A fond look back at Larry Zolf, his words, his wit and all his warts. Why it was so nice listening to you, Larry
Larry Zolf is prepared for an ambush. A pair of thick, black-framed glasses sits atop his schnozz, the legendary nose that’s been described as his spare sex organ. A microphone clenched in one hand and a 60-pound Frezzolini news camera in the other, he stands on the stoop of a mansion in Montreal’s prestigious Westmount neighbourhood. It is winter 1966, and the light from his camera is so harsh it could make Mother Teresa look guilty.
Zolf hopes to shine that light on Pierre Sévigny, the former associate defence minister caught in the middle of the Gerda Munsinger affair, a scandal involving a German prostitute who seduced several cabinet ministers to obtain information for the Soviet Union. RCMP officers exposed Sévigny, who lost his leg during World War II, after detecting the thwack of his wooden prosthesis on surveillance tapes they compiled of Munsinger from 1958 to 1960. When Prime Minister John Diefenbaker caught wind of the scandal, he tried to handle it privately, asking Sévigny to resign and deporting Munsinger. But in 1966, the private matter became a public issue when the minister of justice under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson brought it up during a tussle in the House of Commons.
Zolf is on the story as part of the team at This Hour Has Seven Days, a CBC news program that pushed boundaries using satirical sketches and ambush interviews. Doug Leiterman, executive producer of the show, instructs him to question Sévigny at his mansion with a warning: “He’s a hard drinker, and he’s got some unsavoury friends.” But when Zolf knocks on the door, Corinne Sévigny answers.
“He’s not here,” she explains, though Zolf can see her husband through the window, reclining in his easy chair with a drink in hand. He turns to retreat, the snow coming down hard. But before Zolf can leave, Sévigny appears on the stoop, motioning for him to return.
And then, suddenly, thump. The former politician swings his cane, hitting Zolf across his shoulders, which are, fortunately, padded by two winter coats.
“You fuckin’ cocksucker!” Zolf yells.
During the ensuing scuffle, he delivers a swift kick to Sévigny’s wooden leg, which flies into the front yard. All is silent. The Schnozz disappears into the blizzard.
That was classic Larry Zolf. The CBC Television personality, history buff and writer with a nose for politics died of kidney failure at the age of 76 in March 2011. He had a hell of a way of silencing people and he usually filled that silence with a barrage of one-liners. He never totally fit in, but as an outsider he had a knack for revealing the ludicrous in politics and culture. Always bold, he was respected by his peers and even the insiders he exposed. Perry Rosemond thought his long-time friend gave the best advice because of his logical thinking—and even used him as an inspiration when he created the Larry King character for the popular 1970s TV show King of Kensington. Zolf kept people’s attention with a combination of intelligence, passion and persistence, says Rosemond. “We would have long discussions as kids. At the end, I would always say, ‘It was nice listening to you, Larry.’”
All that talking paid off. Zolf earned a spot at CBC as an unlikely broadcaster: a loose cannon with a look unlike anyone else in the business. But it’s doubtful that he’d be able to talk his way into a job at the Mother Corp. today. “The CBC was much braver then,” says fellow writer Barry Callaghan of the 1960s and ’70s, when Zolf’s career reached its peak.
In its early years, CBC Television, which began broadcasting in 1952, had room for the outsider with the rumbling voice who couldn’t type or drive and certainly never played by the rules. Robin Taylor, who has worked as head of current affairs for CBC, says Zolf’s unique qualities managed to keep him relevant in Canadian journalism for 45 years. “He looked at the world in a funny way. He was loud, boisterous at times, but that was his style,” says Taylor. “He wasn’t a phony. He was a talker.” And what he said always had a substance, a wit and a unique charm that just can’t be found on the airwaves today.
When Zolf was born in 1934, the north end of Winnipeg was a hub for politically active Ukrainian, Polish and Russian immigrants. His father, Russian-born Joshua Falek Zolf, raised his youngest child to be a rabbi, although he was a writer as well (Falek’s autobiography, On Foreign Soil, was published in both English and Yiddish). Falek was also the principal at Isaac Loeb Peretz Folk School, where Zolf found his voice, memorizing poems by Jewish poets at just six years old and reciting them in front of engrossed audiences. By eight, he had features published in both Yiddish and 2012
English newspapers in Winnipeg and performed with Yiddish acting troupes visiting from New York.
His high school years were tougher, though. Because of his poor math skills, Zolf was part of the remedial class at St. John’s Technical High School. Some teachers believed he was more advanced than the other students; he scored the highest in his entire school on a Grade 11 English exam—but his overachieving father remained disappointed in his son.
Zolf proved his worth at United College in Winnipeg, where he would meet his three great loves: history, political science and Patricia—his first shiksa girl. Their first date was a screening of Lover Boy and the Sex Kitten Bandit in the basement of the Manitoba Legislative Building (the movie was in the process of being banned and they snuck in). She was beautiful, intelligent and bold. By 1958, to the disapproval of both their families, they were married and living in Toronto so Zolf could attend the University of Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
He dropped out of law after a year, but remained at the university to pursue a master’s degree in Canadian history. In 1959, Zolf started working at CBC after his friend Michael Nimchuk suggested a road trip to Louisiana to do a story financed by the radio program Assignment. The two pals went into producer Harry Boyle’s office to deliver their pitch, but Boyle rejected all of Nimchuk’s ideas. Even though they never made it to Louisiana, he asked Zolf to review a book on the history of Upper Canada and that led to more freelance radio work.
When his father died, Zolf lost focus in school, separated temporarily from his wife and his career stalled. But in 1964, he decided to audition for a reporting position with This Hour Has Seven Days. His specialties were ambush interviews and rapid-fire questioning. CBC management wasn’t ready for This Hour’s daring, irreverent and challenging brand of news and cancelled the show after two years. He then covered Parliament Hill for a TV program calledWeekend.
Zolf stuck around the CBC as a well-connected production consultant. But by the 1990s, his place at CBC was uncertain, despite several successful decades there. The network was hesitant to keep such a controversial character after his contract was up for renewal—the broadcaster was now a more organized, rigid bureaucracy and no longer saw the value of a character like Zolf. “He was underused and there were producers who didn’t really understand his talent then,” says Gordon Stewart, a former CBC producer. To make matters worse, Zolf was diagnosed with colon cancer and his 33-year marriage broke up not long after he recovered. Luckily, Taylor and others fought to help him obtain a permanent position at CBC in consulting—and he went from misfit to mentor. He also continued to freelance in his spare time. In 2007, he secured the final gig of his 45-year career: writing a regular column, mostly about politics, for cbc.ca.
Zolf managed to stay relevant in Canadian journalism for so long because of his willingness to speak his mind. The Dance of the Dialectic, his 1973 book about Pierre Trudeau, whom he grew to respect while working on Parliament Hill, fearlessly criticized the prime minister and his Liberal government. Zolf’s philosophical concept was that because everyone thought Trudeau would get elected, he did. But instead of being offended, the former PM actually requested more. A few months later, he asked Zolf to write a speech for the Press Gallery dinner, an annual event where politicians and the Hill reporters make fun of themselves at a raucous off-the-record gathering.
Trudeau dreaded the event—after all, he was not exactly known for his sense of humour—so the Schnozz crafted a speech that was a masterpiece of sarcasm. Unfortunately, the aloof intellectual read Zolf’s words as if he were reciting the phone book. “I have to take organ grinder lessons five days a week,” he droned, ruining a crack about what it’s like to run the country with a minority government. The speech writer watched in horror and drank every ounce of alcohol he could get his hands on. Years later, though, Trudeau learned to pause for his laughs—and Zolf finally forgave him.
His close relationship with politicians made some other journalists question whether he was biased. He eventually declared himself a Red Tory, but earlier in his career, he was known as a diehard socialist and pro-labour. For a while, there were even rumours that he was a Communist. (In fact, he had been intrigued by the ideology—but only for one day when he was 12 years old. Rosemond and Zolf auditioned for a communist camp in Winnipeg, both toting succulent corned beef sandwiches. Lunchtime came but, much to the boys’ dismay, the sandwiches went into a “sharing pot.” They pulled one sardine sandwich and one peanut butter and jelly. “That was our first and last day as communists,” says Rosemond.)
But any real or perceived bias was overshadowed by Zolf’s ability to ask the tough questions. During an interview with René Lévesque in 1964, he challenged the Parti Québécois founder: “You’re not concerned about the feelings of English Canadians outside of Quebec. What about those inside Quebec?”
His fearless interviewing sometimes got him into trouble, as it did with Sévigny, but it often created electric segments. A chat with feminist Germaine Greer for Midweek started out dull—until he accused her of not paying attention to class and ethnic differences among women. “You liar!” Greer fired back. “I cannot have you sitting here distorting my book for the people who are foolish enough to think that you know about things.” Zolf asked her what she actually meant in her book. Greer vigorously defended herself in what ended up being an entertaining interview.
Though his interview style could be blunt, he had a knack for talking his way out of the sticky situations his mouth got him into. In 1969, his colleague Peter Reilly (who would go on to be one of the first reporters on the fifth estate) was too sick to cover race integration in the South, so Zolf went in his place.
He was possibly the most Hebrew-looking reporter to ever cover the issue (which was, at that time, quite violent), but he talked his way through it. When the Ku Klux Klan was opening a separate high school in Mississippi, he showed up and charmed his way in. “Sir, I know you don’t trust me and I know why,” he told the school’s security guard. “I’m no commie, sir. I hate commies, especially Jewish ones. I’m a Canadian.” He succeeded, and the resulting news report was a compelling look inside the KKK.
Zolf sometimes needed the same techniques of persuasion in his personal life. He once came home to his first wife with a charred afro, stinking of women’s perfume. Although he concocted an outlandish story that he claimed Patricia bought, he’d actually been having an affair with a woman who loved to light dozens of candles when she made love and the flames ignited his hair. That was the night the Schnozz learned that perfume makes a very poor fire extinguisher.
But behind all of his chutzpah, there was hesitancy. “Although he was one of the guys who wrote it as he saw it, he somehow wanted people to like him,” says Norm Snider, fellow political journalist and friend. “He was all kinds of insecure, going back to being the big-nosed guy from Winnipeg.”
In his later years and in ailing health, Zolf began to lose confidence in his abilities. Though he masked his insecurities with wit, he couldn’t help but question himself, especially when he began writing a column for cbc.ca. Barbara Diakopoulou, his second partner (they never married), spent a lot of time encouraging him during those years. Before he submitted columns, he’d often flip through his Rolodex, ring up a friend and read the piece aloud. “He would keep you on the phone literally for forever and a day if you didn’t find a way to get off,” explains Bernie Farber, a friend and the head of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “And I could have listened to him all day, too. But you wouldn’t get a lot of work done that way.”
Entertaining as his columns were, working with him wasn’t always easy. After Saturday Nighteditor Robert Fulford assigned Zolf a short article, the piece came in months late—and more than seven times too long. But the magazine still ran it because it was too captivating to pass up. Though Fulford can’t remember just what the “lighthearted piece” on parliamentary affairs he assigned was, an article titled “The New Shape of Canadian Politics” from the December 1975 issue seems to fit the bill. Running 10 pages, it included quips on Canada’s government and politicians, including this gem: “For socialists, going to bed with the Liberals was like getting oral sex from a shark.”
The Schnozz may not have been keen on following instructions or playing by the rules, but he could always come up with a good argument and he couldn’t resist a good debate. His favourite person to argue with was Diakopoulou, who works with Elections Ontario. Not long after he separated from his first wife, Zolf spotted her for the first time in the middle of five Greek men—arguing. He watched as each man left, exasperated. Now that was a woman he could love.
Zolf also enjoyed picking fights with neighbours on Toronto’s Danforth, where he and Diakopoulou lived, and with the cab drivers who drove him home—while the meter was running. (The cabbies sometimes inspired his columns.) But friends say his tough exterior was just a part of his schtick. Really, Zolf could find a redeeming quality in just about everyone, even people Rosemond thought could surely have none. He was constantly asking, “Larry, are we talking about the same person?”
In particular, he loved William Lyon Mackenzie King, a prime minister who had a reputation for strange behaviour. But to Zolf, King’s eccentricities were his best features. He identified with the fellow iconoclast in a time when there were few left in the world of Canadian politics or journalism. In fact, Diakopoulou remembers that on one of their first dates, they passed by Mount Pleasant Cemetery, home to King’s grave. “I’d like to be buried here someday,” he told her. That way, he could spend his spirit life doing what he loved best: ambushing a politician and immersing himself in Canadian history.
Though he wasn’t quite as outspoken in his final days, Zolf collaborated with Barry Callaghan on his memoirs, The Dialectical Dancer, which came out the fall before he died. Now, this unconventional Canadian icon, the likes of which we’re unlikely to see, hear or read again, is six graves away from Mackenzie King and finally silent.
Savannah Demeter was the Head of Research of the Winter 2012 issue for the Ryerson Review of Journalism.