Lisa Beaton

Bad Boys, Booze and Bylines

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The rise and demise of the Toronto Press Club

The press club door had a buzzer in those days. You had to ring the buzzer and then wait for the door to open. On this night, someone is leaning on the buzzer. Inside, as the door opens, turned heads watch with surprise-and no surprise-as Duncan Macpherson falls through to the floor. He’s drunk, with a cop hanging onto one leg. The six-foot-three Toronto Star cartoonist struggles. His shoe pops off in the cop’s hands. The door slams shut between them. The cop is left on the other side, the enormous shoe still in his grip. By now, backup is on the way.

Heads turn again as Macpherson runs through the club. He bursts out the back door into the lobby of the Prince George. Drunken logic tells him the cops-probably lots of them at this point-are looking for a guy with one shoe. He ditches the other shoe and keeps moving. At the hotel bar, they see him coming. They tell him to keep going. He hits York Street and staggers shoeless toward a favourite hideout, the old Barkley Hotel. He sits down and does as he always does on a night like this: orders a plate of spaghetti, and falls asleep in it.

The story is just one of the many press club legends still told in the club today by elders like Bob Johnstone, 73, of CBC Radio. But as Johnstone recites the tale in his deep radio voice between sips of Irish whiskey, no one is fighting or causing a scene or on the verge of arrest. Ironically, this club, which for six decades has been known, both infamously and affectionately, as a “den of iniquity,” is now confined to the civilized hardwood, polish and formality of the Ontario Club in the city’s financial district.

Members of the old school gather here for lunch on the first Wednesday of every month. Johnstone is today’s guest speaker and he tells the story of when war came to Toronto in 1837. William Lyon Mackenzie ran a paper called the Colonial Advocate in his early years, he tells us. “Mackenzie,” says Johnstone, “had the same problem all publishers do. He couldn’t keep the staff sober.”

Since 1944, the press club set the scene for what became the lore of the newspaper journalist: drinking, fighting, womanizing, swearing and gambling – and Macpherson was one of the most notorious. Over the years, he was barred from the club three times – twice for life. Legendary columnist Paul Rimstead, whose name is typically followed by the phrase “literally drank himself to death,” was his pickled equal. And there was the CBC’s gruff and rumpled Norman DePoe, who in 1967 went live to air, fabulously drunk, his head sinking lower and lower as he slurred his way through the broadcast. In his memoirs, Knowlton Nash wrote DePoe “had a mad love affair with the gin bottle, yet he was the brightest, sharpest, most knowledgeable and best communicator among us.” The journalism way was Hemingway.

But things are different now. While a newspaper in those days could run a blank column space with the simple explanation We can’t find Rimstead, and among his delirious readers it would come to be known as “his best column ever,” the modern corporate, computerized business has ended its romance with drunken scoundrels. Old-school journalism is dying out, and with it, the press club. Good riddance, say most. But something’s been lost.

o read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
 It can be purchased online here



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