A storm was looming. A slaty sky, grey with just a tint of blue, shot across the horizon as a long-tusked elephant — lone, papery and slow — moved through the foreground, across the plains that were seemingly painted crisp and yellow. “What I’m so interested in is that sky,” Kenneth Kidd remarked to his daughter, Sarah, father and daughter standing as ever in tight companionship as they wondered whether the great migration of the wildebeest, the thundering herds, would be unleashed.
This would be the last photo Kidd would take, a final testament to his gifts as a journalist, seeing beyond what others might see. Kidd, just 58, died of a heart attack in his sleep that night, Sept. 3, having achieved a spectacular day on safari through the Maasai Mara reserve in eastern Kenya.
“He loved to just sit and watch,” Sarah says of her father. Through his three decades as a writer with both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail this was evident.
“It’s a drizzling rain, the one falling this December midday, and Nona Alexander is tightly tucked into a full-length green overcoat and burgundy cloche.” With that Kidd began his sketch of Toronto’s Berczy Park, a story for the Star that would bring him a National Newspaper Award, and us a reminder that graceful feature writing is as essential to vibrant journalism as the rat-a-tat-tat of civic affairs.
“Ken found stories everywhere,” notes Maclean’s editor-in-chief Alison Uncles. “In the flick of a fly-fishing rod, the shadows of a condo tower, the roots of a tree trying to grow in the compacted soil of a new subdivision. He was endlessly curious and clever and well-read.” Uncles led the features team at the Star. “At story meetings, we’d go off on the most magnificent tangents as Ken remembered an article he’d read about Scottish heraldry, or an academic studying manhole covers, or the architecture of the local cinema. Goodness help us if talk ever turned to violas, his quiet passion.”
“He wasn’t sharp and showy,” says former Star feature writer Leslie Scrivener of Kidd’s writing. His style was muted, subtle, Scrivener adds. “He would imbue a place with human feeling,” she says, noting his “sainted triangle” description of Berczy Park, and his bemused observation of Iquitos, where every structure in the Peruvian city was in “flagrant disrepair; it is difficult to tell whether any one building is halfway to restoration or halfway to total collapse.” Kidd was all of 26 when he turned his eye upon that subject.
Should he be with us still, Kidd at this juncture might start to fret about the narrative thread of this obituary. He wasn’t some Joe Mitchell stepped out of the pages of the New Yorker, circa 1940, though his fine suits, his leather-soled shoes, his aimless wandering might leave some with that impression.
As a senior writer at the Globe’s Report on Business Magazine in the early nineties, Kidd authoritatively documented Canadian business of the day, from profiling the then new governor of the Bank of Canada (just try not to make that dry reading) to the struggles of the Bata shoe empire to the bantam efforts of a 17-year-old disruptor determined to unionize a McDonald’s in Orangeville. “Big Mac Meets the McUnion Kid” took the gold prize in the public issues category at the 1994 National Magazine Awards.
Later, as an editor and manager back at the Star, Kidd proved that rare combination of talents: as deft at directing a staff of journalists — not a job any sane person would aspire to — as he was at conjuring adjectives.
“Ken Kidd was a superb business reporter who combined an acute understanding of the sector with a beautiful writing style,” said Torstar chair John Honderich. “While he was most often soft-spoken, his passion for his craft was undeniable.”
There were many passions, the recent painting of his study door in Arsenal red being the indication of one such. Lord Nelson’s hat was another. If Kidd were to utter the words “Lord Nelson’s hat” in your company, it was a sign to pour yourself a cup of tea and settle in for a lesson on the world’s oldest hatters (Lock & Co., 6 St. James’s St., London), and beaver felt and the making of a nation. This nation, that is. It could have been a book, and it is sad to write that this particular passion was never realized.
Undaunted, upon arriving in London late last month with Sarah enroute to Nairobi, a top priority was a visit to Lock & Co. whereupon Kidd educated the shop assistant on beaver felt. Of course he did.
He had a passion for musicals and the absurdity of Monty Python. (On a previous visit to the hatters, when he purchased a custom-fitted trilby, he was told that his head shape was almost exactly the same as Michael Palin’s. He was delighted.)
Kidd was one of the “bevy of newspaper men and women” who, says Pia Bouman, became devoted to The Nutcracker, performed annually by Bouman’s ballet school. Dressed in a manner he described as “19th-century general,” Kidd sort of danced the polka as an adult guest and in later years had a demi-starring roll as one of two stretcher bearers alongside the then mayor of Toronto, David Miller.
“We were meant to be the comic foil,” Kidd wrote. “And my money was on the Nutcracker going down for the count, since, at that point, the battle was going badly for the scarlet hero.” But suddenly the stretcher bearers dropped the Mouse King — one stretcher bearer was guiltier than the other. The Mouse King cleverly feigned lifelessness. “A sublime piece of acting,” Kidd described it, before quoting one of the students: “The parents always f— it up.”
The daughter, Sarah, transformed from little mouse to acrobat to en pointe roles, her father watching from the wings. Kidd served for a time as chair of the school, spent innumerable hours plastering and hammering at a new location when the school moved, and for many years co-hosted with his wife and journalist Ellen Moorhouse an opening night Nutcracker party in their home, Kidd on the viola. “He did cross into so many spheres,” Moorhouse says. Politics. History. Political economy. Real estate. Hockey, until he blew out his knees. “He was able to transfer his passions from one to the next,” she says.
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Many can testify to his kindness. “He was always there,” Bouman says. “He was a wonderful, giving person.”
On the last day of safari the sky was foreboding. Slate grey, a writer might have noted. Slaty, Ken Kidd might write instead.
“We saw everything that day,” Sarah says. Crocodiles (well fed). Hyenas (ditto.) Warthogs. (Her father said he found them “endearing.”) Hours watching the dance of wildlife in the Mara River. “I could just stand here all day,” Kidd said to his daughter, observing.