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Jack Rabinovitch changed the way Canadian novels are read and celebrated

A photograph of Jack Rabinovitch and his wife Doris Giller taken in his home on Wednesday.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Six years after he inaugurated the annual Giller Prize for the year's most outstanding Canadian fiction, Jack Rabinovitch faced a dilemma.

The awards gala in the ballroom of Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel on that November evening in 2000 had gone well, the guests had dined on assorted delicacies, videos about the finalists had been applauded, the anticipatory hum in the room was rising. Who was going to take home the most coveted literary prize in the country?

Then, one of the three judges stepped up to the mike and made an unthinkable announcement: The jury's deliberations had ended in a tie and they had decided to split the prize between Michael Ondaatje for Anil's Ghost, the story of a forensic pathologist in Sri Lanka trying to identify the skeleton of a murdered man, and Mercy Among the Children, David Adams Richards's novel about suffering and sacrifice in the Miramichi Valley of New Brunswick.

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This had never happened before.

At this point, Mr. Rabinovitch, who as usual had no prior knowledge of the winner, had five cheques made out for $25,000 in his pocket. Normally, he presented one to the winner and tore up the rest. That evening, rather than divide the purse, he handed a cheque without hesitation to each of the two authors for the full amount.

Jack Rabinovitch, who died at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Aug. 6 after falling down the stairs of his Roxborough Avenue home, was that kind of man – open, fair and generous, the sort that, in the parlance of his generation, was called a sport.

From a hardscrabble childhood on the streets of Montreal, he made his fortune as a savvy business executive in the fields of food retailing and distribution and of property development. Then, in the astonishing third act of his life, without ever having written a book or worked in publishing or bookselling, he changed the way novels are marketed, celebrated and read in this country.

His transformative instrument was the Giller Prize, named for the love of his life, the literary journalist Doris Giller, who died of lung cancer in 1993 at the age of 62. Official book prizes such as the Governor-General's Literary Awards and Ontario's Trillium Book Award have long been around, but no private individual or company had previously had the chutzpah – the gall – to create an independent knockout award comparable to Britain's Booker Prize, which was his model.

It was his Taj Mahal, created like that monument by a bereaved husband.

Mr. Rabinovitch did it in style. Engraved invitations to the annual Giller dinner, when more than 400 guests crowded into the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel to hear the winner's name, arrived with a red rose in a small vial of water. Women came in long gowns, men wore tuxedos. Flashbulbs popped. The writers felt like stars, especially after the galas began to be televised.

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"Everything that Doris liked – roses, black tie, big parties – was folded into the award," says Toronto literary agent Beverley Slopen, a friend of the couple.

Ms. Giller and Mr. Rabinovitch were born a year apart, both products of the teeming Montreal Jewish neighbourhood around "the Main," which is what locals called St. Lawrence Boulevard.

Jack Rabinovitch was the middle child, born June 24, 1930, to Isaac Rabinovitch and the former Fanny Shulman, Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had fled pogroms in their Ukraine village. Isaac sold the Montreal Star and the Herald (both afternoon papers) at his newspaper kiosk – and as soon as his sons Sam and Jack were old enough, they were expected to pitch in. In later life, Jack remembered standing on frigid winter days at the corner of Ontario Street and the Main hawking papers when he was 7.

Eventually, Isaac opened a diner nearby named Subway Light Lunch, and later, a toy store.

The boys attended Baron Byng High School, a place of roiling immigrant ambitions immortalized in the fiction of Jack's close friend, author Mordecai Richler, as Fletcher's Field High. Looking back, Mr. Rabinovitch told writer Jack Batten that his school "produced some of the best scholars in the city – and some of the biggest crooks."

After the war, when he was 16, he talked his way into a part-time job selling shoes at Eaton's, at the time not known for hiring Jews. The shoe salesmen worked on commission. As he told the story to his friend, the Toronto lawyer Julian Porter, a shabby, elderly woman came in one day wanting to buy slippers. "The other salesmen vanished but Jack felt sorry for her, measured her foot and tried to help her find what she wanted," Mr. Porter recounted. "She said, 'I'd like 35 pairs for everyone at my nursing home.' After she paid for this large order, the manager came out and told Jack that he had to share his commission with the other salesmen. Jack said, 'No, I'm not sharing it. You can fire me but pay me first.'" He was fired, but walked away with the money. "To have stood firm on a point of principle at the age of 16, that was remarkable," Mr. Porter said.

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After graduating from Baron Byng, Mr. Rabinovitch, an avid reader, took a BA at McGill University in English literature, graduating summa cum laude in 1952. He was offered a scholarship to study in Paris, but his father suffered a heart attack that summer and both sons had to hurry home to take his place at the diner. Elder brother Sam, who became a noted child psychologist, made his way back from the University of British Columbia, where he had been teaching after earning a doctorate at Purdue University in Indiana. The wisecracking patrons of Subway Light Lunch were vastly amused that a PhD had made their breakfast.

Mr. Rabinovitch became a speechwriter for Sam Steinberg, head of the eponymous supermarket chain. At Steinberg's, Mr. Rabinovitch was soon put in charge of scouting and buying new store locations, mostly in Ontario; he thus discovered his true vocation as a developer. After Mr. Steinberg's death, the chain began to founder and was eventually broken up. Mr. Rabinovitch moved on to the real estate company Trizec, whose first project was the celebrated Montreal office complex Place Ville Marie. At Trizec, he was project manager, then executive vice-president in charge of the company's retail, office and hotel developments in eastern North America.

He worked for a time for Edper, the business conglomerate owned before their deaths by Edward and Peter Bronfman, and was later president of Nodel Investments, his own firm.

His 1953 marriage to Zipporah Dunsky, whom he met shortly after graduating from high school, produced three daughters, but ended in divorce in 1971. Ms. Dunsky later became executive director of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal and now lives in Toronto.

"My father had actually met Doris before he knew my mother but he was not ready for her," said his youngest daughter Elana Rabinovitch, executive director of the Giller Prize.

Doris Giller had attended Commercial High in Montreal, preparing to make her living as a secretary, but she soon talked her way into a reporting job at the Montreal Star. Sexy and glamorous, with a smoky, husky voice and a wicked sense of humour, she could keep up with the hard-drinking male reporters she met after work at the Press Club at the old Mount Royal Hotel.

Eventually, she became the Montreal Star's entertainment editor, the first female editor the paper appointed. Mr. Rabinovitch (whom she fondly called Jackson) was smitten by Ms. Giller and, after his divorce, he was finally ready for her. They married in 1972, and stayed that way for 21 years until her death.

Their sophisticated new stepmother required something of an adjustment on his children's part.

Eldest daughter Noni recalled at Ms. Giller's funeral in 1993 that the three girls kept children's hours: Dinner was at 5 o'clock, which, for Ms. Giller, was the start of the cocktail hour.

When the Montreal Star folded, Ms. Giller – who loved to read – moved on to the Montreal Gazette, where she was appointed books editor. In 1986, the couple reluctantly left their beloved Montreal for Toronto, where Trizec wanted Mr. Rabinovitch to build the Bay Adelaide Centre.

Ms. Giller was assistant books editor of the Toronto Star until her illness, which brought Mr. Rabinovitch into close contact with Princess Margaret Hospital. The institution, initially located on Sherbourne Street, was about to be rebuilt on University Avenue and expanded into the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, a cancer research and teaching hospital that is now the largest of its kind in Canada.

Mr. Rabinovitch offered then-Ontario Premier Bob Rae his expertise as a developer to bring in the project under budget and on time, which – as the volunteer head of the building committee – he did.

His 1994 creation of the Giller Prize, which immediately won the support of Mordecai Richler, scholar David Staines and author Alice Munro, dramatically increased book sales in Canada, not only for the winners, but also for the many finalists. Mr. Rabinovitch was involved to the end, helping to choose each year's judges, which now include international authors.

In 2005, Scotiabank came aboard with financial assistance to make sure the prize never runs out of money. The value of the prize increased first to $50,000, then to $100,000, plus lesser amounts for the finalists. The Giller Prize's future is secure.

Mr. Rabinovitch received three honorary degrees, won the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Canadian Booksellers Association and was Maclean's magazine's Man of the Year in 1999. He was also an Officer of the Order of Canada. But he remained "very much the street guy," Beverley Slopen says. "He was never pretentious."

Jack Rabinovitch leaves his daughters Noni, Daphna and Elana; his sister Shirley; his companion for the past 15 years Judy Clarke; and three grandchildren. His brother Sam died at 49 in 1976.

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