So, farewell then, Max Keeping, beloved broadcaster, tireless cheerleader for children’s charities, tougher-than-he-looked cancer combatant.
Ottawa’s favourite funny uncle joined the Happiness File eternal on Oct. 1, barely five years after he signed off at CJOH, where he’d presided since the Nixon administration.
The passing of the Giant of JournalismTM occasioned the expected gusher of tributes in the gutter press, some longer on nostalgia than realité.
An obit in the Ottawa Petfinder, for example, listed among the many young COH protégés Max mentored (Arthur Kent, Nancy Wilson, Jane Gilbert, James Duthie, etc.) the late Peter Jennings, who, we remind readers, was already anchoring ABC News in ’65, the year Max arrived in Ottawa.
The Petfinder also reprinted a 3,000-word profile from 1993, a game attempt by typist Chris Cobb to get past the glad-handing public persona and probe Deep Max.
Cue the rat-tails from the crypt about Keeping’s boozing days (a 40-pounder of rum per day, at least two drunk driving busts), the lonely childhood and trips to Disneyland to escape empty Christmases (“People say I’m the only person they know who goes to Fantasyland to get in touch with reality,”) and his still-under-explained sacking from CJCH in Halifax.
Keeping told Cobb that station owner and later Tory Senator Finlay MacDonald had shitcanned him for “sticking with a story MacDonald didn’t like.” He has also crashed four staff cars, and ancient reports persist of an unseemly incident, perhaps involving the constabulary, that precipitated Max’s hasty exit for Ottawa.
Nagging unanswered questions aside, Cobb’s eyeglazer was certainly a more tasteful choice for a posthumous reprint than, say, Tony Lofaro’s 2005 tiptoe through the tulips of Max’s private life:
“Mr. Keeping, a confirmed bachelor, has endured endless speculation about his sexual orientation, especially since he’s often seen in the company of boys. Frank magazine once reported he was about to come out as a homosexual and Ottawa City magazine again broached the subject with him in a profile published last fall.
“He says the gay issue is not ‘relevant’ anymore.
“’I realize why people might think that. I can’t stop what people think,’” says Mr. Keeping, expressing surprise the topic is being raised again.
“’I never did anything to earn the talk. There are times I kept thinking that I should well be enjoying some of this if I’m being accused of it.’”
As a character reference, Lofaro quoted Keeping crony and plagiarist Wayne Roasthead, who pronounced Max a “treasure,” and the rumours “poppycock.” “There’s so much small-mindedness on the part of people who associate his care for young people with something other than pure healthy endeavour.”
My organ had indeed heard in 2003 that Max was contemplating a coming-out, discreetly calling former closet cases like CBC bore Brent Bambury and CFRB agony aunt Mark Elliot to ask how they’d pulled it off, what the personal and professional ramifications had been, whether they had regrets, etc.
This would not have been the first time Max had taken a peek outside the armoire. In the early nineties, a documentary crew came to Ottawa from Newfoundland in order to do a “local boy makes good” profile of the Grand Banks native. According to friends, he came within a whisker of giving the home boys the scoop.
One would hardly think that in 2003 he could have so much as raised an eyebrow by dropping the pretence, but it wasn’t just about Max. The dedication of the Max Keeping Wing at CHEO may well have taken the matter out of his hands.
When CHEO first approached their number one spokesthingy/fundraiser about the building dedication, a full and frank discussion ensued about the institutional implications thereof.
The problem was not with the organization itself, every bit as modern and forward-thinking as such a facility would be expected to be. But CHEO does rely on the goodwill of their private donors, many of whom are elderly, religious and likely to disapprove of any suggestion of same sexiness.
An openly gay Max might have been viewed very differently as a mascot for children’s charities like CHEO. These perceptions would not be helped by the large number of disadvantaged teenaged boys, always boys, that kind-hearted Max took under his wing, referring to them as his “sons,” taking them out to sports events and concerts and lavishing them with trips and gifts. One got a car for his sixteenth birthday.
Like members of Menudo, Max’s wards would be regularly replaced around the age of majority, but there was never any suggestion of impropriety in Max’s mentoring. His pad had two bedrooms, his own, with the oversized bed and stuffed animal collection, and a guest bedroom set up for his young charges. All perfectly innocent, but look what happened to poor Michael Jackson.
And there were always at-risk yout’ in need of a guardian. Whenever a new supremo arrived at the Children’s Aid Society, they’d soon get a lunch invite from Max, who would explain his particular philanthropic oeuvre. Mel Gill, who retired as CAS director in ‘98, was particularly tight with Max and arranged many introductions.
The new boy would invariably be squired into the ‘OH newsroom to discover the wonders of Television and perhaps relieve Uncle Max’s journalistic tensions with a neck and shoulder massage whilst he worked at his news desk. (Favoured young male station sluggos were also seconded to similarly knead the hard-working anchor until union thingies got pissy about it a few years back.)
Max’s other constant companion through the years was Gary MacDonell, his longtime driver and bosom compadre, hired in the 80s to protect the drunk-driving pillar of the community from himself.
Gary, readers may recall, had his own spot of legal bother on New Years Day 2011. A Mayflower waiter tackled him as he fled from the Cartier Place Suite Hotel, with the parents of young children in hot pursuit. Awkwardly, Gary was carrying a duffel bag filled with a number of easily-misinterpreted items, including a knife, a dildo, panties and binoculars.
Turned out he had accosted a couple of sisters, aged 11 and 12, in the hotel’s pool change room. Wearing only a towel, he exposed and fondled himself and tried to bar their escape — until they started screaming, summoning the grownups. He’d been caught at similar pranks in a Kingston hotel a couple years previous.
Before his trial MacDonell repeatedly violated his bail conditions, and was picked up by flatfeet on one occasion lurking in the bushes near a schoolyard.
Ever-loyal Max filed a written a character reference with the court, noting MacDonell was active in his church and “a man of high morals and principles, a man of integrity. He helped me with all of my community projects and philanthropy, and was personally involved with several charities on his own.”
Alas, Max’s schedule did not permit him to testify under oath in Gary’s aid. Instead, Max disappeared and sent a lawyer in his place, thereby avoiding any unfair what-did-he-know-and-when-did-he-know-it questioning from the Crown.
Max’s half-assed intervention failed to save Gary, who was sentenced to a year in the clink, but it did uncomfortably remind everybody just how many CHEO events Max’s girl-crazy chauffeur had attended over the years with his boss.
Jimmy Savile is 109.