[Published 1 June 2014 by Granville Island Publishing, Vancouver]
This is the story of Lukin Johnston – journalist, then Magazine Section editor, at Vancouver’s Daily Province. In 1928 Johnston, whose red hair earned him the nickname Rufus, became European correspondent for Southam News. His dispatches were followed by Canadians coast to coast until his mysterious disappearance from a North Sea ferry two days after having interviewed Hitler. His disappearance was only cursorily investigated by British police and remains unexplained – for want of an alternative, people accepted that he had accidentally fallen overboard, a most unlikely turn of events. Rufus marshals the arguments for suicide, accidental death – and murder. But, whatever its cause, his demise was just the extraordinary conclusion of a life packed with extraordinary circumstances.
The second son of an English vicar, Rufus’s singing voice, at first treble and later bass, earned him a choir scholarship at King’s School, Canterbury – where, as the main cathedral soloist, he was known to clergy as the “Flaming Seraph.” Aged eighteen, in 1905 he came to Canada to “seek his fortune,” armed with a few dollars, a good but vocationally useless education in Greek and Latin and a letter of introduction from the Archbishop. Hoping to learn how to farm before taking a homestead on the prairies, like Pinocchio he was ambushed by fate. After doing unpaid farm labour in Ontario and three months in a bank, he abandoned Ontario for the lure of the “Last, Best West.” Still almost unpaid, he survived the brutal winter of 1906-7 on a farm near Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, before finding a job in a lumber yard and then actually making a little money at a second lumber yard in Govan in 1908. This financed a trip to England to get engaged, but would be his last taste of success until 1910: with partners he tried homesteading at Govan, then eked out a living in and around Lethbridge, Alberta, shoveling coal, singing in movie theatres and dealing in lumber, before joining his brother on his pioneer strawberry farm near Nelson, BC.
Somebody in Nelson suggested journalism and in May 1910 W.C. Nichol, owner of the Vancouver Daily Province, spotted his potential and hired him. By then 23, Rufus showed little gratitude to his benefactor: impatient at the limitations of his expected role, after less than a year he quit the Province for a better-paying job in insurance, while Nichol, amazingly, continued to accept the articles that still poured from his typewriter. He also sold articles about BC to British papers, and to Canada, a national magazine, and by mid-1911 was starting to be known. That fall his reward came with the offer of the editorship of the weekly Cowichan Leader. Temporarily his own boss, he moved to Duncan, married his English fiancée Bee, and by 1914 was stirring up enough trouble for various Victoria power-brokers to provoke one of them, J.H. Matson, to offer him a job as night-editor of his Daily Colonist in Victoria, a job that Rufus felt he could not refuse.
World War 1 found him becoming part of the Victoria establishment but, like everybody else, he suspended his career to join the army. His Victoria connections to General Curry led to a job as a staff captain – first as an Intelligence officer and later in the ‘Q’ branch, both exhausting and dangerous occupations, and having been in the thick of Passchendaele and Amiens among other actions, he was lucky to survive. The war treated his family and himself harshly, but was nevertheless the making of him: not only did he end up knowing most of the middle- and high-ranking officers in the CEF, but was thereafter able to deal confidently with humanity, high and low. And towards the end of it, Nichol came to France and offered him a job to come home to.
Before leaving Europe he parlayed a remote connection to Lord Northcliffe – a parishioner of his father’s – into appointment as Vancouver correspondent for the London Times. This gave him prestige and a financial boost while he endured three years of poorly paid beat journalism with the Province. It also gave him the confidence to attend the 1921 Washington Naval conference, more or less freelance, on behalf of the newspapers that he had personally signed up across Canada. This began his national reputation in newspaper circles but provoked a crisis with Roy Brown, editor of the Province, whose authority he had disregarded. Fortunately, Nichol protected him from being fired at the same time as placating Brown.
In 1923 Rufus pulled another ‘spectacular’ – more or less appointing himself, while Brown was on sabbatical, to cover President Harding’s trip to Alaska and wangling his way onto the president’s ship. With his subsequent dispatches, however, he had made his point and Brown, when he returned, gave him the challenge he craved by handing him the Province‘s ‘features’ section to create and edit.
Rufus did this well from 1924 to 1928, all the while nurturing his own relationship with the Southam family who had purchased a controlling interest in the Province from Nichol in 1923. During these years Rufus flourished, roaming all over BC, researching columns that provided his urban readers with an eye-opening introduction to a province few of them knew; at the same time he developed the Province Magazine into first-rate entertainment. He was becoming a Vancouver fixture as a sought-after speaker and an executive member of a series of organizations, chief amongst them the Little Theatre – for which he and Bee acted – the Canadian Club and the BC Institute of Journalists. Always in the thick of the action, from tennis to swimming and bridge, to motoring and aviation, to tramping for miles and exploring the back country, to endlessly attending shows and theatres, he exuded enjoyment of both city and province.
His life changed completely in 1928 when Fred Southam sent him to London as European correspondent for Southam Press. Henceforth his dispatches appeared not only in the Province but also in the Hamilton Spectator, the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette, the Winnipeg Tribune and the Calgary Herald. In 1929 he published his first book, Beyond the Rockies, a compilation of his columns about BC’s hinterland, and he began work on a companion to this with his new column In England Today. This soon had a following across Canada, fed by his enthusiastic attendance at every possible English event – from a royal garden party to a pub darts match, he was there, writing humorously about it and the characters he met. Until 1930 he was a happy wanderer, doing what he did best with the full support of employers and readers. His family’s expenses-paid return to Vancouver that year was a triumph: not only were he and Bee swarmed by old friends, but Rufus was in demand as a speaker across Canada, culminating in a broadcast address to a thousand people at Vancouver’s Christ Church cathedral on Labour Day.
In 1931 he published his second book, In England Today. At the same time, Japan invaded Manchuria and the world scene darkened. A switch seemed to flip inside Rufus’s head, making him a serious student of international affairs; disillusioned by the League’s failure to stop Japan’s aggression in China, he became obsessed by the threat to European peace of Hitler and his Nazis. In early 1932 he was rebuffed in attempts to interview him, first in Berlin and then in Munich. That fall, driving his own car, he went to investigate the racial hotspots of Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and wrote a powerful series of articles about Europe under the headings In Germany Today and In Europe Today. By popular demand he continued his English column and would put out a third book, Down English Lanes, in 1933. But after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, he lost his appetite for such work and began preparing for another attempt to interview the dictator.
The three weeks leading to his meeting with Hitler in November 1933 provide the climax to his story. With his own health threatened by a suspected heart problem, his apprehension about the Nazis and their intentions ebbed and flowed in his dispatches. These covered every aspect of life in Nazi Germany – and in Danzig and Poland too. When they finally met, his questions for Hitler were respectful but direct and it is clear that he retained few illusions about the prospects for peace. The continuing mystery of his death – and possible murder – just 36 hours later provided a dramatic conclusion to his meteoric career as a foreign correspondent. Still only 46, he was mourned by readers, high and low, across Canada. Had he lived, a much wider audience would have learned the name of Lukin Johnston.