It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Kathy Shaidle, a dear friend and our peerless movie essayist, who left us just before six o'clock this morning at Mississauga Hospital in Ontario.
In a too short life, Kathy wrote in almost every form: She is the only writer I know who was both a respected poet nominated for major prizes and the "Ed Anger" columnist of The Weekly World News. And, as most of you know, after 9/11 she became the leading Canadian polemicist in the great messy decentralized blogosphere we miss so much in the age of Social Media woketalitarianism.
There will be time to discuss all that in the days ahead. But on Saturday evenings, for the past several years, Kathy was here every week to talk about movies. A decade or so back, I had suggested to the fellows who run Maclean's that they snap her up to do a column on pop culture, because nobody wrote better on Joan Crawford, punk and a zillion other subjects. They were a little nervous of that, and somewhere along the way Maclean's ceased to be a thing, and so at some point I just thought, "Aw, nuts! We should snap her up ourselves."
What I particularly loved about Kathy's film essays was the occasional glimpses she gave us of her own life. One should not take it all as gospel: She had a carefully constructed persona as an agoraphobic misanthrope who never left the flat. Whereas, as Mark Steyn cruisers who had the good fortune to be at her dinner table will attest, in real life she was gregarious and occasionally (as I told her a couple of weeks back somewhat to her horror) verging on bubbly. I had the pleasure a few years ago of introducing her to half the Canadian cabinet over pizza at the Prime Minister's house. Reading about it afterwards, the highly-strung leftie bloggers were horrified at the thought of the hated Shaidle piercing the holy sanctum of 24 Sussex Drive like a one-woman trial run for the mob's storming of the US Capitol. But the various ministers of the Crown seemed to enjoy the opportunity to shoot the breeze with her - as we all did.
So here are a few vignettes, as revealed in her movie columns, of Kathy's life. She was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and, although she got out as fast as she could, she will, after many decades away, be going home:
Having declared all my adult life that I'd never be caught dead back in Hamilton, Ontario, long-time friends are either amused or confused by my decision to be buried in my hometown.
One month before I learned I had cancer, I was overcome with a weird urge to take care of unfinished business: My husband and I finally got our wills drawn up, for one thing. And way back in the previous century, my (now late) mother had purchased some burial plots in a Hamilton cemetery for $50. There was one left. I contacted this establishment and learned that not only could I still use it, but so could my husband — and my cat. What a deal!
We drove an hour down the highway to do the paperwork. The funeral director asked me why I'd moved away thirty-five years earlier, and I gave my standard answer:
Didn't he know that if you're born in Hamilton and regularly use words with more than two syllables, they walk you to the city limits on your nineteenth birthday and point you towards Toronto?
Kathy did not really get on with her family. She said to me the only relatives she had back there were step-cousins of half-nephews and the like, which I told her sounded very New Hampshire to me. Nonetheless some of her kin had left an impression:
My grandmother was a Bette Davis impersonator.
Not professionally, and barely amateurly, either: She only entered, and won, a single lookalike contest, well before my time. But previously, and forever after, she'd played up a natural resemblance — the eyes, of course, but also the less-remarked-upon snub-tipped nose — by styling her hair like Davis's too: perilously side-parted, raked stringently across, with an anti-climactic finale of stubborn, tiny curls. It helped that she was so short.
Hilariously — that is, if you watched FX's mini-series The Feud, or have even a passing familiarity with pop culture lore — she named my mother "Joan".
She claimed it was because she'd passed her one pregnancy — "I'm never doing that again!" —binge-watching (as we'd call it today) Crawford's films. Sure enough, my mother went on to sprout very bold eyebrows (which I inherited), and long, lovely legs (which I did not. I was stuck with grandma's, which were as undistinguished as her idol's...)
I, however, have reason to suspect malice.
Because my grandmother was not a pleasant woman. Cold, vain, cheap, fussy and tactless, far fonder of her friends — of which she had, to me, a shockingly high number; my mother regularly mused about selling tickets to her funeral — than her own family. To whom she could be, frankly, a bitch.
That's the rap on Bette Davis, too, of course.
And yet something of her grandmother's fascination with Miss Davis skipped the Joan Crawford generation and wound up passing down to Kathy:
I posted this on Facebook last year:
I get over a thousand TV channels if you count my Roku. I have a Criterion Channel subscription, a bunch of DVDs still in their shrink wrap, and a pile of 'to read' books.
So of course because it's on TCM (again), what I'm doing is watching All About Eve for probably the thirtieth time. #Loser.
My favorite reply was:
Kathy, I'd watch All About Eve if my house was on fire.
Like most of her generation, Kathy grew up watching a lot of telly, but didn't always identify as the other kids did:
Now, I realize this makes me a very strange person, but when I was growing up, while other kids were fantasizing about living in the Brady family house, I imagined it would be more congenial to reside in Stalag 13. (Maybe you had to live with my family to fully understand the appeal of this alternative...)
Kathy indulged our Christmas entertainments at SteynOnline but had her own view of the festive season:
Slowly driving through slippery black slush to some relative's house where the same old Johnny Mathis holiday special plays on a loop, only partially drowning out all-too-familiar semi-drunken feuds over "the right" cookie recipes and stuffing ingredients. All the forced march gaiety: The insistence on singing carols even though no one knows more than one verse, then playing Trivial Pursuit. Every year, I won ("How can you NOT know the names of The Beatles? Again?!") so the rest of them pouted for the remainder of the evening, whispering that I was "weird" — especially after I pointed out that their quaint "Victorian Christmas" figurines had likely been, in real life, spreading strangely-named diseases to vitamin-deficient child prostitutes.
As for the schoolroom:
I loved the idea of school, but the real thing was marred by the presence of way too many other children, most of whom were loud, restless, unimaginative, rude, and uninterested in or incapable of learning.
So instead she became a Rocky Horror Show groupie:
In high school in the early 1980s, I spent many Saturday nights acting up at midnight Rocky Horror screenings, too.
Schoolmates with stricter parents came to my apartment (under the pretext of a sleepover) to put on weird outfits and thick makeup. My mom filled twist-tie baggies with rice and toast (to throw at the screen on cue) while expressing embarrassingly unconcealed delight that her shy, strange daughter had actual friends.
(That I lived a block away from the city's only rep theater didn't hurt: we could walk there without enduring the abuse hurled at "weirdos" in our bluecollar town.)
My friends and I loved the singalong songs, the quirky costumes, and the safely subversive fun of staying up late, and yelling and making a mess in a movie theater.
Not a few "queer" folks credit The Rocky Horror Picture Show with awakening, or legitimizing, their sexuality when they were still closeted adolescents. Being straight (and back then, as virginal and clueless as most of my friends), I don't recall anything of the sort. The movie seemed only slightly raunchier than Monty Python's Flying Circus or the Carry On... movies that aired steadily on TV at home.
In defiance of the bumper sticker, Kathy's Canada did not include Quebec:
I was in elementary school when the edict came down:
Everyone Must Learn French NOW Or Canada Will Fall Apart!
From what I could make out, if the Rest of Canada didn't become bilingual immediately, the province of Quebec would keep kidnapping people and blowing up mailboxes. Or, apparently worse, "separate."
Even back then, I resented being ordered around by the government.
So I refused to learn French, which was obviously a stupid language anyway since (judging from the fine print on my cereal boxes) it took twice as many words to say the same stuff. Same with the other new thing: metric, which is (not coincidentally I'm sure) also French. I only passed years of mandatory French classes by a nose, and to this day refuse to use Celsius and kilometers.
I'm with her on the metric rubbish, but am partial to Quebec, which she was kind enough to overlook. Kathy was also far rockier than yours truly. She found her favorite band young, and stuck with them:
For about thirty-six hours there, my heart was hooked up to Twitter by a Pavlovian on/off switch. I'd see "The WHO" (click!) then realize, sadly, that whoever it was just meant the World Health Organization (cluck) and not the band. So annoying.
Being a writer means I'm normally the annoyer rather than the annoyed, although predicting precisely what will provoke readers defies algorithmic domestication. Having written hundreds of thousands of words insulting every race and religion, my most "controversial" piece, judging by the resulting "Great Wave Off Kanagawa" blowback, was called "The Who Is Better Than That Stupid Band You Like."
Having escaped Hamilton for Toronto, Kathy fell in with hipsters:
Half a lifetime ago, I was invited to hang out at a hip new Greek bar & restaurant on Toronto's Danforth Avenue.
The place was packed, high ceilinged and gleaming, buzzing with a youthful vibe.
The dozens of big (for those days) TV screens wall-mounted at almost every sight line was a novel touch at the time. Their sound was turned down, though, lest it distract from the booming Top 40 hits flooding the joint. It was obvious that they'd been installed as mere eye candy, to show music videos or whatever on a loop.
My friends and I had to yell at each other just to be heard, right up until we didn't. The noise in the restaurant — conversations, music, even behind-the-bar clattering — had petered out.
Because one twenty-something patron had nudged another, and so on, until everyone was silently staring up at those TV screens, which were all showing the same scene from the same old movie...
The trouble with falling in with hipsters is that they're all, whether passionately or more carelessly, of the left. And so Kathy was a leftie:
Like most Canadians, I was steeped in reflexive anti-Americanism. Only after 9/11 did I go out of my way to learn that many of the horrible things I'd been told all my life about the United States of America (from liberal US sources, not just the CBC) simply weren't true.
I don't think Kathy ever quite got over the horror of that day:
In the days immediately following September 11, as the story of Flight 93 fitfully emerged, I couldn't help thinking — being me and all — "Wow, what a great movie that will make some day."
When that movie did come out in 2006, I bought the DVD out of duty, but it's still wrapped in cellophane. That same year, I tried watching A&E's dramatization of the mutiny on that doomed aircraft, but began hyperventilating a few minutes in and had to bail.
And now, almost twenty years after that awful day, images of 9/11 still anger and depress me, making each anniversary a challenge to get through.
Kathy had a fierce moral clarity. She won awards called "Best Catholic Humorist" and the like, and the Catholic press liked publishing her, at least until she launched her post-9/11 blog. She always gave the impression to a lazy fellow such as myself that she got up in the morning, had a coffee, started writing, and kept writing. So I was pleased to learn that she appreciated the value of down-time sufficiently to fly to Paris to watch Psycho dubbed into French:
I don't know how many times I've watched Psycho (1960). As a teenager, I even watched it with subtitles, twice: On my Canadian province's mandatory French channel, and then, in a Paris (yes) hotel room. It's the only thing I remember about that entire trip. (I am a very strange person.)
I never found Psycho scary. I feel the same way about The Exorcist (which is basically just The Searchers with vomit) or most of the usual All Time Most Frightening Films.
The closest I get to "scared", every time, is watching Marion's car sink into the swamp, with that stolen $39,300 inside. (I love money.)
Instead, I find Psycho comforting. Its Shaker-plain black and white, and meticulous, even iconic, compositions, contribute to the pleasing sensation that the movie is a miniature, hermetically sealed world. (I collect snow globes.)
Her hermetically sealed world was not without a certain style, though. I like the arcane punning route she takes to get to the subject of her wedding dress:
Despite being a Watergate baby with writerly ambitions and the talent to match, the only Pulitzers I've ever striven to collect are Lilly's shifts. (I was married in one). But don't think the obsession with winning that prestigious award, at whatever cost, was, like so many Very Bad Things, sired in the godawful 1970s (a decade that was essentially still the also-toxic 1960s, except with a rotten hangover and a lost wallet).
Was she wearing Lilly's shift when she dreamed she was married to Dick Cheney?
I used to host Right Wing Movie Nights in my condo's party room. I'd rent a rear projector, and invite over other local conservative bloggers.
Wild in the Streets is one of those so-bad-it's-okay movies that, as the cliché has it, would probably be best enjoyed on acid — or in the case of those reading this, maybe after a couple of drinks. At Right Wing Movie Night, I saw it sober, but I did eat some cranberry blue cheese I blame for making me dream I was married to Dick Cheney.
Yeah, that's how long ago it was. A lot of my guests later turned out to be timid careerist hacks, for whom "conservatism" meant being a low-tax liberal.
There's a lot of that about.
Kathy had a somewhat dark wit. Here, for example, she realizes she's living in a Turner Classic Movie she wasn't even aware of:
Today, as it has for over ten years, my 95-year-old mother-in-law's squeaky recliner sits in the living room of our not-very-big condo.
One evening years back, I noticed that she was up much later than usual. I didn't recognize the black and white movie she was raptly watching on TV, so I used the remote to get the title from the onscreen TCM listing.
As a lifelong film buff, I can name plenty of rare movies I know about but have never seen. But the title Make Way for Tomorrow, I'm embarrassed to say, didn't ring a bell.
As I researched the movie on the web, my blood ran cold. It was one of those "The killer's calls are coming from inside the house!!" moments.
Because Make Way for Tomorrow was all about my – our – living arrangement.
My discovery of Make Way for Tomorrow didn't make me a more patient and understanding daughter-in-law.
All it changed in our house is:
We bought me my own TV.
If you were very attentive to Kathy's film columns, you would have read between the lines that something was afoot:
Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) chronicles the titular heroine's two hour, pseudo-"real time" wait for the results of a cancer biopsy... Anyone who's spent time in the land of the sick quickly becomes all too familiar with waiting: To be seen by a doctor in the emergency room; for test results; for a drug to start working (or not); and, once convalescence begins, the humiliating wait between what have become the "highlights" of one's day: the next meal, the next bowel movement, the next episode of that old sitcom at three in the afternoon. Waiting is a nagging, suffocating side effect for which there is no treatment.
By the time she wrote those words, Kathy could already testify to the truth of them:
Re-watching Terms of Endearment (1983) while having cancer may have been one of the dumber things I've done recently. (Or not. I can't decide.)
(One of the smartest, on the other hand, was resuming too-long-deferred funeral planning just in case, and getting my marble tombstone engraved GET OFF MY LAWN.)
As I came to understand when I saw her not long before Christmas, Kathy had planned how she would take her leave of us. Her penultimate essay took us back to Bette:
[Davis's character is] a poised, confident woman who finds purpose in life without a man — not even Jerry, although "he may come here" to visit "whenever he likes".
Jerry asks if this arrangement will make her happy, prompting the film's famous last line:
Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars.
Now as much as I adore this movie, that line smacks of a writer dying to get a long job over with and pour himself a well-earned drink or three. You're too busy crying to notice that it makes little sense — "What am I, chopped liver?" the moon might exclaim.
I had a sort of uneasy feeling that "famous last line" might also be her own, but she rallied for one final column:
The first shot in Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952) is a blurry x-ray.
A narrator steps up:
This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story. At this point, our protagonist has no idea he has this cancer.
When I saw Kathy, she told me she'd settled on that as her farewell essay, and it was a brilliant one. We send our condolences to her husband Arnie, even as we feel that slightly selfish and resentful feeling that we'll never again read the latest blistering Shaidle polemic or a tart and unforgettably rude one-liner, or (under her other hat) a new insightful look at a movie classic or a wry appreciation of a Hamilton children's show.
Kathy was serious about her faith: we talked about it at some length before Christmas, just after she had received the sacraments. I am honored to have published her at SteynOnline, and only wished we could have done so for many decades to come. Rest in peace, Kathy.