MY 24 YEARS WITH CLAIRE WALLACE
Wrestlers in the kitchen, lady cops a the table, cats everywhere —life with Mother is never tame wher Mother’s a top broadcaster
THERE was one tense moment during my wedding when I was afraid the minister was about to say: “Do you, Claire Wallace’s son, take this woman to be your . . ."
People never seem to remember me as anybody or anything except the son of Canada’s ace woman broadcaster. At least three times in my life I’ve been called upon to make a speech, heard the chairman spend five minutes telling of my mother —and then forget my name.
The trouble is that I bear the surname of my mother’s first husband, who died when I was five years old. Our family often causes raised eyebrows nowadays when we’re introduced to a group as “. . . Claire Wallace, and her husband James E. Stutt, and their son Wally Belfry.” When people suggest our combination of names is unorthodox, my stepfather and I just grin and say: “With
Mother around, there’s no such thing as the usual.” Mother has become Canada’s highest-paid radio artist and leading woman reporter by pursuing the unusual to the length of walking on the bottom of the ocean, standing on the brink of a live volcano and hitchhiking a ride in a blimp. She is more liable to chase ghost noises through the night in Toronto’s spooky medieval castle, Casa Loma, than she is to come home.
She recently sent a carrier pigeon after a story, although she long ago learned to pilot a plane herself to chase news. Another odd story she brought to Canada concerned a man from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, who appeared on a New Year’s broadcast. His name: Happy Newyear. So I
wasn’t surprised when I found former British Empire heavyweight wrestling champion Earl McCready puttering around our kitchen in a frilly apron while Mother took notes on his prized spaghetti recipe.
A WAG once said that Claire Wallace goes to “great lengths” to get a story. Probably the most, traveled and most air-minded Canadian woman, she was the first Canadian passenger to fly across the Atlantic on the Clipper service. She was aboard the first Trans-Canada Air Lines coast-to-coast trip and the first TCA passenger flight to Bermuda. And she was the first Canadian to apply for permission to leave the country for the royal wedding.
When she recently told me she was going out of town for the week end I thought to myself: “So what? Hasn’t she already done so much traveling that the Hobos of America conferred an honorary membership on her?” But all I said aloud was, “Where are you going for the week end, dear?” Mum answered nonchalantly: “Bermuda.”
She specializes in brief but sudden flights to faraway countries—a week in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Haiti, or a week in Nassau, Jamaica and Trinidad. Mother says: “I don’t
really like to fly; high altitudes hurt my sensitive ears.” But I could write a musical comedy about our home life called “Mother Wore Flights.” Supper is either late Continued on page 54
Continued on page 54
My 24 Years With Claire Wallace
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or lonely at our house because Claire ; Wallace travels for the Canadian i housewife who can’t leave home.
I Listener-survey ratings show that I Mother’s thrice-weekly Trans-Canada j network broadcast “They Tell Me . .
I runs second in daytime popularity to I only one Canadian program, the daily Happy Gang. Over the last three years approximately 17.4% of the radio sets in use at the right hour have been tuned to the Happy Gang, compared with 14.4% for Mother. Next Canadian daytime program is “What’s Your Beef?” at 12.3.
Mother’s listeners are won by stories they can’t hear elsewhere. Rather than give her estimated 100,000 homes full of fans a story they could read in newspapers, she exerts a forceful but gracious personality to get what she terms “the story behind the ctory.”
It was she who told officials of Toronto’s Union Station that more people entered their depot on Good Friday to take a bath than to take a train Claire drew from Dale Carnegie a confession that he couldn’t influence or make friends with his ex-wife; from former Salvation Army General Evangeline Booth the admission that she swam every morning in long, black tights; from an Indian ambassador the confession that he wore an invisible heard veil.
Afternoon With a Fan
She has interviewed so many movie stars that both Frank Sinatra and Charles Boyer call her “dear.” Such activities mean nothing to Mother, but imagine how I feel when I answer the phone to hear the long-distance operator say, “Here’s the reply on Claire Wallace’s call to Hollywood,” and suddenly a voice breaks in to say: “This is Lana Turner. Did somebody there wish to speak to me?”
Some years ago I made my schoolmates envious by boasting of the afternoon I spent in Sally Rand’s dressing room while my mother interviewed the world-famous bubble dancer. Actually, the afternoon was uncomfortable because my mother kept telling me it was rude to stare.
In her 13 broadcasting years ray mother has high-pressured intimacies out of many of the world’s public figures, such as Madame Chiang Kaishek, Emily Post, Elizabeth Arden, Yousuf Karsh, Eleanor Roosevelt and General Eisenhower. The General said her lengthy, precise question on how people can preserve peace was the most vital and comprehensive he was ever asked. Publications throughout the world quoted both Claire’s question and the General’s answer, which ended with: “It is not enough for us to be
local patriots any more. Each of us should concern ourselves with international affairs.”
Occasionally celebrities visited our house. Our visitors ranged from quiet, earnest Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., who seemed almost ashamed of his inherited fortune, to the husky female department-store detective, who leaned hack“ from the dinner table and whooped? innumerable choruses of “When Irish" Eyes Are Smiling.” 1
The variety of guests Mother brought 7 to her microphone were more unusual. They include eats, a “talking” dog, a snake, a deer, an eagle, Gene Autry’s horse, a trained seal and many talkin'1" budgerigar birds. %
This microphone menagerie left it1» mark on our home life. For month!
on end I had to he cautious with my enunciation for fear that our talking budgie might hear me and gain poor speech habits. As it was, the budgie just had to say “Awwrk” or “Geelk” and Mother would say excitedly: “Did you hear that? He said ‘Hello, Claire.’ ” A pet parrot, being trained for radio, died and made Mother so sad she forgot she had fallen downstairs earlier the same day.
When Mother was confined to bed once, and broadcasting by remote control, our grey Persian kitten began to “meee-oww” throughout the broadcasts. We were annoyed and the cat was in the proverbial doghouse until letters began to pour in from fans who wanted the cat to have a star billing. It became my job to hold meat over the kitten’s head to tempt her into talking into the microphone, but I must have overdone it—thousands of letters accused us of pinching.
No Radio in Her Dreams
A national contest chose the name “Pussy Willow” for the kitten and Canada’s cat lovers filled our house with parcels of cat food, catnip, toys, tiny garments and scratching posts. Huntsville, Ont., invited Pussy Willow to be guest of honor at its winter carnival and backed up the invitation with a special pair of cat-sized skis, skates and a winter issue of cat clothing.
Even today, if Mother ever dares boast of the 12,000 fan letters she receives annually, I can say, “Considering how long she broadcast, Pussy Willow did better.” Or, if Mother muffs one of the 3,000 words in a broadcast, I say solemnly, “Pussy Willow wouldn’t have done that.” But wisecracks just bounce off Mother for she recalls a day when she was too timid even to miaow into a microphone.
She was so shy as a schoolgirl that she would burst into tears when asked to address the class, and howl to be taken home. “In those days,” Mother says, “nobody even knew I could speak. People often phone me to say, ‘Surely you can’t he the same Claire Wallace that I w'ent to school with?’ ”
A gangling girl, who felt shame for her five feet and 10 inches, she slunk from Toronto’s St. Margaret’s College and Branksome Hall to her Rosedale home. She says, “1 spent most of my time reading and dreaming two dreams: to he independent and to have a son. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was broadcast.”
But Mother always had drive She recalls that she would sit down and knit without interruption through the night to produce a new outfit to wear at a skating or sailing date the next day. Even today she says: “I’d like
to liave about three businesses of my own—just for the activity they’d give me.”
When she graduated from high school she labeled herself progressive, if not radical, by entering a rapid sequence of cooking, sewing, writing, shorthand and business courses. She was once the only girl in a motormechanics class of 40 boys
It’s strictly hearsay, but I understand that I entered the picture only one year after my mother married a young lawyer named Joseph Belfry. I timed my entrance poorly, for my father was struggling to establish a law practice and a home.
Mother tried to help with the family finance by clipping many metropolitan newspapers for brief items of a happy nature, rewriting them and sending them to smaller papers throughout Canada. The price was one dollar each. The editors seemed to like the rewritten stories so Mother doubled the
price. Every editor dropped the service, effective the week the price went up.
Before she had a chance to lie discouraged about her first try at making money, Mother was left a widow in the early ’30’s, and I was still a child. It was natural that she should turn to newspaper work. Her father, the late William Wallace, had been a Toronto editor and a publisher in Orangeville, Ont. His father had been an editor in Ireland. Claire’s mother also contributed items to weekly newspapers. Claire's elder brother, the late William Wallace, Jr., became advertising manager of the Toronto Star, and her younger brother, Clifford Wallace, is a former Edmonton Journal editor, now with a Toronto advertising agency.
Such intimate newspaper connections served only to familiarize my mother with the industry’s shop talk and not to get her a job. To prove herself worthy of employment, Mum worked as a free-lance writer. This involved getting an idea for a story before any editor in town thought of it; interviewing and researching throughout the day and evening; and spending the night typing with fingers crossed in hope that an editor would buy it.
Mother’s free-lance writing succeeded in (a) proving her ability, and (b) baffling me. As a child, I couldn’t understand why Mother spent days trailing department-store detectives or why she worked briefly as a woman taxi driver, or why she worked as somebody’s maid for three days. I was still more baffled by the 325 replies she received to a phony advertisement for a gigolo.
But editors understood her actions when they read the resultant stories. So in 1930 she sacrificed an uncertain $40 average weekly income for a steady $25 from the Toronto Star. She apprenticed by writing society - page stories of clubs and weddings and later founded a column called “Over the Tea Cups’’ which continues today without her. Her next step up was to become a featured writer assigned to cover all stories from the women’s viewpoint. Newsmen call such women writers “sob sisters” and measure their success by the number of murderers’ wives that cry their sorrows on the reporter’s shoulders.
The necessity of supporting me must have robbed my mother of any ability to be content with her lot. She quit the Star, left me with her parents, and went overseas to write for British periodicals. One year in London and Paris gave her invaluable experience, homesickness, and an allergy to Brussels sprouts. Of that year, Mother says: “It was a very lonely year, but
I felt it was a necessary part of my training—gave me a broader outlook.”
A Novel a Fortnight
She almost turned back to England when she saw what awaited her arrival in Canada: it was an offer to sign on as a radio broadcaster. She trembled and thought of her schoolgirl tears and howls to he taken home when asked to address the class. Then she thought of another more needy child—me. I was then 12 years old and wearing out trouser seats often. She signed.
At first the script had to be glued to cardboard so her shaking hands would not rattle the papers into the microphone, making noises like a faraway forest fire. Today, 13 years later, Claire is at utter ease in front of a microphone and has developed the fastest style of delivery this side of Winchell.
On her 10th anniversary in radio she counted more than 2,500 broadcasts
for a total of more than 7,500,000 words. On that basis. Mum figures she speaks a full-length novel every two weeks. Many listeners say the 3.000 words, or more than three newspaper columns, that comprise each broadcast are highlighted for them by “her lovely lilting laugh.”
Claire probably holds the world’s record for the amount of laughter in one 15-minute program. Some years ago she told the story of a circus acrobat wearing pink tights who fell from a trapeze into a huge vat of lemonade and thus originated “pink lemonade.” Mother and erstwhile announcer Lloyd Moore, now manager of CFRB in Toronto, were so overwhelmed by the story that they laughed into the microphone for 11 minutes. They only sobered up in time to say: “That’s all for today.”
Sometimes broadcasting is no laughing matter. Elwood Glover, Mother’s announcer for the last five years, once gave his script a prebroadcast checkover in too great a hurry and dropped it. His 15 pages fluttered down to all corners of the studio just as the CBC’s little red light flashed on to show that they were “on the air.” Elwood and the program’s producer scrambled on the floor picking up script, but they snatched 14 pages before they found the first one.
A Calculated Cinch
The factory that produces these scripts is a natty, pastel-colored, threeroom suite on the sixth floor of a Toronto office building occupied almost entirely by dentists. In this office Mother is a demanding executive. She has been assisted in news-gathering and editorial duties for 12 years by plump, clowning, ex-newspaperwoman Florence Craig, whose broad experience includes even the traditionally masculine task of editing a northern mining journal. Mother and Florence often spend a painstaking 20 hours research and four hours script writing on a story that is broadcast in seven minutes. They interview many authorities, compare several reference and history volumes on topics ranging from the future of the northern lights to the history of the South Pole. When they wanted the story of a steeple jack known only as “Pop” they set out to rap on doors until they found him. It took 30 minutes. When they wanted to translate the European Recovery Program into terms significant to Canada, they had to organize and execute a lengthy telephone conversation with three members of General Marshall’s Washington staff, each on a different phone extension of the same line. The three E.R.P. experts contributed parts of the answer to each question.
Despite the tension of news-gathering, the script must sound bright and relaxed and suggest that Mother has only random notes to remind her of topics. The success of this hoax brings two results: many are disillusioned to learn that she (like all broadcasters) j uses a script; and thousands write to j say “Claire Wallace has such an easy job—all she does is talk into a microj phone for 15 minutes three times a week.”
Letters, money matters and other aspects of office administration are handled by slim, bustling Lillian Spencer, who traded the peace of her own suburban flower-growing business for this rushed existence. The staff has a keen camaraderie which makes afterhour joking as intense as the job itself. Mother was recently elected one of Canada’s 10 best-dressed women for the second consecutive year but her office companions knew that most of
her clothes were make-overs and promptly labeled her “The WellDressed Frump.”
Maintenance of an office, staff and other business expenses takes half to two thirds of her sponsor’s weekly cheque (which I guess to be $300), thus making it difficult for her to dress as well as public life demands. She accomplishes sartorial miracles through a wardrobe based on three suits (grey, brown and blue) with three plain and three flowered hats, all so small that they can be packed into one hatbox on her many trips. Her oldest hat, aged six, has been successively royal blue, black, pale blue, pink and magenta.
But “best-dressed” is a much truer description of Mother than that of most listeners who invariably write to say they “just know she’s small, dark and cuddly.” Actually, Claire Wallace is a five-foot-ten-inch (without high heels), blue-eyed, distinctive blonde, whose long facial features are usually lifted into a smile that seems to flatter whoever she addresses. In conversation she alternates between rapid, laughing chatter and keen, interested listening, usually with reporters’ notepad in hand.
The greatest demonstration of poise I ever saw was Mother’s initiation as Indian Princess Gaw-go-wen-na-garya-ne, meaning “Loud Voice Heard Over the Land.” She was obliged to imitate a chieftain’s high-stepping, accelerated tom-tom dance around a rained platform while Indians watched with sober faces and others guffawed. Despite high heels, tight skirt and war whoops, Mum followed the dance perfectly and wore a gentle smile befitting a princess in a serious ceremony.
Mother seldom makes a faux pas, for she’s the author of a weekly etiquette column syndicated for Canadian newspapers and is compiling a book on the subject. The standing family joke is that we may as well tease her about the book now, for we’ll have to toe the line when she reaches the chapter on table manners.
At home, Mother is usually sweet and charming, but has trouble shaking off a tenseness that she brings home from the office. I used to make an exaggerated complaint to her that if I asked a question she would bustle away thinking half about my question and half about her work and would probably be in the basement or attic before she answered. Her reply, of course, would be in an empty room.
“Cats Are My Passion”
Up until this year her nerves were taut from a fanatical devotion to the job that occupied all her waking hours. She used to spend 60 daytime hours in her office each week and split her evenings between a typewriter in the office and one in the home. Every midnight she was in bed, seaming a pile of publications that might suggest a “story behind the story.” She always had breakfast in bed—at 6.30 a.m.
Until this year most of our family believed that Mother had lost the ability to relax. She filled her rare scraps of spare time by churning into housekeeping details with the same high-powered drive that makes her office spin. Outside of occasional social functions made necessary by her business, and occasional visits with relatives, she had no social life.
Nowadays she has begun to use her eight-room, red brick house in Toronto’s Moore Park residential district as a haven of rest. She has begun a collection of Canadian art comprising works by Emily Carr, R. York Wilson and A. Y. Jackson to date, owns the
best in best sellers, and has a collection of 150 china cats which range from less than one inch high to two feet.
Mother says: “Cats are my passion.” She estimates that she has owned more than 50 and says her back yards have always been unofficial cemeteries for cats killed or died. Currently, the silent partners in the family organization are two mammoth semi-Persians named George Grey and Sam Black.
Mother’s recent change of pace is a victory for my stepfather, manufacturers’ agent James E. Stutt of Toronto and Hamilton, who married Claire in 1943 while he was an Army captain. Jim has succeeded in convincing her that evenings are for knitting, reading and laughing. He tap dances his way to the dinner table.
Mum is relieved to stay home. She says: “I hate to be recognized in public and treated like a celebrity.” Her favorite joke is a variation on this and tells of the woman who gushed at her for five minutes and then said: “But I thought you’d look so intelligent!”
But she is rewarded for public life by the power of her broadcasts. Within 10 minutes after a Christmastime interview with a deserted English war bride, six people phoned with invitations to entertain the lonely girl. Mother’s story about the City of Toronto taking over Canada’s historic castle, Casa Loma, resulted in adoption of the castle by the Kiwanis Club of West Toronto. The Kiwanis made Claire and Sir Henry Pellatt, who built the palace, guests of honor at a banquet and referred to her as “the mother of Casa Loma.” She has also had a child, a horse, a goat, many cats and a species of gladiolus named after her.
Such rewards keep Mother active. I think restlessness overtakes her about
once a week and makes her appreciate any temporary return to the fastmoving hubbub that was her constant habit. She and Jim were both reading in the living room on one recent evening when I noticed Mum getting restless. I was wondering if I should suggest a movie when a telegram boy arrived. I asked him to wait in the front hall in case Mother wanted to reply. The phone rang and Mother went to answer it, opening the telegram as she went. The person on the phone turned out to be replying to a long-distance call Mother had placed earlier, so Mum grabbed a pencil and started interviewing.
Mother was still on the phone five minutes later when Florence Craig arrived with a photographer and his assistant who wanted pictures of Claire Wallace - Spending - An - Evening - AtHome. Florence has a mild allergy to cats, and said so. The messenger boy, trying to chase the cats outside, started pursuing them in a seemingly endless circle through the dining room and kitchen, while the two photographers set grimly to work shooting pictures of Mother taking a telephone interview. Florence, assured that the cats were too busy to bother with her, was setting up her portable typewriter in the living room.
Mother was still on the phone but I could see that she was watching her home become an office again. Her eyes took on the happy twinkle that comes when she’s very busy but not tired.
I had been standing with my mouth open, watching the sudden change come over the house. Jim came up beside me and said: “The excitement feels good, doesn’t it?”
It did. It felt more like Life With Mother. iç