‘He was truly one of a kind’
Longtime Star columnist was renowned for his parliamentary reporting
Richard Gwyn, author of acclaimed political biographies and longtime columnist for the Star, dies at 86.
Journalist, author and political commentator Richard Gwyn has died at age 86 following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Born into a life of privilege mapped out for him in Great Britain, Gwyn instead emigrated to Canada at the age of 20 and forged a brilliant career in newspapers, television and as a historian, writing biographies of Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood, prime minister Pierre Trudeau and finally, in his 70s, a well-received two-volume biography of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
He was a longtime columnist at the Toronto Star, beginning as a national affairs writer in 1973, following five years as a federal public servant in Trudeau’s government.
“Richard Gwyn was a giant of Canadian political journalism,” said John Honderich, former chairman of the Torstar board and publisher of the Star. “His columns, his books about notable Canadians, Canadian history, and his beloved Newfoundland, are must-reads for anyone interested in this country.”
Honderich said Gwyn’s frequent television and radio appearances further cemented his career, and were considered a departure from the norm at the time.
“We now take it for granted that columnists appear on television and radio — that wasn’t done before. He was truly one of a kind,” said Honderich.
Gwyn was born in Bury St. Edmunds, a town northeast of London, on May 26, 1934. His father was Brigadier Philip Jermy-Gwyn, an Indian army officer, according to Robert Lewis’s book “Power, Prime Ministers and the Press.”
Gwyn attended Stonyhurst College, a private Catholic boarding school run by the Jesuits, and then Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
Author Charlotte Gray, a lifelong friend, said Gwyn deplored stuffiness and loved Canada, in particular Newfoundland, where his first wife Sandra was born. He loved to sail and they vacationed in the province annually.
After Sandhurst, Gwyn embarked on a world tour and landed a radio reporting job in Halifax, followed by a job at United Press International in
Ottawa, where he scored a worldwide scoop by reporting that Princess Margaret had asked that John Turner, a 29year-old Montreal bachelor who went on to become prime minister, be added to the guest list for a ball in her honour. Gwyn worked for Time magazine in Montreal and Ottawa, Thomson Newspapers and Maclean-Hunter, before becoming executive assistant to
Eric Kierans, then minister of communications, in 1968. He was a director-general in the department of communications from 1970 to 1973.
The Star hired him away as a national columnist.
“He was brilliant right from the start,” said Ian Urquhart, former Star managing editor and political columnist.
Gwyn had a natural talent for journalism and writing, deep knowledge gained from being an insider on Parliament Hill, and a fresh perspective on politics in the country, according to Urquhart.
Longtime colleague Bob Lewis, who worked with Gwyn in the parliamentary press gallery, said Gwyn often scooped his colleagues.
“He was a giant in terms of parliamentary reporter. There was always something new in a story by Richard Gwyn. He had a great ability to cultivate top sources, work the bureaucracy and the backrooms. He was very analytical, but he was also very colourful. He broke a lot of stories, but he also supplied a lot of the context for the big news of the day.”
Gwyn also hosted the TV-Ontario show “Realities” with Robert Fulford. He was a panelist on “Studio 2” and “Diplomatic Immunity” and was a frequent guest on “The Agenda” with Steve Paikin.
Andrew Phillips, the Star’s editorial page editor, said Gwyn was an expert in Canadian politics and Canada’s role on the world stage.
“He was a born storyteller; right to the end of his writing career he had a special knack for finding the telling details that draw readers into a column about the big issues of the day,” said Phillips.
Gwyn was married to writer Sandra Gwyn, author of “The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier,” from 1958 until her death in 2000. He is survived by his second wife, Carol Bishop-Gwyn, a dance historian and author of “The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca,” who cared for him during his long and debilitating illness.
Arguably his best known book was “The Northern Magus,” which Sandra Gwyn edited.
He received numerous awards during his lifetime, including being named an officer of the Order of Canada.
Gwyn brushed off his fame and acclaim, said Lewis.
“The big thing in life is to time your birth,” Gwyn said when he was 81. “I was just ahead of the Baby Boomers. You didn’t have to worry about getting jobs.”
“He was a born storyteller; right to the end of his writing career he had a special knack for finding the telling details that draw readers into a column about the big issues of the day.”
ANDREW PHILLIPS EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR