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Taking names

Arts patrons at the National Ballet of Canada’s 2017 edition of Mad Hot Ballet.

Surveying the careers of society columnists past – and speaking with one of his predecessors, Rosemary Sexton – Nolan Bryant ponders how chronicling the comings and goings of Canada's socialites and philanthropists has evolved throughout its history

Politically focused functions, such as the lavish vice regal balls held since the 1800s in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill, have always made the papers. But for The Globe and Mail, a social column that resembles my beat today came into play when Mrs. Willoughby Cummings began writing her series, From a Woman's Standpoint, in the 1890s under the pen name "Sama."

Mrs. Willoughby Cummings launched society coverage for the Globe with her column From A Woman’s Standpoint. Archive

Gossip about the latest tea gowns and walking costumes of the time ran on a page dedicated to that antiquated broadsheet topic "women's interest." Though fashion was the focus, Cummings used wardrobe commentary to identify guests and issues that weren't printed at the time. In a column printed in 1893, she wrote of the trend of corset-like tight lacing, likening it to foot binding. And she used her positions in the society world and journalism to become an important figure in the women's club movement developing in Toronto.

Other columnists have come and gone at this paper, but the name Zena Cherry is the contributor that society regulars of a certain vintage remember most. Cherry began writing her column, After A Fashion, in the early 1950s, chronicling the social and philanthropic pursuits of Canada's business titans, luncheons given by stylish doyennes, splashy functions celebrating Canada in London, Russia and China, and weddings where well-known Canadian families were bound together in matrimony. But by the mid 1980s, a too-busy social schedule and the early stages of Alzheimer's lead to misspelled names and the inclusion of people who weren't actually at the function she was reporting on. That is when Rosemary Sexton stepped in.

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"She never did offer me any guidance although, god knows, I would have loved to sit at her knee and listen to her stories," says Sexton of her predecessor to me over e-mail from her home in Brockville, Ont. "She did your and my job for decades and performed impeccably. Her stamina and integrity were remarkable."

Rosemary Sexton, former Globe and Mail society columnist, in 1992. Courtesy of Rosemary Sexton

Sexton took the society column in a new direction, injecting her sharp observations and a good dose of gossip that turned Rosedale matrons into compelling characters and their charitable fundraisers into must-attend events. During her tenure, from 1988 though 1993, Sexton found herself at the centre of a world she describes as fun, thrilling and chaotic. "You felt – whether it was warranted or not – that you were at the centre of the universe," she says. "At least as far as Canadian society and newspaper journalism were concerned."

The biggest charity event that played out in Sexton's column was the Brazilian Ball, an annual fundraiser that supported healthcare and education causes in both Toronto and Brazil over its 40 year run. Sexton says it was "foreign and exotic and gave its participants a taste of a forbidden high life with its half-naked dancers and raucous Brazilian music," and gave members of Toronto society a chance to let loose. "The Brazilian Ball contrasted very sharply with the rather placid black-tie galas the elite were used to," she says. "It gave staid society a kick in the pants that they never really recovered from."

At the centre of the ball's success was a group of women, including its founders Anna Maria de Souza and Catherine Nugent, who Sexton dubbed the "Glitter Girls" and who formed a new and diverse clique that turned the scene on its head. "They had Italian, Jewish and Chinese names and they did not operate under the same strictures their predecessors had," she says. "They were much flashier and gaudier but they worked just as hard."

The scene I cover today feels even more mixed. The big galas that took immense time and resources to produce feel of another era. The happenings on today's social calendar are smaller parties for great causes with great energy chaired not by trophy wives, but power couples and savvy socialites with social-media reach. Sexton thinks society events have become more corporate and less interesting. "Perhaps I wrote in a sort of golden age of party-going and newspaper writing," she says.

"I have many friends my age who say things aren't what they used to be and the parties aren't the same and no one entertains any more," she says. "But what they forget is that they had their day in the sun and now it is time for new generations to take over – and to take over in their own way and with their own particular methods and means."

The black-tie fundraisers I report on today are just like Sexton's glitzy hospital balls of the 1980s, which were just like the dinner-dances of the 1950s that Cherry reported on and the turn-of-the-20th-century gatherings captured by Cummings. The players change but the game remains the same: reporting on the people who contribute to the social, cultural and philanthropic fabric of this country.

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A Globe page from the 1890s, featuring Mrs. Willoughby Cummings’s From A Woman’s Standpoint.

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