A confession: I killed a woman every year for 11 years.
It’s okay. No crime here. Don’t call the cops.
It was the same woman. Eleven times. And, as far as I know, she’s still breathing, just turned 80.
Sometime along the way, I started charging her famous husband with the murder. He provided a stimulating suspect.
I did this for the benefit of my first-year, post-grad journalism students at Humber College.
(One of them recognized the added benefit of being able to check facts with the deceased. More on that later.)
In any case, I was able to bleed two important assignments out of the exercise: How to write a murder story, and how to write an obituary.
At Humber, there was a recommended textbook for my classes. I never used it. Told my kids not to waste their money.
It took me a couple of years to combine what best engaged the students and honed their reporting and writing skills. Sometimes, we went outside to play. Recess, with note-taking.
In the early autumn, I’d lead them to a patch of grass at the foot of a building on the Toronto campus.
They’d form a scrum at a respectful distance and I’d begin, wearing my teacher’s cap: “It’s 11:30 at night. We’re on The Esplanade in Toronto. I’m the chief of police. And the chief being here means it’s a big story.”
I’d switched to my cop hat: “At approximately 9:45 p.m., officers responded to the scene and found a woman, determined to be deceased, on the sidewalk.”
They’d nudge out of me that the woman dropped from a 10th-story penthouse balcony above us.
Did she fall or was she pushed?
“We have determined it was a homicide – not an accident or suicide.”
They would prod for details. I’d stick to my guns
Finally, they’d move on: Do you know the identity of the victim?
I would pause before reading from my own notebook: “Marilyn Lastman, DOB September 30th, 1935, of this address – 22 The Esplanade.”
(All this was factual – except she wasn’t dead.)
The name elicited a few titters from the students, though most didn’t know Marilyn Lastman from Maryon Pearson.
But they were emboldened with getting the chief to identify the victim.
What’s the suspect’s name?
Again, I’d go to my notebook: “Melvin Lastman, DOB March 9, 1933, also of this address.”
That always drew a laugh, since Mel Lastman, in his two terms as mayor, was a pint-sized version of Rob Ford, equally embarrassing but considerably less deranged.
I’d add these details:
- The Lastmans, with their two sons and their families, had earlier in the evening had a belated birthday dinner for Marilyn in the penthouse apartment.
- The guests all left about 90 minutes before the incident.
- Mel and the late Marilyn were both dressed in nightclothes when police arrived.
After returning to the classroom, I had the students go online to track down phone numbers for the Lastman sons.
One student would inevitably figure out that Dale Lastman, a lawyer, was the easier to locate.
We’d playact the phone call, with me giving them a cliché statement: “This is a great tragedy for our family. We would hope the public will honor our mother’s memory, and that the media will understand that our father is innocent until proven guilty.”
Sticking to our pretend timeline, which now put us after midnight, I’d give them a half-hour to bang out a 250-word story to fill a space left in the final edition of their newspaper.
For out next class, I would tell them, they should have all the material required to write an obit on Marilyn Lastman.
“Not everything is available online. There is a book – you know, the thing with pages made out of paper – that has nearly all the information you’ll need. I suggest you get together and find it and share it.”
Every October, from 2002 to 2012, Toronto-area libraries loaned out every copy of The Glitter Girls by Rosemary Sexton.
The reason I chose Marilyn Lastman as the body on the sidewalk was because she was, in her time, well known in the city as a colorful, quotable character. She often upstaged her husband and made her own headlines, most prominently when she faked her own kidnapping and was arrested for shoplifting.
But she was not important enough to rate a 1,000-word obit. I didn’t want these kids writing long stories, partly to teach them discipline but mostly because I didn’t want to be marking endless pages of double-spaced crapola.
Before one class, when they would have the entire two hours, under my guidance, to write the obit, a student approached to say she’d phoned Marilyn.
“What did you ask her?”
“I just checked a couple of facts from the book,” she said.
“Did you identify yourself as a journalism student?”
Did she ask why you were calling?”
“Did you tell her it was for her obituary?”
“Of course not.”
“How long did you talk to her?”
“About ten minutes.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Not much. She seemed happy with the attention.”
Marilyn Lastman was 80 a few weeks ago.
And thanks for providing such a rich subject for hundreds of journalism students to feast on.
A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.