Barbara Moon’s quest for perfection

Obsessive. Temperamental. Brilliant. Looking back on the life of the late Barbara Moon, a storied magazine editor, whose quest for perfection haunts writers still. This week we feature Seema Persaud‘s feature from the summer issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

In the summer of 1994, David Macfarlane was among eight journalists at the Banff Centre in Alberta for the prestigious, month-long literary arts journalism program. A freelancer since the late 1970s, and, he jokes, notorious for missing deadlines, Macfarlane had managed to get his draft in on time after warnings from Barbara Moon, his editor. To submit his story, he went right to Moon’s room. He knocked, waited, but no one answered, so he slipped the piece under her door.

Macfarlane remembers Banff that July as generally grey, but the day after he handed his manuscript in, the sun finally came out. He and some of the other writers decided to celebrate making their target by enjoying the nice weather on a rooftop patio. A tape deck played music, someone brought up a pitcher of vodka and orange juice, and they just relaxed.

Then Macfarlane realized someone new, and not very happy, had arrived—he could feel the chill. There, standing before him, was Moon, glaring. He had gotten the wrong room.

That tense moment passed quickly, but working with Moon was seldom without drama and, not infrequently, friction, a combination that often resulted in both author angst and award-winning writing. (The next year, Macfarlane would win a silver at the National Magazine Awards for his finished piece, “A Fan’s Notes,” a profile of jazz musician Bill Grove with a memoir component, which was published in Saturday Night.)

For decades a highly regarded writer herself, in an era when women were as rare in creative positions as sunny days were that Banff July, Moon’s later career was devoted to wresting excellence from authors at a number of magazines, but primarily at Saturday Night. As she told the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 2008, for her, the craft of editing was “rich and fulfilling and different every day and marvellous.” To her admirers, her skills were almost preternatural. After Moon’s death at 82 from viral encephalitis in April 2009, writer Eileen Whitfield wrote on the Toronto Freelance Editors and Writers listserv: “No one could give as fast and intelligent a ‘fix’ to a long piece as Barbara Moon.” Journalist Peter Worthington, in an article for the Toronto Sun, described Moon as a talented editor “who specializes in rescuing writers from themselves.” But others remember her as overbearing and “discouraging.”

In all, her fierce commitment to quality beyond everything and her love of working on long, meaty features for extended amounts of time would likely render her unemployable today. And with her death last year, the industry lost someone who symbolized a time when stories weren’t rushed to be posted online, edits weren’t made in “track changes” and it wasn’t uncommon for writers to spend months on a story.

* * *

Moon undeniably had a number of quirks. She distrusted technology and would seldom accept manuscripts sent by fax in the days before e-mail. Hand delivery was her preferred method of receiving copy, no matter if it was time-consuming. She decreed writers were entitled to “three exclamation marks a year.” If you turned a draft around quickly, odds were she wasn’t impressed. Speed was not her imperative; quality was. As she once advised a writer with whom she was working, “Let it ferment. What stays with you are the critical things.”

The critical things about Barbara Moon herself are these:

Born in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1926, to an engineer and a homemaker, Moon was the second daughter and last child. She attended the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, the High Anglican factory that manufactures leaders and thinkers, whose students still wear academic gowns to dinner; at the time, just over a fifth of all bachelor’s degrees in the country were awarded to women. Moon played on a basketball team, was an assistant editor on The Trinity University Review and won several prizes during her four years studying English. After graduating in 1948, she got a clerk-typist job at Maclean’s, where she became girl Friday to Pierre Berton, then an assistant editor. Moon saw the edits he made to copy, learning exactly what he looked for in a story. Soon, she was offering her critiques of stories to Berton and, in 1950, she became one of 10 assistant editors, and one of only a few women who did anything other than type and file at the iconic bimonthly.

The first article Moon produced for the magazine was in 1950, called “The Murdered Midas of Lake Shore,” about millionaire Sir Harry Oakes, a native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, who had been found murdered seven years earlier at his home in the Bahamas. Moon only used a single quote before the final paragraphs of the 3,700-word story. Instead, the piece offered meticulously phrased detail and engaging narrative: “He spent more than half his life in rawhide boots and lumberjack shirts, slept in caves and lean-tos and pup tents, trenched and single jacked and swung an axe, shared quarters with rattlesnakes and fought black flies. Before he died he bought his suits on Savile Row and his underwear from Sulka, had mansions in Kirkland Lake, Niagara Falls, Bar Harbor, London, Sussex, Palm Beach, as well as the estates in the Bahamas.” It read like a short story. She was 23 when she wrote it.

In 1953, Moon left Maclean’s and soon was editing at Mayfair, a high-end general-interest title. In an obituary for Maclean’s,Robert Fulford described meeting her there:“It was as if a bird of paradise had alighted among sparrows.” He also observed, “[She] looked like one of nature’s Parisians, a woman who made chic self-presentation seem easy and inevitable.”

Within a couple of years, Moon was back at Maclean’s as a staff writer, and stayed until 1964. Her forte was hard-hitting profiles—among them, actor William Shatner and drama critic Nathan Cohen—but it was a different kind of piece that won her the 1962 University of Western Ontario President’s Medal, for best magazine article of the year. “The Nuclear Death of a Nuclear Scientist” explored the accidental radiation poisoning of a young Winnipeg-born physicist and biochemist, reflecting her new-found interest in science writing. Over the next eight years, she wrote various features at The Globe and Mail; was part of a blue-ribbon team that produced a “storyline” for the Ontario pavilion at Expo 67; turned her flare for science journalism into scriptwriting for the nascent The Nature of Things and other documentary shows; and was commissioned to write The Canadian Shield. Published in 1970, the finished work was an unabashed paean to the rugged landscape and its place in our collective imagination: “Bedrock, tundra, taiga, boreal forest, deranged drainage, muskeg, mosquitoes, black flies: add to these a climate that at its worst is arctic and at its best offers only four frost-free months a year. Even as far south as Timmins the yearly average is a mere forty frost-free days. And that is the Shield.”

A quarter century after it first appeared, writer Greg Hollingshead wrote about Shield, saying, “This is not only personally charged nature writing of a good kind, but it gives you a sense of what is so difficult and so magnificent about this country.” The craft and passion that imbued the text also hinted at another facet of “nature’s Parisian”: she was an enthusiastic birdwatcher, a member of Friends of Point Pelee, an association dedicated to ecological preservation, and was so entranced with the Far North that on a trip there, she somewhat jokingly suggested to her husband, Wynne Thomas, that they move there.

It was in 1968, during one of her freelance periods, that Moon met Thomas, a Welsh-born journalist, who was editor of a trade magazine covering the advertising industry. He had noted her byline, and assigned her a story analyzing TV ads. It was, he recalls, “a crackerjack piece.” They had drinks. A few months later he proposed, and they were married in a small ceremony in St. Catharines. Very small. Moon’s long-time friend from the Globe, Sheila Kieran, wasn’t invited. Fulford, with whom she had become close, didn’t learn of the wedding until someone said in passing, “Well, Barbara and her husband….” As a later colleague would note, “She wasn’t a person you were casual with. You know, there are folks you can call up to chit-chat. Well, I never felt I could do that with her.”

Read the rest