Skip to main content

An undated handout photo showing author and journalist George Jonas.

He was a gifted poet, fearless newspaper columnist, novelist, non-fiction author and playwright, crossing literary borders with apparent ease.

Having fled his native Budapest at the age of 21 after the 1956 Hungarian uprising was brutally suppressed by the Soviets, George Jonas made a mark on the cultural and intellectual life of his new country through his 16 books and 34 years as an award-winning producer for CBC radio and television. Two of his books became bestsellers and one was filmed by Stephen Spielberg. His series The Scales of Justice ran for more than 70 episodes – first on radio then on TV – educating thousands of viewers about how the law works.

As much as he loved his adopted city of Toronto, he remained a cultivated European and defender of European values. He was an opera buff and spoke German, French, Hungarian and some Russian, and could read Catullis and Virgil in the original Latin. North American popular culture remained a mystery to him, according to screenwriter Norman Snider, who wrote an episode of The Scales of Justice.

His friends enjoyed his generosity, brilliant conversation and dry wit. "He was very funny, even when he became ill. I remember having lunches with him and falling out of my chair laughing," recalled former publisher Anna Porter, who published several of his books. ''He did not believe in sacred cows. He did not believe in multiculturalism and accommodation – he thought accommodation should be done by those arriving in our country, not those receiving them."

"He had a fantastically methodical mind," recalled film producer Robert Lantos, who worked with him occasionally. "Even when we disagreed on political matters, my respect for his sheer brain power never lessened."

Others were fascinated by his enigmatic personality, his long cigarette holder and silver-headed cane. "He was usually mysterious about his activities. Kind of like a figure out of Nabokov," Mr. Snider remembered.

Margaret Atwood met him in the 1960s when she edited his first book of poems for House of Anansi press. In her short story Wilderness Tips, the young Mr. Jonas is recognizable as the inspiration behind a sexually magnetic Hungarian immigrant named George, who makes a play for two Canadian sisters in turn: "His English was not good, his hair was too glossy, his shoes too pointed, his clothes too sharply pressed," Ms. Atwood wrote of her character. "He wore dark glasses, kissed hands."

Mr. Jonas died at home in Toronto on Jan. 10 with his wife, Maya, at his side. He was 80 and had been suffering from Parkinson's disease. In the past year, he could negotiate the sidewalks of Yorkville, his neighbourhood, only on a scooter.

The enigma of George Jonas began with his name. Born on June 15, 1935, in Budapest, he was the product of an extramarital affair between Magda (née Klug) Jonas and Georg Hubsch, a businessman and former opera singer with the Vienna State Opera. Young George bore the surname of Gyula Jonas, manager of a Budapest distillery, to whom Magda was married at the time of his birth, and who perished in a forced labour battalion of Jewish men in 1942 on the Eastern front. A year later, Magda moved in with Mr. Hubsch and they raised their son together. Assimilated Jews, they survived the Holocaust posing as a Christian family by the name of Szabo, using false papers. In his 2005 book Beethoven's Mask, Mr. Jonas revealed that his unconventional parents did not marry until his mother was 59 and father was 81.

As a teenager in Budapest, he learned to drive a car and trained on weekends with a motorcycle club – the start of a lifelong passion for fast vehicles. Much later, in Canada, he collected and rode motorcycles (he owned six at one point), drove a Lamborghini and flew his own Cessna four-seater plane. "He loved to fly Maya down to New York," recalled his lawyer friend Peter Israel, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast. (One of his lesser-known books was A Passion Observed: A True Story of a Motorcycle Racer.)

In about 1953, while still a high school student, he met George Faludy, then Hungary's most celebrated poet, and his friend George Gabori at the New York Café in Budapest. The two men held court at the famous literary café after being freed from the Recsk prison camp, Hungary's gulag, where they had spent three years for stubbornly preferring democracy to communism. At Recsk, starved and tormented as he was, Mr. Gabori had memorized Mr. Faludy's verses because the poet was denied pen and paper to write them down. Mr. Faludy, who eventually ended up in Toronto along with Mr. Gabori, was to have a great influence on Mr. Jonas artistically, intellectually and politically.

He did not attend university, but got an excellent education reading the books in his father's extensive library. When the revolt against the country's Soviet masters broke out, Mr. Jonas, by then working at Magyar Radio in Budapest, escaped to Austria. He wrote that he chose Canada as his destination because the lineups at the U.S. embassy in Vienna were too long.

In Toronto, he lived on bread and sardines, took a job parking cars at the Granite Club on St. Clair Avenue, drove a taxi, became a driving instructor, all the while trying to learn English. He eventually lost his Hungarian accent and acquired a vaguely English one.

During these early forays into the job market, he was also making his initial attempts to write poetry in his new language. In 1962, he married Sylvia Nemes, a Hungarian-born divorcee a few years older than himself whom he met in New York. A son, Alexander, was born two years later in Toronto but the marriage was unhappy. Sylvia was a fiery redhead given to making scenes, especially after her husband, by now working as a script reader in the CBC drama department, met and fell hard for the young Barbara Amiel. Alex was three when the marriage ended and Sylvia Jonas returned to the United States with the boy.

According to Ibi Gabori, the widow of George Gabori, who knew the couple in those days: "It took three or four years till they reconciled, because of the child and from then on they maintained a rather civilized relationship. When Sylvia passed away a couple of years ago, George wrote a beautiful article in the National Post in memoriam."

When their relationship began, Barbara Amiel was 23 and he was about 28. "We were both working at the CBC: me as secretary to Eric Koch, head of TV public affairs and he in CBC radio," she recalled in an e-mail. "He was dashing, ironic, challenging and with a wonderfully dark sense of humour and an accent that I loved. We spoke the same cultural language: opera, operettas, music, music, music and poetry. … He had a second-hand white Triumph and he loved speeding it top-down, which I loved too. We were young and danger was so appealing. He was stunningly intelligent though he wore it very lightly, keenly interested in women who were attracted to his mysterious European being, quick to size people up accurately with the skill of the survivor. … He understood me in a flash although, frankly, there wasn't much to me to understand."

They married in 1974, and though the marriage ended five years later, they remained close friends. Ms. Amiel became a controversial magazine writer, crediting Mr. Jonas for giving her "confidence and ballast." Together, they wrote the book that made them famous: By Persons Unknown tells the story of the 1973 murder of Christine Demeter by a contract killer hired by her wealthy Hungarian-born developer husband, and the complex trial that followed. "I had dragged him into the project because I thought as a Hungarian he would understand Peter Demeter and I was interested in Christine – the murdered wife," Ms. Amiel recalled.

"By Persons Unknown was the In Cold Blood of Canadian literature – Truman Capote was his model. Barbara basically animated it," Mr. Snider said. "It was also very much about that Eastern European immigrant community. While there are a lot more true crime books in Canada now, By Persons Unknown remains among the top three."

The book, which won an Edgar award, led to Mr. Jonas's long friendship with Edward Greenspan, then a junior in the office of the lawyer defending Mr. Demeter, on his way to becoming the leading criminal lawyer of his generation. According to Mr. Israel, Mr. Greenspan rehearsed his arguments with Mr. Jonas before any major trial until his own death in December, 2014.

In 1981, the two friends dreamed up the concept of the CBC drama series The Scales of Justice while driving to Mohawk Racetrack, an hour west of Toronto. The show was hosted by Mr. Greenspan and based on actual trial records. Among the many awards it won was a prize from the Chief Justice of Canada.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Jonas took legal action against the CBC when he was declared redundant, winning a tidy sum for defamation and wrongful dismissal. He was immediately hired back as independent producer, getting paid several times what he had received while on staff. The Scales of Justice continued till 1996, acquiring more polish. Two episodes were directed by David Cronenberg, who became a friend. Mr. Jonas had a bit part as a prison attendant in the celebrated director's 1993 film M. Butterfly, partly shot in Hungary.

A remarkable project fell into his lap in 1981, when two publishers asked him to meet "Avner," a mysterious Israeli who claimed to be the disillusioned leader of a counter-terrorist unit created by the Mossad to avenge the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. At the time, hardly anyone believed that governments sponsored counter-terrorism. Mr. Jonas would have to assess his source's credibility, retrace his steps, check the facts. Vengeance was disbelieved by many when it appeared in 1984 – the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal questioned its sources – and the book appeared on both fiction and non-fiction bestseller lists. Vengeance went through 21 editions in 13 languages and was the basis of the made-for-TV film Sword of Gideon and Steven Spielberg's 2005 film Munich.

His only novel was Final Decree (1981), about a simple European immigrant maddened when his wife become involves with women's liberation and asks for a divorce. The story ends in tragedy.

He met his third wife, Korean-born Maya Cho, in 1986, when she was working as a hostess in a Yorkville restaurant. After their first date, he invited her to dine with him in Paris a week later. She went. They were a devoted couple, looking after each other when she went blind from macular degeneration and he was diagnosed at 65 with Parkinson's.

He published several essay collections, became a columnist for the Toronto Sun and the National Post, contributed to the National Review, the Daily Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal and other conservative publications, was on the advisory board of the Munk debates, and in his final years returned to where he started: writing poetry. His last published book, The Jonas Variations, was a collections of his verses inspired by the work of Rimbaud, Dante, Faludy, Heine, Lermontov and other foreign-language poets.

He received the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and became a member of the Order of Canada in 2013.

He never stopped writing. According to Anna Porter, he was working before his death on a book called Me – A Novel.

George Jonas is survived by his wife, Maya Jonas; son, Alex, who lives in Washington, D.C.; and two grandsons.