Taking on Toronto
Notoriously unpredictable Star columnist Rosie DiManno pushes the city's limits
It is going to be a hard night for Jack Layton. Pre-election polls have forecast defeat of Toronto’s NDP mayoralty candidate at the hands of his Tory opponent, and at 7 p.m. on election day, time is ticking away. And here is Layton, sweating in his overcoat and red scarf, rushing from door to door in the Ryerson student residence, trying to garner some lastminute votes. Though well-spoken and personable, he cannot mask the aura of panic that accompanies him. And as if this weren’t trying enough, this personal campaigning, this compilation of months of work into final-hour sell lines for college voters, a reporter has emerged out of nowhere to chronicle the act. Not just any reporter, either, but gritty Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno-not exactly a die-hard fan of the New Democratic Party. But Layton greets her amicably, and they exchange witticisms as she follows his rushed passage up and down cement stairwells and along hallways.
DiManno, too, has been anxious all evening, dreading the notion of a political story, unsure about the slant she will take. She has even developed a tension headache on the way over in the cab. But leaning back against a wall, observing Layton, she is in her element. She scrawls constantly in her notebook, managing to maintain an air of grace. Layton is making her job easy. As he promises better student housing, Metropasses for university students and better lighting in the residence, DiManno visibly relaxes.
To her amusement, Layton, in his hurry, is knocking on doors and entering rooms before he is invited in. “I’m much better now,” DiManno says, laughing. “I can see the column taking shape. He didn’t even wait for them to answer the door! Does he look manic?!”
“They left you off the voters’ list. That’s how much they think of you,” Layton informs student after student, while DiManno stands to the side, eyes slightly squinted in thought, smiling. If Layton had time to think about DiManno’s presence there that evening, he might have been worried.
Knock-knock, Who’s there? began DiManno’s column the following day.
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack who could not win over the electorate.
But oh, how he tried. Until the very last moment he tried. What followed was a sympathetic account of the final hour of Layton’s campaign. Humorous at times, but certainly not cruel.
“It’s so easy to ridicule people,” says DiManno. “But you don’t make fun of losers. It was funny, but it wasn’t ridiculous. Here was a man heading for defeat, and he was going to fight till the last minute. These are admirable qualities.”
Who could have foreseen this forgiving slant on a piece by the writer whose coverage of the funeral of a murdered child aroused public fury for its alleged ruthlessness? And it was only last May that DiManno condemned “a trendy, all-purpose NDP ideology” for being ”as much at fault…as any Tory national agenda or broken Liberal promises.” Not to mention the charges of self-righteousness directed at NDP cabinet minister Marilyn Churley in at least two other columns.
But if DiManno is anything, she is unpredictable, a rare quality for a newspaper reporter in this age of pack journalism and creeping orthodoxy. “Rosie doesn’t toe the political party line,” says friend and fellow Star writer Craig MacInnis. “She doesn’t wear party colors on her sleeve. She’s a situational person. She sizes up a situation on its own merit.” Says city editor Joe Hall, “I find it difficult to pigeonhole her. One of her most appealing qualities is that she’s not predictable.”
Without aligning herself with any faction, DiManno seems to speak for…the people. She writes with a snappy, witty rhetoric which often appears to take on the voice of her subject: the prostitute, the TTC striker, the mother of a murdered child. “Her politics are emotionally situated,” says MacInnis. “She writes from the perspective of someone who feels a certain empathy for the little guy.”
The response she elicits from her readers is emotional too. “She infuriates large numbers of readers,” says Hall. “She outrages them.” He estimates that DiManno gets more phone calls from readers than any other staff member on city side. It’s easy to believe. At her desk this Tuesday afternoon, DiManno’s phone is ringing constantly. Her latest column was about the shooting of Jonathan Howell, a black man, by Detective Carl Sokolowski, and criticism of the police provokes the most virulent of public responses. DiManno listens patiently to the opinions of each caller, responding firmly but respectfully unless the reader gets rude. And some of them do. After one such call impugning the purity of her motives, DiManno sits back in her chair, looking more sad than angry. “This job is disheartening at times,” she says. “You really get to feel the pulse of the city.”
The idea of having a city columnist had been in the air for years at the Star before DiManno was selected for the job in September 1989. “I’d always said the Star should have one,” says DiManno. “I was always interested in the prospect of me doing it, but I just thought that somebody should do it. It was an element that we were missing in the newspaper.”
Hall was looking for a column that would provide a younger person’s perspective as well as a sense of the city. Born and raised in Toronto, at 33 DiManno seemed like a prime candidate. It was an impressive position to hold at such an age, and DiManno knows how fortunate she was. “I’m not stupid,” she says. “I think I got the best job in this city.” It didn’t exactly fall into her lap.
Born to Italian immigrant parents, DiManno was raised around Christie Pits in Toronto’s west end. The only girl among five boys, she experienced the restricted childhood typical of kids of traditional Italian parents. At 12 she was forced to attend Central Commerce, a secretarial school in which she had no interest. To her horror, she excelled there. But she left halfway through the year when her family moved to North York. “I don’t know what would have happened if my family hadn’t moved,” says DiManno, who doubts she would have become a secretary. “I might have led a life of crime.”
So it was on to William Lyon Mackenzie Secondary School, and the trial of adolescence under the thumb of “phenomenally strict” parents. “Curfews? What curfews?” asks DiManno. “I couldn’t go out at all. No curfew. Home after school. You weren’t allowed to go to a dance or anything like thatever .” Her marks began to slip when she started cutting classes. She would go down to Yorkville and panhandle, pretending she was a hippie, or go to a movie, or go to a mall. It was the only freedom she had in those days.
North York was also the place where DiManno discovered sports. She’d played a lot of softball as a kid, but she’d never been a good athlete, never had much interest. Then one morning she woke up a sports nut. Her primary fixation was hockey, and she read everything she could about it. “If I read a newspaper at all, it was just the sports pages,” says DiManno. Except for a “book” she put together while in Grade 9, DiManno did not do much writing in those days. “God knows what it was about,” she says. “It was a stupid book, about sex and drugs and being 14. I used to hand it out in class. There were always people reading chapters of it.”
Still, she had the notion back then that she was going to be a writer, and the Ryerson School of Journalism seemed like a good place to start. The restrictions set by her family had always been a problem, and with the prospect of a career in sight, they loomed larger than ever. “I didn’t know how I could be a journalist and get along with my family at the same time. Even in my ignorance I realized that journalism involved travelling; it involved long hours.”
Bu t DiManno thrived at Ryerson, becoming editor of The Ryersonian, the journalism school paper, in her final year. She describes her paper as the worst one in history. “I just picked my friends, people who were good partiers, and I don’t know how we put that paper out. 1’d bring from .home these great big bottles of homemade wine. We’d sit in the back…and we’d just drink all this wine, and then we’d go outside and smoke some dope. Then we’d come in and try to put the paper together .”
She began working part-time for the Star when she was 17 years old, and the summer after third year she was hired full-time as a sportswriter. She doesn’t remember when the epiphany occurred at Ryerson, when she decided that she wanted to write sports. But Christie Blatchford was already doing it at The Globe and Mail, and DiManno thought that even being a female sportswriter might be a more realistic goal than setting out to write fiction.
She had “the time of her life” covering the ’76 Olympics in Montreal for the Star. Her stories were getting good play, and she describes that period as a delayed adolescence. Because she worked in sports, she worked a split shift. She’d work in the morning, have the afternoon off, then return to work at night. Most people went home during the d~y but DiManno, who was still living with her parents, would go drinking. Sometimes her assignments were late. “This was the first time that I was going home at one, two, three o’clock in the morning. That never happened before. So perhaps I was behaving like a
lot of other people when they’re 15I thought that those good times were never going to end.”
When DiManno finally moved out she was 23 years old, and the action did cause a rift. She now lives by herself in a downtown apartment. Relations with her parents were eventually restored, though the relationship has always been limited by the language barrier; DiManno speaks Italian but not very well. “I don’t think that they know to this day what it is that I do for a living,” she says. “It must be a terrible puzzle to them.” And any freedom she has taken for herself was reluctantly yielded. “If I phone them and say ‘I’m going out of town tomorrow,’ then there’s always that sigh, ‘Oh there you go again. Why do you always have to do this?'”
When her quarterly probationary period at the Star came up for the third or fourth time, then-sports editor Jim Proudfoot fired her. “It would probably be correct to say that I was having too good a time,” says DiManno. “I didn’t take it all that seriously, they tell me.” Thus began a low period in her life which didn’t lift until six months later when she started freelancing for magazines. She got a story in the first issue of City Magazine, a now defunct Toronto Star publication then under the editorship of Hartley Steward. Freelancing kept her alive for three years until she decided to go back to newspapers.
This time she tried The Globe and Mail. “I walked over to the Globe, got an interview and was hired. I remember later coming out and sitting on a curb outside the Globe and thinking ‘My God, what have I done?'” She worked as a general assignment reporter at the Globe for four months before she decided to quit. “If there was ever a person who was un Globe, it was me,” says DiManno. “It took itself much too seriously.” She walked into managing editor Ted Moser’s office ready to quit, but before she could get the words out of her mouth he said, “You’re gone.” She had gotten in trouble for hitchhiking home from an out-of-town assignment the previous week, and he didn’t like the way she dressed. “You didn’t wear little halter tops to the Globe,” says DiManno.
After a year of freelancing, Star city editor Mary Deanne Shears offered her a job as a summer replacement. “I jumped at the opportunity,” DiManno recalls. “I always felt that I had the Star tattooed on my ass. I always felt that I wasn’t where I should have been. I mean, I felt like a Star person all those years when I wasn’t a Star person.” Shears gave her a stern welcoming lecture about responsibility, but by the end of the summer DiManno was hired on as a general assignment reporter. She worked as a GA reporter for five years, in entertainment for less than two, and then for one and a half years as part of the features team. Last September was the second anniversary of her column.
The role of a city columnist is a precarious one, says Blatchford, city columnist for The Toronto Sun. You’ve got to be newsy, but not too newsy, to avoid taking stories away from reporters. You’ve got to be topical, and at the same time give readers something they won’t get from a news story or from television. What you have to do is provide the kind of detail that newspaper and television reporters can’t supply.
“I like columns that rely heavily on detail,” says DiManno. “I think I have an eye for detail. Sometimes you write columns that are really just mood pieces. They’re not really saying anything. They’re just word pictures.”
This knack for verbal impressionism, nearly poetic at times, is typical DiManno. Hall compares her work to Jimmy Breslin’s, and DiManno too is a fan of Breslin’s writing. “I’m not a great hockey fan,” says Hall, “But I remember quite well a piece she wrote a year ago about the Leafs. It was just a look at the Leafs all geared up for a new season…but with the words she used you could just about see the blades cutting through the ice.”
Blatchford describes the relationship between herself and DiManno as “curious.” DiManno keeps her on her toes, she says, especially when they’re covering the same story. In one case last summer, both columnists were writing about Kay~a Klaudusz, a missing child who was later found murdered. “I can’t tell you the times I’d see her in front of [the family’s] apartment building and start to worry,” says Blatchford. “Then she’d disappear and I’d think ‘Fuck, she got inside,’ and it would turn out she went for a coffee.”
But DiManno is a harsh judge of her own work, and says there are many columns she regrets having written. She warns of the traps columnists can fall prey to: like falling in love with the sound of your own voice. “Sometimes I just want to say: ‘Shut up, Rosie! Shut up!’… There are days I don’t go into work because I’m so ashamed of what I’ve written.”
Ironically, the columns she regrets are rarely the ones that caused public furor. Perhaps the best-known of these controversial pieces was on Andrea Atkinson’s funeral. Six-yearold Andrea had disappeared days earlier from her mother’s east end apartment, and her body was later found in the storage room of her building. DiManno went beyond the death of the child, exploring the intentions and suspicions of the funeral goers, many of whom had appeared with small children and shopping bags.
There are times when you can almost touch the face of madness. And it was there in the tawdry spectacle of a service for the dead, turned into a circus for the living. In the almost giddy grief of a childless mother. In the murmur and hissing of strangers. In the hostility of a crowd engorged with rage.
Some of that rage was directed at Ruth Windebank, Andrea’s mother, and DiM anno’s piece made that clear. It was her description of Windebank’s behavior which provoked an outcry from readers who felt the grieving mother had been unjustly served by DiManno’s prose.
In the chapel, Andreas casket was laid out in front of pale pink curtains, laden and surrounded with flowers. On the lid, a burst of pink carnations with a card that read: To our little girl. From Ruth and Doug. Not mother, not mom, but Ruth. That’s Ruth Windebank, mother, and Doug Heinbuch, the boyfriend she met on Labor Day.
Hall doesn’t regret having run the piece, though he wishes he could have prevented the error which caused DiManno’s photo byline to be dropped from the column, making it look like a news story. But even without this confusion, people would have complained, says Hall. DiManno was trying to convey that the funeral had become a spectacle of sorts, with a turnout that seemed more like audience than mourners. But her efforts were largely misinterpreted, because in our society funerals are like death itself. They are surrounded by taboo.
DiManno admits that she did not like Ruth Windebank. She was angered by the fact that Windebank had let Andrea out of her sight for at least three hours the morning she disappeared. And on the day she was told that Andrea’s body had been found, DiManno overheard Windebank complaining about her stereo.
DiManno concedes that nobody can judge somebody else’s grief, and Windebank’s reaction could easily have been an expression of shock. But that doesn’t excuse the behavior of Windebank before her daughter was found, she says. The reason she was there that first day was because Windebank, dissatisfied with the way the investigation was going, had phoned the Star and the Sun, asking to give her side of the story. “Christie Blatchford…was there from the Sun and we went inside [Windebank’s apartment],” recalls DiManno. “And for over an hour Ruth Windebank talked about herself. Ruth Windebank told jokes. She was more concerned about the image that was being presented in the press about her than she was about her daughter’s disappearance, and that was my honest-to-gut feeling about what was happening that day.”
DiManno never heard from Windebank after the column came out.
In contrast, her column on the World Cup soccer sparring in July 1990 elicited an active response from its subject, the Italian community. After Argentina knocked Italy out of the World Cup in Naples, thousands of Argentinian and Italian soccer fans battled it out with eggs and bottles on St. Clair Avenue West.
And shame, shame, shame, wrote DiManno in her column the following day. She continued to reprimand the Italian community for being sore losers, “despite all the practice we’ve had at it.” The Italians were so outraged by the column that a reaction was broadcast on Italian TV. Letters of complaint poured into Corriere Canadese, Toronto’s Italian newspaper, which went as far as to publish an article in response to DiManno’s. “It raised a lot of fur,” says Silia Coiro, then English news editor at the paper, of DiManno’s piece.
Surprised by the reaction, DiManno does not regret the column. “I didn’t anticipate that they would react so virulently,” she says. “What were they so angry about? Were they angry because I said they behaved like a bunch of assholes on St. Clair Avenue West? They did.” She says while some members of the Italian community are proud of her for having made it in “the big Anglo-Saxon culture,” others think they own a piece of her and consider her a traitor when she is critical of them.
The Italians aren’t the only ones to lay claim to DiManno’s loyalties. She has also been attacked by feminists who say that she writes articles demeaning to women. They write in to say that she’s sexist, and if not sexist, simply stupid. “Had DiManno been racebashing instead of feminist-bashing, would her column have been printed?” asked one Star reader after the appearance of a column criticizing a LEAF (women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) breakfast.
She has always considered herself a feminist, and is shocked by the suggestion that she is not. “The word ‘feminist’ has been co-opted by certain factions,” she says, “and their definition seems to be the only working definition that’s allowed any more. My feminism is as good as anyone else’s, goddammit!”
In one instance, DiManno co-wrote an article on pornography with MacInnis in which she defended it from a civil rights perspective and because she finds it funny and entertaining. She attributes the critical response to the piece to an increasing trend among journalists to adhere to the laws of political correctness. As an example of this DiManno cites the issue of a national day care program which, despite the fact that it has opponents, is covered largely from the perspective that it should exist. ‘We don’t approach it as a news story any more,” she says. The feminists have become the status quo these days, says DiManno, and the role of the media has never been to uphold the status quo. “You’re supposed to have questions. You’re not just supposed to say ‘four legs good, two legs bad.'”
Hence her problem with Marilyn Churley, an NDP cabinet minister and the focus of several of her less flattering pieces. In a column last March, DiManno called Churley “the mother of all big sisters.” The column was inspired by Bob Rae’s decision to put Churley in the position of Peter Kormos, former minister of consumer and commercial relations. “The fey Ms. Churley: charming, earnest, and always righter than the rest,” wrote DiManno. “The standard-bearer, during her truncated tenure at Toronto City Council, for a certain dogmatic strain of feminism that long ago parted company with the most basic tenets of diplomatic principle.”
The reference here is to Churley’s efforts to ban sexist ads from City of Toronto property, and beauty pageants from Nathan Phillips Square. DiManno sees her as a member of a group of people cavorting under the title of politically correct, dictating to everybody else the right way to live. “These are all people of the same age-group. They’re a little older than I am,” she says, “but they went through the sixties. And they had free sex. And they went out and did all the drugs they wanted to do. And they went out and had the adventure of their lives. They broke all the taboos. They went against their parents. And now they’re 20 years older and they’ve had their little piece of fun and they want to go back and have the same Victorian prudish society they rebelled against in the first place. Now they want it for different reasons, though.”
DiManno has little tolerance for people or institutions she perceives to be taking themselves too seriously. Certainly she can ‘t be accused of taking herself too seriously. She has no noble objectives as a columnist, and does not see herself as being under any particular obligation. “I don’t have a role,” says DiManno. “I just want to tell good stories.” Maybe, she suggests, she is having a late adolescence. “I want to be perverse and outrageous.”
She sees herself as a city-side reporter given the freedom to write in her own style. Her desk sits amidst the hustle and bustle of the newsroom, not in the tower with other columnists and editorial writers.
She would rather write about breaking news than pontificate about a subject. “I don’t like using I,” says DiManno. “It’s embarrassing. Where do I get off using 20 inches of the Star to tell you what I think?”
Despite herself, her column seems to have taken on a life of its own, says DiManno. It’s become more personal than she ever intended, and now she considers that perhaps there is really no way to keep her personality out of it. And she doesn’t know how long she should continue to write the column either, before the time will come to pass the space on to someone else. “I’m always waiting for the tap on the shoulder saying ‘Hey kid, it’s been fun, but you gotta run!'”
Blatchford agrees that DiManno’s opinions usually manage to sneak through somehow. “Even though she doesn’t say ‘I think,’ it’s pretty plain 90 per cent of the time what she thinks.” DiManno insists there are few issues she gets really passionate about, that steam her up enough to bring out the opinionated Rosie. One of them is the conflict between the police and the black community.
“You talk about being affected by a story,” says DiManno. “That one I wanted to go home and rip out my hairI think there are a lot of really good police officers in the city who care. But the fact that we should even be discussing that it’s right to shoot people over a theft kills me. How can it be? How can it be?”
And taking a stand on the police issue is not an expression of her feeling of responsibility as a columnist, she says. Rather, it’s the least she can do in the face of the racist sub text of the incidents. She’s had readers and even some police officers suggest that given her stance on the issue, she must be ‘sleeping black.’ “If you’re not outraged by that, then you can check out,” says DiManno. “Then you’re not alive.”
While some may see inconsistencies between her stands on racism and feminism, DiManno can’t equate the two. “If you’re talking about the opportunities that women are given or not given in their lives, that’s a far cry from young black males being shot in Toronto,” she says.
But then there is nothing neat or packageable about Rosle DiManno’s assorted stands. There is no way to infer one from the next. Every issue is considered individually on its own merit, and there are no hard-and-fast rules that apply’ to any of them. If this capriciousness makes her somehow more credible than other, party-oriented columnists, the effect has occurred incidentally. She never set out to create a persona for herself in print. It just happened naturally.
“Be a maverick,” says DiManno, who ought to know. “Go your own way. Question everything. Accept nothing. Accept no dogma, no cant. There are too many people walking around thinking they’re sacred cows, and they’re only half right.”
Marni Norwich was the Reports Editor for the Spring 1992 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.