Gwyn, Sandra

When Sandra Gwyn, the award-winning journalist and author, died on Friday, it was remarked by one of her wiser friends that she had staged her final departure much as she had managed her life: with style, courage and more than a trace of the dark wit she brought to mainstream Canadian journalism from her beloved Newfoundland. Although Gwyn, who first built a significant national readership in a series of penetrating profiles and cultural articles for Saturday Night magazine in the mid-'70s, was only 65 when she died, she had been fighting cancer for several years. A remission in her final year helped her show everyone who came within her orbit that the imminent threat of death was an incentive to live life full-out. To the end, she defied the predictions of doctors with the same gutsy spirit that once saw her berate Conrad Black in public.

She was born in St. John's, in 1935, the daughter of an idealistic young colonial civil servant, Claude Fraser, and his wife, Ruth. Shorn of its dominion status due to an implacable combination of political corruption and Depression economics, Newfoundland had never been worse off. These circumstances, along with Gwyn's feisty disregard for conventional Canadian cultural proprieties, were crucial components in her fierce Newfoundland pride, which manifested itself throughout her career.

No one bright or artistic from that province was allowed to develop their talent unnurtured by her sharp, decisive eye. Whether it was the paintings of Mary and Christopher Pratt, the wicked black humour of Codco, or the books of Kevin Major and Patrick Kavanagh, Gwyn prowled her native turf, searching out talent and making sure the rest of Canada took it seriously. Her essay in Maclean's 1997 cover package on Newfoundland was a typically lyrical account of her beloved island.

But Sandra Gwyn was much more than a provincial booster. Her two brilliant books of Canadian social history (The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier and Tapestry of War: A Private View of Canadians in the Great War) established special standards for the genre: a keen eye for penetrating gossip; compassionate insight into the almighty pickles people get themselves into; and sheer delight in all the permutations possible in social interaction.

Gwyn won the 1984 Governor General's Award for nonfiction for The Private Capital, which pleased her mightily, but not as much as the steady stream of acknowledgments from ordinary readers. In a moving ceremony at Gwyn's Toronto home on May 17, her 65th birthday, Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson presented her with the Order of Canada - an honour that Gwyn, the social chronicler, undoubtedly relished.

Although she was published widely in Canada and internationally, she had a particularly close writer-editor relationship with Robert Fulford at Saturday Night. When Conrad Black's Hollinger Inc. purchased the magazine in 1987, prompting Fulford's departure, Gwyn was outraged. Spotting the media tycoon emerging from the Royal Opera House in London, she gave him a ferocious piece of her mind.

The other creative force in her life was her marriage to Richard Gwyn, the columnist and political biographer. Married for 42 years, the Gwyns fortified each other emotionally as well as professionally. The books they dedicated to each other tell the tale, as did the countless gatherings at their home where writers, artists and politicians mingled with gardeners and bankers. Sandra Gwyn accomplished much in her life. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was this: she gave journalism a good name.

Maclean's June 5, 2000