Catherine The Great
by Deirdre Kelly
photography by Jeff Kirk
Whoever said all that glitters isn’t gold certainly didn’t know Catherine Nugent (BA ’70).
Toronto’s premiere Glitter Girl – a sobriquet Nugent came by in the 1980s when she and a close-knit group of other prominent Toronto socialites dazzled the city with their champagne style, charm and good works – is a fundraiser’s dream.
Today, the grande dame of fashionable society is as well-known for the mountains of cash she has single-handedly raised for charity as for her love of expensive jewels. “I’m a firm believer in giving back,” says the McLaughlin College alum, who graduated with a bachelor of arts in languages in 1970 (“back when York was still a baby”), and credits her alma mater for teaching her everything she knows about creative philanthropy. “York has always been outside the box and that’s how I like to operate. The University does things differently and so do I.”
That difference includes the hugely successful Brazilian Ball, a legendary (now defunct) society fundraiser she co-founded with the late Anna Maria de Souza, a future fellow GG, while Nugent was still a York student. The first one took place in 1966 in a church basement in downtown Toronto, Nugent’s record collection providing the party atmosphere.
Born to Canadian parents in Rio de Janeiro in 1948, Nugent had been moving to a samba beat from a young age, so the theme came naturally to her. Her late father, Robert Mackenzie, worked in the postwar years for the Brazilian Traction Company, a major Canadian utility company later known as Brascan, which had been founded by his uncle, Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Nugent’s mother, Peggy Mackenzie, a native Montrealer (and Harvard grad) who later became social secretary to York’s first president, Murray Ross, was, as her daughter would become, a legendary hostess whose parties would inspire Nugent to err on the side of extravagance when creating her own.
“In Rio de Janeiro,” she once told Rosemary Sexton, the former Globe and Mail society columnist whose 1993 book, The Glitter Girls, chronicled Nugent’s rise to prominence among the Canadian jet set, “our life was full of deposed kings, maharajas, ambassadors, writers, artists and all sorts of controversial members.” Boring, in other words, it wasn’t. But Toronto – to which she had relocated for her postsecondary education after attending boarding school in Rothesay, N.B. – was a different story. The Brazilian Ball, with its approximation of Rio’s hedonistic, sometimes debauched, Carnaval festivities, was meant to loosen collars – not to mention other articles of clothing – as well as purse strings. It succeeded and largely because of Nugent’s ingenuity, observers say.
“She is extremely bright, speaks three or four languages and has good ideas,” pronounces Carole Grafstein, a regular Brazilian Ball attendee who harnessed that brain power for some of her own causes, including Run for the Cure, the popular Canadian Cancer Society fundraiser, which Grafstein launched in 1997 with Nugent’s help. “She also worked with me at the Canadian Opera Company when we brought in Yves Saint Laurent and raised $1 million,” adds the wife of former Canadian senator Jerry Grafstein. “She has been a very good citizen to Canada because she’s fundraised a lot of money, starting with the Brazilian Ball, which she helped get going here.”
Nugent chaired the event through various iterations of conga lines and fan dances, taking it from arriviste status to the most anticipated night on the city’s social calendar before the sequinned G-strings were hung up for good in 2012. During its 46-year run, the Brazilian Ball didn’t just show WASP Toronto how to party, but also raised more than $60 million for hospitals, charities and leading educational and cultural institutions in South America and Canada. Given Nugent’s association with York, the University twice was a recipient of the ball’s largesse, receiving $1.5 million for the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution in 1998 and another $2 million for the Accolade Project in the Faculty of Fine Arts in 2006. Nugent obtained the funds by offering up Toronto what it didn’t know it was missing: over-the-top style.
A lot of interesting people were there, armed with great ideas. It was an exciting time. A time when you believed anything could be possible
“The ballgowns were immense, made of satin and taffeta by Winston Kong and topped with headdresses. The ’80s,” she says, inserting a dramatic pause, “were magnificent.” Not that her other decades have been any less spectacular. Take, for instance, the 1960s, a time when York was the new kid on the academic block, beckoning people like Nugent to explore new social and professional frontiers. Wanting to join the diplomatic corps and become an interpreter, an ambition nurtured by her upbringing in a foreign land and mastery of Portuguese and French as a child, she came to York for its languages program and something more besides.
“The allure was that it wasn’t the University of Toronto. It was a new thing and it was fun,” she recalls. “The Ministry of Love is what we called the big building on the Keele campus. But like a lot of things fresh in Toronto at the time, it was regarded as a bit suspect. For sure a lot of interesting people were there, armed with great ideas. It was an exciting time. A time when you believed anything could be possible.”
In the 1970s, Nugent married the late Stephen Leggett, an Osgoode grad turned crown attorney, whom she had met while working as a court interpreter soon after graduation. Moving into a Rosedale mansion, the couple went on to have two children: Margot Elizabeth in 1975 and Jacqueline Nancy Anne in 1977. In the 1980s, the established glamour queen divorced her first husband to become the wife of David Nugent, the English-born founder of Riviera Concepts, a global cosmetics company that manufactured and distributed bestselling fragrances by fashion designers such as Alfred Sung, Bob Mackie and Nina Ricci. In 1989, they had a son, Jonathan. Soon afterward, Nugent and her family decamped to France, where she spent the 1990s helping her husband with the business. David Nugent died in Toronto in 2013, spending his final days at Bridgepoint Health, a complex care hospital built around the old Don Jail and today operated under the aegis of the Sinai Health System, which Catherine, in her fashion, helped get off the ground.
After returning to Canada at the start of the new millennium – and thinking that her Glitter Girl days were well behind her – Nugent was approached by Bridgepoint to sprinkle some of her magic on Fandango!, yet another Latin-themed dancing-for-dollars event, this one targeting health care. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved,” Nugent says. “But then I listened to the dream, and they got me at the word heart.”
Initially, the organizers had asked her to coach them on how to pull off a proper fundraiser; after she provided them with a This Is How You Do a Gala memo, however, they begged her to take on the job.
“Catherine is a selfless individual who networks for the good of everyone,” says Janice O’Born, who sits on the Mount Sinai/Bridgepoint board. “Her accomplishments in philanthropy are endless.”
Since acquiring the reins of Fandango! in 2004, Nugent has raised more than $3 million for Bridgepoint, plus another $1.8 million through the Great Jewellery Heist, a glamorous gemstone-laden luncheon she hosts each October at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto. Nugent is the reason it shines.
“People call me a socialite but please spell it l-i-g-h-t,” she says. “Otherwise it’s a term that gives a lot of women who do good work a frivolous name. I mean, how many millions have we raised?” Too many to count.