Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Photo of Gordon Sinclair in the Far East (ca. 1930). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2098.
After a long and controversial career, Gordon Sinclair’s obituary called him “soft-hearted, irascible, generous, rude, impulsive, sensitive, boorish, colourful, egotistical, irritating, explosive, warm and irreverent all rolled into one.” The description was apt. With only a grade eight education, the Cabbagetown boy rose to be a highly respected journalist and is now remembered best as a panellist on the CBC’s long-running show, Front Page Challenge. But as his two autobiographies—Will the Real Gordon Sinclair Please Stand Up (1966) and Will Gordon Sinclair Please Sit Down (1975)—and Scott Young’s Gordon Sinclair: A Life…And Then Some (1987) recount, his most interesting exploits came as a footloose reporter travelling the world.
After joining The Star in 1922, Sinclair’s first few years were spent covering the mundane fires and robberies at the city desk and with a stint as the editor of the women’s page. His big break came in June, 1929, when he joined a group of hobos just released from police custody for vagrancy as they tramped towards New York City. Inserting himself into his reporting, Sinclair demonstrated a keen eye for colourful anecdotes and a tone that appealed to common folk. His hobo stories were a hit, and Sinclair became The Star‘s roving reporter. The newspaper soon assigned him to explore England, Cuba, and Europe with no particular mandate except to send back interesting and sensational stories. On one of his earliest escapades, he visited Germany and stumbled into an interview with Adolf Hitler who, in early 1930, was still a year away from assuming power. Not realizing the importance of the interview, Sinclair’s editors drastically cut the piece. But they learned their lesson, and eventually his articles were edited only for spelling.
As Sinclair’s popularity grew, his destinations became more exotic, and The Star actually polled its readers for ideas of where to send him next. At only five feet six and 160 pounds, Sinclair was an unlikely adventurer. But, in the “typical gear of the pukka sahib,” as he called it, he donned a pith helmet, sported jodhpurs, and sometimes even wore a revolver on his belt. He spurned the old method of travel-writing, which had depended on visits to the local library, discussions with local journalists, and interviews with local authorities for colour, which had long resulted in repetitive, old boring articles. Instead, Sinclair wandered, often without itinerary, to see what stories presented themselves.
Like the tales of imperial adventure carried in boys’ magazines, Sinclair’s stories transported readers to exotic worlds. He swam the Ganges; fought deadly snakes; narrowly escaped quicksand (but lost his camera); reported the aftermath of earthquakes, riots, and other tragedies; visited France’s infamous penal colony at Devil’s Island; encountered pirates, opium dealers, and slave traders; and interviewed Gandhi, Mao Tse-tung, and countless others.
For readers in Toronto and across the continent—his articles made a mint for The Star in syndication—Sinclair’s lively stories were a diversion from the joblessness and bread lines of the Great Depression. Upon his return from his first major expedition, which took him to India and Asia in 1932, he refined his adventures into book form. Footloose in India (1932) was an instant hit and the money earned bought Sinclair’s family a house. Even J.V. McAree, a respected columnist at rival newspaper the Mail and Empire, admitted that he was impressed. He wrote:
Gordon Sinclair is the kind of reporter we should like to be if we were a reporter. Shame compels the admission that when we were a reporter we were nothing like Mr. Sinclair. It is most unusual for a comparatively young man to be the kind of reporter he is, to have confidence in his own judgment, the instinct that the things which interest him are the things which will interest his readers; and, after all, not to care so much and find the chief satisfaction in painting the thing as he sees it…. It is a rare thing but it is the right thing, and he is blessed in not knowing any other.
Sinclair’s articles were sent back to Toronto by mail and were usually published about six weeks after he’d written them. An awkward situation was sometimes created if, having returned to the city before his dispatches had arrived, Sinclair was spotted on the street while still purported to be reporting from a jungle across the sea. Rumours that he’d invented his outlandish tales became so persistent that, on occasion, The Star produced witnesses to attest to their correspondent’s veracity.
Sinclair, however, did embellish his accounts. A shameless self-promoter rather than a deceptive charlatan, Sinclair understood—as any good storyteller does—that his audience was most interested in the essence of a story, not an abundance of intricate facts. The events did take place one way or another, but if there were a conflict between narrative and dull details, Sinclair’s allegiance lay with weaving a good yarn.
Photo of Gordon Sinclair in the Far East (ca. 1930). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2097.
He assumed an everyman persona in his stories and memoirs—just as we all become a semi-fictionalized character in the stories we tell of ourselves. Young’s biography debunked much of Sinclair’s modest, freewheeling (yet chaste) vagabond character, and filled in the details of the reporter’s personal life with the unappealing characteristics of extra-marital sex, depression, and alcoholism. But clear, unchangeable facts were difficult to apply to Sinclair. Even his employer encouraged embroidery for the sake of a good story. The Star fired him either seven, ten, or eleven times, depending on the source consulted. At one point, the newspaper claimed he’d travelled 160,000 miles and visited thirty-eight countries. Then, fourteen weeks later, the paper revised this to 340,000 miles travelled and seventy-three countries visited. Sinclair had remained in Toronto that whole time. Rumours of exaggerated claims never hurt his popularity with readers, however. Before each trip he received massive celebratory send-offs, and his articles from across the world were read rapturously.
The excessive travel and time away from home eventually took a toll on Sinclair. His burn-out became evident when, sent late to Ethiopia during the Abyssinia Crisis, he couldn’t match rival reporters who’d been on the scene longer. It was one of his rare failures as a reporter and resulted in one of his firings from The Star. He was soon rehired, however, and sent back on the road. Finally, after not having been accredited by The Star as a war correspondent for the Second World War, Sinclair spent more and more time as a radio commentator. He finally split from the newspaper in August, 1942, and embarked on a long career in radio and television until his death in 1984.
Additional volumes of his many adventures—Cannibal Quest (1933), Loose Among the Devils (1935), Khyber Caravan (1936), Bright Paths to Adventure (1945), and Signpost to Adventure (1947)—were best-sellers and well-received by critics. Yet nowadays they are all but forgotten. Long out-of-print, they’re even difficult to find. Perhaps it’s that, as products dating from the twilight of empire, the books inevitably contain unsavoury elements of Orientalism. Sinclair is now best remembered as the CBC’s cantankerous elder statesman. But, during his globe-trotting hey-day, his suspenseful tales of blood, death, and sexual intrigue provided Torontonians with an imaginative escape from the harsh realities of the Great Depression.
Photo of Gordon Sinclair of the Toronto Star in a fedora (ca. 1930). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2086. Photo of Gordon Sinclair of the Toronto Star in adventurer’s garb (ca. 1928). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2087.