At seven minutes after 11 o’clock in the evening, on September 8, 1954, 16-year-old Marilyn Bell waded into the choppy water of Lake Ontario at Youngstown, New York. In drizzling rain, the 119-pound high-school girl started swimming. Soon, nausea swept over her as the rolling swells of the lake crashed above her head. Eels attached themselves to her legs, her arms, her neck. Had she given up there’d have been no shame; she wasn’t expected to finish anyway. Professional marathoner Florence Chadwick was the real draw for the swimming spectacle that would end in front of thousands of cheering people at a concrete breakwater in Toronto harbour.

Instead of holding its annual multi-competitor race in the lake, the Canadian National Exhibition had decided that year to sponsor Chadwick alone in the first-ever attempt to cross Lake Ontario, all 51.5 kilometres of it. But Marilyn wanted to swim, too. She implored her coach, the celebrated Gus Ryder, to let her try. He agreed and asked The Telegram to sponsor her. But the Tely’s publisher, John Bassett, would have nothing to do with encouraging a teenaged girl to attempt such a feat, so Ryder went to The Toronto Star, which ponyed up the $5,000 in return for exclusive rights to the story if Marilyn made it.

The Star appeared to have the Tely scooped before the swimmers even entered the water. It had more reporters and photographers, more money and more boats, taxis and airplanes. Its contract with Marilyn allowed the Star to have a reporter in the boat accompanying her and, of course, she couldn’t talk to any other paper. The Star, in short, seemed to have it all. But the Tely had Dorothy Howarth, the best sob sister in the business.

At midnight, Marilyn passed Chadwick. At dawn, Chadwick was pulled from the water, too sick to go on. Toronto heard the news, and more than 150,000 people – the largest crowd in the history of an outdoor swimming event – lined the harbour. They waited in tense hope as Marilyn, by now beyond exhaustion, struggled through the waves. This was a huge story, and the Tely’s hard-edged managing editor, J.D. MacFarlane, had to figure out a way to get his paper into the action. He emptied the newsroom. As MacFarlane’s troops fanned out along the lakeshore, photographer Ted Dinsmore headed for the breakwater and waited. By now, Marilyn had stopped swimming. Her arms and legs hung limp in the water. Ryder and the others in the boat used corn syrup and constant encouragement to rally her and she began to flutter toward the shore again.

After 20 hours and 59 minutes in the water, Marilyn touched the breakwater, looked up and Dinsmore got his shot. Seeing Tely guys all over the place, the Star contingent pulled Marilyn into its boat and took her to an ambulance it had waiting. As her stretcher was loaded in, Dorothy Howarth calmly climbed in beside her.

Last October, on a warmer day than that memorable one, Dorothy Howarth (now Richardson) sits on the comfortably worn couch in the den of her four-storey home in midtown Toronto. At 88, she still has the warmth and quick wit that characterized her reporting days. “Nobody told me to do anything except get a story,” she says with a chuckle. “That’s what we were all scrambling to do.” She smiles as she recalls what she was wearing that day: a navy blue skirt suit, white blouse, black shoes and pill-box hat. Was it intentional or accidental that she dressed that way and that she was taken for a nurse? She won’t say. She just smiles and goes on with her story.

People parted to let her into the ambulance. One Star reporter even gave her a hand. She was so focused on Marilyn that she doesn’t remember who finally recognized her. “They grabbed me and pulled me out,” she recalls. Then the Star whisked Marilyn away to the Royal York Hotel to get its exclusive story. “So I headed for the coast-guard station, and again, they thought I was a nurse. I knew her two doctors were there – one who’d been with her in the Star boat and one who’d been with her when she came out. They told the lifeguard all about it, and I got the whole story: what she said, how she swam. I went back to the office and told MacFarlane, ‘I’m not quoting her because I didn’t talk to her.’ And he just said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll figure out something.'”

What they figured out was to have Howarth write one of the most ethically questionable but most read stories of the ’50s. While a Tely reporter went to Marilyn’s school and got a copy of her signature in the yearbook, Howarth wrote a first-person narrative of the ordeal as though she were Marilyn. The Tely ran it the next day on the front page under the banner headline “I felt I was swimming forever” and Marilyn’s purloined signature. “We had fun,” says Howarth with a chuckle. “Oh we had fun.”

“Those were great exciting days,” MacFarlane has said. “In my lifetime [1916 to 1995], there was never a period to match those whoop-de-do years. We didn’t hurt anybody. We may have embellished. We may have stretched. But there was always a hard kernel of truth there.” From the bullet-spattered saga of the Boyd Gang to the imported sleuthing of Fabian of Scotland Yard to the havoc of Hurricane Hazel and the heroism of the Springfield miners, the kernel was often stranger than fiction. What veteran reporter Val Sears has called the razzmatazz days – the Great Newspaper War between the Star and the Tely – made the present battle between the Globe and the Post look like kid stuff.

It was also an era when most women worked in the women’s department, covering social functions, fashion and family life. Howarth and her two legendary colleagues – Phyllis Griffiths and Helen Allen – worked in the newsroom covering breaking stories, though often from a soft or feature angle. Howarth charted the emotional lives of people in the public eye – the heroes, the villains and the victims and the families they left behind. She was fearless but she wasn’t cynical. She was, in fact, the epitome of Sears’s description of Star and Tely women of the time?”wily proto-feminists who could steal a picture, vamp a cop, slug a rival or stitch a wound.” She always knew what she wanted from newspapering, and for the most part she got it. But when the whoop-de-do ended, when the razzmatazz was over, she didn’t try to adjust. She left.

Howarth was born in 1912, and grew up in Weyburn, Sask., a small town outside Regina. Her mother died giving birth to her only sister, Bertha, a year later, and while Howarth’s father raised Dorothy, an aunt raised Bertha in Vancouver. The two never even met until 1949 when Howarth won a Women’s Press Club award and went back west to accept it.

Being recognized for her work was strange to Howarth, who began her working life as a schoolteacher in a one-room school in the prairies. There, during the Depression, she taught children of all ages for two years with little pay. She had to walk through the fields early in the morning and arrive before the students so she could light the fire to heat the room. Looking for better things, Howarth went to the Regina Leader-Post and eventually worked her way to reporting in the women’s department.

“When the war came,” she recalls, “things perked up. It was easier to get jobs, and I decided I wanted to go east.” She boarded a train for Montreal with $400 she had saved, to get a real journalism job. At a stopover in Toronto, she took a look at “the Toronto which everybody out west hates” and decided to stay. After being turned down by The Globe and Mail, the Star, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, Howarth landed in the editorial department of The Telegram. She made $25 a week and boarded at the YWCA. Soon, she was covering the university beat. “There were very few women, but they took me on. So then I started doing some real reporting.” Her luck was that J.D. MacFarlane, never made any distinction between males and females. “It didn’t matter to him,” she says. “He’d send me on any story.” That included follow-ups to his crazy ideas – the craziest of which might have been his hunch that the atom bomb was just a myth. In her subsequent piece, Howarth concluded “that there could be no such thing as an atom bomb. Less than a week later one fell on Hiroshima. The editor came storming out of his office, shook his finger under my nose and said, ‘I ought to drop an atom bomb on you.'”

MacFarlane never called her Dorothy. He’d growl “Howarth, come-eere,” when he wanted her attention. Howarth, too, had her tough side – without it she couldn’t have done the stories she did – but it never got in the way of her dealings with people. She was popular around the newsroom, and though she was a senior reporter, she always had time for newcomers, particularly Marilyn Dunlop, with whom she’s still good friends.

When Dunlop, who would go on to become a top medical reporter, arrived at The Telegram in 1949, she was only 21 and fresh out of journalism school at the University of Western Ontario. Howarth was a star whose series on Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation had just won the first-ever National Newspaper Award for feature writing.

Howarth had been a little daunted by the assignment. She’d never been a political reporter and she wasn’t at all sure that she deserved to cover one of the biggest political stories of the time. MacFarlane, though, was sure she could do it. And she justified his faith by forgetting about politics and writing about people.

When she got to Saint John’s, she was overcome by the sadness that enveloped the city and spread out over the new province. People wore black arm bands, flew black flags and wept openly in the streets. “It’s like a country dying,” Howarth quoted a librarian as saying. “It doesn’t matter how you voted, confederate or responsible government, today still means that we’re no longer a separate country. We’re only part of a larger one now.” While the Star stayed in Saint John’s, Howarth headed for the outports, the tiny fiercely independent island communities where the fishermen built their own houses and boats and had little need for the outside world. But, Howarth wrote, that world was about to come crashing down on them. Though they didn’t understand it yet, they would be the real casualties of Confederation.

Later, Howarth travelled the globe for stories. Sometimes she even flew without a destination, such as her ride in the DeHaviland jet airliner, Comet. She wasn’t keen on the assignment at first. She didn’t, as she later wrote, know much about pilots, navigators and “knobtwiddlers kibitzing in the engine room, or whatever they call it on a plane. I’m just plain lily-livered, and as one who gets seasick at the dizzying speed of a Bloor streetcar, the idea of a ride in a jet didn’t seem like any picnic.” But in the end, despite her trepidation – “good gravy, they don’t even use real engines” – she was sold on jets. “I was all set to eat my cereal to get the box tops for my space helmet.”

However she travelled she was a model of deportment. In a 1957 profile for Gossip, a magazine of the day, Kay Alderson described her as “a human satellite who hurls herself around the world…Hewing to this rugged existence should require hockey legs and a tom crop; instead she is elfin slim with a butter-coloured mop and a resolute chin.”

She was, above all, determined, and that served her well when the real razzmatazz arrived. Where the Tely clashed with the Star, there was Howarth. She wasn’t a digger, but she was intuitive and observant. The Sponge, as MacFarlane called her, soaked up all the details and all the quotes long before tape recorders were in widespread use on newspapers. She, like all her colleagues on the Tely, was no-holds-barred competitive, especially when it came to the Star. When she got to the scene of a story, she’d find the nearest phone and hold onto it while her photographer got his shots. Then they’d swap places while she did her reporting. That way, the Star couldn’t call in the story.

Yet Howarth could be as soft-hearted as she was tough. Helen Allen (now Stacey), who was a fixture at The Telegram for 42 years, remembers her friend Dorothy coming into the office one day wearing a new pink cashmere cardigan she’d saved up for months to buy. It happened to be the day of the Burlington floods and Howarth was immediately sent out. At the scene, she met a woman whose home and belongings had been swept away by the rushing water. Howarth took off the cardigan and gave it to her.

Other times, she gave of herself. For Howarth’s Tely, the Boyd Gang was the stuff of juicy headlines. Edwin Alonzo Boyd and his gun-toting henchmen were forever knocking over banks, getting caught, being thrown in the slammer and breaking out of it. By the time the cops had rounded up the gang for good, Howarth had found Boyd’s wife, Doreen, and had her hidden away in the King Edward Hotel. Meanwhile, Star reporters were scouring the city for her. They knew Howarth had her but they didn’t know where. For three days, the reporter and the distraught wife stayed in the hotel room, ordering from room service, watching TV and just talking. Though Howarth says modestly that it was just part of the job, the truth is she could have left the hotel after the first night, when the Star gave up. “I felt sorry for the woman and her children,” she says. The assignment was a typical Howarth sob story, a role she was well aware of. “Oh I knew that,” she says. “I got all the tearjerkers.”

Even when she wasn’t assigned the big stories, Howarth usually got her nose into them anyway. After a robbery in which the victim was bound and gagged but managed to dial the operator with his nose, she stayed in the newsroom while others covered the story and reported on her own and her colleagues’ attempts to accomplish the trick. “Almost anybody can duplicate the performance,” she wrote. “And it’s not the people with the protuberant probosces that do the best job. The long point beak dials zero the first time…Bergerac schnozzles have trouble fitting into the hole in the dial.”

Howarth had a light touch, but she didn’t take her work lightly. Though often delivered in a wry tone, her opinions were carefully considered. For women who wanted a career in newspapers, she recommended that they learn: “How to cancel gracefully, a dinner and dance date, made a month previously, because you’ve been assigned, just an hour ago, to cover the Altar Guild’s annual St. Swithin’s Day bazaar:…And how to remember, at all times, that no matter how small, how hackneyed, how old, how oft-repeated a story seems to you, it is still new and shining and important to the person telling it.”

Marilyn Dunlop learned this and a lot more from Howarth. Howarth was always asking stupid questions and Dunlop couldn’t figure out why. “I thought you only asked what you don’t know,” recalls Dunlop, “but she would ask anything.” When Dunlop asked why, Howarth explained that it was to capture a subject’s personality – to get their own words. She had no qualms about making herself sound dumb. As a result, she made the people in her stories come alive.

By the late ’50s, Toronto newspapering was beginning to change. As Val Sears has written, readers were becoming more sophisticated and less tolerant of papers that sacrificed credibility to flamboyance. Looking for a change, Howarth joined The Vancouver Sun, where her arrival was a big event. Jeremy Brown, who went on to become a prominent writer and broadcaster in Toronto, was a cub reporter on the Sun at the time. He remembers the buzz of her arrival as “a class act from the East.” But there was resentment among the editors over her star status. They didn’t let her do her kind of stories and they rewrote her mercilessly. Two years later, she returned to The Telegram, but she still wasn’t happy.

“I wasn’t as curious,” she says. “I wasn’t interested anymore. It had become a whole different ball game because of TV. There was no way you could beat the camera, so newspapers just gave the facts. Reporting just wasn’t as much fun.” To Howarth, it has become more and more deadly as time has passed. When she visited the newsroom of The Toronto Sun (which rose from the ashes of The Telegram) a few years ago, she was astonished at the atmosphere.

“There wasn’t a sound there,” she marvelled. “Nobody talking, just silence. On the old Telegram, everybody would sit around drinking coffee or sit on the corner of your desk, yakking away.”Dunlop says that back then the staff was like a family, mixing business with pleasure. Howarth loved incorporating her life into her work, such as the time she spent in Tokyo decades ago.

Sent to cover the coronation of the emperor, she decided to get her hair done before the big event. In the salon, she started chatting with the woman beside her and by the time they were coiffed, they were great chums. The woman, of course, turned out to be the empress – and Howarth got a great story.

“She could find something in common with anyone,” Dunlop says. And she still has that knack. “We can be standing in line at the grocery store,” says Dunlop with a chuckle, “and by the time we leave, she’ll know all about the life of the person behind us. People talk to her because she has an air of caring.”

The same kind of chance meeting with Dr. Harold (Hal) Richardson led to their marriage in 1967, when Howarth was 55. She decided to retire and help raise two of Richardson’s five children who were still at home. “She no longer felt her style of writing fit in,” Dunlop says. “So that was that. She moved on.”

Then again, maybe it was the chance to realize other dreams. In a Tely piece in which she wrote about herself in the third person, she said: “If you ask Miss Howarth if she had to do it over again, would she? ‘No,’ she says. ‘I’d marry at 18 and have six children by now!’ Then, in a much smaller voice: ‘uh – that is – at least – I think I would.'”

Hal Richardson died four years ago. Howarth still sees the kids. She considers them her own. She loves art and takes watercolour classes. With Dunlop and Allen she goes to theatre and ballet matinees. It’s for sheer pleasure, but she still watches with a critical eye. She knows when a dancer feels the music, when an actor is in character. And she knows what she likes.

That goes for journalism, too. While Allen devours all four Toronto dailies, Howarth only reads the one that considered itself far above the razzmatazz, The Globe and Mail. Howarth and Allen are glad they’re not in the business anymore, but every once in a while they’ll come upon a piece in the paper and say to each other, “Wouldn’t that be a great story to cover?”