September 2, 2007
One day in the mid-1950s, Malcolm Parry and Cheezy Chadbourne, lads in Staffordshire, England, were on a pub crawl in Cheezy’s newly restored MG-PA. At each roadhouse stop around the countryside, while Cheezy visited the loo, Mac—a lover of automobiles—relieved himself into the MG’s gas tank. After half a dozen stops, Cheezy noticed the difference in his car’s performance. “This Esso,” he yelled over the mechanical cacophony coming from the MG’s engine, “is nothing but piss.”
“And he was right!” Parry says, laughing incredulously. “He was absolutely right!”
We’re gazing out the huge picture window of his Deep Cove house. Though he’s best known as the Vancouver Sun’s ubiquitous society columnist, Mac Parry was the founding editor of Vancouver magazine, and he’s been giving me a tour of the Vanmag artefacts on the walls, such as a print of the famous painting of George Vancouver’s rendezvous with the ships of Galiano and Valdes off Point Grey. It hangs near the huge picture window that captures everything south of here from the North Shore to Ioco to the hills behind the Barnett Highway. In all he spent 16 years editing Vanmag, during 14 of which I wrote a column that he at first didn’t want in the magazine. I was lucky to work with him—he gave me almost total freedom to write what I wanted and kept me afloat by paying me advances on work he hadn’t seen yet.
He’s lived here since 1973 with his third wife, Nancy Goodrich—what is it with tall men and petite women?—when the modest cottage that preceded the present house was the home of Goodrich and her newborn son, and she and Mac were on their way to divorces. I’d been at the house previously, but only at night, for parties. This mellow, daytime, Grandpa Mac comes as a revelation. He’s wearing an immaculate white XXL T-shirt and khaki chinos, an outfit that would look ridiculous on almost any other man of his age—he’ll be 71 next month—but on him looks as if he’s been wearing it all his life.
Mac’s one of those Englishmen who belonged in Canada all along. At age nine he announced to his parents that he’d one day live in B.C. after a schoolteacher described the dense red carpet of spawning salmon in the Adams River (a spectacle he enjoys to this day). He never lost sight of his goal to get out of the British Midlands; otherwise he just might have followed his father into the Walsall police department, where Fred Parry eventually made sergeant. When Mac was 10, his father rigged up a darkroom. Young Mac was entranced by the faint red light and the spectacle of a print clarifying itself in a chemical bath—thus was born his lifelong love of photography. In his teens he became a professional jazz musician (tenor and alto saxophone), good enough to lead his own band, Mac Parry Music. By 1957, at 21, he’d completed the civil and mechanical engineering courses at Wolverhampton and Birmingham, and a three-year internship. Engineering was not his first choice of occupation; architecture was, but an architect friend of his father advised, “There’s no money in it.”
With his prodigious memory for detail, Parry clearly recalls his arrival in Canada. Air travel was not simple in those days, and his itinerary from Birmingham included stops in Dublin, Shannon and New York before he touched down in Montréal, where he was declared a landed immigrant. The Trans-Canada Air Lines North Star that brought him to Vancouver was a notably Canadian craft: an American DC-4 airliner powered by four hellishly loud British Rolls-Royce Merlin propeller engines. It took 15 hours of tooth-rattling vibration and deafening noise—as well as stops in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary—before the plane touched down at the airport in Richmond. He was met by friends in a baby blue Buick Special.Arriving at noon on March 14, 1957, Parry checked out the lunch situation. Fish and chips at the original White Spot Drive-In on Granville were, he thought, disappointing. Later that day, he had Chinese food at the Bamboo Terrace. Later still, after too much “deceptively” high-test Canadian beer at the St. Regis Hotel, he made it halfway across the Granville Street Bridge before he retched from the centre span. Vancouver, meet Malcolm Parry.
By 10 the next morning, Parry had landed a “handsome, two-dollar-an-hour” job as a construction surveyor on the now-demolished Woodward’s parkade. By July, he was a soil inspector for B.C. Electric’s engineering division on the Bridge River Diversion Dam 2 project, later known as Mission Dam and today as the Terzaghi Dam. Karl Terzaghi, the father of soil engineering, often visited the site where Mac, a gifted mimic, entertained his colleagues by imitating Terzaghi’s German accent and his mannerism of holding a cigarette between thumb and forefinger from below.
After B.C. Electric he worked for Lenkert Electric, photographing the company’s equipment and telecom systems right across Canada, travelling to places like the far north, and Montréal for Expo 67. By the time he ended his decade at Lenkert, in 1970, he’d risen to become the company’s head of public relations and advertising. He quit because he’d become more manager than photographer.
In 1971 he became part-owner, editor and photographer of B.C. Affairs, a business magazine. Dick MacLean’s Greater Vancouver Greeter Guide had started up in 1967, and after the owners, Agency Press, got rid of Dick MacLean, and renamed it Vancouver Leisure, Parry was appointed editor. He took the “Leisure” off and it became Vancouver. It struggled, and a year later the owners went looking for someone to take the magazine off their hands. The new owners, principally the lawyer Ron Stern and freelance writers Paul and Audrey Grescoe, bought the magazine while Mac juggled the editorial content so the June 1975 issue would be ready when the deal closed.
PARRY KNEW HE HAD TO reinvent the magazine. The scope of the individual talents assembled at a brainstorming at the Ritz Hotel in 1974 pretty well covered the range of tasks that go into a general-interest city magazine. Mac himself had been editor-owner-photographer of a business publication. John “Oz” (for Australian) Gleeson helped design the first issue of Vancouver, and later wrote up his picks for the Academy Awards (which he called “The Ozcars”). Rick Staehling and Marv Newland, trained graphic artists, contributed their design talents and wrote columns. Parry himself wrote much of the first issues of Vancouver under such pen-names as Emery Brill and, for a piece on golf, Driver T. Niblick. “New York magazine, under Clay Felker and Milton Glazer, was our model,” he recalls. “We basically borrowed and stole everything we could from them.” If the idea of Vancouver magazine was hatched at the Ritz, it was “refined, so to speak,” at the Austin Hotel, a bar where, Parry remembers, “we often had our lunchtime visits end with the flashing of lights after midnight. By then, up to two dozen freelance writers, photographers and illustrators might have passed through to contribute ideas, be given assignments, and drink draft lager.” Between bouts of drinking, they actually put out a magazine that became indispensible reading for literate Vancouverites. “We really did two things well,” recalls Staehling, who served two stints as the magazine’s art director. “Even if it meant a tortuous trail, and him rewriting it, Mac got really interesting pieces out of people who weren’t necessarily even writers, let alone good ones. He’d get an article from someone who didn’t have another story in him. I used to mock him about the incredibly idiosyncratic stories we ran. I remember the cover sell lines, called roof lines, above the logo. My favourite was, ‘I Was the Shah’s Dogcatcher’—true headline, true story.”
Parry also had a knack for casting writers against type. Mark Budgen, an ardent socialist, was assigned to write about Christmas gifts costing $1,000 or more. Budgen tore into the research, genuinely appalled at the crassness of the materialism he saw, and submitted a gift-giving guide for the very rich. It was all part of the intangible quality that then-publisher Ron Stern called Parry’s “sparkle.”“The other thing Mac was good at,” says Staehling, “is he’d spot trends, things that were going on in Vancouver that were in fact larger than the city. He spotted the whole Yuppie thing in Kits, for example, I mean, he was way ahead of the curve on that.
“If you look back at the magazine through the lens of today’s rigorously formatted, service-oriented, specific kinds of stories that are appropriate for city magazines, some of the stuff Mac was doing was right off the reservation. But it was incredibly eccentric and interesting.” Why, in 1988, Frank Stronach figured success as an auto-parts magnate would make him succeed in magazines can only be guessed at, but in his wisdom he started the short-lived Vista. Parry had handed Vanmag over to Bob Mercer and gone across the hall to edit Western Living when he was hired away to edit Vista. Off to Toronto he went, settling into the magazine’s sumptuous Yonge Street offices (Belinda Stronach showed up occasionally to move the paintings around) and then summoning Douglas Coupland to join him as an editorial slave. The magazine bled money, and less than a year later Parry was shown the door with an $80,000 kiss-off in his pocket. Before long he signed on with the Sun, where he became the latest in a line of uptown know-it-alls that started with Pierre Berton and peaked with Jack Wasserman. He’s been there ever since.
Four years ago, he began having some discomfort swallowing. He went to his doctor, who advised him to drink more water. Then he found that food tended to get stuck in his throat. One night, at a Cirque du Soleil performance, he ate a beef appetizer and had awful trouble swallowing it. “I’ve always found Cirque du Soleil difficult to swallow,” he deadpans. “Trying to clear my throat, I missed the whole show—that was the upside to getting esophageal cancer.”
If you’re going to get cancer, esophageal is one you don’t want: the mortality rate approaches 90 percent. Parry fought through chemotherapy and radiation before undergoing surgery in which his esophagus was removed and the top of his stomach stretched up to take its place. “The Sun was marvelously supportive through it all,” he recalls. “Patricia Graham and Dennis Skulsky, the publisher, told me to take as long as I needed, not to worry about my paycheck. They were great.”Parry chuckles mischievously. “That’s when I was pretty certain I had died. The Sun just doesn’t do things like that."
They ought to have been great, if only out of self-interest. They know that the best way to gauge the significance of any party, opening, charity event, ball, launch, tasting, conference, reception or premiere in Vancouver is to see whether Mac’s there. If he is, he can usually be spotted standing on a chair, digital camera in hand, shooting down on shiny expanses of bosom and designer dresses. They also understand that he knows everything about everybody—mention a name and Parry has a story. He gets a couple dozen invitations a week and shows up at maybe half of them. His workday typically begins at 9 a.m., when he starts working the phone, and ends around 2 a.m., when he finishes editing his photos. “I work sort of the way I eat since the cancer,” he says. “Like an old horse in a field. A bit at a time, nibbling steadily.” Sometimes, when her teaching schedule permits, Nancy goes along.
Which brings us to the subject of Mac Parry and women. Among the Bold & the Botoxed in this city (all of whom Mac seems to know), he’s renowned for calling females “baby,” admiring enhanced breasts, patting bottoms, kissing lips, and generally behaving in a way that would get me slapped, if not arrested. Yet he’s viewed with great fondness. “Unlike most men in Vancouver,” says one 38-year-old businesswoman, “he actually notices that you’re wearing a new dress, or changed your hair, or that you’ve never worn silver before. He can come across as sexist on first meeting, but once you get to know him he’s quite lovely.”
Even in his younger days, when he had an eye for the ladies and a sailor’s vocabulary, women were oddly appreciative. “I would hear these other women saying that Mac was so sexist,” Bernie Lyons recalls of her days at Vanmag, “or they thought he was a misogynist. I never saw that. Mac was the first one to buy an illustration from me, and then he offered me a part-time job. I jumped at that. He’d come in around 11 or noon and liked to work to midnight. Once a month, we’d work through the night, then go eat breakfast.“One morning I came in, and on my light-table was a note. It just thanked me for working there. He thought the feel of the magazine was nicer—I was only doing production, but it was just such a gorgeous letter. I still have it, actually.“Mac used to get complaints about a photo that showed too much leg or something,” Lyons remembers. “He loved it, because it gave him a chance to run the photo again, along with the apology. Actually, it kind of offended me when other women were offended by him. I could see what he did that bugged them, but he loved to irritate them. It was just his schtick. It wasn’t his soul.”
I think I can be pardoned for believing all these years that, back in 1975, when the magazine was on the verge of shutting down, Mac Parry personally saved the issue so that my story could go on the cover. The article was about a union’s attempt to organize CKLG technicians and radio personalities. Parry had his own motives for working that weekend to get my story, illustrated by his photographs, ready for the printers. More than Vanmag’s editor, he was its ER surgeon that weekend, keeping the issue ready for the press as it lost page after page of national advertising—advertisers did not want to appear in the final issue of an out-of-business magazine. He did it in the faint hope that the magazine would be salvaged by Stern and the Grescoes without missing a month on the newsstand.
“The magazine was defunct on the Friday,” Parry recalls, as sunlight breaks through the clouds and sparkles on the choppy surface of Deep Cove. “Stern bought it from Agency Press over the weekend, and it was officially funct again on Monday.”
My lengthy cover story was redone time after time. For once in my writing life, verbiage was not an issue: the longer the better. The story ate up almost nine pages. “I was there at three o’clock on the Sunday morning,” Parry says. “I was making up ads to fill the pages.” (Note to non-magazine types: editors don’t do ads.) “It was important to keep the edition intact, to not miss an issue, to print it and get it out.”
I can’t say now that Mac saved the magazine so that my story would have a place to appear. It just seemed that way at the time. Like any number of Vancouver writers who found their feet under Mac’s tutelage, I was—I am—eternally grateful.