During the early years of Canada’s broadcast industry, female celebrities were rare. The impeccably groomed, unflappable Betty Kennedy was an exception. To an adoring public, her stellar career as a journalist, radio host, producer, TV panelist and author might have seemed straightforward. But behind the scenes, she battled prejudice against women and fought to become one of the first female journalists allowed into China after the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. In a world dominated by men, Ms. Kennedy ignored or walked elegantly around any barriers that she encountered along the way.
Starting in 1962, Ms. Kennedy was the sole female panelist on Front Page Challenge (FPC), a 30-minute CBC game show/interview program that first aired in June, 1957. During each episode, a panel of three that regularly included author Pierre Berton and journalist Gordon Sinclair, tried to guess the identity of a guest and the news story to which the person was linked. The guest responded with “yes” or “no” to questions posed by the panel. Individuals as diverse as Indira Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Gordie Howe and various prime ministers all played along. Once the identity of the guest was revealed, a general discussion followed. In one controversial episode, Gordon Sinclair asked a well-known female swimmer about swimming during menstruation. The poised Ms. Kennedy barely batted an eye.
At its peak in the 1970s, FPC drew 2 million viewers, and it remained a television staple for 38 years. Ms. Kennedy stayed with the show for more than three decades, until it ended. She died on March 20, aged 91.
Ms. Kennedy’s rise to stardom began in Toronto at CFRB, one of the top radio stations in Canada. She was hired to be its public-affairs editor and given her own Monday to Friday afternoon show. By 1972, nearly one-quarter of a million people were tuning in to The Betty Kennedy Show. Ms. Kennedy had been assigned an afternoon slot because it was thought to appeal to women. Another broadcaster is quoted as saying, “I’m not sure a woman can handle an early morning time slot. I don’t think there’s a woman ‘morning-man’ in the country.” But discussions of recipes and beauty products were not for Ms. Kennedy. Irene Wilson, Ms. Kennedy’s producer for 25 years says they went after stories that were national and international in scope. Nothing seemed to faze Ms. Kennedy, although Ms. Wilson admitted that her colleague revealed an uncharacteristic frisson of excitement at the prospect of interviewing singer Harry Belafonte, a guest several times on the show. He was one of more than 25,000 people she interviewed over the course of her career. “What she liked most was that she had the freedom to do anything and interview anyone she wanted,” Ms. Wilson said.
Ms. Kennedy described her style as one of restraint and fairness that she hoped would appeal to both sexes. “I keep a low profile during the interview because I want my audience to listen to the person I’m interviewing,” she said. It was a style that worked and endeared her to the audience. CFRB received 2,000 phone calls one afternoon in 1972 when Ms. Kennedy did the first of a series of programs on Northern Ireland. The show included details of how Ms. Kennedy had been hurt by flying glass when a terrorist bomb exploded outside the Belfast hotel where she was staying. Listeners wanted to know she was all right. Fortunately, Ms. Kennedy received only minor cuts. She said she learned that the first thing a person should do when checking in to a Belfast hotel was pull the drapes across the window to stop broken glass flying in the event of an explosion.
The seventies were an intensely busy time professionally, and a tumultuous time personally for Ms. Kennedy. She wrote a book about Hurricane Hazel, a weather system that blasted Toronto in 1954, and executive produced two documentaries as well as Insight with Betty Kennedy, a show that aired on TV Ontario. This production required five half-hour interviews conducted live-to-tape in one afternoon with a 15-minute break between each segment. The tight schedule permitted no re-takes and allowed no margin for error. Studio director Robert Gardner called Ms. Kennedy’s performance and professionalism “remarkable.” Ms. Kennedy gave much credit for her success to her upbringing, and to the man who was the love of her life.
In an unfinished memoir, Betty Margaret Hannah, born on Jan. 4, 1926, in Ottawa, wrote about her childhood: “It was a beginning so warm and comforting as to be magical.” Part of the magic arose from living with her parents, aunts, and an uncle, in a modest three-storey home presided over by Alexander and Margaret McPhee, Betty’s Scottish grandparents. The McPhee household accommodated their four daughters plus two of their daughter’s husbands. One of the husbands was Betty’s father, Walter Herbert Styran, a Mountie. In retrospect, Betty thought it must have been difficult for so many adults of different ages and temperaments to get along in difficult times when money was scarce. It was the Depression era and not unusual for men to show up at the door looking for work, or at least a sandwich.
Despite the pressures of frugality, young Betty retained a vivid memory of the women in the house, including her mother, Janet, all laughing together. She wrote “If a person could choose their parents, I don’t think I could have chosen better than my mother and father. They both had the gift of holding those they loved with open hands.”
The Styrans had two more daughters. “Our parents gave us a certainty of love and a freedom to be ourselves,” Ms. Kennedy wrote. She recalled her father, Walter, gently guiding her as she built a model plane, a favourite childhood activity. Never once did he attempt to take over. When she told people she dreamed about flying they assumed she wanted to be a flight attendant, in those days called an airline hostess. “I’d think, ‘What’s wrong with their heads. Didn’t they hear me?’”
Betty Styran’s early schooling took place at Lady Evelyn Alternative School, and Glashan Intermediate School, in Ottawa. Both involved a long walk past the museum and art gallery, where she would often spend her Saturdays, fostering her early interest in art. In a prescient hint of her future, Betty was selected to read a recording of commemoration to schools in Australia. She wrote “The oddest thing was that a neighbour told us about a relative in Australia who’d actually heard the greeting.”
The milestones of Betty’s high school years at Lisgar Collegiate Institute included establishing a rifle club for girls, because the boys had one, and choosing skis over a prom dress because the family budget couldn’t cover both. Even though she earned 98 as a final mark in English, her mother was less than impressed with the 10 she received for math. Janet told her eldest daughter that if she wasn’t going to apply herself, she’d better get a job in the civil service.
Refusing to follow her mother’s sardonic advice, Betty climbed the stairs to the office of the Ottawa Citizen and asked to speak to the city editor. She told him she was looking for a writing job. The editor said they wanted a boy. “I can do anything a boy can do,” she retorted.
A week later, in the summer of 1942, 16-year-old Betty Styran began working full-time at the newspaper for $12.50 a week. Her boss said that since there was already a Betty and a Margaret in the newsroom, and they’d intended to hire a boy, she would be called Gus. “Unlikely as it sounds,” Ms. Kennedy wrote, “Gus I was for a very long time.”
During a strike at the paper, Betty started writing and doing freelance radio interviews. She also worked briefly in Montreal as a fashion co-ordinator. Fashion week in the city in 1947 was to alter her life in a very personal way. During a reception at the Mount Royal Hotel, 21-year-old Betty noticed a man whose eyes met hers across a crowded room. It was clear to Ms. Kennedy that the man was inquiring who she was. She did the same. “That’s Gerhard Kennedy, a successful sportswear designer, and he’s coming over here with eyes only for you,” a family friend told her. At the time, the 35-year old Mr. Kennedy, a man with four children, was in an unhappy marriage. The intense magnetism of this new attraction provided the impetus to end it. The Kennedys went on to have four children of their own. They relocated to Toronto and met regularly for lunch whenever possible, never parting without an “I love you.” Unless they were mad at each other, they didn’t use first names. He called her “Darling Girl.” She called him “Beloved Man.” They shared a passion for golf, holidays in Bermuda and cooking dinner together. Ms. Kennedy’s own particular passion was gardening. After her husband died of cancer at age 63, Ms. Kennedy recounted the struggle of his illness in her book Gerhard … A Love Story, published in 1976. “Gerhard had that rare gift of making you believe all things were possible,” she wrote. “He saw his own death as an adventure, an inevitable part of human life.” Increasingly weakened by disease, Mr. Kennedy encouraged his wife not to remain alone after his demise. She took his advice. Less than a year after his death she married G. Allan Burton, chairman and chief executive officer of Simpsons department stores, on whose board she sat. He died in 2002.
Ms. Kennedy served on the boards of many institutions. She was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2000 and inducted into Canada’s Broadcast Hall of Fame. A lifelong Liberal, Ms. Kennedy was appointed to the Senate by Jean Chrétien in 2000. According to her close friend Dorothy Davey, one of Ms. Kennedy’s great regrets was that she was unable to serve more than six months on the Senate because of mandatory retirement at age 75.
Ms. Kennedy leaves her sons, Mark, Shawn and D’Arcy; and daughter, Tracy Brown.
In a statement, CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge recalled meeting Ms. Kennedy when he was a junior reporter on The National. “She immediately treated me as an equal and made me feel totally at ease. She was always classy and elegant in the way she went about her business and was adored by her fans. Broadcasting and journalism lost a leading lady with her passing.”
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