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INDEPTH: DORIS GILLER
Doris Giller
By Jessica Wong, CBC News Online | October 30, 2003

Since its inception in the fall of 1994, the Giller Prize has become one of Canada's most prestigious literary awards. The literary community and booklovers across the country look forward to the sumptuous gala ceremony, where the authors of the year's best English-language novels or short story collections are celebrated. But outside of Toronto and Montreal, little is known about the remarkable woman for which this award is named.


Doris with an old friend in Montreal in 1967
Doris Giller was born in Montreal on January 22, 1931. She was raised on "the Main," the name given to St. Lawrence Boulevard, the street that bisects Montreal's old Jewish neighbourhood.

Her family was preparing Giller for a life as a secretary by sending her to Commercial High School, but she had greater aspirations.

She loved to read. "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," her husband Jack Rabinovitch told Toronto Life. "When she saw shit, she said shit."

Her habit grew to encompass a love of writing as well. So much so that the charismatic Giller was able to talk her way into a position as the editor of Parade, the employee magazine of Steinberg's, the Montreal-based food chain. There, she briefly crossed paths with Rabinovitch - also working for Steinberg's - who she knew from the Main.


Doris and friends wear Jacob Two-Two t-shirts to promote the movie in the late 1970s
After gaining experience at Parade, Giller moved on to become a stringer, and then a reporter and feature writer for the Montreal Star in 1963. There, she made quite an impression, both as a dedicated journalist and as the life of the party. "She was a reporter who didn't take herself seriously but took her reporting very seriously," recalled former Maclean's editor-in-chief Robert Lewis, who started out at the Star. Others remember the fabulous and sexy image Giller flaunted throughout Montreal society.

"It was at a very chic Montreal costume party," Toronto literary agent Beverley Slopen told Toronto Life of the first time she met Giller in the 1960s. "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."

With her career on the rise, Giller married Jack Rabinovitch in 1972. She had transferred from the "women's pages" to the entertainment section, of which she would eventually become the editor in 1979. In fact, Giller was the first female editor that the Montreal Star ever appointed.

When the Star folded, Giller jumped into work at The Gazette. She created that paper's first book review section. Over the course of four years at The Gazette, Giller received writing contributions from a number of major literary figures including Hugh MacLennan, Irving Layton and, another kid from the Main, Mordecai Richler. Giller was on top of the world, with a job that combined her love of books with her love of writing, as well as an adoring husband at home.


Doris at a Montreal Star party in the 1970s
In 1985, Rabinovitch's work-as an executive with the commercial property investment firm Trizec-required him to move to Toronto. Without question, Giller followed, but breaking into Toronto's media scene proved difficult. The ample time she spent as a newspaper editor in Montreal, never mind her reputation, didn't take Giller very far in Toronto. She did some freelance work for Maclean's, under her old friend Robert Lewis and, in 1988, landed a job at the Toronto Star as an assistant book editor. Even then, Giller faced many obstacles.

"A person had to be willing to get pushed around at the paper's lower levels of arts coverage," writer Joey Slinger told Toronto Life. "But Doris would fight. Doris loved to fight." It wasn't only work that proved difficult to master in Toronto: the fact that the atmosphere was much more sober than in Montreal made social functions challenging as well.


Doris and Jack on a trip to Acapulco in May 1977
"It took people here a space of time to realize that this woman, who looked so glamourous, whose vocabulary prominently featured the phrase 'fuck you,' was actually funnier than Don Rickles and, incidentally, gave beautiful parties," said Slinger.

Giller triumphed again with the creation of her weekly column "Reading Habits." Each column featured an interview with a prominent person about the book he or she was currently reading. While this is far from an original idea, Giller's experience and passion for books came through in her writing and set the column apart from the others.

Having conquered Toronto, Giller was dealt a serious blow when, in the fall of 1992, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. The famously vivacious social queen went into seclusion, keeping to herself and basically letting only her husband and her stepdaughters (from Rabinovitch's first marriage) in. The illness progressed quickly and, in April 1993, Doris Giller died.


Doris in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India during the 1980s
Throughout her life Giller touched many people, through her writing and through her acquaintances. "She was funny and wise at the same time," Sandra Barnes wrote in a magazine at Concordia University, where Barnes and Giller studied as mature students in 1974. Most often, however, people compare Giller to Auntie Mame, the flashy character from the 1958 film. "She was outrageous, flamboyant, caustic, very witty," recalled longtime friend Beverley Mitchell for Giller's Toronto Star obituary. "She didn't suffer fools gladly, but underneath she was a real softie."

Set in motion by Rabinovitch a few months after her death, the Giller Prize has become a distinguished national institution, on par with the Governor General's Literary Awards. And the annual awards gala has become one of Toronto's hottest tickets.

"My late wife was a fun person," Jack Rabinovitch told CBC News Online. "Mordecai and I come from a fun background and so it seemed like a natural thing to do."


Doris with Bob Rae during a party at Joey Slinger�s house in the late 1980s
"Nothing like the usual Toronto arts parties," Robert Lewis said of the first Giller award ceremony in 1994. "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."

The Giller Prize celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2003. The winner will be named at an awards ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 4 and viewers can watch live coverage on CBC-TV, Bravo and Book Television beginning at 9 p.m. EST.






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