Claire Wallace (1900-1968)

Year Born: 
1900
Year Died: 
1968

Pioneer

Wallace, Claire (1900-1968)

Claire Wallace was born into a newspaper family in Orangeville, Ont. in 1900.  After graduating from Branksome Hall, she signed up for several technical courses as diverse as cooking and motor mechanics (where she was the only woman in a class of forty).

Divorced and with a son to support in the early 1930s, and having been successful with the submission of short items to various papers, she persuaded Toronto Star publisher H.C. Hindmarsh to let her write a column for the paper.  Titled Over The Teacups, the column was spun off in 1935 into a weekday evening radio show for CFRB, called Teatime Topics.  After a visit to England, she was able to give her readers and listeners a firsthand account of her presence in London at the time of the Coronation of King George VI. Former CBC news chief Knowlton Nash noted in his book The Swashbucklers that CFRB starred a number of female performers and commentators in the early and mid-1930s and probably did more for women than any other station in Canada. 

A commentary by Claire is credited with helping to save Toronto tourist attraction Casa Loma, the medieval-style castle built by industrialist and financier Sir. Henry Pellatt. When the Toronto council wished to raze the castle, Claire commented that it was shameful to demolish such a unique structure and the CFRB broadcast was heard by the vice-president of a Kiwanis Club. The club obtained a license and operated Casa Loma from then on as a tourist attraction.

Claire was one of the first women to be featured on a regular program on a national network.  She joined CBC Radio in 1936, and by 1942 she was hosting a thrice-weekly radio show, They Tell Me, which the National War Finance Department used to promote sales of war bonds and savings stamps. They Tell Me’s ratings were reported to be second only to the Happy Gang.  In 1946 she received the Beaver Award from Broadcaster Magazine as Canada’s top woman commentator.

As one of Canada’s highest paid women broadcasters, Claire became a champion of the rights of women in 1944, after a furor over her salary for the wartime fundraising broadcasts prompted the NWFD to withdraw their support of her program. In her book Newsworthy – The Lives of Media Women, Susan Crean recalled how Claire would go to unique lengths for They Tell Me to get the facts on people behind the news, and “the story behind the story”. She would ‘go under cover’ as a store detective, or as a maid to learn how domestics were treated by their employers.  She once spent the night at Casa Loma to gather material for a piece on ghosts, and on another occasion drew 300 replies to an ad seeking a gigolo.

Claire claimed several firsts for women, including being the first woman to fly Clipper across the Atlantic, the first woman to fly TCA across Canada, and the first woman broadcaster to learn to fly. She was a daredevil who liked taking risks to bring exciting and unusual stories to her listeners, once climbing a Mexican volcano, and at other times going down a gold mine, deep sea diving in the West Indies, and broadcasting from 5000 feet above Niagara Falls.

Claire returned to CFRB in 1952, and continued to broadcast for many years. She also wrote books – including a guide to etiquette, “Mind Your Manners” in 1953. In 1955 she started her own Claire Wallace Travel Bureau in Toronto, and within a few years was taking groups behind the Iron Curtain to Russia, and to China. In 1960 she updated “Mind Your Manners” with a section on travel tips.

Claire was a member of the Heliconian Club for artists, and of the Women’s Press Club, and responded willingly to many demands for her support for various charities.

Claire Wallace died in Toronto in 1968.  Her papers and documents were donated by her estate to the University of Waterloo. On her death, Toronto Star writer Lotta Dempsey said of her: “She was the most glamorous, most loved celebrity of her day…….if you could get Claire Wallace for a charity event or a fundraising occasion, you had it made.” 

Sources:          

Susan Crean, Newsworthy – The Lives of Media Women
Marjory Louise Lang, Women Who Made The News – Female
Journalists in Canada 1880-1945
Knowlton Nash, The Swashbucklers
Lotta Dempsey, Toronto Star                                

Written by Pip Wedge - December, 2007

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