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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Columns Galore

It happened in Chicago, 1940s. Downdrafts of newsprint brought joy in flurries of warmed-over words. I gobbled newspapers as I did my breakfast and didn’t stop chewing till I took the late editions to bed. Education was supposed to come from school, but the excitement of learning came to me from columns of print with the columnist’s blurry bust-photo boxed at the top left in a touch of faux-intimacy.

That I lived in a newspaper city at the summit of its vigour never struck me. I assumed the world was like that all over. People woke with an eye for a headline and then swished the pages in a hurry to find what their best friend among the columnists felt about it. The newsboy on his bike had lobbed the Tribune on to our front porch, the ends tucked under to make a baton, a club on bumper days. My father brought it in, spread it out and had a quick glance while standing he fried his eggs.

My family despised the Tribune. We were Democrats, backed the unions and Roosevelt, FDR. But like most people in Chicago we couldn’t do without the Trib. Not to see it it meant you were exiled to nowhere. The Trib set you down in the Midwest that it had created, kept in line, and baptised with the tin moniker, Chicagoland. I agreed without understanding when I heard sneers about the gothic skyscraper with gargoyles that Colonel McCormick built to house his Trib. When I saw the Lake Mich boat off loading great rolls of paper from Canada where the Colonel owned forests, I had to work hard to keep hating his newspaper. Chicago kids were brought up to worship the raw power that would always be out of their reach.

I would see the the Sun-Times before lunch. It had come about in a very American way, an arrogant millionaire countering another while the reader put down his pennies to support one paper or the other and was told of his Constitutional right to choose. In the course of the Chicago day, boredom pitched in print as drama, I would manage to look into the Daily News. The dignified broadsheet boasted good writing and won Pulitzer Prizes. Even as a twelve-year old, I felt it was too good for us and Chicago, and so it would prove. The noisy Herald American never much impinged on me or my family. You didn’t have to be angels to recognise obscenity. Our working-class calluses saved us from the plague of nationalism. William Randolph Hearst’s American had the skill set of a fetid Fleet Street tabloid and then some. Distaste for it was the best part of my family inheritance.

My education went on among the grainy pages. The Sun-Times had a letters-to-the-editor corner. I managed to get paragraphs inserted. What interested me was to see my name in print. It was like seeing it on a diploma. The jokes retold or quotes from books I came up with weren’t what counted. It was seeing them set up in type. My reading surveyed the national news and the grunge of Chicago politics. But my first glance went to the columnists who talked about nothing much as if it really mattered. It was the big dirty city’s equivalent to rural cracker-barrel jawing of legend.

Herb Graffis’s column went with his high, congenial brow. Baldness then had none of its Third Millennial fierceness. Herb was Indiana-relaxed and, though he talked too much about golf, could sit back with a fatherly take on life that I never heard from my father. Irv Kupcinet was very different, an internationalist. He hung out in Union Station where travellers between New York and Los Angeles had to change trains. When a crumpled celebrity staggered from one sleeper coach to another, Kup helped with the luggage and puffed and flattered out a column he called an interview. He showed me that there was a fabulous existence out there beyond the fields of corn. Six decades later, Kup, man-of-the-world, was still stuck in Chicago puffing out columns.

Late afternoon it was time to read Sydney J. Harris in the Daily News. He was a Liberal before it became a dirty word in God’s country. He always had a fist raised and a frown ready, opposed capital punishment, and talked of civil rights, including women’s. No wonder he ended up on Richard Nixon’s bad-guy list. Sydney made me want to go to university. He exuded Daily News idealism. The paper had been founded to sell as a give-away for a penny a copy and with a vow to keep advertising out of the news. A newsroom placard read:

“Nothing shall appear in the columns of the paper which a young lady cannot read with propriety aloud before a mixed company.”

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

Ideals didn’t pay in Chicago. The Daily News folded, some of its virtue and columnist Mike Royco passing to the Sun-Times. But it too would be brought low by the curse of decency. In 1984, the Australian mogul Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times. Roger Ebert, a Sun-Times stalwart columnist, recounts:

“On the first day of Murdoch's ownership, he walked into the newsroom and we all gathered around and he recited the usual blather and rolled up his shirtsleeves and started to lay out a new front page. Well, he was a real newspaperman, give him that. He threw out every meticulous detail of the beautiful design, ordered up big, garish headlines, and gave big play to a story about a North Shore rabbi accused of holding a sex slave. The story turned out to be fatally flawed, but so what? It sold papers. Well, actually, it didn't sell papers. There were hundreds of cancellations. Soon our precious page 3 was defaced by a daily Wingo girl, a pinup in a bikini promoting a cash giveaway. The Sun-Times, which had been placing above the Tribune in lists of the 10 best U.S. newspapers, never took that great step it was poised for.”

On that same fatal day, Royco, the paper’s star, refused to work for the Aussie he called the Alien: "No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.” He crossed the street to join the Tribune that since the Colonel’s death had moved towards the political centre.

By then, for better or worse, my education was over, and Royco, the supreme columnist,“the man that owns Chicago” (Esquire) had risen to his peak. He had begun on the Daily News, got himself a column and contrived with genius the perfect personage for the city where journos still had the last word. He was brought up over a tavern owned by his immigrant father in a Chicago where Bohunks and what-have-you’s out of Russian lands were so numerous they had to be accepted. Royco played the hard drinking, straight talking, no soft soap immigrant son to perfection. The type he impersonated was of course on the way out, headed for the comfort of the no-problem suburbs. But that only gave Royco the boost of nostalgia as Latinos moved in and Blacks had to be reckoned with.

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Unsplash

Not that any amount of ingenuity and grasp of the historical moment would have got Royco to where he was—“Mike was Chicago” (John Kass)—without a style made to order that spoke for his stagey alter ego with a grace that excluded daintiness. It was a prose machine that rarely faltered in 7,500 columns syndicated in 600 papers. Admirers made much, in their American way, of his ability to turn out four or five columns a week for thirty years despite binges and hangover blight. He had found the magic formula. The quality in the writing was there and the plain-guy spiel a bullseye.

Royco’s thinking was clear. You find issues where the civic system isn’t working and hit them hard. Never mind the national or international picture, just look out the window of that little guy’s flat above the tavern. Keep it funny, play up the grotesque side, have your sentimental moments but balanced by a shot glass of barroom cynicism, no deadly pessimism. The recipe was right for the moment. School teachers discussed his columns in class and by the mid 1960s the claim was you didn’t say good morning in Chicago, you asked the first fresh faces you met if they’d seen the overnight column, “Ju read Royco?

The modesty act Royco gave us was superb. Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley ran the most powerful political machine the USA had ever seen. It set up Jack Kennedy for the presidency in 1960. Daley could no more be defeated in a Chicago election than Fidel Castro in Cuba. Royco wrote:

“To show how powerful he was, I wound up as his number one adversary, for a good many years. … I’d like to be in that position. Running a city and some meatball on a newspaper is the only guy I have to worry about. He didn’t have to worry about who ran against him.”

The history of the American column of personal commentary doesn’t begin or end with Mike Royco. He simply created the perfect example of the close-to-home variety that made the reader a partner in his scolding of the powers that be. How native and original American columns and columnists were to the country can be gauged by a look at 19th Century European newspapers. France, for example, gave rise to a host of fiery sheets. Ideologues who were political warriors used them as megaphones that thundered their names. There was no room for casually garbed quiet voices. Britain said no to columnists in another way. Press Lord-this-or-that couched his pronouncements in God-like impersonality. Nobody signed an article in the the London Times right into the 20th Century.

Nothing was farther from the American celebrity columnist. The President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote her My Day column for a quarter of a century from 1935. Walter Lippmann played a statesman in sixty years of columns. Hearst columnist Westbrook Pegler, "the all-time champion of fake populism,” (Thomas Frank) was Time’s man of the year in 1941. Walter Winchell come out of vaudeville, concocted his columns of embroidered gossip. It overflowed into broadcast radio and made establishment figures nervous every Sunday evening. Only lack of TV flair ended Winchell’s run of power that for some bigwigs had been a reign of terror. In the same years, Hollywood gossip-hounds became the arbiters of world taste. Readers of Hedda Hopper’s column at one point numbered thirty million.

The newspaper chapter of the Gutenberg era is a long time dying. But it is dying. Its death throes rattle on in the desperate offers of replacements that clog our in-boxes. The foreign language titles have suffered along with the native press. From 1945 to 1984, Rome had an English language paper called the Daily American. It would go down in the mudslide of newsprint. The industry’s decline was accompanied by a new tourism. Venice, Florence and Rome no longer had expat communities of any substance. English-language tourists passed through, spending a week, maybe only a day or two. The world was open to them, Italy one hurried stop on a busy program.

Christopher P. Winner was the last editor of the Rome Daily American. He was a US citizen who avoided the Yanqui-in-Europe’s fixed smile by being born in Paris of a travelling family and having a life often far from the USA. When the Daily closed he worked elsewhere abroad. But in 2004 he settled again in Rome and founded the American Mag. It shared nothing with the Daily American but Winner’s—CPW’s—know-how. The Mag came out monthly till 2009 when it went exclusively online, non-profit, pro bono. It has a couple of dozen unpaid collaborators. Their motives can lazily be termed self-expression. CPW said his was love for the English language.

The American Mag isn’t part of something bigger, a news organ or an information sheet. It’s entirely made up of columnists’s one-off performances. The one-after-another effect, like a police identity parade, could be taken as an anthology of columns if for some reason they merited a second appearance. The arrangement is like a party where none of the guests are on speaking terms. While this particular reader of the American Mag waxes tender, wafted back to his early Chicago education, he senses an otherworldliness, as if he has stumbled into some limbo where old columns go when they die.

No environment could be less suited to the traditional newspaper column than the American Mag. The first thing a columnist had to offer was at least the pretence of belonging to a community. He was one of us trying to make it better. He could be relaxed and friendly about it, or he could be ironic and aloof, but he was always firmly planted beside us. However, as CPW admitted from the launching, he could offer no community. The writers would be from all over the world, and, if anything, it was the universe they wished to improve. They wouldn’t always have something to do with Italy. Maybe they had lived in Rome or even still lived there. Maybe they had tourist memories of Italy or maybe they never got closer to the country than ersatz pizza on Main Street. They could have Italian names letting a reader fantasise about their mixed marriage or marvel at their carefully weeded foreigner’s English.

There is a thirst among contributors to make final statements. The elegiac tone, decidedly elderly, would have stunned us with our second cup of coffee over the first edition at the breakfast table. It wasn’t what we wanted from a columnist even for bedtime reading. World-weariness was acceptable at most for obituaries but no preparation for catching the morning bus and fighting for a seat on the trip to school.

Not that less philosophic views are not represented in the American Mag. Hobbyists do a cookery column or movie review. We imagine a family’s star cook in retirement faced with empty chairs in the dining room or a film buff, shirt sleeves rolled, managing to stay wake in his living-room for a streaming session. One writer seems determined to shock us with a fiction of being a totally unrepentant call girl. But she—maybe he— tires of the game before our hope of a date with a serial killer is portrayed.

CPW’s own late splurge of columns in light-fingered prose are a pleasure to read. But they pose the problem of his whole enterprise. A columnist always starts afresh and ends the day’s chore with a humble climax, a slender point racked up. CPW, writing his autobiography in columns, forsakes continuity and big pivotal moments by having to wrap up a piece in a thousand words or so and forever begin again. Goodbye sweep and mounting interest.

By the way, CPW is almost totally blind, a fact we pass over following his example of avoiding heroic poses. Let us say we do admire his foresight, though, for setting up his American Mag in Rome, a city whose theme song is memento mori. The Mag is the perfect tombstone for all columnists and their handiwork.


Photo by Stephan Cassara on Unsplash

A Mike Royco column of February 16, 1973 from the Chicago Tribune:

What's Behind Daley's Words?

Several theories have arisen as to what Mayor Daley really meant a few days ago when he said: "If they don't like it, they can kiss my ass." On the surface, it appeared that the mayor was merely admonishing those who would dare question the royal favors he has bestowed upon his sons, Prince Curly, Prince Larry, and Prince Moe. But it can be a mistake to accept the superficial meaning of anything the mayor says. The mayor can be a subtle man. And as Earl Bush, his press secretary, once put it after the mayor was quoted correctly: "Don't print what he said. Print what he meant." So many observers believe the true meaning of the mayor's remarkable kissing invitation may be more than skin deep. One theory is that he would like to become sort of the Blarney Stone of Chicago. As the stone's legend goes, if a person kisses Ireland's famous Blarney Stone, which actually exists, he will be endowed with the gift of oratory. And City Hall insiders have long known that the kind of kiss Daley suggested can result in the gift of wealth. People from all over the world visit Blarney Castle so they can kiss the chunk of old limestone and thus become glib, convincing talkers. So, too, might people flock to Chicago in hopes that kissing "The Daley" might bring them unearned wealth. Daley, or at least his bottom, might become one of the great tourist attractions of the nation. The Blarney Stone has become part of the living language in such everyday phrases as "You're giving me a lot of blarney." That could happen here, too. People who make easy money might someday be described as "really having the gift of the Daley bottom." That is one theory. Another, equally interesting, goes this way: Throughout history, the loyal subjects of kings and other monarchs have usually shown their respect with a physical gesture of some sort. In some places, it was merely a deep bow or a curtsy when the ruler showed up or departed. Others, who were even more demanding, required that the subjects kneel or even crawl on all fours. (A few Chicago aldermen engage in this practice.) In some kingdoms, those who approached the big man were expected to kiss his ring or the hem of his royal clothing. Daley has already ruled Chicago for longer than most kings reigned in their countries. At this point, many of his loyal subjects view him as more a monarch than an elected official. It seems obvious that he intends to pass the entire city on to his sons, which is a gesture worthy of a king. So it would be only natural that he might feel the time has come when he is entitled to a gesture of respect and reverence that befits his royal position. And what he suggested would be simply a variation of kissing a ring or a hand. Instead of kissing the royal hem, we would kiss the royal ham. Although I have not read of any king expecting a kiss in precisely the area the mayor described, why not? One of the hallmarks of Chicago is that we do so many things in an original manner. What other city has made a river flow backwards? What other city makes traffic flow backwards? And it would be quite original if we had a leader who greeted us backwards. Where else would a leader turn his back on his people and be cheered for it? History also tells us that in some ancient kingdoms, a person who had some terrible illness thought he would be cured if he kissed the feet of the king. Could it be that the mayor is launching a low-cost, and low-slung, health program for us? I am sure there will be some people who won't want to show their affection for the mayor this way. As one man put it, when he heard what the mayor had said: "If Daley wants me to do that, then he sure has a lot of cheek." But there also are the loyal followers, typified by radio disc jockey Howard Miller, who declared over the airwaves that the mayor has "more brains in his bottom" than his critics have in their heads. While I might disagree with Miller on the quantity of cerebral matter, I won't quarrel with the location. In any case, we will maintain our efforts to find out what the mayor really meant. We hope to get to the bottom of this story. Or should I say, to the story of this bottom.”

Cover photo by Alexander Abero on Unsplash

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