One of St. Urbain’s horsemen
David Staines pays tribute to ‘one of the most generous patrons of the arts our country has ever known’
Jack Rabinovitch, who died suddenly last Sunday, was a noted man of business, he is perhaps best known in literary circles for his contribution to Canadian fiction.
One of St. Urbain’s horsemen – a reference to Mordecai Richler’s 1971 novel – Jack was born and raised blocks east of St. Urbain Street in Montreal. He graduated with an honours BA in English from McGill University, and although he wanted to go to the Sorbonne for further studies, he had to remain in Montreal and earn his living. He took employment as a speech writer for grocery-store magnate Sam Steinberg, entered the worlds of food retailing and distribution and then moved into real-estate development, where he found his true calling.
His wife, Doris Giller, was seven months younger than Jack and raised a few blocks closer to St. Urbain Street. She became a secretary at Steinberg’s and later joined the Montreal Star, where she became its first female entertainment editor. She stayed with the Star until its demise in 1979, then joined the Gazette, where she was literary editor until 1985 when the couple moved to Toronto. She was in private, as Jack used to comment, shy and retiring, like Jack himself to some degree.
The last time I saw Doris was lunch at the Studio Café in Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel in February, 1993. She was already seated when I arrived. As she rose to leave, she took hold of a cane hidden under the table. “What’s this about?” I asked. “Oh, just a little discomfort in my back,” she replied. “I will have it taken care of shortly.” In the early hours of April 26, a friend phoned from Toronto to say that Doris had died of cancer the previous evening; like myself, she knew nothing of Doris’s terminal condition.
Despite my friendship with her, which lasted more than a decade, I had never met her husband. In early May of that year I received a phone call in Ottawa. “David Staines?” the voice said. “Yes,” I replied. “This is Jack Rabinovitch,” he said. I acknowledged my respect for his wife, as I had previously done in a long letter to him. He began to cry, then abruptly added, “I’ll call again,” and hung up. He called back a week later to announce that he would do something in Doris’s honour, perhaps some kind of literary prize, and I assured him of my support. The prize began as a tribute to Doris, as an expression of Jack’s love for his deceased wife and their passionate love of literature.
I first met Jack later that year on Sept. 11 at Moishes Steakhouse in Montreal, where Mordecai Richler and I joined him for an early dinner. Mordecai averred that the prize was to be given for the best Canadian volume of fiction published in a given year. Then we began to iron out the rules for the Giller Prize. We would honour the best book of fiction (novel or collection of short stories) published in English or translated into English in Canada. We would honour the five finalists with the announcement of the winner before an audience at a lavish dinner. The jury would pick the winner in their own private meeting the day of the announcement. We would, therefore, establish a quality award for quality work. We then needed another jury member – Mordecai and I agreed to serve as jury members for the first three years of the prize’s existence – and we turned to Alice Munro, who accepted our invitation.
Some publishers thought another prize was irrelevant to the literary scene. On Jan. 20, 1994, Jack announced the Giller Prize’s establishment and Mordecai addressed these publishers. “This, after all, being Canada, a grudging country, there have been some complaints. Given an apple in this country, you would immediately suspect there is a razor blade inside,” he commented. “Eventually, I hope the Giller, like the Booker in England, will do a great deal for writers’ sales and that, most of all, everybody involved will have fun.”
Mordecai’s “hope” proved accurate. The first winner was M. G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets, and the next four years (for example) were equally fortuitous for the prize: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Richler’s Barney’s Version and Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman. The writers themselves, appreciating the increased attention placed on them and their books, relished the Giller Prize as a triumphant moment of literary success. And with the increased attention paid to their work, so did the public at large. In fact, by observing this demand for Giller fiction, publishers would hear the long list, the short list and the winner and rush their books into extended printings.
Both fiction writers and fiction readers have been blessed by the imprimatur of the Giller, whose juries have boasted the best Canadian and international authors, including Margaret Atwood and Roddy Doyle, Elizabeth Hay and Lawrence Hill, Alistair MacLeod and Carol Shields, Colm Toibin and Richard B. Wright.
By endowing the Giller Prize, Jack shone a spotlight on Canadian fiction, which was already gaining international attention. In 1994 this country’s fiction was a fully developed and vibrant product throughout the Englishspeaking world and beyond; novels and short-story collections were being translated into many foreign languages. The Giller Prize coincided with the arrival of the international phase of Canadian fiction, when it was expanding through and beyond stereotypically Canadian themes to embrace additionally the regions of the world.
Unlike the Governor-General’s Literary Award for fiction, which is announced apart from a later ceremony, the Giller brought a dramatic appeal to the dinner, everyone wondering about and/ or betting on the winner. Although its initial gift of $25,000 to the winner has been increased over the years, the magic of the Giller Prize itself remains unchanged. Jack’s constant refrain – “For the price of a dinner in this town, you can buy all the nominated books. So, eat at home and buy the books” – has proven true, arguing for the books to be a priority in family finances. Everyone, including writers, publishers and Canadian readers, came to appreciate the wisdom of his urging.
The Giller Prize stands as a tribute to excellence, and Jack achieved his personal desire of inaugurating and sustaining a prize that celebrates excellence in fiction. It is also a reminder of the love of a couple for each other and for the literature of their country.
Jack Rabinovitch was – and is – one of the most generous patrons of the arts our country has ever known.
One of the founders of the Giller Prize, David Staines has most recently written The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro. He is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa.
Jack Rabinovitch, seen here in 2000, founded the Giller Prize in 1994 to honour his wife, Doris Giller, who died of cancer in 1993.