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Sondra, Slaps, and Facts

Sondra Gotlieb’s hands have smacked out hundreds of thousands of words and millions of letters in type, but for many people she is best known for having used her hand to smack a face.  The so-called “Slap Flap” happened in 1986 when Gotlieb, wife of the then Canadian Ambassador to the U.S., was hosting a dinner for the Prime Minister at her husband’s official residence in Washington. 

Gotlieb had been fussing over the seating arrangements and other preparations for days, and evidently slapped her social secretary on the face thinking that the woman had hidden important guest attendance information. The incident was witnessed, was duly reported in the media, and became an embarrassing and awkward moment for many Canadian officials as well as Gotlieb herself.

This was when I first heard of Sondra Gotlieb.  Her husband Allen was a former Rhodes Scholar and a high powered Oxford and Harvard educated lawyer, who had worked abroad and at the highest levels of government in Ottawa as a deputy minister and advisor to Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.   Now as the Ambassador to Washington, he was known in part for his wife’s sumptuous parties at their official residence and for her gossipy column on life in the U.S. Capital for the Washington Post.  The columns under the heading “Dear Beverly” took the form of letters to a fictional friend back home in Canada.

Knowing little else and being a biased political hack in Ottawa, I presumed in the 1980s that she was trading on her husband’s position for self-promotion and gratification at the expense of others. 

But Sondra Gotlieb had firm credentials as a writer and journalist before she arrived in Washington and, I now realize, was merely applying her trade to a new and peculiar circumstance.  
Like her semi-fictional character “Verna” in the Leacock Medal book True Confections (1978), Gotlieb was born and raised in the mixed cultures of North End Winnipeg where she developed the love of varied foods expressed in her first books, the nonfiction cook books The Gourmet's Canada (1972) and Cross Canada Cooking (1976).  She thus entered the Washington social scene equipped to entertain and feed guests well.

As the jack cover to my copy of True Connections says, she also contributed to Maclean's and Chatelaine magazines before starting her columns in the Washington Post.  Over her career as a writer, she also produced articles for Saturday Night, the New York Times, and, more recently, The National Post newspaper.   

Gotlieb apologized over the “Slap Flap” affair immediately after it happened and in varied ways over the years, and she tried to explain what is ultimately unexplainable in interviews and writing such as her memoir from that period. 

But the acts and events that put it perspective best are the self-deprecating comments Gotlieb has made in relation to her behaviour.  It resonates with her True Confections ruminations about privilege and weight control in the pre-Washington, pre-Slap era.

My reasons for cutting her some slack include the personal life events that always dwarf the triviality of a public persona and media musings.

Like the fictional Verna, Gotlieb was born in 1936 and married her older, scholarly husband in 1955.  They had three children Marc, Rachel, and first of all Rebecca, who was born just a few years after the marriage which was commemorated and echoed in the closing pages of the Leacock Medal book.   

By the time True Confections was written, that baby, Sondra Gotlieb’s first child, was  entering university and starting studies that would lead to several degrees and as a career as a lawyer.  Sadly, Rebecca, who also wrote columns on occasion, passed away with cancer at only 44-years of age in 2003.

The Gotliebs have lived in Toronto for many years.  Sondra continues to write for the National Post, and the now elderly Allen remains active in law, business, and other public concerns.

Review of True Confections - 1979 Leacock Medal Winner