In January 1962, a 28-year-old female reporter with uncontrollable, flaming red hair and a fiery spirit to match made an impression on a certain Cuban president. She was in Cuba for The Globe and Mail, covering the country’s third anniversary celebration of the revolution over dictator Fulgencio Batista. After the official proceedings were over, Fidel Castro-who was known to like Canadians as much as he liked his drink-invited her to the reception. Castro wouldn’t agree to an interview, so the reporter settled instead for a casual conversation with the president over a few drinks, while the party carried on around them. Castro didn’t disclose anything unexpected, but that didn’t prevent the reporter from digging up a slew of other poignant, informative stories during her two-month stay in Cuba, revealing housing conditions, food rationing and the state of children’s education.
Despite the fact that the Cuba assignment was only one highlight in the reporter’s long and varied career, her byline never became a household name. It should have. At a time when female reporters were routinely relegated to softer “women’s” issues, she refused the easy route and jostled with the best of the men, covering politics, crime and the courts with aplomb.
Ruth Worth was born on August 18, 1933, in Timmins, Ontario. By this time, female journalists in Canada had been fighting to gain acceptance for some 50 years. Before the mid-1880s, women were not even allowed into newsrooms-the noisy places filled with gruff men banging away at typewriters beneath clouds of cigarette smoke were considered unsuitable for any respectable middle-class woman. When women did write, it was at home, and their items were sent in by messenger. Almost always, the byline on the piece was a man’s; this allowed women to write while still upholding their modesty.
The women who were able to break through these conventions-paving the way for later generations of female reporters-did so because they shunned the traditional roles of the times. In 1889 Kathleen “Kit” Coleman, ofThe Toronto Mail, was the editor of the first women’s page, entitled Women’s Kingdom, which also addressed “men’s concerns”-international events, federal politics and social issues such as female suffrage, poverty and prostitution. And making a name for herself as an agricultural expert, reporter E. Cora Hind was one of the very few women to rise to a senior position as agriculture editor of the Manitoba Free Press in 1902. Although she was chastised for co-opting such a traditionally male subject, the accuracy of her crop forecasts became world renowned.
The Canadian Women’s Press Club was established in 1904, and women slowly made their way into the newspaper business. Editors had begun to realize they were ignoring half of their potential readership. TheGlobe had introduced its first society column in 1893, and by the end of the century, almost every paper would have a society or women’s page-with reports on charity events, fashion trends, recipes and social teas. Around the turn of the century, a new breed of female reporter came into vogue: “sob sisters,” who wrote sentimentally about personal hardships. Others, like Lotta Dempsey, who started writing for the Star in the ’60s, were able to make a name for themselves penning society gossip columns. Eventually, proving themselves through their writing and their spirit for treading new ground, women began seeing their work make more of an appearance in the news pages in the ’50s and ’60s. Ruth Worth was part of this second wave of pioneering female journalists.
The limited career options during the ’40s meant there were certain paths Worth was expected to follow. After high school, a shortage of teachers in Timmins spurred her to begin teaching an elementary class. But Worth had an unfulfilled interest in writing, sparked by her role as the editor of her high school newspaper, and she thought teaching paid too little. So in the spring of 1953, at age 19, she travelled 140 kilometres east to Kirkland Lake, Ontario, to find herself a newspaper job.
When she first walked into the newsroom of the Northern Daily News, she made quite an impression. Joan Hollobon, who had just begun general reporting at the News in the spring of 1952, still remembers Worth’s grand entrance. “She just floated into the room. She looked as though she was honouring you with a royal visit. And her red hair-the first time I saw her she was wearing a striking green chiffon scarf.” Hollobon later learned that Worth was very shortsighted and the vague look she often had was nothing more than an attempt to see what was in front of her.
Despite her familiarity and comfort with small-town life, Worth wasn’t satisfied at the News for long-the big city was the place to be. It wasn’t unusual for journalists, especially women, to move to Toronto to launch their writing careers at one of the city’s big dailies. She arrived in Toronto in the spring of 1954, and soon after found employment as a copy writer for an ad agency, which lasted until she began attending the University of Toronto in the fall. She then headed for The Toronto Daily Star in search of a job.
“At the News she led the editor to believe she knew everything, when she really knew nothing,” says Hollobon, who herself moved to Toronto in 1956, to work as a religion reporter and then medical reporter forThe Globe and Mail. The Star hired Worth to cover the night police beat, monitoring the radios and police blotter for stories. “She wanted to be where the action was, not at a society wedding,” says her daughter Catherine, now 33.
A full-time English student by day, Worth was a part-time reporter by night-until a few months after her father died in December of 1954. With only his pension for income, her mother and two brothers moved into Worth’s tiny Toronto apartment. Her mother found a job at Simpsons downtown, and Charles and John continued high school. In order to free up more time for work to help her family, Worth quit school.
These were the days when the joint court bureau was shared by the Telegram and the Star, when copy was sent from the old city hall through pneumatic tubes under Bay Street, when newspapers still specified that they were looking to hire a female reporter. Worth soon moved to the Star‘s court beat, which was where she found her niche, interacting with the characters who moved frequently in and out of the court system. Day after day she climbed the few flights of stairs to the small room at the top of the College Street police headquarters, where crime reporters would crowd around old tables to write their running copy, sending each page to the newsroom as soon as it was finished.
At that time, the five reporters covering the courts for the Tely were all men, and the Star‘s five were women. “All the other women worked in the women’s section,” recalls Dottie (O’Neill) Wilson, who was with the Starfor 42 years. “They had two token female reporters working on the general news beat with the guys. And the women who covered the women’s pages were paid a lot less than we women reporters were. Because we were like the guys, so to speak.”
Wilson says she encountered little sexism in her job in the late ’50s, but she was treated differently than other reporters because she was a woman. “For a period of time I was in one of our editor’s bad books, and he decided I was going to work nights”-until one of the other editors spoke up. “He said, ‘I want that girl taken off that beat. It’s not fair for her to be in here with a bunch of guys and all this foul language. Put her back on days.'”
Worth found there were unexpected advantages to being a female reporter. She told her brother Charles that potential sources thought she couldn’t really be a serious reporter-reporters were old men in hats and suits. While waiting to go into court she’d engage people in conversation, and often they’d just tell her what she wanted to know. She’d find any way to get the story-while in Vancouver on her way to cover a mining accident in Alaska, Worth found that the small plane she wanted to take was full, so she waved $100 in the air. “This money will go to anybody who will give up their seat,” she said, and got her ride, as well as her story.
After a few years on the court beat, Worth was chosen to join the ranks of a handful of female general reporters at the Star‘s 80 King St. W. office. But her interest in foreign affairs proved to be a strong draw, and a year later Worth quit the Star to travel and freelance. She had never finished any university courses, but in 1960 she enrolled in a Russian-language course at the University of Toronto, with the plan to visit Eastern Europe. The Star‘s managing editor at the time, Borden Spears, wasn’t willing to send the 27-year-old reporter to Russia-he thought she was too young and probably wouldn’t get any good stories anyway. During her holidays, armed with a student visa and a few words of Russian, Worth left with a student group for the communist country. She returned with stories and photographs of Moscow and Kiev, exposing the country’s food shortages, education system and the meagre living conditions people experienced under the Soviet system. The Globe bought the articles and the photos, running what was one of the first Canadian newspaper reports direct from the Soviet Union.
Though her Soviet feat was impressive, Worth’s proudest journalistic achievement involved something closer to home: the Canadian legal system. Entitled “What’s Wrong With the Courts?,” her 10-part series for The Globe and Mail ran in January 1963. It began with a compassionate look at the problems of the overcrowded facilities at Toronto’s old city hall, at 60 Queen St. W. She noted that the situation had the “atmosphere of a bull ring, jammed full of prisoners” and was “hardly conducive to a calm, reasoned discussion of a defense.” Throughout the series, Worth offered many viable interim suggestions, including updating the accounting procedures in the court and moving some of the courts to other buildings. The tone of her writing never wandered toward sympathy for the accused, but stressed the need for humanity in the system: “The treatment given the shabby, dejected persons who are charged with criminal offenses is lacking in dignity, consideration and understanding,” she wrote in her introduction to the series.
The articles also focused on the inequalities of the legal aid system in Ontario. “There is considerable evidence to indicate that justice is for sale in the law courts of Metro Toronto because legal advice is not available to everyone who cannot pay for it.” She outlined the fact that the Ontario Legal Aid Plan, which assigned lawyers to represent the accused, did not cover all cases. For example, anyone charged under the Highway Traffic Act or Liquor Control Act or anyone wishing to appeal a conviction or a sentence was not entitled to aid. She found compelling ways to make a point: “The total budget for 1961 for both civil and criminal cases in the entire province was $26,000-to defend over 7,000 cases. This works out to an average of $3.71 a case, scarcely enough to pay for stationery and stamps.” A few months later, the provincial attorney general would establish a joint committee of the Ontario government and the Law Society to look into the existing legal aid system. Most of the points raised in the committee’s findings were ones that Worth had pointed out earlier in her series. And the series itself had drawn letters of praise from local MPPs and magistrates. In 1965 the committee concluded that it was “unreasonable to expect lawyers to be responsible for providing legal services, without payment, to low-income Ontarians” and the system was changed to correct these inequalities.
Other times Worth herself landed in trouble with the law. In the early 1960s, a bomb exploded at Toronto’s Town Tavern, and mobster Max Bluestein was a suspect. Worth reported on information still unknown to the police, and a judge ordered her to reveal her source. She refused, and the court held her in contempt, although later the judge relented and Worth avoided jail.
Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, Worth was in her element as a freelance crime reporter for the Star and the Globe. She was always up for an investigation-whether into a prostitution ring, Ontario’s mental health system or Toronto’s slum landlords. Not that all her stories were hard-hitting. Sometimes her assignments involved relatively trivial subjects, such as the use of the city’s pools by suburbanites (“Early Birds Enjoy Pool, but Rest Wait in Line”). Another article, which appeared on the Globe‘s front page in February, 1963, showed her lighter touch and ironic tone. In it, she described the Hot Stove Lounge, a posh club set to open on the east side of Maple Leaf Gardens, as planning to use “bits of old harness and pioneer lanterns” to decorate the dining room, and hockey equipment to be incorporated into the light fixtures and coat racks. “The board of directors hasn’t decided whether they should accept female members,” she wrote, “but they have decided about another accoutrement of key clubs in the United States-bunnies. There won’t be any. Just ordinary waiters.”
In 1963, Worth was part of a three-reporter team covering the Royal Commission on Crime. Allegations had emerged that former Attorney General Kelso Roberts and some Ontario Provincial Police inspectors had had communications with organized gambling syndicates in Canada and the United States. In her typical fashion, Worth found a way to inject energy and vitality into the story, no matter the subject, describing the “shrewd, evil, cunning men who are public menaces and who succeeded in establishing a gambling empire in the province despite the efforts of dedicated police officers.”
That fall, Worth got the chance to try her hand at something different: political analysis. The only woman on the Ontario election coverage team, she was assigned to the Liberal campaign trail, accompanying leader John Wintermeyer throughout his tour. In “Wintermeyer Follows the Graham Trail,” published September 13, 1963, in the Globe, she compared the Liberal campaign to the style of evangelist Billy Graham: “[Wintermeyer’s speech writer] adds the flesh and all the pungent phrases he can devise to turn out the pile-driving speeches Mr. Wintermeyer hopes will carry him to the Premier’s office.”
Because of the experience she gained during the election, in November 1963 the Globe sent her to its Vancouver bureau to cover politics, as well as child welfare. While in Vancouver, she met a handsome young man by the name of Tom Hazlitt. He was 6 foot 4 with dark, wavy hair-a reporter who had worked atThe Province in Vancouver since 1948-and he became smitten with Worth. The pair dated and eventually moved in together. But after two years in the West, Worth couldn’t resist an offer to cover her favourite beat as the Globe‘s crime reporter.
Her work life was flourishing, and her personal life was about to change dramatically. After remaining with theProvince until 1966, Hazlitt moved to Toronto to work for the Star-and to be with Worth again. The couple married later that year, and when Hazlitt was transferred to Ottawa, Worth, pregnant with their first child, quit her job to go with him.
The Ottawa of the ’60s was as much a politician’s town as it is today, and the Hazlitts were often found in the midst of the fray at the press gallery. Tom-whose work won praise from former prime minister John Diefenbaker and garnered two National Newspaper Awards-worked as a parliamentary reporter for the Star. Ruth freelanced for CBC Radio, writing commentaries on the Canadian political climate and preparing hosts for political interviews.
Although Worth took some time off when Jessie, their first child, was born in 1966, and again when their second daughter, Catherine, arrived in 1969, she could not stay away from journalism for long. Juggling two small children and demanding careers, the Hazlitts moved when Tom returned to the Star‘s Toronto office in 1970, settling in the neighbourhood of Cabbagetown, in a white Victorian home at 113 Amelia St. Ruth continued to freelance for the Star and the Globe, while writing scripts for a CBC Toronto television documentary series on children’s early development, entitled Their First Five Years.
It was a time of high prosperity for the Hazlitt family. With their daughters in private day school and a Jamaican housekeeper to run errands, they were free to pursue their careers. Hazlitt was covering the FLQ crisis in Quebec, while Worth was often among other journalists at the Royal York Hotel bar, where she did her best networking, gleaning information from the other reporters.
No matter what kind of assignment she was working on, the demands of work and family could sometimes conflict. Jessie remembers that when she was about 10, a cab would sometimes arrive after school instead of her mother. “When I was in kindergarten,” Jessie recalls, “they asked me what my parents did for a living. And I said they ‘drank martoonies and watched Watergate on television.'”
Still, there were advantages to having media-connected parents. The children spent their summers in a mansion on Georgian Bay-albeit with a nanny-while their parents commuted back and forth to work. Alex Laurier and Bear of the Polka Dot Door came to one of Jessie’s birthday parties, and Heather Conkie from TVO lived down the street in Cabbagetown. “My mother knew she was not one of those women who was going to bake cookies,” Jessie, now 35, says. “She told me it was a waste of time.”
Always game to tackle new challenges, in June 1974, Worth expanded on her vast media experience as the first on-air medical and science reporter for CBC television news. It was a time when the network was beginning to hire specialist reporters, and Worth would often visit hospitals to put a human face on a new treatment or terrible disease. But many journalists often have difficulty switching mediums, especially when faced with a camera-and according to Trina McQueen, assignment producer of national news at the time, Worth was no exception. “I think she found it difficult to make the transition to the very difficult task of putting complex subjects into a very short period of time. You either make the transition or you don’t.”
Worth looked stiff on camera, perhaps because she disagreed with the image CBC wanted her to project on air. “They wanted her to look fluffier and more like a weather girl,” recalls Jessie, “which just infuriated my mother to no end.” Co-workers tormented her, naming her “Little Orphan Annie” because of her glasses and bright red curls. When she decided to get her hair cut one morning, the newsroom buzz was about what Worth looked like rather than what her story was for the day. She loathed the emphasis on appearance.
While Worth struggled with her television work, her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 1975. Unable to cope with two young children, her work and an ailing husband, Worth took a leave from CBC to take her family to San Diego, so that Hazlitt could begin experimental cancer treatments over the Mexican border in Tijuana. The treatments failed, and on September 14, 1975, he died.
Perhaps it was because of her disdain for her colleagues or her dislike of television, but in 1976 Worth quit her job at the CBC. She studied for her real estate license and began selling homes. But she wasn’t a salesperson-the intimidating gaze that was so effective when interviewing sources didn’t convince clients to buy pricey Rosedale homes.
Jessie remembers that gaze as just part of her mother’s personality. “She had no patience for anybody, especially shop girls. [But] she didn’t care who they were, they could be a senior person or an editor, and she’d say, ‘You are incompetent.'”
Then, in her late 40s, the unimaginable happened. Hollobon remembers Worth just started falling down. “She’d be walking down the street and all of a sudden she’d be on her face on the sidewalk. And she wouldn’t know how she got there.” Relatives speculated she’d been drinking too much and had lost her balance, but a few years later she would be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. From then on she would spend her time travelling across Canada and visiting with friends, before settling into an assisted-living apartment in Don Mills, in northern Toronto.
When Worth moved to St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1998, Jessie remembers that reporters at the St. Catharines Standard were on strike and her mother followed the conflict on television. “She kind of thought St. Catharines was a one-horse town. But she got to watch news all day long, read her two newspapers a day.” Living out the rest of her life in the company of Jessie and her family, she died on November 9, 1999.
Perhaps it is a sign of the times that Worth the reporter is sometimes remembered by colleagues as the woman who married Tom Hazlitt, who was widely celebrated in his day. Back then only a few women were able to make a lasting impression. If Worth did not break a major news story, she did achieve significant accomplishments that were virtually unheard of for women at the time: travelling through unstable countries before she turned 30, working for almost all of the country’s largest media outlets-in print, radio and television. Her Globe series made waves in the Ontario legal system and she brought Russia to Canadians before any other reporter.
Ruth Worth was one of a handful of Canadian female reporters in the mid-20th century who broke new ground for women. Like her counterparts, she was career-driven and motivated, and she worked for the thrill of the news.