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Jack Rabinovitch and Doris Giller: the love story behind Canada’s most prestigious book award

She loved a good time. She loved books. And she loved Jack Rabinovitch, who created the Giller Prize to make sure we’d never forget her

Jack Rabinovitch and Doris Giller: the love story behind Canada’s most prestigious book award
Doris Giller, the namesake of the Giller Prize, died in 1993. All photographs courtesy of Jack Rabinovitch

This article, originally titled “For Doris,” was first published in the October 1999 issue of Toronto Life.

Compared to Shah Jahan, Jack Rabinovitch is a piker. But among people who grew up with him in Montreal, among big shooters who’ve done business with him in real estate development, among the pals he’s made in smart Toronto circles since moving here in 1986, who cares if Shah Jahan outspent him by several millions? And, anyway, Jack worked faster. It took Jahan 18 years, from 1632 to 1650, to build the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife. It took Jack a matter of months in 1993 to launch the richest and most prestigious English-language fiction award in Canada, the Giller Prize, in memory of his.

Doris Giller was a kid from the Main, which was what people in Montreal’s old Jewish ghetto called the street that sliced north-south through their neighbourhood—St. Lawrence Boulevard, boulevard St-Laurent, the Main. Doris lived on Clark Street, west of the Main; Jack lived a few blocks away on Henri-Julien, east of the Main. From the first time he spotted her, Jack thought Doris was a knockout. But they went their separate ways for two and a half decades, Jack into business and marriage to another woman, Doris into newspapers as a writer and editor. Friends invoke Auntie Mame when they speak of Doris in her newspaper days. “Life is a banquet,” Mame said in the movie, “and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Just like Mame, Doris was outspoken and large-spirited, a one-liner on her lips and a drink in her hand, stylish and sexy, a woman who swept into rooms and always left them laughing. Just like Mame, except that Doris was better read. She devoured novels and loved the written word. She married Jack in 1972, and after they came to Toronto, after she went to work on the Toronto Star’s book pages, after she was struck by lung cancer and died at 62 on April 25, 1993, Jack knew it would be through books that her memory would have an existence almost as grand and vivid as her personality.

And so it is that at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesday, November 3, in the Regency Ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel, the winner of the 1999 Giller Prize—as revealed by a jury composed of the novelist Nino Ricci, the editor and writer Alberto Manguel, and Judy Mappin of Montreal’s Double Hook Book Store—will step to the stage in front of 420 diners in formal dress. He or she will be both the recipient of $25,000 and the focus for the celebration of one man’s enormous love for one terrific woman.

On an inky and dark night in the early 1920s, a group of Jews, fleeing the pogrom in their Ukraine village, slipped into the Dnieper River for a clandestine crossing to Romania. Romanian soldiers patrolled the far side of the river on guard against Bolsheviks trying to infiltrate the country with their politics and bombs. On this night, the soldiers caught movement on the water and fired their rifles into the dark.

“Don’t shoot!" the men and women in the river cried. “We’re only Jews!"

One of the refugees was a young woman named Fanny, who proceeded to Bucharest and found work as a seamstress. There she met a young man who had likewise escaped from Ukraine, a personable fellow who toiled as a salesman by day and as a dance instructor by night. His name was Isaac Rabinovitch, known to one and all as Itzick. Fanny and Itzick married, and in 1926 they made their last westward journey, immigrating to Montreal.

The newcomers settled in a tiny house east of the Main, and in 1927, Fanny gave birth to Sam, followed three years later by Jack. To support the four of them, Itzick caught on at the bottom rung of the newspaper business. From six to 10 in the mornings, he peddled the Gazette from a stand at Peel and St. Catherine; in the afternoons and evenings, he sold the Montreal Star and the Herald out of a kiosk at Ontario and the Main. In due course, he made selling newspapers a family enterprise.

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“As soon as Sam and I were old enough to ride the streetcar from the house to the stand by ourselves, we hawked newspapers,” says Jack, a comfortable, old-shoe kind of guy, medium-sized and soft-voiced until an argument or a joke cranks up the volume to a silence-the-troops level. “I started when I was seven. What I remember is I was the one on the corner on the coldest days in winter.”

The Rabinovitch boys went to Baron Byng High School, which would be immortalized as Fletcher’s Field High in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler, who was a year behind Jack. “It was like Mordecai wrote, a boiling pot,” says Jack, “a bunch of overachieving immigrant kids who wanted out of the ghetto. It produced some of the best scholars in the city—and some of the biggest crooks.”

Sam Rabinovitch was a scholar. His field was child psychology. He took his bachelor’s degree at McGill, his master’s and doctorate at Purdue in Indiana. In the 1960s, he treated a young Montreal boy whom other experts had written off as hopelessly mentally handicapped. Sam, who was doing pioneering work in learning disabilities, decided the boy was suffering from something virtually unexplored in those years, dyslexia. Under Sam’s care, he was soon breezing through school, and his grandfather was so grateful that he endowed the Rabinovitch Learning Centre at McGill. His grandfather happened to be E. P. Taylor. Sam, alas, died suddenly and too young in 1976.

As a scholar, Jack was no slouch himself, literature being his specialty. “Jack’s sneaky that way,” says his good friend Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger. “When he talks, he sounds like he’s on leave from the Montreal underworld, but if the subjects of the theatre or the 19th-century novel come up, Jack knows his stuff.” He got a degree in English literature from McGill and won a scholarship to study comparative literature at the Sorbonne. But before he could leave for Paris, his father suffered a heart attack.

By then, Itzick had opened a restaurant, Subway Light Lunch, on the Main 50 paces south of his old newspaper kiosk at the corner of Ontario. Sam and Jack took over the restaurant while their father recuperated, Sam hurrying east from Vancouver where he was teaching at the University of British Columbia. Short-order cooking wasn’t Jack’s long suit. “I don’t want the BA to scramble my eggs,” the patrons used to say at breakfast. “I want the PhD.” Jack set the tables and washed the dishes.

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Itzick recovered, Sam returned to UBC, and Jack was hired to write speeches for Sam Steinberg, the marketing genius who built the eponymous retail food empire. Steinberg was a canny mogul; he knew that university graduates weren’t flocking to careers in groceries, so he employed them at speechwriting, a loftier calling, then steered them into the essential branches of his business. Jack Rabinovitch was directed to the real estate division, scouting and overseeing the purchase of new store locations primarily in Ontario. Willy-nilly, he had arrived at the work of his lifetime, first for Steinberg’s, then for other companies and finally for himself. It was in real estate that he made his reputation (fierce at confrontation, a stickler for the facts) and his money (just enough, thanks).

“It’s a business you can’t learn how to do,” he says. “You can hone the skill, but if you don’t have the skill to start with, you’ll never earn a living as a guy developing real estate.”

In the early 1970s, he joined the giant developer Trizec Corporation, where he stayed for more than two decades. Trizec built Place Ville-Marie and Place Air Canada in Montreal, put up buildings in the eastern United States, owned over a million square feet of office space in Calgary. “I got my feet wet building shopping centres,” he says. Then he went on to bigger things. He had entered Trizec as a member of the Edward and Peter Bronfman ownership group and remained after the Reichmann brothers bought a chunk of the company. He was Jack Rabinovitch, an essential Trizec man. He had the career, and by then, he also had the girl.

In a safe place in a drawer at his home, Jack Rabinovitch saves the 50-year-old photographs taken at Doris Giller’s sweet 16th birthday party. But he isn’t in the photos and wasn’t at the party. Sam was the Rabinovitch she invited. Jack was the kid brother. Jack knew Doris, was intrigued by her—what guy on the Main wasn’t?—but their paths didn’t cross at Baron Byng. Doris’s family sent her to Commercial High to prepare her for life in the Montreal workforce as somebody’s stenographer, a level of employment that she herself never regarded as a final destination.

She had ambition. And she loved books. She read, not to any pattern or program, but to fill gaps, to satisfy an unspecified yearning. “All her life, Doris was so curious she could never stop,” says Jack. “And since she had nobody to guide her reading, no university professor or mentor, she developed her own views about books that were very personal and honest. When she saw shit, she said shit.” For Doris, the leap from reading to writing seemed entirely within her grasp. She talked her way into a position as the editor of Parade, a four-page in-house organ at—here was where their paths crossed briefly—Steinberg’s. From there, she graduated to stringer, then reporter for the Montreal Star, where the legend of Doris Giller, girl journalist, began to take shape.

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Jack Rabinovitch and Doris Giller: the love story behind Canada’s most prestigious book award
Jack has a drawer in his home where he keeps photographs of Doris, including one (lower right) taken in Montreal on her 16th birthday. He was already smitten. Even as a teenager, he thought she was a knockout—but his older brother, Sam, was the Rabinovitch she invited to the party.

In the experience of Robert Lewis, among others, the legend included a heart of gold. Lewis, now the editor-in-chief of Maclean’s, began his journalism career in the summer of 1964 as the kid on the Star’s police beat. “Doris was the first person on the newspaper who treated me like a human being,” he says. “She was a reporter who didn’t take herself seriously but took her reporting very seriously. She taught me about that. At the end of the day, she’d lead me over to the old Press Club in the basement of the Mount Royal Hotel, and some nights, we closed the place. She taught me that, too.”

Giller cut a swath through many levels of Montreal society, journalistic, Jewish, various fast sets. Beverley Slopen, the Toronto literary agent, remembers the indelible impression Giller made on her at first sight in the mid-1960s. “It was at a very chic Montreal costume party,” she says. “Doris came as Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, the James Bond movie. She had on a curvy form-fitting catsuit, and she was such a dish that all the wives were terrified for their husbands.”

It was Jack Rabinovitch who finally eased their fears. His first marriage had faltered, and now at liberty he wooed and won Doris Giller, the woman who may always have fascinated him. They married and bought a downtown Montreal townhouse, which they renovated to accommodate the one facility that Doris, the girl from Clark Street, coveted: an elaborate bathroom all to herself.

At the Star, Giller’s career climbed upward. She transferred from the women’s pages to the entertainment section and eventually, belatedly, became its editor. “For you, I have a special apology,” begins a September 25, 1979, letter to Giller from Frank Walker, the Star’s editor-in-chief. “You should have been the Editor of the Entertainment Section a long time ago. You have produced in a few weeks far and away the best section we ever had.”

Rabinovitch keeps the letter safe in another drawer, and reading it again, 20 years later, he is both proud and pissed off. “What Walker’s talking about in there, the subtext,” he says, “is that they held Doris back because she was a woman. She was the first female editor they ever appointed on the goddamn paper. Doris was the type of person—it was impossible to hold her back for long.”

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The Montreal Star folded later in 1979, but Giller hardly missed a beat. She joined the Gazette, and created the newspaper’s first book review section. “I can tell you how unique and special Doris made her book pages,” says David Staines, a young and rising University of Ottawa professor of English literature when Giller recruited him as a regular reviewer. “She got her book pages at the front of the section every Saturday, not buried at the back the way they are at the Globe and the rest of the country’s papers.” Giller’s life seemed complete: her beloved books and newspaper work all in one package, enough time to stop for a drink with the guys, her adoring husband waiting at home. Then came the move to Toronto.

“I was supposed to be in Montreal to switch off the lights, which is how much of a Montreal boy I was,” says Jack. “Everybody else thought I’d be the last guy in town, but it worked out differently.”

Trizec was going through an organizational upheaval and needed a senior executive to oversee the eastern half of the business working out of Toronto. Rabinovitch got the call. “Wherever you go, I go,” Doris said to Jack. She resigned from the Gazette, and they bought a house across the street from his friend and workmate Peter Bronfman in a lovely off-Rosedale neighbourhood. They made it over to include a lavish Doris-only bathroom on the third floor, and settled in.

“But the first three years in Toronto,” Rabinovitch says, “were very rough on Doris.”

Giller’s quarter-century at the top of the class on newspapers in Montreal cut little ice in Toronto. She freelanced back-of-the-book pieces for her old friend Bob Lewis at Maclean’s, contemplated a change to television, and ultimately landed at the Toronto Star as assistant book pages editor. “It was a serious, serious adjustment for Doris working on the Toronto Star," says Joey Slinger. “A person had to be willing to get pushed around at the paper’s lower levels of arts coverage. But Doris would fight. Doris loved to fight.”

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She fought her way into a vehicle, which she initiated, that was pure Giller, a column called Reading Habits. It was hardly an original concept—an interview each week with a prominent person about the book he or she was currently reading—but she gave it an irreverent flair that set it apart. Reading Habits provided her with a lift, and so did the social inroads she and Jack were making at various levels of Toronto society. “Toronto being much more staid than Montreal,” says Jack, “Doris wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea.” Or, as Slinger puts it more pungently, “It took people here a space of time to realize that this woman, who looked so glamorous, whose vocabulary prominently featured the phrase `fuck you,’ was actually funnier than Don Rickles and incidentally gave beautiful parties.”

Jack Rabinovitch and Doris Giller: the love story behind Canada’s most prestigious book award
Doris cut a swath through many levels of Montreal society, journalistic, Jewish, various fast sets. Outspoken, stylish and sexy, she swept into rooms, drink in hand, one-liner at the ready, and always left them laughing. She was like Auntie Mame, only Doris was better read.

Just as the couple got a handle on Toronto, life smacked them. In the early fall of 1992, Doris Giller was diagnosed with cancer. She made two decisions. One was to buy a mutt, part collie, part Lab, which she named Jessie. The other was to go into seclusion. The woman who had once been everybody’s very public Auntie Mame chose to close herself away with her dog and her husband, telling virtually no one about her illness apart from family, which meant principally Rabinovitch’s three adult daughters from his first marriage, Noni, Daphna and Elana, with whom she was very close. “Except for the girls and a couple of others,” says Slinger, “Jack carried the whole awful dying thing by himself.”

She lasted until the spring of 1993, and at the end he found his life, unfathomably, empty of the girl of his dreams.

“It was a shazam type of thing,” he says, “the idea of the Giller Prize. I kept thinking about a memorial to Doris, and one morning I woke up and it just came to me—shazam—it’ll be an award every year to the person who writes the best book of fiction in the country.”

He did his due diligence, which consisted of flying to Montreal on a Saturday morning in August, a few months after Doris’s death, and having a drink at Woody’s Bar on Bishop Street with his old comrade from the Main, Mordecai Richler.

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“What are you thinking of calling this prize?" Richler asked.

“The Giller, what else?" he answered.

“What about your name?"

“I’m not gonna put Rabinovitch on the goddamn thing, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“In retrospect,” he says now, “that was the crucial moment. If the prize was just going to be an ego thing for me, Mordecai probably wouldn’t have touched it and I might have gone home and done something else. But Mordecai came in, and that meant the Giller would get credibility right off the top.”

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Two Saturdays later, he met again with Richler, at Moishe’s steak house and deli on the Main, this time with a third man who happened by felicitous circumstance to be staying at Richler’s place that weekend. It was David Staines, the Ottawa professor who had reviewed books for Giller at the Gazette and had later remained her pal. Oddly, Rabinovitch and the professor had never met. “David was Doris’s little secret,” Rabinovitch says. “In Montreal, in Toronto, she’d say in a conspiratorial way, ‘I’m having lunch with my friend from Ottawa.’ She loved a bit of mystery.” Now Rabinovitch was calling on him, as a specialist in Canadian literature and close friend to many Canadian writers, to help create an award in his late lunch companion’s memory.

“We sat over our chopped liver in Moishe’s,” Staines remembers, “and we defined the prize in ways that have essentially stayed in place to this day.”

Rabinovitch expressed concerns to the other two that the same few writers might repeatedly win. “I didn’t want it like a Cy Young Award situation,” he says. “Roger Clemens getting it every year.” Richler and Staines assured him that no, no, Canada had too many superior novelists for such a thing to happen. And they had a couple of their own points to make. One had to do with money. Novelists, they said, like it when their books sell. “Selling I understand,” Rabinovitch replied. “That’s how we’ll work the Giller—to move books.”

“One other thing we especially agreed on,” Staines recalls, “was that the key to gaining acceptance for the Giller was getting a jury that was pretty much unassailable on the subject of Canadian fiction.”

Richler and Staines committed to serve on the first Giller jury, and Staines undertook to round up a third judge. He didn’t kid around. He went straight to Alice Munro, even though she is famously private and leery of semi-public chores that take her away from her home in Clinton, Ontario. “But David Staines can get me to do anything,” she says. “Thank God he doesn’t sell drugs.” Alice Munro was on board.

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Back in Toronto, Rabinovitch recruited the last member of the team, an administrator-publicist. He interviewed three or four candidates and chose Kelly Duffin. She had credentials: the Harbourfront Reading Series, Coles bookstores, Penguin-Books, and her own publicity firm. But for Rabinovitch this impressive resume wasn’t the clincher.

Jack Rabinovitch and Doris Giller: the love story behind Canada’s most prestigious book award
Doris Giller and Jack Rabinovitch, two years before Giller’s death.

Like Staines—what was this strange and lovely pattern?—Duffin worshipped Doris but had never met Jack. Never even knew that Doris had a husband. “Doris took me under her wing when I was starting out,” says Duffin. “At publishing events, she introduced me to people she thought I should meet, and she gave me advice on my career. Then she died, and a few months later, I got a message on my answering machine from a man named Rabinovitch. Once I learned what it was all about, who he was, once he heard from me about my connection to Doris, both of us wanted the total best for her.”

What Rabinovitch wanted first was a press conference, a gathering to reveal to the world the existence of a new Canadian literary prize. “I thought this would be in the normal publishing style,” says Duffin. “Invite 20 people, serve them coffee, add a danish if you’re feeling rich, announce the good news and send the people on their way. Jack talked about his ideas for the press conference, and it took me a while to get my mind around what he was saying. ‘Oh,’ I finally realized, ‘you don’t want the coffee and danish.’"

Rabinovitch wanted class. “Practically the first thing you learn in the land-development business,” he says, “is that the difference between a top-quality project and one that’s mediocre is 10 per cent. If you want a building you’re proud of, one with good soundproofing, healthy air circulation, all of that, you only have to spend 10 per cent more. On the Giller, I was going with the 10 per cent.”

So, on January 19, 1994, more than 100 guests—media, publishing people, a smattering of authors and booksellers—found themselves attending a noon-hour event that was, for this cynical bunch, refreshingly splashy. Buffet lunch in a ballroom at the Four Seasons. Joey Slinger doing his surrealistic comedy number as master of ceremonies. Stuart Laughton, founding member of the Canadian Brass, blowing a trumpet fanfare. Mordecai Richler stepping to the podium to praise the new literary award. And on departure each guest receiving the adult equivalent of a loot bag from a little kid’s birthday party—an elegant gold-plated letter opener with three words screened in gold on the maroon handle, THE GILLER PRIZE.

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“Everybody’s eyes were popping out,” Duffin remembers. “People weren’t used to things happening on that scale in the book world. Little did they know, it was only the beginning.”

Two months after the lunch, she flew to London for a chat with Martyn Goff, who has run the Booker Prize for most of its distinguished existence. Besides procedural tips, he offered a cautionary tale. It seems that the Booker was once in the habit of preparing printed material, which included the name of the winner, many days in advance of the presentation ceremony. A reporter, learning of this practice, nosed out the identity of the printer, made a midnight raid on the printer’s garbage and ferreted out the name of the winner. There went the drama.

Forewarned, Duffin and Rabinovitch installed a security operation worthy of Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day, The Giller jury, having arrived at a short list of five books three or four weeks before the presentation of the award, would not meet to pick the ultimate winner until the very afternoon of the presentation dinner. In the following few hours, they’d keep everybody in the dark, even Duffin, even, for that matter, Rabinovitch. Duffin would prepare five different press releases covering each of the possible winners. Rabinovitch would write five different cheques. “It makes me feel like I’m saving money,” he says, “when I get to rip up four of the cheques.”

Secrecy was taken care of, but the new prize ran into other snags. For one thing, the rules permitted each Canadian publisher to submit five novels, with allowance, in certain circumstance, for additional submissions. The result? Almost 100 novels to be read, a daunting prospect even if the judges were speed readers. In later years, the rules would be adjusted, limiting each publisher to three submissions, with conditions permitting the larger houses to submit all of their worthy candidates; the number of books the judges must tackle now runs more manageably between 60 and 70. Even more troublesome in the first Giller year, the rules mentioned only a final date for submissions, August 15, and 70 of the 100 novels arrived on exactly that day. Not only did the judges have to read quickly, they had to read 24 hours a day. The rules have since been amended to require that publishers deliver their novels at staggered intervals through the judging year.

In early October of 1994, after an exhausting two months, Richler, Staines and Munro produced a short list of five novels, and Rabinovitch and Duffin went into selling mode. They placed advertisements for the novels in four major newspapers in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. They arranged with 475 bookstores across the country to hang posters announcing the Giller finalists, to mount display cards and hand out promotional bookmarks. And they began compiling a guest list for the first Giller dinner. “We invited three categories of people,” Rabinovitch explains: “Friends of Doris’s, the media who can spread the word about the Giller finalists, and people who write and publish books.” Duffin chipped in with suggestions. “I told Jack that booksellers are so obviously important in promoting books,” she says, “but they never get invited to book parties.” For the Giller dinner, booksellers made the cut.

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On the evening of November 2, the black-tie guests arriving in the reception area of the Four Seasons Regency Ballroom perhaps suspected that this might be a dinner unlike any other: each invitation had been hand-delivered and accompanied by a fresh red rose. And if they still had any doubts—if they were still expecting just another arts fundraiser, amiable but earnest and amateurish—those doubts were soon dispelled. The difference was obvious from the first drink. No cash bar. No co-sponsorship by a bank or other alien entity. No wine courtesy of a Niagara vineyard. No need to wheedle waiters for an extra bottle at the table. Rabinovitch had asked the hotel to provide the best. It didn’t hurt that he had sent flowers to Jeannine Pharand, the hotel’s assistant director of catering.

“I won’t say my good reaction to Mr. Rabinovitch is just because he is, like me, from Quebec,” she says. “It’s because all of us here, we only have to look at the man and we love him, the sort of man Mr. Rabinovitch is, and we try our best for him.” After the dinner, the bar stayed open until the last publisher called it a night. Drinks on the house. No, not on the house. On Jack Rabinovitch.

And it had been an evening, in its ceremonial moments, that radiated dignity and a book person’s brand of polite ebullience. “From the time of the Moishe’s lunch,” says David Staines, “the intention was to honour all the finalists and not just the ultimate winner.” Rabinovitch commissioned the filmmaker Gordon Henderson to shoot a three-minute profile of each shortlisted author. The films were shown on a large screen at the dinner, after which the authors came forward in turn to receive leather-bound copies of their books, videotapes of the Henderson profiles and resounding ovations. As for the winner—the first year it was M.G. Vassanji for The Book of Secrets—in addition to the money, he got a handsome bronze sculpture by the artist known as Chaki and a publicity campaign (5,000 “Winner” book-jacket stickers and display cards were shipped to those 475 bookstores).

All in all, it was a remarkable party. “Nothing like the usual Toronto arts parties,” says Robert Lewis. “Not a lot of air kissing and people looking over your shoulder for somebody more interesting. It was more a Montreal type of party, looser, more spontaneous. Doris would have loved it.” Ah, yes, Doris Giller. “Doris,” says her close friend Beverley Slopen, “was so warm and generous and large and expansive that Jack wasn’t visible when she was around, and everybody unconsciously thought, well, socially, at the magnificent parties they gave, it was all Doris, and Jack just went along. But now, when you see the way he has organized Giller nights, you realize how much style he must always have possessed.”

Which, ironically, has created a small problem. “The numbers show what’s happened,” says Kelly Duffin. “The first year, the percentage of yeses to the RSVPS was between 50 and 60. In 1998, we got over 80 per cent yeses, and about 40 per cent more people phoned to ask why they hadn’t been invited. But with the rate of acceptances going up, we’ve been in the process of cutting the guest list.” Three hundred and fifty guests attended the 1994 dinner. Four years later, the number was up to 420, which is as many people as the Regency Ballroom can comfortably hold. And the situation is unlikely to change. “The Giller party is like a train in India,” says journalist and author Geraldine Sherman. “Everybody wants on, and nobody’s getting off.”

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The host himself, amused and puzzled at the fuss, puts it this way: “All I’m doing is celebrating Canadian fiction, and I invite a bunch of people I like over to the celebrations. My house is too small, so I have it at the hotel. That’s the way I expect it’ll stay even after I’m not around to enjoy it.”

A final comment on the Giller. According to Doug Gibson, the publisher at McClelland & Stewart, it sells books. And he should know: M&S has published the Giller-winning book in four of the first five years of the prize’s existence (the exception coming in 1997, when, to Rabinovitch’s immense pleasure—one kid from Baron Byng handing big bucks to another—Mordecai Richler won for Barney’s Version, which was published by Knopf Canada). Gibson won’t reveal sales numbers but says percentages tell the story.

“The first year we took a chance on the Giller effect,” he says. “We’d published The Book of Secrets in the spring of 1994, and its sales had just about run their course in the fall when the book made the Giller short list. We gambled and ordered a reprint, and when it won, sales shot up. The Book of Secrets sold three times what it would have without the Giller.”

The pattern was the same the next year with Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. This was, in Gibson’s phrase, “a slightly forbidding book at 700 pages,” but it was “headed for success before the Giller.” And after its Giller victory? “We sold double what we expected.” M&S’s 1996 winner, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, outsold all of her previous hardcover books. The 1998 winner was The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro, like Atwood a known quantity with a devoted readership. Still, says Gibson, "The Love of a Good Woman sold 70 per cent more than Alice’s previous collection, which we had published four years earlier, and that increase, we concluded, was largely thanks to the glorious Giller effect.”

If you walk down the front corridor of the Princess Margaret Hospital on University and hang a right toward the atrium, you’ll see a large oil painting of Jack Rabinovitch. It catches his warm and fuzzy side and honours his contribution to the hospital. In a sense, he built the place. From 1988 to 1995, he served as chairman of the building committee, working with the architect, Eb Zeidler, and the construction guys to erect almost a million square feet of what has become one of the three or four best cancer hospitals in North America. He is particularly proud of the fact that he brought the project in under budget—budgeted at $225 million, completed at $218 million—and on time.

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He gives the impression, no doubt accurate, that the way he has folded himself into Toronto, into good works, the arts scene, friendships, has come in ways that are seamless, natural but almost accidental. Stuff happens. Jack’s there. Everybody seems glad to see him. He was involved in Ours to Keep, a grassroots movement that whipped up petitions in support of the CBC in the mid-1990s. These days, he’s spending much of his time helping a Toronto-based documentary film company called Associated Producers—Hollywoodisms, about how the historical experiences of the Jewish studio moguls shaped Hollywood, was one of theirs—to go international. The people he hangs out with socially cross lines in politics, professions and most other categories. He goes to Blue Jays games with Bob Rae (NDP) and he plays singles at the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club with lawyer Julian Porter (Tory). “Jack is always surprising me,” says Porter. “He’s Montreal, the Main, a different point of view, and that’s why he’s great for people like me who’ve had the Toronto perspective all our lives.”

And what about female companionship? “I’ve made it a little goal in my life to line Jack up with great women,” says Joey Slinger. “But I haven’t had much success. The thing is he had Doris. Maybe most men in life are looking for a Doris, a woman as fabulous as Doris. Maybe some men are lucky and get half a Doris. Jack got the whole Doris, and that’s his standard. He got the woman he dreamed of. So now he thinks, well, that was my shot.”

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