In May, 1979, when Allan Fotheringham’s array of journalistic sniper’s nests included the back page of Maclean’s magazine, a local Vancouver TV interview program, and a thrice-weekly column in the Vancouver Sun, Tom Alderman concluded a profile of him in The Canadian magazine by noting the columnist had resisted participating in the article but eventually agreed to a chat over lunch. The encounter was amiable, then turned alarming: “‘Remember,’ [Fotheringham] said gleefully as we waved goodbye, ‘you can run a Fotheringham story maybe once every 10 years. I’ve got a column every week to get back at you.’”
His nickname may have been Dr. Foth, for his astute diagnoses of Canada’s body politic, but Allan Fotheringham lustily ignored the Hippocratic Oath’s imperative to “first do no harm”: He revelled in his ability to draw blood, for sport as much as for therapeutic purposes. He took down mayors and monarchists, prime ministers and PR men, other journalists and the justice system, bureaucrats and the bourgeoisie with whimsical wordplay that was no less cutting for its folksiness. He built them up, too, taking credit for sparking the political careers of Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin and Stockwell Day.
A prairie boy turned expense-account bon vivant, celebrated as much for his wit and wardrobe as his reporting, Mr. Fotheringham was, according to the Progressive Conservative Party backroom operator Dalton Camp, “the only stand-up comedian we know who works sitting down.”
And so, among his pithy descriptors known as Fothisms: He dubbed Brian Mulroney “The Jaw That Walks Like a Man”; our neighbours to the south, “The Excited States of America”; the first Prime Minister Trudeau, “Pierre Elliott Himself”; Ottawa, “the town that fun forgot” and “yesterday’s city tomorrow”; Vancouver, “the Narcissus of the West Coast”; and when the CN Tower neared completion, he declared Toronto to be in the grip of a “pathetic phallusy.”
In a 1981 profile for Saturday Night magazine, Walter Stewart wrote that Mr. Fotheringham, who died at age 87 on Wednesday morning, “had the guts of a burglar, the moxie of a ferret, and the writing style of an H.L. Mencken. How many of those have we got?”
Allan Fotheringham was born Murray Allan Scott, the third of Edna and John Scott’s four children, on Aug. 31, 1932, in Rouleau, Sask. (home of TV’s yokel-fest Corner Gas), and raised in nearby Hearne – a place, he frequently quipped, “so small that we couldn’t afford a village idiot. Everyone had to take turns.”
Allan was only two years old when his father died of a botched appendectomy; the family survived by Edna taking in washing, teaching violin to the local children (many of whom couldn’t afford to pay), and eventually converting part of the house into the local post office. There, the young Allan would flip through the new magazines before customers picked them up, learning of the world beyond Depression-era Saskatchewan. There was little else to read in his home, he later wrote, other than Ladies’ Home Journal and Chatelaine.
When Allan was eight years old, his mother married Cpl. Douglas Fotheringham, who two years later moved the family to Sardis, B.C., a suburb of Chilliwack. There, the younger Fotheringham wrote columns for his high school paper and the Chilliwack Progress.
He bared his teeth from the beginning: His first published column for The Ubyssey, the student newspaper at the University of British Columbia, where he had just enrolled, ridiculed male engineering students as “weaklings and morons who couldn’t even attract a girlfriend.” It’s unclear what they’d done to offend Mr. Fotheringham – he was never one for introspection, at least not in public – but the piece was apparently so well read it secured him a regular front-page column for the rest of his time at UBC.
After a couple of years as a cub reporter for the Vancouver Sun, Fotheringham travelled to Europe and behind the Iron Curtain, then returned to the paper, where the editorial staff included the future politicians Barbara McDougall and Pat Carney. There, he met a reporter in the Women’s Department by the name of Sallye Delbridge, who also happened to be the daughter of Clayton Boston “Slim” Delbridge, the owner of the B.C. Lions football club. Allan and Sallye married in the spring of 1963; their first child, Brady, was born nine months later. (They divorced in 1980, in part because, as Mr. Fotheringham noted, he privileged his career over the marriage.)
In 1968, Mr. Fotheringham landed a five-day-a-week column, covering Vancouver – and especially the small absurdities of its City Council – with straight-faced mockery that struck many readers as fresh. Collected & Bound (1972), his first book comprising many of those early columns, displayed his range: gentle satire of the tribal ways of Social Credit Party members; a snapshot of John Diefenbaker soldiering on as a Member of Parliament after stepping down as Prime Minister; the controversial, hippie-hating Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell; admiring profiles of Chief Dan George and Bobby Orr. He took credit for the downfall of the TEAM government at Vancouver’s City Hall, and, after writing six consecutive critical columns about Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi, for his resignation.
His targets often tried to hit back: In his memoir Boy From Nowhere: A Life in Ninety-One Countries – his ninth and final book – Mr. Fotheringham claimed that, over the course of his career, he had been served 26 libel notices, 24 of which failed. (His biggest loss, more than $200,000 plus legal costs, was to the British explorer Ranulph Fiennes, whose exploits he dismissed in a 1988 Maclean’s column as never having achieved anything of scientific or historical worth.)
In late 1975, as Peter C. Newman drew up plans to transform Maclean’s from a sleepy monthly to a newsmagazine, he tapped Mr. Fotheringham to write a weekly column suffused with wit and point-of-view. Positioned on the back page, it became appointment reading that subscribers would look forward to each week.
Sure enough, surveys began to show that readers were opening the magazine to the “last page first” – which became the title of Mr. Fotheringham’s 1999 collection of essays.
Anna Porter, who published six Fotheringham books, recalls sitting in the Château Laurier during contract negotiations for their first book together, Malice in Blunderland – Or How the Grits Stole Christmas (1982), and watching him hold court.
“Politicians of all stripes would come by and stand at the table, paying respects to Allan, who was really the king of the press, and they were all kind of afraid of him and revered him. And I thought, Jesus, we’re going to have a bestseller.”
He contributed a column to The Globe and Mail from 2000 to 2002, writing on politics, celebrity, media, and sports.
When Mr. Fotheringham left Maclean’s in late 2002, after a run of 27 years, Mr. Newman penned a celebratory essay noting that the columnist, “described himself as a ‘scurrilous scribe,’ and he earned the title. His brand of attack-dog-with-a-smile journalism found an echo in Canadians who had grown cynical about our politicians, but couldn’t find the words to express their fury. Dr. Foth made that medicine go down – and left them smiling.” He added: “Disarmingly unpretentious, the man’s writing style drew you in like a comfortable, favourite blanket. He didn’t impose complicated literary devices on his subjects (or himself).”
Mr. Fotheringham’s lifestyle, however, embraced pretension as a way of putting distance between himself and his poverty-stricken upbringing. “He always dressed really stylishly,” Ms. Porter noted. “Most writers I knew dress down. But he would go to the press gallery, where everybody else looked somewhat shabby, wearing his hat and his very colourful ties. That harks back to the barefoot boy in Hearne, and his mother’s efforts to make him feel special.” He often bragged about his earnings – one chapter in Boy From Nowhere, delineating an especially good year, was titled “Hitting $492,000.” And in the mid-1980s, when his jobs included a perch as a panelist on CBC’s Front Page Challenge and an in-demand lecturer, he boasted that he was able to travel the world supported by one expense account or another.
If fellow journalists resented his sense of entitlement, he didn’t seem to mind. Ms. Porter argued Mr. Fotheringham embraced Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
“He liked to be sufficiently ‘in,’ that people would either berate or praise or just mention him,” Ms. Porter says.
In fact, in Boy From Nowhere, Mr. Fotheringham delighted in a story about then-Leader-of-the-Opposition Jean Chrétien calling him an indecent adaptation of his last name. Foth included the tale in his book, Last Page First, but when he received a finished copy from the printer, he discovered the expletive had been accidentally corrected. “I was blown away, shattered.” And so, at every public signing event, he would flip to the offending-because-it-wasn’t-offensive phrase and scrawl by hand the original Chrétien-uttered obscenity. Not coincidentally, it gave him a ready anecdote to offer up during press interviews. That expletive, he told Ms. Porter, “is gonna make me rich!”
Mr. Chrétien’s attack came during a time when Mr. Fotheringham was still a shoe-leather reporter, before he became the frequent-flying columnist filing copy from 38,000 feet. “His reporting is usually forgotten about him – overshadowed by the smug public caricature and the pundit cracking wise. But reporting was what he did best,” observed the Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin, in a tribute published in October, 2002, on the day Mr. Fotheringham received the Jack Webster Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“He had a rich eye coupled to a spare economy. Like Orwell – a hero of his – he wrote transparently. Chief Dan George had the face of ‘a bronzed catcher’s mitt.’ Boxer George Chuvalo had ‘a cranium of brushed concrete.’ Of Bobby Orr’s spatial genius on the rink, he wrote: ‘He carried his private piece of ice with him.’”
Mr. Fotheringham reprinted Mr. McMartin’s column in Boy From Nowhere, a notable move considering that the younger writer criticized him for losing his way once he left Vancouver. “Often, his columns seemed too self-regarding, as if he were writing not just about the dealing of the High and Mighty, but his place among them. Hey, everybody! Look at me! It got tiresome.”
Some criticisms weren’t so easy to shrug off. In 1990, freelance writer Moira Farr noticed that a Fotheringham column in Maclean’s about the demise of the Toronto restaurant Fenton’s contained phrases that seemed to have been lifted from a recent piece she’d written for Toronto Life. It was not the first time he’d faced a plagiarism accusation. Writing about the incident in the Ryerson Review of Journalism – the piece was titled “Allan in Blunderland” – Sean O’Malley reported that when he confronted Mr. Fotheringham, the columnist laughed it off and quipped: “Plagiarism has become such a trendy topic these days, but all journalism is based on basically what someone else has written or reported.”
In April, 1998, Mr. Fotheringham married the art dealer Anne Libby, almost 20 years his junior, after a four-year courtship. He called her “my gem,” and, true to the description, she was adamantine, not “intimidated by my headline friends who tried to intimidate her,” he wrote in Boy From Nowhere. She “had a withering wit that kept me on my toes and, when needed, put me back on my heels.”
Ms. Fotheringham also eased his pain through the numerous health challenges he faced, beginning mere months after their wedding, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In 2007, a botched medical procedure led to a hospital stay of four months, during which, he wrote, he was administered last rites and survived “only due to the efforts of my wife.” As his health diminished in recent years, she was an abiding, loving presence.
He leaves Ms. Fotheringham; his son Kip; daughter, Francesca; five grandchildren; siblings John and Irene; and extended family. His sister Donna died in 2008. His son Brady, who followed his father into journalism and book writing, predeceased Allan in 2011 after a lifetime of debilitating epilepsy, when Mr. Fotheringham was in the final editing stages on Boy From Nowhere. The book is dedicated in part to Brady.