Legendary journalist Gwen Gill died this week. Many of us worked with her at the Sunday Times, her home for more years than she sometimes cared to remember! My last encounter with her was when we shared a meal and some fine champagne at the sumptuous Cape Town private hotel, Ellerman House.
“Stop smoking now,” she scolded me with the vigour of the newly-converted as we reminisced about some fun times at the newspaper, such as tearing along in sexy cars – never the station wagons! – loaned to me for my Wicked Woman on Wheels column.
We started working together when the paper was still based in the glass tower in Diagonal Street. We would wait in the parking garage a couple of blocks from the office but too close to the Bree Street taxi rank for a comfortable walk, puffing away at our cigarettes while waiting for a driver to fetch us.
She was a complex woman, sometimes sweet, sometimes sharp as all hell, but NEVER boring.
TheMediaOnline asked several of her colleagues and friends to share some thoughts about the legendary television critic, consumer writer, trade unionist and social commentator.
Mike Robertson, CEO of Avusa and a close friend. “Gwen was a mensch. That’s what made her a great columnist and an even better friend and colleague. When I took over as editor of The Sunday Times in 1998 the paper and country were undergoing rapid change. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the social scene and I wanted a column that would in a fun and engaging capture the emergence of the new elite.
“ At the time Gwen was editing the features section of the old Gauteng Metro section (in which her consumer column had appeared) and being driven spare by having to manage a difficult staff member. She jumped at the chance to switch back to being a columnist, but now on a national stage. I knew she would be good at it, but she took to the task with such passion and evident enjoyment that the column soon the most read feature in the paper.”
Ray Joseph, former colleague and friend: “Gwen was Steve Mulholland’s secretary when I was a cadet on the Sunday Times. Her husband Raymond won some money and bought not just a TV, but a colour TV, something unheard of in those days. Gwen, who was English, was the only person who had experience of television, and so her journalism career started as a television critic.
“I reminded her of that when Peta (Krost Maunder, editor of The Media magazine) visited her recently. We laughed and I told her would tell that story one day in her obituary. You know, people remember her as the society columnist for the Times, but she was also a hard news reporter, something she learned as the newsroom secretary under Hans STrydom. She exposed a bank interest scam that affected thousands of people. She was also a unionist with the South African Union of Journalists. She was a damn good negotiater and management were terrified of her! I’m so glad I saw here recently.”
Peta Krost Maunder, editor of The Media magazine: “Gwen Gill was my first boss at the Sunday Times, my mentor and fellow party animal. Gwen, I will miss you but my memories of you will live forever. You were a legend in your lifetime. I so recall working with you, the parties at your Troyeville mansion, driving to work together, your wise advice and, most of all, everything I learnt from you as a journalist. Now that you are free, I bet the parties are just starting….RIP dearest Gwen.”
Charles Leonard, former colleague: “RIP Gwen Gill – for me Gwen was much, much more than a celeb writer. I worked with her at the Sunday Times in the early 1990s when she was still the consumers’ champion on the paper.
“But what I will always remember was how management was shit-scared of this militant unionist masquerading as a chain-smoking short little auntie. She taught us young ones to stand up for our rights as workers – something journalists, even crusading ones, were notoriously bad at.”
In an interview with TheMediaOnline, after she won the Lifetime Achievement award in the Women in Media Awards, Gwen said a one-one-meeting with Nelson Mandela was a recent highlight in her journalism career. “We talked about grandchildren, the Millennium Eve party on Robben Island, winning Consumer Columnist of the Year Award (around 1993), being appointed features editor of the Sunday Times when I’d only been a journalist for three years, and meeting fabulous people.
“Ask me who they are and I’d say my best ever is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oprah (I’ve interviewed her twice), Shane Warne (I know why women fall for him!), meeting the Queen and Prince Philip.”
Gwen’s funeral is on Tuesday, August 30, at 12. St Columba Church, Parkview, Jhb. Family is happy to welcome friends.