Dining Out

By Rosemary Sexton
Maxmillan Canada, 248 pp.

Reading Rosemary Sexton’s Confessions of a Society Columnist, I couldn’t help but reflect on the glittering garden party thrown this September by my artistic Czech-born wife. An intimate gathering, many of our dearest friends were there.

Joshua Greenspon, 3, was resplendent as always in his Batman shirt, shorts and socks. The fabulous Crump girls – Maggie, Roz and Sophie – were in attendance, although Maggie, 8, had to duck out early to make an appearance at the birthday party of une amie intime two blocks over. The Boychuk siblings had freshly returned from a month spent with Grandma in Colorado, and Jasper, almost 10, was keen to show off his newly-acquired jungle camouflage kit. The ketchup flowed in abundance; the apple juice never ran out.

Then, since the theme of the afternoon was “furniture moving,” the adults cracked open a case of Black Label and heaved a derelict couch out a second-floor window.

Well, maybe you had to be there. But the same has to be said for Rosemary Sexton’s chronicle of her stint as society columnist for The Globe and Mail, from 1988 through 1992. This is a vanity publication, pure and simple – the sort of book only the author could find fascinating.

The title suggests we’re going to get precisely what one never gets in society columns – i.e., the inside dirt. Society news, remember, is not celebrity gossip. First, celebrities are only rich because they’re famous, while society is composed of people who, if they’re famous, it’s because they’re rich. Second, society news by definition flatters the comfortable. It has no business discomfiting the flatterati. If Ignatius Arbuthnot, heir to the Arbuthnot bathroom fixtures fortune, is discovered rummaging through his hostess’s lingerie drawer during a gala Yuletide at-home, it’s not within the mandate of the society columnist to mention it.

Perhaps, then, Sexton is going to spill the beans about what she knew but couldn’t say when she was scribe to the privileged classes? Afraid not. The personal secrets of Canada’s private fortunes remain safe. Sexton has chosen to write, not about the filthy rich, but about what a chore it was keeping everyone happy when she was covering them. No, the subject of full disclosure here is none other than the author herself.

Want to know what she read on the long flight back from that trip to Hong Kong with the Mulroneys? (James Michener’s Hawaii.) What she ate for lunch with socialite Catherine Nugent on February 9, 1993? (A small salad and an Upper Canada dark ale.) How she felt when Rosedale turned frosty after her column on which houses were for sale, why and for how much? (Lousy, although unrepentant.) But I shouldn’t give too much away.

And the book is laced with the wit one would expect of a professional society columnist for a national newspaper. Just one example: “A funny thing happened” at a dinner thrown by the chairman of the Bank of Montreal. By mistake, Nona Macdonald and Ms. Sexton left with one another’s mink coats. “So the bank sent a car to drop off my coat and to deliver Nona’s to her.” Stop it Rosemary, you’re killing me.

Okay, so it’s all insipid twaddle. In the first half, the book is a slender excuse to reprint a selection of her Globe columns. What fun to revisit the invitation lists of parties held five years ago to which the unwashed weren’t invited! But in the second half, the twaddle turns petulant. It becomes a memoir of everyone who hurt poor Rosemary’s feelings when she was just trying to do her job as conscientiously as possible. It’s not all champagne and strawberries being a paid sycophant, you know.

Sexton landed the job with The Globe on the suggestion of her husband, a prominent Toronto lawyer. The paper’s long-time society columnist, Zena Cherry, had come to the end of her run just as Sexton, who’d been fundraising for some years for various charitable causes, was casting about for part-time work. Why not cover the sorts of affairs she’d been attending? After failing to show up for the first two appointments, she eventually met with Geoffrey Stevens, then The Globe‘s managing editor, and two weeks later the gig was on.

She obviously feels an intense loyalty to the man who hired her. A good chunk of the book is devoted to rehashing the power shift at The Globe in early 1989, when Stevens and editor Norman Webster were fired. Sexton has little good to say about the publisher at the time, Roy Megarry, and even less about the regime that replaced Webster and Stevens. Fair enough, I suppose, but her account is almost exclusively Stevens’ version of events, and there’s nothing here that wasn’t handled infinitely more professionally by David Hayes in his 1992 book Power and Influence.

As a journalist, Sexton is simply a rank amateur, a fact underscored by a truly inane chapter in which she rants about The Globe‘s copy editors, who were forever mangling her deathless prose. Who are these people, she wants to know. What do we need copy editors for anyway? (Well, for a start, they prevent you from doing things like mentioning twice in two paragraphs that Norman Webster was a Rhodes scholar.) She’s mystified as to why the assistant managing editor would get so worked up just because she misspelled John Sawatsky’s name. After all, at the time she didn’t even know who Sawatsky was. She sees perfectly routine factual queries as attempts “to get me into trouble.” She detects dark motives behind editorial decisions. One column, on a fundraising auction for a tony Toronto nursery school, may have been scotched because the female editor who killed it “had no children.”

Eventually, The Globe ditched her column and she went on to write The Glitter Girls, a series of profiles of society fundraisers. (Helpfully, for posterity she reproduces her schedule of promotional media appearances herein.) The remainder of Confessions is another litany of slights, real and imagined, mixed with giddy self-congratulation.

Sexton clearly likes herself and her life, but she is apparently oblivious to the impressions she’s actually leaving. The world of monied Toronto society emerges as sumptuous yet pinched, cosmopolitan yet utterly provincial. And Sexton herself manages to come across as spoiled, egocentric, petty and back-biting. Not someone you’d want to invite to a party.eg

  • Globe and Mail October 28, 1995