Minding the books: an entrepreneur indulges his love for literature

The idea for Canada’s richest literary prize for fiction came to Jack Rabinovitch and Mordecai Richler back in August, 1993, after an afternoon in Grumpy’s Bar in Montreal. Rabinovitch, a wealthy Toronto-based property developer who tends to prefer the company of writers and artists to that of tycoons, was looking for a way to commemorate his wife, Doris Giller, The Toronto Star‘s assistant book editor, who had died of cancer four months earlier. The result was the Giller Prize, an annual $25,000 award for the best English-language fiction published in Canada. The first winner, announced at a lavish banquet in November, 1994, was The Book of Secrets by Toronto writer M.G. Vassanji. “It created a tremendous difference for me, both in terms of sales and recognition,” Vassanji said last week.

Next week, the second Giller winner will be announced, at a black-tie dinner on Nov. 7 for more than 250 people in Toronto. And once again, Rabinovitch is footing the bill. “This is one dinner you can’t buy your way into,” notes Toronto literary agent Beverley Slopen. “I invite my friends,” confirms Rabinovitch. “I don’t have anyone I don’t want.” Rabinovitch also pays for the advance publicity, which includes newspaper ads, posters and shelf stickers for 500 stores across Canada. It is the kind of publicity, notes Slopen, that no Canadian publisher can afford, given the industry’s slim profit margins. This year, the five finalists are Timothy Findley, Barbara Gowdy, Leo McKay Jr., Rohinton Mistry and Richard B. Wright.


Rabinovitch, a self-confessed jock who is a ferocious handball and tennis player, seems an unlikely patron of the arts. “He comes across like a character out of Damon Runyon,” says his friend Joey Slinger, a Toronto Star columnist. “Inside, there’s someone who knows what good art and good literature is all about.” Even his choice of a jury to choose the finalists and the winner is carefully planned: this year, it consists of Richler, literary scholar David Staines and novelist Jane Urquhart. Richler estimates that they have plowed through at least 65 novels and collections of short stories.

Few Canadian entrepreneurs offer as much support to artists. Most of Canada’s literary prizes–such as the Governor General’s Literary Awards or the Ontario government’s Trillium Book Award–are largely funded by taxpayers. One exception is the $50,000 Lionel Gelber Prize for nonfiction, which is open to international writers. But no other English-language fiction prize matches the Giller for lavishness and for the support given to runners-up. “It’s original, generous and done with considerable panache,” comments Richler.

Jack Rabinovitch is an unlikely philanthropist. His parents emigrated from Ukraine in 1926, settling in Montreal. His father sold newspapers for years before saving enough money to open a restaurant. Rabinovitch went to Baron Byng High School, where Richler was a year behind him. His girlfriend, Doris Giller, went to nearby Commercial High.

After graduating in English from McGill University in 1952, Rabinovitch accepted a $75-a-week job writing speeches for grocery magnate Sam Steinberg. In 1960, after working his way up to a vice-presidency at Steinberg’s, Rabinovitch went to work for Ottawa’s Loeb family to help them open new stores. That made him realize how profitable real estate could be. He eventually went into business for himself, making a fortune with apartment buildings and a shrewd investment in cable television. But the price was high–he hated living in Ottawa, and his first marriage was falling apart. In 1970, his wife and three daughters stayed in the capital while he returned to Montreal. One of the first things he did was to call his old high-school sweetheart, Giller, who was books editor at the now-defunct Montreal Star.


By 1973, he and Giller were married and living in Toronto. “Doris was loud and mischievous and didn’t show no respect to all the big-shot developers Jack was in business with,” says Slinger. “And Jack just stood back and watched her, enchanted by everything she did.” By then, Rabinovitch was working for Trizec Corp. Ltd., a real estate company then owned by the Reichmann and the Bronfman families. Peter Bronfman says it was he who suggested Trizec hire Rabinovitch. “He’s very bright and very well read, particularly for a business person,” Bronfman says. “Let’s face it–most of us have our faces buried in facts and figures. But he also reads Shakespeare and can even do crossword puzzles.”

Rabinovitch stayed with Trizec for 20 years, escaping in 1992 before it crashed into bankruptcy. But he remains a force in the real estate world. “He’s very tough, very wise, very shrewd,” says his Montreal-based partner, Robert Theriault. “His timing is always perfect.” Today, Rabinovitch is running a new venture with Toronto business- men David Ehrlich, Bruce Bronfman and Walter Zwig to buy promising properties for investors who can afford a minimum $1-million stake.

No one, certainly not Rabinovitch himself, will say what it has cost him to set up this annual tribute to his late wife, but what is certain is that he spends every cent of it with gusto. When the Giller jury meets to pick the winner, they do it over a long lunch at the Le Mas des Oliviers, Richler’s favorite Montreal restaurant. “Toronto prides itself on being a world-class city, but it took two people from Montreal to set up this gift to Canadian letters,” says Richler with delight.


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