Fierce, rigorous and unconventional are just some of the words friends and colleagues use to describe Betty Lee, the pioneering female Globe and Mail writer, magazine editor and book author who was 93 when she died on March 17 in her Toronto home with her long-time partner, Dorothy Knight, at her side.
Even though Ms. Lee had suffered a series of strokes over the past 18 months, there were to be no hospital rooms for her, thank you very much, and no long-term care facilities. She knew how she wanted to die, just as she knew how she had wanted to live.
"She was a comet," said Clark Davey, a former managing editor of The Globe who now serves as executive secretary of the Michener Awards Foundation. "She felt strongly about things and she had the great talent of expression, and the two together made a fierce weapon.
"She was one of the early practitioners of long-form journalism, a magazine writer hiding out in a daily newspaper," Mr. Davey continued. "She would dominate a room just by walking into it, with her physicality and a very loud voice."
Margaret Wente, now a Globe columnist who hired Ms. Lee at Canadian Business magazine during one of the latter's forays outside the newspaper, recalls a wry wit and a total dedication to professionalism.
"Many of the men I worked with were demanding and emotional," Ms. Wente wrote in an e-mail. "She, by contrast, was a total grown-up."
If you knew her, you did not call her Betty. She preferred her last name, for she felt more like a Lee. For someone who came of age during the Second World War and got her big breaks by toiling for a Australian radio station while the men were off at war, "Betty" simply didn't cut it.
"If you think of a 'Betty' and you think of a 'Lee,' she was a 'Lee,'" said her friend Lorna Rosenstein. "Lee was strong, independent, warm, bright and absolutely a doer. Fear didn't set her back. When she was looking into something, nothing stopped her."
Betty Lee was born on Dec. 18, 1921, in Sydney, Australia. Her father, Albert Lee, worked in the accounting section of the New South Wales Department of Railways, while her mother, Violet Haffenden, was a housewife who made sure that Betty and her younger sister, Peggy, spent their mornings before school at glorious Bronte Beach.
Her parents had first met at the Sydney train station, fell instantly in love and began an affair, even though Violet was 13 years older and married at the time, with three children. "She shocked the family when it was obvious she was having an affair with this gorgeous (and younger) man and there might have been some sighs of relief when he signed up for the army in 1916 and was shipped off to Europe to help fight in the First World War," Ms. Lee wrote in notes she left about her life.
But the relief would not last for long; when Albert returned to Australia, they resumed their affair and moved in together. They were not able to formally marry until 1926, after Violet finally managed to extricate herself from her previous marriage. Throughout, she continued to care for her older children, with her family pitching in to help.
In a way, her parents' relationship was Ms. Lee's first lesson in the importance of following one's passion. For her, it was writing, which she began in grade school when she produced a daily neighbourhood newspaper in longhand and peddled it for a penny.
Her mother and father understood, but they were also pragmatic about their daughter's future. Learn shorthand and typing, they counselled. Working for a prestigious company such as a bank, for example, would surely be better than a job at a grimy newspaper.
Ms. Lee quit high school at 16, ostensibly to learn shorthand and typing to prepare for a life as a secretary. But she had other ideas.
After her first job writing scripts at a radio station, she worked as a writer and editor for a publishing house and a fashion magazine before jumping ship in 1950 for London, England, and the Daily Mirror, a racy tabloid where stories were two or three paragraphs at most. She was miserable, and so were her editors. She left after only a few months.
In 1953, she landed in Toronto at The Globe and Mail. It would be her first stint at the newspaper; over the next two years, she would take on several roles – a reporter, rewrite editor, feature writer, picture editor and editorial writer – before decamping for New York. There, she worked without papers until early 1959, covering sessions of the United Nations and further honing her sense of justice.
Then she returned to The Globe as a feature writer for its expanded weekend edition, which included a weekly magazine. Her first big assignment was the royal tour that stretched through the summer of 1959, the coverage of which was a "colossal bore," she recalled.
"It was far too long for everyone to endure without signs of cracking up, including the royals themselves," Ms. Lee wrote. "I can remember one of my colleagues looking at the passport-class photograph provided on my official name tag and saying sympathetically, 'You're beginning to look like your photo.'"
Over the years, she wrote numerous important features and series, including one in 1963 about Arthur Lucas, a soft-spoken giant of a man with a long criminal history who, with Ronald Turpin, had been hanged at Toronto's Don Jail the year before. Their deaths would mark the last time capital punishment was enforced in Canada and Ms. Lee, who used trial transcripts and extensive interviews to produce the series, sharply questioned the fairness of Mr. Lucas's double-murder trial from the get-go.
She wrote that every bit of evidence presented had been circumstantial and not a single witness placed him at or near the house in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood where two bodies were found. Mr. Lucas's well-intentioned defence lawyer was trying his first capital case, she continued, and was beset by both lack of funding and a need to prepare for Mr. Turpin's trial on the heels of this one – a file he had accepted because he thought it would occur much later. And the Crown prosecutor had recently remarked that the vast majority of "sinners" were found guilty in court and that it might be more reasonable to presume guilt rather than innocence over the course of a case, as had been done in the past.
At a time when most women were relegated to the sidelines, expected to be silent and supportive, Ms. Lee meticulously paved the way for people who fought against wrongful convictions, such as Isabel LeBourdais, whose 1966 book about the trial of Steven Truscott sparked a huge public outcry and prompted the federal government to refer the case to the Supreme Court of Canada for review. (Mr. Truscott would have to wait until 2007, however, for the Ontario Court of Appeal to finally overturn his conviction for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl as a "miscarriage of justice" that "must be quashed.")
Along the way, Ms. Lee travelled the world for The Globe, won a National Newspaper Award for a lengthy hard-hitting series on the insurance industry and, in 1972, became the first female Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College, at the University of Toronto, to be allowed to use the college on a daily basis – just like the men.
Upon her return to The Globe, she wrote movie reviews and a feature about the retinal detachment that occurred while she was watching the movie Last Tango in Paris. That marked the beginning of her long battle with vision problems, spurring others to see their own doctors to have their eyes examined.
Around that time, Ms. Lee left The Globe to try her hand at different media, in magazines such as Chatelaine, Canadian Business and The Canadian; and as a consulting editor for Moneysworth, a personal finance program on TVOntario.
She also wrote a book titled Lutiapik about the experiences of Ms. Knight, who had worked as a nurse for Northern Health Services in the Arctic long before she met and fell in love with Ms. Lee at a dance club in Toronto.
"Everyone else there was young and we began to talk and discovered we had a lot in common," Ms. Knight recalled. "We had to be quiet about our relationship in those days. You didn't tell anybody about it and made sure to do it quietly. I remember police used to come and watch the girls in gay dancing clubs just to see what we looked like. But we looked like everybody else."
To the end, with her sight so deteriorated she could no longer read, Ms. Lee remained an avid and opinionated listener of the CBC and BBC, engaging in conversation and living exactly the way she wanted to, with the woman she loved and surrounded by people who loved her.
Ms. Lee leaves Ms. Knight; her sister, Peggy Mowbray; and a host of friends who became her family in Canada.
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