By John Schulian
I was instantly happy at the Daily News. It was frayed around the cuffs and just about everywhere else, but that was a relief after all the power and glamour at the Washington Post. Just the same, the Daily News had a distinguished history of its own -– Carl Sandburg strumming his guitar in the city room, a distinguished cadre of foreign correspondents, Pulitzer prizes galore, and, of course, Mike Royko. But for the two decades before I got there, it had been searching for an identity. The one thing about it that couldn’t be changed was that it was an afternoon paper, and afternoon papers were the dinosaurs of the newspaper business. Readers were turning to TV instead, and besides, there was never any guarantee that our delivery trucks were going to make their way through the increasingly gnarly traffic. Add it all up and you had Chicago’s version of the Alamo.
I was at the Daily News for the last 13 months of its existence, and it was probably the most exhilarating time of my career. The paper’s old hands did great work, and most of the newcomers fell right in step with them. When the paper was re-designed, it looked great, too. (The guy who re-designed it had also given the New York Herald Tribune a new look right before it went under, so maybe he was the kiss of death.) I remember Royko saying the paper was the best it had been in all the years he’d been there, and Mike didn’t throw compliments around lightly. He couldn’t have cared less about peoples’ feelings. But he was truly proud of the Daily News as it battled extinction.
Being on the same paper with Royko was a privilege. Actually, I was on two papers with him: the Daily News and the Sun-Times. The man was a genius as a columnist. It’s not like great cityside columnists fall off trees, either. But Mike worked in an era that had a bumper crop: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter. There was Murray Kempton, too -– God, what a beautiful writer — and the marvelously off-the-wall George Frazier in Boston. They called Paul Hemphilll “the Breslin of the South” when he wrote a column in Atlanta, and Emmett Watson was the soul of Seattle. When I look around the country now, the pickings are pretty slim. I consider myself lucky to read Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times — he really works to make sense (and fun) of an unbelievably complicated city. I can’t help thinking that he learned, at least in part, by studying the masters.
It’s a tough call–maybe an impossible call- to say who was the best of those giants from 20 and 30 years ago. They all had days when they stood atop the world. Royko and Breslin defined the cities they worked in for the rest of the country. Hamill wrote with the eye of the novelist and memoirist he became. Dexter was the most unique; he went way beyond the Philadelphia city limits to the borders of his imagination. Of course he didn’t do it anywhere as near as long as the others. Hamill kept taking side trips, too–to screenwriting, novels, editing–but I never lost the sense of him as a committed newspaperman. Still, it was Royko and Breslin who seemed to capture the most imaginations. For pure writing I’d give the nod to Breslin. But for knowing how to work a column, whether he was raising hell with the first Mayor Daley or making you laugh with his alter ego, Slats Grobnik, or breaking your heart, Royko couldn’t be beat.
And he did it five days a week. Tell that to these limp-dick editors who think a columnist should only write twice a week. Royko didn’t have the privacy of an office at the Daily News, either. He just moved filing cabinets around until they formed a wall around his corner desk. And he’d be at that desk from morning until late at night.
When he’d send a copy boy to fetch him a cheeseburger from Billy Goat’s Tavern, his instructions were to the point: “Tell the Goat to hold the hair.”
He’d answer his own phone and tell callers he wasn’t Royko and didn’t understand why anybody wanted to talk to the son of a bitch. Then he’d go off on some wild tangent about Royko’s lack of hygiene until he hung up cackling like a madman.
The time I spent yakking with Royko was always at work. He liked to drink -– man, did he like to drink -– but I stayed away from him then. He was a binge drinker, dry for weeks or months and then he’d go on a toot and turn ugly and abusive. When he was drunk, he was forever getting in a scrap or pouring ketchup on a woman who’d rejected his advances. Legend has it that he once fell out of his car while he was driving and broke his leg. There was a group of ass-kissers who tagged along after him like puppies, encouraging him to be more and more outrageous and saying yes to every nonsensical thing that came out of his mouth. As far as I could tell, the only good man in the bunch was Big Shack, who worked in the Sun-Times’ backshop. He looked out for Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to tell him when enough was enough.
Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and Mike moved to the Tribune, a paper he had always hated. I like to think he still hated it when he worked there, except, of course, when it gave him a chance to call Murdoch “The Alien” in print.
Mike was the best.