The term “Hemingway-esque” crops up more than once while talking to people who knew Brian Vallée; newspaperman, author, producer/director for CBC’s current affairs show The Fifth Estate, and outspoken advocate for victims of domestic violence.
Vallée was athletic, a guy’s guy. He loved playing hockey, poker and banging away on the piano, whether anyone wanted him to or not. He relished organizing fishing trips with pals. A favourite getaway was the rustic cabin he built near Blind River in northern Ontario. It had no electricity. There he chopped wood, built bonfires, cooked and played host. Sitting on a dock with a beer or three was his idea of relaxation, a respite for the driven journalist who always had projects on the go.
Tall, mustached and darkly handsome in his preferred garb of jeans and T-shirt, Vallée exuded a cool, streetwise magnetism that women found compelling.
He was the author of several books, including the 1986 bestseller Life with Billy, about the violent abuse suffered by Jane Hurshman at the hands of her common-law husband, Billy Stafford. Vallée shared half his profits with her. The book was later turned into a Gemini-winning TV movie.
Vallée encountered Hurshman’s story while producing a documentary for The Fifth Estate. It became a pivotal point in his life. Hana Gartner, a host of the show recalls, “In the early eighties no one was talking about spousal abuse. And the graphic detail with which Jane Hurshman described her life with Billy was horrendous. After we packed up the gear, we felt a kind of compressed volcanic emotion that exploded into hysterical laughter and quickly turned to tears. We were shell-shocked.”
The story had such an impact on Vallée that his crusade for battered women, both in the judicial system and in the media, continued throughout his life. After another of his books on the subject, The War On Women, was published in 2007, he found himself in demand as a national keynote speaker. Even when the pain of illness debilitated him, he insisted on fulfilling the obligation of prior bookings. Right up to the time of his death from cancer on July 22 at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, Vallée was making plans to expand his electronic publishing company, West End Books. He was optimistic throughout his medical ordeal, planning to write his autobiography, and a book he believed would solve the mystery of who killed Sir Harry Oakes in the Bahamas in 1943. Finally, he had to admit to his friend and fellow writer Ron Base, “I’m cooked.”
Brian Vallée was born in 1941 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. He was the second oldest of 10 children, six girls and four boys, in an Irish/French Canadian Catholic family. His father, Levis, worked at the mill, assisting in the manufacturing of paper, while his mother Margaret Rooney was a nurse. According to Doug Bradford, Vallée’s friend since primary school, the household was musical, boisterous and welcoming. It was taken for granted that drop-ins would stay for dinner.
“Every Friday night there’d be a dance at the house. The girls sang like angels. Brian played piano and harmonica. His parents would join in dancing and outlast everyone at the party.”
Bradford recalls one of the few times that he and his chum Vallée got up to serious mischief. “We must’ve been around six or seven years old. We emptied all the gunpowder out of a bunch of fireworks, put it in an aluminum can and taped it to the train track that ran past Brian’s house. Sure enough, the train came along. We were sitting there waiting to see what would happen. There was a little puff. But that was it. We never got found out.”
At 15, Vallée briefly considered entering the priesthood and attended Christian Brothers College in Toronto. The idea was quickly dropped, probably because, as his long-time partner Nancy Rahtz says, “He discovered girls.” Around this time, he also discovered his true calling. Wanting to avoid working at the mill, Vallée got summer employment at The Sault Star as a reporter. He was hooked. In 1967 he graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. in journalism. He took the opportunity to travel throughout Europe for the next couple of years taking short stints at a weekly newspaper in England.
In 1970, he settled down to his first long-term job as a general assignment reporter for the Windsor Star. A series he wrote on nuclear energy earned him a Western Ontario Newspaper award. Jim Bruce, then city editor, remembers Vallée having a knack for finding fresh angles on old stories, and being a charismatic leader.
“He spearheaded a movement to renovate the dingy old Windsor Press Club. We kidded him about his choice of snakeskin wallpaper in the hallway,” chuckles Bruce.
Vallée returned to Toronto from Windsor in 1974. He spent 14 months at the Toronto Sun, followed by four years at the Toronto Star. In October, 1978, he joined The Fifth Estate.
“I was surprised that he went into television because he’d never shown any particular interest in it. But he flourished because he brought good, solid, journalistic principles to the job,” says writer Ron Base.
Hana Gartner admired his accuracy. “He was a stickler for detail. He was somebody I could trust with the facts.”
In 1983, as associate producer on John Zaritsky’s documentary Just Another Missing Kid, Vallée was part of the team that helped Zaritsky win an Oscar. After 10 years in television, Vallée returned to writing. Life with Billy was followed by a novel Pariah in 1991, then another non-fiction book Edwin Alonzo Boyd: The Story of the Notorious Boyd Gang. A third non-fiction book, The Torso Murder: The Untold Story of Mrs. Evelyn Dick, lent itself to a documentary that Vallée wrote for CTV.
Married in his twenties and later divorced, he met Rahtz, at the Toronto Press Club when he was in his mid-forties. She was a speechwriter for the provincial government.
According to Rhatz, it was love at first sight for Vallée, but it took a baseball game where they played on opposite teams for her to warm up. The two were together for 24 years.
“We never got around to getting married although we talked about it,” Rahtz says, “especially towards the end when Brian thought it would be a nice thing to do.”
The couple was legendary for tortiere parties that they hosted one week after New Year’s every year. “Brian did all the cooking in our house. He made 30 pies and 100 or so people would turn up to eat them.” The pies were made from a recipe of his father’s and Vallée would include a photo of his father in the invitation. “I made a comment in another obituary that Brian was best friends with everyone,” says Rahtz. “I didn’t mean it to sound shallow but he cared deeply about friends and helping them out. He was the first to visit or call if someone was sick or in the hospital.”
“Another remarkable thing about Brian,” says Ron Base, “is that the fine writing he did in the last few years really did leave a legacy. He made more people aware of the issue of violence against women. As much as it’s possible to do so, I think Brian left a pretty happy, contented person. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
A memorial will be held for Brian Vallee in Toronto on Monday, Aug. 29 from 6 - 10 p.m. in the Glenn Gould Studio lobby in the CBC building at 250 Front Street West.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story that appeared online and in Saturday's newspaper incorrectly suggested Mr. Vallée married and divorced while in his twenties. Mr. Vallée and Margit Manniste were married from 1969 to 1988.
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