Irreverent and daring, with a restless intellect and an unerring instinct for what a story needed to make it compelling, Ken Lefolii woke up postwar Canadian journalism and public-affairs television from its polite mediocrity.
As editor-in-chief of Maclean’s in the early 1960s, he produced a lively magazine with provocative articles by Peter Gzowski, Pierre Berton, Robert Fulford, Jack Batten among others. He was “sympathetic and yet demanding, funny and also in his way, stern,” Mr. Fulford wrote in his memoir Best Seat in the House. He could be hard on his staff because he had high expectations but he created a stimulating work atmosphere where they could thrive. With his encouragement, many young journalists working under him later became pillars of Canadian media.
Since the magazine sometimes exposed dishonesty in public life, it attracted libel suits, though these were usually unsuccessful. Mr. Lefolii was not bothered since he believed that a publication that never made anyone angry was not doing its job.
One famous dust-up occurred when Mr. Gzowski, in an article about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ money-making activities, questioned the veracity of an advertisement in another publication, which claimed that all 16 players on the team had shaved with the same Schick razor blade. Mr. Gzowski verified that the players were simply paid $50 each to allow their photos to be used and never took part in any shaving trials. Schick’s ad agency was furious and so were Maclean Hunter’s ad salespeople who were trying to woo Schick as a client.
The episode, described in Mr. Gzowski’s book The Private Voice, was dubbed as the time “when the Schick hit the fan.”
A more serious development in the late summer of 1964 was to follow, after the head of Maclean Hunter had put Maclean’s magazine under the control of Ron McEachern, a vice-president of the company. Mr. McEachern did not like a well-researched article by Harry Bruce about the Toronto newspaper strike and sent word to the printer to kill it as the magazine was going to press, without telling Mr. Lefolii.
With his editorial independence gone, Mr. Lefolii handed in his resignation. Five others – almost the whole staff of the magazine – left with him.
Mr. Lefolii died Aug. 13 in Toronto from complications due to surgery, aged 93, after a life that became a legend.
In 1964, Mr. Lefolii was a producer on the team that created CBC television’s explosive public affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days, inspired by the BBC program That Was the Week That Was. It became the must-see show on Sunday nights across Canada due to the grilling that politicians received from the show’s fearless hosts, Patrick Watson and Laurier LaPierre. The show featured satirical songs about the week’s news performed by Dinah Christie, and went live-to-air with a studio audience. No one had seen a news show like it.
This Hour Has Seven Days lasted two years before the CBC killed it despite its popularity. “Three million people tuned in out of a population then of 20 million,” recalled John Macfarlane, a publishing veteran who as a young editorial writer at The Globe and Mail was permitted to watch the Saturday rehearsals.
“Ken’s contribution was not recognized because he was not on the air but when I was hanging out in that studio, I got the impression that he was the general.”
After the demise of Seven Days, Mr. Lefolii left the CBC for CTV, becoming a self-assigning roaming correspondent for W5 accompanied by his cameraman Kurt Palka. “We travelled through Africa, South America and went four five times to Vietnam, where the war was still on,” Mr. Palka recalled. “Ken did interviews with Indira Gandhi, with Idi Amin – the most amazing people.”
Hugh Kenneth Lefolii (he rarely used his full name) was born June 3, 1929, in Vancouver, the elder of two sons of Hugh Lefolii, a woodworker and furniture maker, and Alfrida (née Larsen) Lefolii, a school teacher. His mother was Norwegian and father of Danish origin. As a small boy he spent several years living in Denmark with his grandmother and grandfather, a trader who ran a seasonal store for half the year in Iceland, then a Danish dependency.
His formal education ended with Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver but he was a constant reader, knowledgeable about everything from gold mining and horse racing to Canadian art. At 21, he and a friend took a tramp steamer that got them to Hong Kong and the coast of China, Singapore and Australia. Some of his adventures there made it into his 1987 book Claims.
Back in Canada, he made his way to Toronto where he worked at first for MacLaren Advertising, then a public relations firm, before landing a job at Liberty. It was a low-brow, mass-market magazine that had achieved the largest circulation in the country though few would admit to buying it.
Next, he was hired by Maclean’s where he was mentored by the legendary Ralph Allen.
Mr. Lefolii got his turn in the editor’s chair in 1962, but he did not fit well into the formal corporate culture of Maclean Hunter of the day; he did not own a blue suit much less the requisite Homburg hat.
His staff, however, loved him. “He was a truly great editor” recalled Jack Batten, whom Mr. Lefolii turned from a lawyer into a writer. “He could take a 5,000-word feature piece and instantly spot the places where it needed to be tightened. He had an editor’s instinct for the strengths and the soft spots. And he was a master of the display copy. That is, he could write titles and photo captions in a flash. He was the best at every job in the magazine editorial world.”
In 1951 he married a Dutch woman, Aletta van Geel, whom he had met through friends in Toronto. Aletta became a Montessori teacher after raising their three daughters while her husband worked. For a time they lived in Montreal, when Mr. Lefolii was setting up a French-language version of Maclean’s.
But the marriage did not last. In the early seventies, Mr. Lefolii had a tragic love affair with a young CBC radio producer, Shelagh White, who died unexpectedly, and in 1976 he and Aletta amicably divorced.
In the 1990s he married Megan Gillies, a lawyer.
Among Mr. Lefolii’s many talents was an aptitude for business. After the cancellation of Seven Days, he met the visionary Geoffrey Conway, a young Harvard-trained entrepreneur who had been a special assistant to the nationalist finance minister Walter Gordon. In 1968 Mr. Conway founded CUC Broadcasting, a privately owned cable company, when specialty channels were just becoming technologically feasible. Investors in CUC along with Mr. Conway, the chairman, were the venture capitalist Michael Koerner; Jerry Grafstein who later became a senator; and Mr. Lefolii whose writing and research abilities proved useful in the preparation of CUC‘s licence applications.
CUC’s Trillium cable division served the smaller markets outside Toronto including Scarborough, Windsor, Barrie, Pickering, Chatham and Pickering.
After the founder died of a respiratory ailment in 1988 at the age of 54, the company faced takeover attempts; in the mid-1990s CUC was bought by Shaw Cable for a reported $645-million. Mr. Lefolii, who owned a five-percent stake, became a multimillionaire and did not have to work again.
He and Megan travelled widely, spending long periods in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, England, Florida and at the modernist house they built on the B.C. coast near Desolation Sound. They supported the Abelard School in Toronto and other educational causes.
Mr. Lefolii is survived by his wife, Megan Lefolii; daughters Kim, Simone and Michelle; grandsons Anthony and Justin; and his former wife, Aletta Lefolii.