The Queen and I

As an American expat living in Canada for more than 40 years, I’m still befuddled by the Queen and all the other royal rigmarole.

First, there is her birthday.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary – you can tack on Windsor as a surname, if you like – was born April 21, 1926.

As a human, she is 90 on Thursday, when she will, as is her custom, have private time with family.

As the monarch, public birthday celebrations in Britain are planned for May and June, featuring the requisite pomp and horses. Always horses.

(I’ll get to a story on the Queen and Philip and horse farts.)

Elizabeth is the Queen of Canada, the head of state, the face on the currency, the one to whom new citizens, elected officials, soldiers and others pledge allegiance.

Canadians mark a queen’s birthday with a holiday in late May. I originally thought it was for Elizabeth, but May 24, 1819 is Queen Victoria’s date of birth.

So all the beer and fireworks are supposedly for her, though most Canadians call it the May Two-Four weekend, venerating the number of bottles in a case of Labatt or Molson or other favorite brew.

The date is equally insignificant since the holiday is always on a Monday, allowing three straight days of outdoor activities, weather permitting, to swat blackflies.

No other country pays such tribute to Victoria, who died in 1901.

When I came to Canada – to Vancouver – from New York in 1973, one of my first assignments for UPI was to travel to Victoria.

The B.C. capital, I’d been told, was basically a retirement community for British army colonels, onetime guardians of the empire, and their doughy wives.

I was booked into the Empress hotel, named for the Empress of India, Queen Victoria.

I missed high tea – pity – and drifted into the Bengal Room, a cavernous bar where the waiters dressed like lackeys from the good old days of the raj.

Dominating the room, above a fireplace, was a tiger skin, complete with head and tail.

Sitting below it were a handful of guys – and one woman – drinking beer and laughing too loud.

Obviously reporters.

I walked up to them, waited for a break in the conversation, and shouted: “OK, which one of you sons-of-bitches shot that tiger?”

They looked up at me, sized me up, figured I was one of them, laughed, and introduced themselves. One, Joey Slinger of the Globe and Mail, would become a life-long friend.

Joey would tell me a favorite story from a royal tour by the Queen and Prince Philip.

On their last night in Victoria, where the royal yacht Britannia was docked, a small group of reporters was invited aboard for a cocktail party.

Congregating in the salon, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting approached each reporter in turn with the question: “What do you work for?”

When she got a feisty fellow from the Victoria Times, he replied: “I work for $147.50 a week. What do you work for?”

“No, no,” said the flustered lady, “what organization do you work for?”

But she was too late, as laughter from the members of the press overwhelmed the moment.

Canadian media tend to go gaga for the Queen whenever she visits – more than 20 times since her coronation in 1953.

Since she never says much worth reporting, these stories are usually told from the point of view of people in the crowd.

“Just make sure you interview every kid and old lady she talks to,” I instructed my reporter when I was a supervising editor for United Press during the Queen’s 1984 tour. “And, for god’s sake, don’t forget to describe what the Queen is wearing, from the hideous hat down to the sensible shoes.”

Photographers on the royal beat never stop snapping – because you never know when you’ll capture an unscripted moment.

My pal Doug Ball, when he was with Canadian Press, caught Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau doing a little dance, a pirouette, behind the Queen’s back in London.

queen and trudeau

And Ball also captured Her Majesty with her left pinkie buried in her left nostril at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.

That picture was never published, though prints have been passed around for decades, for the amusement of friends and colleagues.

My favorite Queen story, other than Helen Mirren’s movie portrayal, was told to me by a retired Canadian Forces colonel assigned to a royal tour, which required him to be on the plane on a flight from Britain to Canada.

“We were approaching the coast of Newfoundland,” he recalled. “It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. You could even see the whales and icebergs in the water.

“The pilot asked me if Prince Philip might want to come up to the cockpit to see the view. So I asked the prince and Philip went up front, stayed there for a while and admired the view.

“When Philip turned to go back to the cabin, the pilot asked: ‘Do you think Her Majesty would be interested in seeing the view?’

“Philip laughed and said: ‘If it doesn’t eat oats and fart, she’s not interested.’”


A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

Gay Talese: Blameless in Boston

My old morgue mate Gay Talese stepped in it recently because he told the truth.

The 84-year-old Talese was the “headline” speaker this month at the Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University, an apt billing for a grand master of the New Journalism born in the 1960s.

During a Q and A session, a woman identified as the poet Verandah Porche (I’m not making up the name, she did) asked: “In addition to Nora Ephron, who were the women who write who inspired you most?”

“I would think, of my generation, none,” Talese replied.

That one word – none – flashed across the gender divide into a wildfire of condemnation.

None of his critics parsed the words “of my generation.”

Antisocial media branded him sexist, misogynist, and an out of touch old fart

Newspaper headlines were equally harsh and clichéd:

  • “Gay Talese has a lady problem – he can’t think of any female writers that inspired him” – L.A. Times
  • “Gay Talese can’t name a single female writer who inspired him. Thankfully, Twitter has a few suggestions” – Washington Post

His former employer, the New York Times, ran a long and mostly sympathetic piece under the headline “Gay Talese goes through the Twitter wringer,” allowing the writer to further explain that in his formative years there were few prominent women journalists.

But this was followed by an extraordinary statement from the Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, which concluded: “Too often, we are clumsy in handling issues of race and gender and this story was another unfortunate example.”

Like other guardians of the culture, Baquet, born in 1956, after Talese began as a reporter at the Times, bowed to the political correctness of the moment trumping history or context.

Talese left the Times in 1965 to write magazine articles, mostly for Esquire, and books.

I arrived the next year as a copyboy. One of my major duties was running to the morgue – copyboys always ran – to fetch clip files for reporters and editors.

I ran into Talese often, sitting at the tiny, round table in the tiny morgue vestibule, thumbing through clippings.

Everyone knew he was researching a book on the Times. But he was granted full access to the building and its treasures.

He was always dressed to the nines, in a finely tailored suit, silk tie and matching handkerchief.

We never spoke. But he’d offer a courtly nod when I turned to leave.

I quit the Times to pursue a reporting career on the West Coast before The Kingdom and the Power was published in 1969, lifting up the Gray Lady’s stiff petticoat to expose her internal power struggles and petty politics.

The book contained few mentions of women at the Times because there were few women in the newsroom. There was a separate women’s department on a separate floor, putting out the women’s pages.

Not much inspiration for Talese in the reviews of the latest ball at the Plaza or the opening of the social season in Palm Beach.

Which brings me back to Verandah Porche, the poet from Vermont, via New Jersey, born Linda Jacobs, and her question: “In addition to Nora Ephron, who were the women who write who inspired you most?”

First, though they apparently became friends and inhabited the same literary/celebrity circle in Manhattan, Ephron was much younger than Talese and later to the dance.

And anyone who’s read their work can see their subjects and style are worlds apart.

Dear Clueless in Boston,

Would you ask Scorsese which women directors inspired him?

Would you ask Obama which women presidents inspired him?

Would you ask Willie Mays which women centerfielders inspired him?

Would you ask Joan Didion which men writers inspired her?

Never mind.

It all gets back to Talese’s response to the question: “I would think, of my generation, none.”

His contemporaries, those in the 1960s who made journalism read like a novel yet stick to the facts, were mainly men.

Of the 23 pieces, including one by Talese, in Tom Wolfe’s 1973 collection titled The New Journalism, only two are by women.

Creative inspiration comes from making a connection with the words, the story. It’s also a matter of time and taste.

What women writers inspired me?


Do I have to explain myself?


What do I think of the Twitter campaign with the hashtag: womengaytaleseshouldread.

SHOULD read?

Who the hell tells others what to read?

Even Amazon is polite enough to say: “Recommended for you, Ken.”

Miracle daddy swaddled in green jacket

When I covered golf in the 1970s, the golden age of wooden woods and pastel pants, I never set foot on the course.

So, I feel a certain comfort reporting on this weekend’s Masters from the home office in Mississauga, Ontario, 1,141 kilometers from Augusta, Georgia.

Let me begin with Jordan Spieth. Like most golf fans, I was drawn to the young Texan during his sterling string of victories last year.

But his performances within earshot of a microphone became ever more grating.

First, there is his use of the royal we when speaking about his game.

We hit a five iron. We sunk that 20-footer on 10. We chili-dipped that pitch into the creek.

Then there is his excruciating pre-shot routine: Talk to his caddie for 20 minutes, take 10 practice swings, set up to hit, back off and talk to his caddie for another 15 minutes, take another 10 practice swings, repeat.

By the time Spieth found his Waterloo at the 12th hole on Sunday, I was ready to take a break every time he appeared on TV and read War and Peace.

Instead, I recalled Tom Weiskopf’s breakdown at the same par-3 at the 1980 Masters. He scored a 13 – with five balls in the water – compared to Spieth’s rather pedestrian seven.

After the round, Spieth confessed he turned to his caddie at one point and said: “Buddy, it seems like we’re collapsing.”

As for the winner, Danny Willett, I was more struck by his all white outfit than his golf game.

“He’s wearing English colors,” remarked Sir Nick in the booth.

Really? I thought the white flag was more closely associated with the cheese-eating surrender monkeys on the other side of the channel.

In any case, if Willett had not won he probably would have been rounded up with all the caddies forced to wear white overalls, and carted off to the nearest cotton plantation.

But there was not much chance of that since the CBS crew, stunned by Spieth’s collapse, trained their cameras on the Englishman and tracked his every move.

There was Willett talking to someone on the phone – we were told it was his wife Nicole back in England.

There was Willett and his caddie rolling around on a couch and giggling when Spieth missed a putt to assure the result.

But the karmic miracle of the victory, we were told, was Willett’s ability to father a child and have it delivered in time for him to make the trip to Augusta.

Zachariah James Willett was born March 30. The baby’s due date was April 10 – the day his daddy won the Masters and got his green jacket.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

(This Masters was also a coming out party for Bryson DeChambeau, who joins my list of Thurston Howell III aliases on the PGA Tour: Charles Howell III, Davis Love III, Harris English, Chesson Hadley, Webb Simpson and Hudson Swafford. Honorable mention: Tyrone Van Aswegen.)

Dan Jenkins, whose writing career has degenerated into tweeting insults, described Willett as looking like the “getaway driver for Bonnie and Clyde.” (That would be the bug-eyed Michael J. Pollard.)

Jenkins was one of my writing idols. I never forgot his lead in Sports Illustrated after the 1975 Masters:

“Yeah, but Manny, we want Redford for all three leading men. Okay, maybe somebody else for Weiskopf, but Redford’s got to play the two blond guys, Nicklaus and Miller.”

We were both of a certain age when I laughed aloud at his novels – Semi-Tough (1972), Dead Solid Perfect (1974)his Texan takes on men being men and women being bimbos.

I finally closed the book on Jenkins after his 2014 memoir, His Ownself, filled with reactionary diatribes and Republican jingoism, too much Dan and June Jenkins hanging out with George and Barbara Bush at Camp David.

Poynter did a piece last week on Jenkins, 86, attending his 66th Masters. “A Mt. Rushmore candidate as one of the greatest sportswriters of all time, Jenkins has become a master tweeter,” writer Ed Sherman marveled.

While Jenkins now fires 140-character sniper rounds from the media center, real reporters are also required to remain indoors – since golf is one of the few sports where you can only observe every crucial moment on television.

At my first tournament, covering the 1975 Canadian Open for UPI, I had to phone every score in to the sports desk in New York.

No computer. No fax. Phone.

The leaders would come into the press tent after each round, go over their scorecard – four-iron to about eight feet on No. 1, sunk the putt, birdie; into the trees left on 2, pitched out, nine-iron, two putts, bogey; repeat, repeat … – and answer a few questions.

From this, I’d piece together a story, get back on the phone, and dictate.

That ’75 Canadian Open was at Royal Montreal, the oldest (1873) golf club in North America.

Its home since 1959 is on Ile Bizard, which my seatmate John Radosta of the New York Times, called Ile Bizarre after a thunderstorm blew away the press tent on Saturday night.

It was raised again for Sunday’s final round, when Weiskopf beat Nicklaus in a playoff, though rainwater dripped on our typewriters.