Film turns lens on columnist who chronicled the who’s who of Vancouver

Retired Vancouver Sun columnist Malcolm Parry was known for his boundless energy, bad puns and top-down photos that made women look great and men look like they were losing their hair

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In 1991, Malcolm Parry was asked if he would like to write a society column for The Vancouver Sun.

But there was a problem.

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“I said, ‘What, me? I don’t know dick about a social column,” he recounts.

He got the gig anyway.

Initially, it was supposed to be once a week, but it quickly became two and then three times a week.

The hours could be gruelling. In those early days, he would start writing at 3 a.m. after spending the night at several events.

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But his “Parrydiddles” and “Up Parryscopes” became so popular, he was asked to do a fourth column for the business section. His column wound up running for three decades, before it ended during COVID in 2020.

Parry, 87, is now happily retired and living with his wife Nancy in their waterfront home in Deep Cove. He dubs it “Mac-a-Lago” after his nickname Mac. (Few people ever seem to call him Malcolm.)

But he is about to be back in the public eye in a new documentary, The Society Page, that debuts on the Knowledge Network at 9:30 p.m. on March 17.

Produced and directed by Kevin Eastwood, it features a who’s who of people he wrote about in his column, including author/artist Doug Coupland, real estate mogul Bob Rennie, and drag performer Carlotta Gurl.

Eastwood, who was mentioned in Parry’s columns eight times, noticed how “there was a gravitational pull” toward the columnist at an event one night.

“People were all trying to get his attention, strike up a conversation, and hopefully get him to take their photo,” Eastwood said.

“He wound up standing close by, and I started chatting to him about his process. I realized nobody ever (just) talks to him at those events. They’re always busy promoting what they’ve got to pitch — their movie, their art project, their business.”

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He found Parry quite modest about how he went about his job.

“He said, ‘What I do is not that special — this is why I do it, and this is why I do it,” said Eastwood. “I was fascinated. I actually found it really compelling.”

So he mentioned it to an executive at the Knowledge Network, and they were interested. Parry was leery of doing a doc, but caved when Eastwood said it would be focused on his photos.

Parry spent several years as a professional photographer, and had a unique style that made the photos in his column as popular as the gossip.

A tall fellow (6-3), he loomed over many of his subjects. When he didn’t, he’d hop on a chair, table or dumpster to get the right angle, which was top-down.

“I used to photograph people in crowds, surrounded by other folk and backgrounds like hotel rooms,” he explains.

“If you get up and look down, you don’t see any of that background. Women always look better from that angle, and it amuses them because (with) their escorts or their husbands, it tends to accentuate (the men’s) loss of hair.”

This led to many photos that showed women’s cleavage. But Parry insists that there really weren’t that many.

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“They were formal occasions,” he notes. “I didn’t dress anybody, that’s how they turned out.”

It helped that he didn’t just photograph and profile the rich and famous. Parry would do something on anyone he found interesting, whether it was a budding actor, artist or fitness instructor.

Parry had a natural way with people that made them relax.

“When he’s saying, ‘I want to take your photo,’ he’s making you feel important, he’s making you feel part of something,” said Bob Rennie, who put on an exhibition of Parry’s photos at his gallery in 2003.

Rennie appeared in Parry’s columns 95 times. This is two shy of Jacqui Cohen, the Army and Navy heiress whose Face The World galas were a recurring subject.

“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” said Cohen. “I love the fact that he’s caught so many special moments in the Cohen life, not just mine. Pictures of my mom. I can only imagine his archive. He’s a history of Vancouver.”

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A Malcolm Parry column photo from June 10, 2006, Original cutline: “Jacqui Cohen wore a possibly-real $30-million diamond beside Face The World guests Ryan O’Neal and Alfredo Molina. Photo by Malcolm Parry /Vancouver Sun

Parry was born in Walsall, England, near Birmingham. His father was a cop, as is his younger brother. His dad was also a talented photographer, and Malcolm followed in his footsteps.

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“My dad would mix his own chemicals for development,” he recalls. “The smell used to attract me. It was like catnip. We had cameras everywhere. I was camera crazy long before I started taking photos when I was 10 or 11.”

In England, he studied civil engineering and fronted his own band, Mac Parry Music, playing alto and tenor saxophone.

“I had a friend here who used to call me the working girl’s Boots Randolph,” he deadpans.

He immigrated to Vancouver in 1957. His first job was working on the construction of the Woodward’s parking garage.

“Then I went to B.C. Electric as a soil inspector up at Mission Dam,” he said. “But before long I had become photographer for the whole project.”

He worked as an industrial photographer for a decade before being tapped by Vancouver Life magazine to take the cover photo for the March 1968 issue. The art director was Peter Eastwood, Kevin Eastwood’s father.

Parry started a business magazine, but it only lasted three years. He then took over as the editor of Dick McLean’s Vancouver Leisure Guide, which he renamed Vancouver Magazine.

“We basically copied New York magazine,” he admits. “We copied the layout, we copied the way they did things.”

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It became a tremendous success, particularly after it was purchased by Ron Stern, who would let Parry do things like send an unknown young writer to Los Angeles to do a story on former Vancouver art dealer Douglas Chrismas, who was in the midst of a big art scandal.

The writer was Douglas Coupland, who published an early version of his breakthrough novel Generation X in Vancouver Magazine.

Parry left Vancouver for a short stint at Vista magazine in Toronto, went back to Vancouver Magazine for a bit and then signed on at The Sun.

The paper was converting to a morning edition, and added nine new columnists. The only ones who lasted were Parry and Max Wyman.

The only time he took a break from his column is when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2003. Parry is blessed with superhuman energy, and it shook the newsroom when he announced he was ill in his column.

For years, he was edited by John Olding, a no-nonsense news guy. Against all odds, he and Parry got on like gangbusters.

“He would call on the phone, ‘Parry, get your drivel down here right now!’” he said. “But when I had cancer … I was not wanting to tell people before the diagnosis that I was having tests.”

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The day Parry learned he had cancer, he phoned Olding about his column.

“Where’ve you been?” Olding asked.

“Oh … uh, to see the sawbones,” Parry answered.

“Nothing trivial, I hope,” Olding replied.

“When I announced my cancer, I actually wrote that (into a column),” said Parry. “And I heard he wept, he cried.”

But Parry recovered, no small feat when you consider that only 13 per cent of people with esophageal cancer survive.

“I knew the odds, but I got good treatment, the very first operation from a guy who helped develop a new style of esophageal cancer surgery in Michigan, Dr. John Yee. I was his first patient.

“I went through a few uncomfortable months. It’s pretty challenging, the radiation and the therapy. It’s like chemotherapy and then the big operation. But you get over it.”

After a few months he was back at the column, compiling what would become a unique photo archive of Vancouverites from the 1990s to 2020.

“He’s taken more photos of the people in this city than I think anyone,” said Eastwood.

“I see him as the successor to people like Yucho Chow, who had a studio in Chinatown (from 1906 to 1949) and recorded the faces of the city at that time. And Foncie Pulice the street photographer, who used to take photos from the ’40s through the ’70s.

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“I see Mac really kind of picking up that tradition. All three are totally different stylistically, but they’re all doing the same thing, documenting the people of the city.”

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Malcolm Parry at his Deep Cove home March 8. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG
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Parry often took pic of the same people. One of his favourites was Army and Navy heiress Jacqui Cohen at her Face The World charity event. Here we see singer Tom Jones, Cohen and then B.C. premier Gordon Campbell in 2004. Photo by Malcolm Parry /Vancouver Sun
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Malcolm Parry’s 2014 photo of former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and real estate titan Bob Rennie. Photo by Malcolm Parry /Vancouver Sun
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Malcolm Parry recovering from cancer surgery in 2003. Photo by Malcolm Parry /PNG
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An 18-year-old Malcolm Parry playing saxophone with his band in England.
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Parry won an award for this photo taken at the top of the piers of the Lions Gate Bridge. But he wasn’t supposed to take the photo. The photographer booked for the Vancouver magazine shot backed out at the last minute because he was too scared. So Parry borrowed a lens, went home to change and did the photo himself.

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