Gotlieb, Sondra 1936-

views updated

GOTLIEB, Sondra 1936-

PERSONAL: Born December 30, 1936, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; daughter of David Samson (an agricultural chemist) and Fanny Clare (Rossen) Kaufman; married Allan Gotlieb (a lawyer and diplomat), 1955; children: Rebecca, Marc, Rachel. Education: Attended University of Manitoba and Carleton University.

ADDRESSES: Home—Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Agent—c/o Author Mail, McArthur and Co., 322 King St. W., Ste. 402, Toronto, Ontario M5V 1J2, Canada.

CAREER: Author, journalist, and former columnist for the Washington Post. Also an artist.

MEMBER: Writers' Union of Canada.

AWARDS, HONORS: Leacock Medal for Humour, 1978, for True Confections, or How My Family Arranged My Marriage.


The Gourmet's Canada (cookbook), New Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1972.

Cross-Country Cooking: Favorite Ethnic Recipes from across the Continent, Hancock House Publishers (Seattle, WA), 1976.

True Confections, or How My Family Arranged MyMarriage (novel), Musson Book Co. (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1978.

First Lady, Last Lady (novel), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1981, published as A Woman of Consequence, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1983.

Wife of . . . An Irreverent Account of Life in Powertown (collected columns), Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987.

Washington Rollercoaster (memoir), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.

Dogs, Houses, Gardens, Food, and Other Addictions (memoir), McArthur (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.

Also editor, with Anne Hardy, of Where to Eat in Canada (restaurant guide), 1971-72, 1972-73. Author of "Dear Beverly," a twice-monthly humor column, Washington Post. Contributor of articles and sketches to periodicals, including Maclean's, Chatelaine, Homemakers, and Saturday Night.

SIDELIGHTS: In addition to other writings, Sondra Gotlieb's life as wife of the Canadian ambassador to the United States has inspired a novel, a collection of humorous columns, and a memoir. Critics have generally praised Gotlieb's "frothy satire," in the words of Christopher Schmering in the Washington Post Book World, and her "deliciously witty, snippy, tongue-in-chic account of official cocktail parties and dinners," according to Magda Krance in the Chicago Tribune.

Gotlieb's success as a writer may seem ironic since, as she once told CA, she "failed two universities," the University of Manitoba as a teenager and, years later, after her marriage to Oxford don and Canadian diplomat Allan Gotlieb, Carleton University. Then, an offer from a neighbor who was a publisher opened the door to Gotlieb's writing career. She was made coeditor of Where to Eat in Canada, a restaurant guidebook that, as Gotlieb told Krance, "paid me absolutely nothing. . . . I ate my way through Canada at my husband's expense."

Gotlieb continued to write about food, producing two acclaimed cookbooks. Anthony Appenzell, writing in Canadian Literature, called The Gourmet's Canada "a great food-searching journey across Canada . . . in which the author seeks out regional foods and dishes, talks of their natural and social history, [and] relates them to local lifestyles." Cross-Country Cooking: Favorite Ethnic Recipes from across the Continent is likewise a compendium of Canada's ethnic specialties. While breaking away from cookbook writing, a food theme pervades Gotlieb's first novel, True Confections, or How My Family Arranged My Marriage—which, as she told Krance, received a glowing review from a professor who had failed her in her college days.

After Allan Gotlieb became Canada's ambassador to the United States, the couple moved to Washington, DC, where Gotlieb began to write "Dear Beverly," a twice-monthly column in the Washington Post about the life (somewhat fictionalized) of an ambassador's wife. Addressed to a fictional friend named Beverly, the column appeared as letters from an ambassador's wife living in Washington. Each entry of "Dear Beverly" detailed life in the United States capital, including a host of characters based on real-life Washingtonians. There were, among others, the crusty diplomat Baron Spitte, professional socialite Popsie Tribble, and high-powered lobbyist Joe Promisall.

Apparently, some members of Washington's elite—as well as fellow Canadians—were offended by Gotlieb's column. "At first some Canadians thought an ambassador's wife should not do this sort of thing," Gotlieb told a chapter of the Canadian Club in 1984, quoted in the Chicago Tribune by Krance. Nevertheless, Gotlieb continued to defend her right to publish a humorous look at diplomatic life, claiming that most Americans like to laugh at themselves. Gotlieb also speculated to Krance that people may have taken exception to her column because it appeared in the Post's op-ed section, alongside more serious material, rather than the feature page. In 1985, Macmillan published a collection of "Dear Beverly" columns asWife of . . . An Irreverent Account of Life in Powertown. Eve Drobot, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, found the collection "charming and frequently . . . hilarious," although somewhat repetitive: "what may be necessary in newspaper pieces that run with a two-week grace between them . . . clog up a book that's read all of a piece."

Gotlieb again drew on her past as a diplomat's wife for her second novel, First Lady, Last Lady, a story of ambition and intrigue set in the world of politics. The novel's protagonist is Nini Pike, the wife of a Canadian prime minister. While Nini's current situation is one of comic chaos, it is the events of twenty years ago that she is relating to an old friend. Prior to his ascension to prime minister, Nini's husband had served as a junior foreign service officer to the Canadian ambassador to Geneva, Switzerland, a particularly offensive man known as Sir Hillary-Moulds. It was during this time that Nini grew from a naive, complacent wife to a woman well-versed in the true machinations of power politics. Along her path to enlightenment, she discovers various pearls of wisdom, including the realizations that boredom is her greatest adversary and that the proper selection of a new chef for the ambassador may do more to advance her husband's career than any brilliant political maneuver. She also, along with everyone in his service, grows to despise Hillary-Moulds. The reminiscence is tied to the novel's present by a blackmail threat to Nini. It seems that twenty years earlier, Ambassador Hillary-Moulds was found dead in his bedroom. A mysterious person claims to have proof that Nini committed the crime and is threatening to tell all if she does not meet certain demands. New York Times Book Review writer Elisabeth Jakab commented that "Mrs. Gotlieb is very skillful at blending her characters' personal histories with the larger issues that eventually come to light. Her basic gift, however, appears to be for exploring the vagaries of human nature; it's this talent that makes [the novel] such entertaining, and occasionally hilarious, reading."

While Gotlieb's husband was still an ambassador, she had him review every "Dear Beverly" column that she wrote to make sure her work would not in any way interfere with his career. To protect her husband's position, she often disguised real people by blending elements of their personality into fictional beings such as Baron Spitte and Popsie Tribble. After Allan Gotlieb left his position, however, Gotlieb named the subjects of her commentaries, according to Maclean's reviewer E. Kaye Fulton. Gotlieb's memoir, Washington Rollercoaster, tells the story of Gotlieb's walks through the corridors of power, including juicy tidbits about numerous politicians and their spouses. Most critics concur, however, that the standout anecdote in the book revolves around Gotlieb's own impropriety: at a March, 1986, party to honor Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Gotlieb publicly slapped the face of her social secretary, Connie Connor. As Gotlieb explains in the book, she was in a terrible, harried state-of-mind, owing in part to a period of self-imposed starvation so she could fit into a new dress, and momentarily lost control—in front of numerous luminaries. The Connie Connor incident may serve as a metaphor for the overall tone of the book; as Fulton wrote, "Slaps resound throughout Washington Rollercoaster." Fulton went on to praise the book, saying that its barbs "may delight readers but will no doubt leave Gotlieb's targets as red-faced and embarrassed as the hapless Connie Connor."



Gotlieb, Sondra, Washington Rollercoaster, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.

Gotlieb, Sondra, Dogs, Houses, Gardens, Food, andOther Addictions, McArthur (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.


Books in Canada, March, 2003, Sharon Abron Drache, review of Dogs, Houses, Gardens, Food, and Other Addictions.

Chicago Tribune, October 25, 1984, article by Magda Krance, pp. 1, 5.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 16, 1985, Eve Drobot, review of Wife of . . . An Irreverent Account of Life in Powertown.

Maclean's, May 14, 1990, E. Kaye Fulton, review of Washington Rollercoaster, p. 67.

New York Times Biographical Service, July 8, 1982, pp. 850-851.

New York Times Book Review, June 19, 1983, Elisabeth Jakab, review of First Lady, Last Lady, pp. 12, 21.

Washington Post Book World, June 5, 1983, article by Christopher Schmering, p. 11.*