of stories and plans for the future, and so large a part of our pasts. They were very different people, very different journalists, and both hall-of-famers. They will be sorely missed.

And that will have to do for this week.

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