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Mary Jolliffe. (Gary Beechey)
Mary Jolliffe. (Gary Beechey)

obituary

Bold publicist Mary Jolliffe left an imprint on arts world Add to ...

Mary Jolliffe brought the zeal of a Christian missionary to her role as the first notable theatrical press agent and arts publicist in Canada. She had, in fact, grown up with missionary life in China. Her calling, however, didn’t become apparent until she was in her late 20s, when she took a job as a neophyte publicist at Stratford, Ont.’s fledgling theatre festival. When Richard III, starring Alec Guinness, premiered beneath a massive canvas tent on July 13, 1953, the press response was overwhelmingly positive. Mary Jolliffe was hooked.

Over the next 30 years, she left an indelible imprint on the arts across North America. The O’Keefe Centre in Toronto (now the Sony Centre), the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn., the Metropolitan Opera touring company in New York, Expo 67 in Montreal, the National Ballet of Canada, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council are among many organizations that benefited from the evangelical passion Ms. Jolliffe injected into her work.

An astute judge of character, the red-haired Ms. Jolliffe knew how to charm and cultivate those who could help her. Her language was salty. Her drinks were many. Her perfume mingled with the smoke of an ever-present cigarette. Owner of more than 50 silk blouses, Ms. Jolliffe strove to be the best-dressed woman in the room, and to hell with whether she could afford it. Devoted to the promotion of performers and arts organizations, she worked long hours to make sure they got noticed. Ms. Jolliffe received recognition of her own in 1985 when she was named to the Order of Canada. She died on Oct. 29 of Alzheimer’s disease at Kipling Acres long-term care facility. She was 91.

Until her illness made it impossible, Ms. Jolliffe maintained an independent life at PAL, a Toronto living facility for members of the performing arts community.

She was one of the organization’s founders, served on its board of directors, and became one of the first tenants when the building opened in 1993.

In addition to providing the company of peers, PAL offered the great advantage of rents that were geared to income. According to her nephew Michael Jolliffe, his aunt never had any money. She is quoted as saying, “I spent all my money on men, booze and clothes.”

“She loved to live large,” Mr. Jolliffe said.

Mary Irene Patricia Jolliffe was born in Chengdu, China, on Nov. 11, 1923, the youngest of six children. Her parents were Methodist/United Church missionaries. Richard Orlando Jolliffe, a strict, unforgiving man, was already 51 years old when his daughter, Mary, was born. He pushed her toward teaching and marriage. She did one, but not the other.

After graduating from a Canadian missionary school in West China in 1945, Ms. Jolliffe then crossed the seas to attend the University of Toronto. By 1949, she’d earned her BA in English and philosophy. Returning to China, as a teacher with the United Church of Canada Overseas Mission, she stayed two years before taking a high school teaching position in Welland, Ont. The dutiful daughter was about to rebel. In an interview with journalist John Fraser, who was a friend, she summed up her early years before bursting into laughter. She told him, “Jesus, I knew there had to be more to life than that.”

The “more to life” began when Ms. Jolliffe’s brother-in-law arranged an interview for her with Tom Patterson, then in the throes of establishing the Stratford Festival. Ms. Jolliffe described their interview as “the most boring ever.” She wrote, “I was intimidated by Tom’s lofty association with Stratford. He was sure that being a Methodist missionary’s daughter and schoolteacher, I would not have a drink. Little did we know.”

Mr. Patterson served as an important influence on Ms. Jolliffe’s life. In advance of the festival, he embarked on a trip to the U.S. to create enduring relationships with news media of the day. The success of his strategy was evident when the opening of the Stratford Festival made the cover of Life magazine.

Equally gratifying was the extensive coverage given by Time magazine. One message was clear to the budding publicist: Relationships, particularly with journalists, were key.

After seven years at Stratford, having learned her craft, Ms. Jolliffe moved to the U.S. where she worked at Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater. (Director Tyrone Guthrie called her “darling girl publicist.”) From there, Ms. Jolliffe scaled new heights in New York as advance publicist for the Metropolitan Opera touring company. She also served as a personal publicist for opera impresario Rudolph Bing, the powerful general manager of the Met.

Despite heady times in New York, Ms. Jolliffe was enticed back to Toronto in 1959 as public relations and communications director for the O’Keefe Centre.

Against some opposition she hired Hazel Forbes, the first black woman in arts administration in Toronto, to be her assistant. Ms. Jolliffe remained at the O’Keefe for several years until she lost her job. In an apocryphal story she was said to have been fired for drinking a foreign beer, rather than her employer’s brand, at the venue’s bar. The truth is that she got axed for slapping the general manager, likely over the beer-drinking incident.

Ms. Jolliffe’s friend, CBC broadcaster Karin Wells, said, “I don’t think you truly knew Mary Jolliffe until you fought with her. Mary’s wrath was of Old Testament proportions. But she usually managed to finesse things so people didn’t get too offended.”

Whether it was to the chairman of a board, her boss or a friend, Ms. Jolliffe wasn’t afraid to speak out. She did so, vociferously, after the National Ballet mishandled a once-in-a-century opportunity. In June, 1974, while Ms. Jolliffe was publicist for the National Ballet, Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, attending a post-performance party at the O’Keefe Centre, sneaked away from his KGB minders and defected. As soon as the National Ballet’s acting general manager Peter Sever, found out, he went into overdrive to round up $100,000 as an incentive for Mr. Baryshnikov to stay in Toronto. While Ms. Jolliffe manned the phones, fielding calls from international press, Mr. Sever raised the money in a matter of hours through private and government sponsorship. “By today’s standards it was roughly half a million dollars, serious money with which to make a welcoming offer to a dance genius who was penniless, country-less and jobless,” Mr. Sever said. A combination of politics and protocol however, dictated that the overture must come from artistic director David Haber. “I called David, really excited,” Mr. Sever said. “I said ‘I’ve got the money.’

“Get it to Baryshnikov along with a title … something, anything!” Mr. Sever said he’ll never forget the response: “I’ll take it under advisement.”

When they learned that Mr. Haber had remained silent, Mr. Sever and Ms. Jolliffe were beside themselves with anger and disbelief. Jock McLeod, then chairman of the National Ballet board, offered an explanation as to why an offer never reached Mr. Baryshnikov. “David Haber fancied himself as a bit of an impresario. He should’ve been the one to raise the money. Peter Sever scooped him.” Mr. McLeod also attributes part of the blame to National Ballet founder Celia Franca. “She felt strongly that the focus of the ballet should be on the company not on individuals. She’d already endured the dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and didn’t want to deal with another star.”

Weeks after his defection, Mr. Baryshnikov, one of the most glittering stars in the firmament of dance, established a home in New York. Mr. Sever resigned, then went before the board of the National Ballet, accompanied by Ms. Jolliffe, to lodge complaints that included the botching of the Baryshnikov affair.

As a result, Mr. Haber was replaced. “Mary Jolliffe could easily have lost her job over that,” Mr. Sever said. “But she did it because she knew it was the right thing to do. She had more cojones than most men.”

Adept at handling the unexpected, Ms. Jolliffe also knew how to orchestrate events (or “capers” as she called them). In one instance she pitted National Ballet dancers against Olympic athletes in a fitness competition. The dancers won and, with the resulting press, so did Ms. Jolliffe. Corporate sponsorships naturally followed.

Her former assistant and friend Holly Gnaedinger said, “Mary was expert at massaging the relationship between business and the arts, pointing out how they could benefit from each other. It was her gift.”

On the surface, Ms. Jolliffe’s whirlwind, glamorous life consisted of opening nights, cocktail parties and raucous, expensive dinners. Friends delighted in going to Chinese restaurants with her, both to hear her order in Chinese, and to admire her agility with chopsticks. But, beneath Ms. Jolliffe’s gregarious, sometimes caustic exterior was a woman who dreaded the solitary loneliness of weekends. Before his death in the mid 1980s, a prospector in the mining industry had been her companion, and the great romance of her life. Marriage, however, was not an option: She was already married to work.

Ms. Jolliffe eventually gave up drinking, although she never lost her spirit.

She set a high standard in the world of public relations. A typical Mary Jolliffe response to praise would be, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, darling, that’s enough!”

The 2015 Stratford production of Oedipus Rex is dedicated to Ms. Jolliffe. Her name will appear on the first page of every program. When the play was first produced at Stratford in 1954, Ms. Jolliffe was the publicist.

 

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