April 19, 2020

A Scattering and Anniversary: Poems
Christopher Reid

Into that Good Night – Long before he grew deathly ill, our friend and great teacher Eugene Burger spoke often with Robert Charles and me about the need “to make friends with death.” One way I’ve been doing that is through reading. These Christopher Reid poems were penned as his wife, Lucinda Gane, was dying of cancer at the age of 55, and in the wake of her death as Reid found himself swimming through rivers of grief. The poems reveal a sparkling portrait of Lucinda Gane while celebrating what it means to love even in the darkest times. For anyone who has nursed a loved one in their final weeks and days, these powerful poems will ring especially true and clear. This book, then, joins Christopher Hitchens’ “Mortality” and Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” in guiding me on this strange journey to meet my final friend. (Let’s hope it’s a long journey, indeed!)


AROUND TOWN: Proust Questionnaire, Lockdown Version

As a little something to pass the time while sequestered in our homes, a handful of friends and I answered the Proust Questionnaire. Here is my response.

Which Living Person Do You Most Admire?
Malala Yousafzai

What Are Your Favorite Qualities in a Man?
I’ll leave this one to your imagination.

What Are Your Favorite Qualities in a Woman?
Intelligence, Humour (extra points if she use British spellings), Honesty.

What Do You Appreciate Most in Your Friends?
Their intelligence, humor and honesty.

What Is Your Main Fault?
I’ve become quite sluggish. (Well before the pandemic.)

What Is Your Idea of Happiness?
Sunday mornings — drinking coffee with Robert, reading the newspapers, giving Gypsie a head rub.

What Is Your Idea of Misery?
The Republican National Convention.

Who, If Not Yourself, Would You Want to Be?
Paul McCartney. What a life! What talent. And he seems to be a nice guy.

Where Would You Like to Live?
If not Chicago — London, Key West, Sonoma County, Beverly Hills ... anyone have an extra $10 million I could have?

What Is Your Greatest Fear?
Right now it’s this pandemic — afraid it will take the life of someone close to me.

Who Is Your Favorite Author?
It’s always a race between Hemingway and Fitzgerald for me. Plus, my friend Robert N. Georgalas and I have been exchanging letters during the Great-Stay-At-Home and I am relishing each and every word in Bob’s writing.

Who Is Your Favorite Musician?
Leonard Cohen.

What Is the Most Overrated Virtue?
Chastity. I mean, really: Is this even a virtue?

Which Words or Phrases Do You Most Overuse?
“Terrific” and, lately, “Fuck Trump.”

Which Talent Would You Most Like to Have?
Play jazz piano like Patricia Barber.

What Is Your Motto?
I have two — “La vida es corta, y la muerte larga” and “Take it easy — and, if it comes easy, take it twice.”


April 16, 2020

Americans in Paris
Edited by Adam Gopnik

Dream Vacation – Tired of staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic? Visit Paris through these pages. Adam Gopnik is your perfect time-traveling tour guide through this volume of letters, stories, essays and lyrics that sprawl from Benjamin Franklin to Dianna Vreeland. My postcards from this entertaining journey:
  • I never realized until now how many exclamation points Mark Twain uses!
  • I’m always so drawn to the Modernists. Henry James and Edith Wharton work their magic but the book catches fire for me with Sherwood Anderson, Malcolm Cowley, Langston Hughes, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald.
  • Irwin Shaw, Art Buchwald and Jack Kerouac impress as well, though, for me, their writing somehow stands in post-War technicolor shadows to those who came just before. That’s not a knock at all. It’s just that their work is so clearly informed by those just before them. James Baldwin stands apart, perhaps because Baldwin always stood apart and was at his best when standing apart.
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh continues to delight. Though I left wondering: Why in the world did you marry a Nazi?
  • Cole Porter gets some play in the book, which is nice, but the selection (“You Don’t Know Paree”) is my singular quibble with Gopnik. Cole Porter is a Great American Writer, worthy of the Nobel as much as Bob Dylan, though I know everyone just thinks Porter writes about nothing but moonlight and champagne. “April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, holiday tables under the trees, April in Paris, this is a feeling no one can ever reprise.”


The Comedians:
Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy
Kliph Nesteroff

Something Appealing, Something Appalling –This book is a 357-page Genesis-telling of American humor from Frank Fay to Marc Maron. Written by Kliph Nesteroff, the history features memorable lines from Jonathan Winters – “Just tell the truth and people will laugh” – and Phyllis Diller – “There will never be enough comedy. Comedy is at a premium always.”

A gift from the talented improv performer and teacher David Razowsky, “The Comedians” summarizes American comedy history from Vaudeville to radio, from presentation houses to television, from comedy albums to podcasts. Nesteroff walks us through the venues and their performers, covering a good deal of ground along the way – the Keith Circuit, the Orpheum Circuit, the Pantages Circuit, the Loew’s Circuit, the Sheedy Time Circuit, the Chitlin’ Circuit, the Presentation Houses, the coffee houses, Las Vegas, the Playboy clubs, the comedy clubs that rose in the 1970s, the cable TV shows of the 1990s and 2000s, and the podcasts of today.

Filled with history, stories, behind-the-scenes accounts, and a bit of gossip, the book doesn’t shy from describing the Mob’s control of entertainment and how gangsters lost control to corporate executives (the real tough-guy gangsters), starting with Howard Hughes buying up multiple Vegas properties in the late 1960s.

“The Comedians” also offers numerous eye-openers, for me, at least: Hal Roach’s fondness of Mussolini; Joe E. Lewis getting butchered by thugs working for Machine Gun Jack McGurn, just down the street from where I live near our beloved Green Mill in Uptown; Lou Costello’s support of Joe McCarthy; Jack Parr’s hatred of gays; how Jackie Mason was widely disliked by his peers; and how Alan King had joined the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Of course, the book features its share of laughs and spot-on observations. One such observation from Nesteroff: In the mid-1960s you “could categorize the style of comics based on what they smoked. Dick Gregory and Bob Newhart chain-smoked cigarettes. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin smoked pot. Milton Berle, George Burns, Danny Thomas and Groucho Marx smoked cigars.”

And the wisecracks? Milton Berle on playing small towns during the Vaudeville days: “One town was so small the local hooker was a virgin.” And here’s comedy writer Walter Kempley describing a Tonight Show spinoff from the early days: “America After Dark was so bad viewers went next door to turn it off.”

The book’s best line is reserved for Frank Fay, possibly the first performer to stand in one place, speak and get laughs without wearing a costume or doing anything physical. As the book notes, Frank Fay also was a notorious anti-Semite.

So, when Frank Fay married Barbara Stanwyck, the joke went: “Who is the actor with the biggest prick in Hollywood?”

“Barbara Stanwyck.”


Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba
Andrew Feldman

Papa Doble – An entertaining, educational mix of Cuban revolutionary history and Hemingway tales, this biography does a fine job spotlighting how “Papa” really used his wives and their family wealth to build his career. So much for the Self-Made He-Man. The Fitzgerald line, “Hemingway needs a new woman for each big book” was the truth. But you cannot criticize Hemingway’s productivity. Despite everything – the booze, the serial romances, the fishing, the depression, the bullfights, Big Game hunting and brain injuries – Hemingway consistently produced stories and books, including, even, the masterful “The Old Man and the Sea.” The proof is always right there on the page and, ultimately, this is why I so respect Hemingway. As a person, Hemingway was a lot to take.  As a persona, Hemingway was a man as big as his times. As a writer, Hemingway, stands almost alone. As much as I admire the poetry of Fitzgerald’s prose, the chiseled grace of Carver’s stories, the genius of Joyce’s visions, the warm richness of Wharton’s tales, it’s Hemingway who stands in the center-ring spotlight. Plus, Hemingway’s influence is inestimable. As Tobias Wolf once explained at a Chicago Humanities Festival talk years ago, “If you’re writing today you’re either trying to write like Hemingway – or trying not to write like Hemingway.”


February 2, 2020

Life Isn’t Everything
Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Ash Carter and Sam Kashner

Always Say Yes – My friend Ed Underhill gave me this book as a Christmas gift. It’s so good I’ve been sending copies to friends across the country.

“Life Isn’t Everything” is an oral biography of Mike Nichols, full of lessons about craft (the craft of directing plays, which also work for the craft of writing stories, too) and some fun show-biz anecdotes. I love, too, the book’s beautiful design by Chip Kidd; he’s among the best in the business and he gives Mike Nichols the first-class treatment Nichols deserves and always wanted.

My favorite anecdotes:
  • Robert Redford, in “Barefoot in the Park,” complaining about not knowing what to do and feeling upstaged when he kissed Elizabeth Ashley on stage and she lifted her leg. “That’s easy,” Mike explained. “Lift your leg.
  • How director John Frankenheimer was the original choice for the filmed version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But Frankenheimer wanted his name above the title. “Elizabeth Taylor was not going to have any of that.”
  • After a private, pre-release screening of “Carnal Knowledge,” how Jackie Kennedy leaned between Mike and the powerful Cardinal who could choose to condemn (or not condemn) the film. Jackie purred: “Oh, Jack would have so loved your film.”
  • Tom Stoppard questioning Nichols about why he so quickly chose one chair over another during rehearsal; what was the difference between the two chairs? “Nothing,” Nichols replied, “you just have to answer instantly. You can change your mind later.”
  • Nichols explaining to Hank Azaria on “Birdcage” that his character is partially based on Judy Garland’s dresser.
  • How everybody eats well on a Mike Nichols set.
  • Diane Sawyer’s lighting. Designed by Mike’s best lighting experts.
  • Upon their first meeting, Mike Nichols tells Tony Kushner he wants to keep the doubling of the actors in the film version of “Angels in America.” Kushner is relieved and asks why. “Because I want to see Meryl play all of these different parts.”
And, more important, the lessons:
  1. Listen. Really listen.
  2. Speak to each actor in a personal, tailored way.
  3. How scenes have to build, even in comedy.
  4. How characters, not just plots, have to have a beginning, middle and end.
  5. Ask: Why is this character in this scene? There must be a reason.
  6. Sometimes you just have to show me what you want – Orson Welles asked Mike to show him how to play a scene on “Catch 22,” Mike asked David Hare about how to play a scene on “Designated Mourner.”
  7. Relationships. It’s all about relationships. As actors. As characters. And how do you build relationships – with time and through stories. So, take time to rehearse and take time to share stories.
  8. Make it seem a little bit more as if it’s you that’s thinking these words, not the author.
  9. Casting!
  10. Scripts don’t need POV, CUT TO, etc. That’s what directors do.
  11. Somebody makes a suggestion? Try it. “Let’s see what happens.”
  12. Tony Kushner: “Failing at illusions is almost as important in theater as succeeding at it. It teaches you to look at things in a double way, and Mike understands that.”
  13. Name it. Name the moment. This is the moment they fall in love. This is the moment she sees him as a fool for the first time. This is the moment she feels her lowest…Naming maps the trajectory.
  14. Directors give actors confidence.
  15. The obligation is to telling an effective story. Everything must service the story.
  16. When in doubt, use what’s real. “What’s it really like when this happens or that is said?”
  17. What’s the event of this scene? What’s the first, second, third, fourth thing to happen?


Keeping On Keeping On
Alan Bennett

Questions Raised – As a fan of Alan Bennett’s play, “The History Boys,” as well as the highlights of his diaries excerpted occasionally in the London Review of Books, I eagerly dove into this collection of a decade of Bennett diaries and essays. His unmistakable voice, keen observational skills and well-honed talent for turning a tale are on full display here. I finished reading the 500-plus page book asking a lot of questions. In part, I left wondering why the diary excerpts in the LRB seem to pack more of a wallop than the experience of reading the more voluminous, comprehensive presentation here? Might have something to do with "portion size." But, this minor query led me to think more deeply about the stories we tell, their size and shape. Just how do we know whether something is a short story, a novel or a novella? And how do we know when it should end? And just how do we know how long this play really should be? Some of these fundamental mechanics of writing remain a mystery to me. When I write I rely on inspiration and instinct; the idea and the story sort of speak to me. As strange as that might sound to people who don’t write, it’s something I commonly hear from people who do write. You just know. The question is: If I relied less on inspiration (to begin writing) and instinct (to know the scope of the story I’m telling), would I write more – and better? What if I approached writing more like an architect, and a carpenter?


December 30, 2019

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
Kurt Vonnegut
Foreword by Neil Gaiman

Most Likely to be Shoplifted – Eight or nine years ago a clerk in the Book Cellar told me Kurt Vonnegut’s books were kept behind the counter because they’re the books most likely to be shoplifted. I hope that remains true today. I recently re-read this gem on a flight back home from San Francisco – and it so makes me want to visit the new Vonnegut museum in Indianapolis. Such vision, such talent, such clarity. A few examples:

“As I have used it here, ‘humanist’ is nothing more supernatural than a handy synonym for ‘good citizenship and common decency.’”

“I myself say that out loud at times of easy, natural bliss: ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’ Perhaps others can also make use of that heirloom from Uncle Alex. I find it really cheers me up to keep score out loud that way.”

“I congratulated him [John Brown] on what he’d said on his way to be hanged before a gleeful, jeering throng of white folks. I quote: ‘This is a beautiful country.’ In only five words, he had somehow encapsulated the full horror of the most hideous legal atrocities committed by a civilized nation until the Holocaust.”

Quoting an imagined encounter in Heaven with Clarence Darrow: “’The presence of those cameras finally acknowledges,’ he said to me, ‘that justice systems anywhere, anytime, have never cared whether justice was achieved or not. Like Roman games, justice systems are ways for unjust governments – and there is no other sort of government – to be enormously entertaining with real lives at stake.’”

Quoting an imagined encounter in Heaven with Eugene Victor Debs: “’I thanked him for words of his, which I quote again and again in lectures: ‘As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.’ He asked me how those words were received here on Earth in America nowadays. I said they were ridiculed. ‘People snicker and snort,’ I said. He asked what our fastest growing industry was. ‘The building of prisons,” I said.”


Sing to It
Amy Hempel

Poetry in Prose – Amy Hempel is a mesmerizing writer. Her stories, often only a page or two in length, are foolers – you think they’re light as a feather and then you’re left feeling the density of their weight. Like the greatest poets, Hempel knows how to say the most by saying the least. And she excels at the music of writing, the creation of sentences – using vocabulary, cadence, punctuation – that create melody and rhythm. This passage, from the collection’s longest story, “Cloudland,” is just one example:

“’Happy New Year,’ people call out wherever one goes.

Sure, I’ll play along: ‘Happy New Year,’ I say back.

Had the last year ended?

What if you are someone who does not know when something is over? What if you are the last one standing when others have left the concert, the theater, the crime-addled city, the busted love affair? What if you look for a sign and a sign doesn’t come. Or a sign comes but you miss it. What if you have to make a decision on your own and it feels like a body blow, falling back on yourself.”


December 22, 2019

AROUND TOWN: Our Year in Learning – 2019

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
― Abigail Adams, in a May 8, 1780 letter to her son, John Quincy Adams

Our purpose on Earth is to love and to learn – and one of the smartest things I’ve done is to fill my life with people smarter than me. My husband. Our friends. Our co-workers. Pros who excel in their field. In 2019, Robert and I have been lucky to learn from many creative human beings – writers, artists, magicians, musicians, scholars, journalists, moguls and activists. Among the most thought-provoking:

Our year began with Rebecca Makkai (“The Great Believers”) interviewed by Ernesto Munar at Howard Brown Health. Julia Borcherts, who is at the center of Chicago literary life, first told me Rebecca’s novel was the best book she had read in a long time – and, boy, was she right.

On a summer evening, Audrey Niffenegger (“The Time Traveler’s Wife”) was interviewed by Don Evans for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame at a house party hosted by Ed Underhill and Liam Nolan. The evening’s celebrity chef was the writer Billy Lombardo, who cooked a delicious Italian meal for everyone. And the party ended with an enlightening nightcap conversation on Ed and Liam’s rooftop deck about the role “rate of reveal” plays in storytelling.

In the fall, performance poet and Milwaukee Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton challenged over 400 movers-and-shakers to think deeply about whether we should still be celebrating having to do anti-poverty work another 50 years from now. Hamilton was appearing at Next Door’s 50th Anniversary Gala at Northwestern Mutual Tower. The evening also featured JohnQuell Tucker, a child welfare worker who attributed his success to his parents and to starting in Next Door’s Early Head Start program when he was 3 years old.

Our autumn included Olympic Champion, Equality Champion and America’s Sweetheart Adam Rippon (“Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir”) interviewed by Owen Keehnen for the Book Stall at the Music Box Theatre. Adam was a delight. Owen and NPR’s Terry Gross are my favorite interviewers these days; their questions are always spot on – and they actually listen to the people they’re interviewing.

Our friend, the painter and jewelry-maker G.L. Smothers, was interviewed as part of the “Abstract Does Not Distract” panel discussion at the Smart Museum in Hyde Park this past Spring. I love studying the colors and shapes in G.L.’s work.

Sometimes a dinner conversation can stimulate the most thinking. Robert and I were lucky to enjoy two long, winding dinner conversations this past year with master magician Max Maven at the Magic Castle. Max is one of the all-time great raconteurs. Plus, we relished the opportunity to twice watch Max perform for the public, in Santa Monica and here in Chicago. What’s more, Robert participated in a special, intensive four-hour workshop Max recently presented for magicians at Magic, Inc.

Jazz musician Patricia Barber is pushing the artistic envelope in inventive ways with her new album, “Higher.” Plus, Patricia is our favorite saloon singer, appearing regularly on Monday nights at the nearby Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Each performance doubles as a master class for jazz aficionados.

Actor and oral historian Anna Deavere Smith knocked it out of the park this past Spring during the “It’s Good Business to Invest in Young Children” luncheon hosted by Ounce of Prevention in Chicago. During her performance, Smith channeled Stephanie Williams, an “emotional support teacher” who worked with an 11-year-old boy who, in a rage, yanked an entire tree out of the ground; and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who helped to open the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. The museum honors more than 4,000 African Americans lynched in the United States.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog introducing “Meeting Gorbachev,” at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Robert and I were joined by our favorite filmmaker, Michael Caplan. Fascinating to learn more about glasnost from a non-US perspective.

One of my favorite activities each year is One-Day University, co-sponsored here by the good people at the Chicago Tribune. The session I attended earlier this year with Nicole Gotthelf featured:
  • Brown University’s Wendy Schiller discussing, “What Would the Founding Fathers Think of America Today?”
  • Georgetown’s Sam Potolicchio discussing “The Changing Face of 2020 America.” During the Q&A, Potolicchio also became the first person I heard tout Pete Buttigieg’s longshot-but-real chances to grab the Democratic nomination for US President; and
  • Fairfield University’s Orin Grossman discussing, “Three Musical Masterpieces Every American Should Know.” By the way, the three are: Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, Duke Ellington’s Ko-Ko and Richard Rogers’ Waltzes, from Carousel. One-Day University was held at Northwestern University’s Thorne Auditorium.
Thanks to my work at Buffett Early Childhood Fund I am privileged each year to learn from the best and the brightest about issues affecting young children and their families. 2019 was a banner year:
  • University of North Carolina’s Donna Bryant and Noreen Yazejian, in a day-long conversation with my foundation colleagues in Omaha.
  • University of Nebraska’s Marjorie Kostelnik keynoted the national Educare Learning Network meeting, held this past April in Lincoln, Nebraska.
  • Early childhood guru Joan Lombardi spoke on “Communities Coming Together for Young Children.” Plus, Joan joined a panel discussion with Julia Zhu, Grace Araya and Cristina Pacione-Zayas, in May at Erikson Institute in Chicago. (As I’ve stated before, Joan has attained One Name Status in the early childhood field. Say “Joan” and people know you mean Joan Lombardi.
  • University of Nebraska’s Helen Raikes provided the keynote at the “Thriving Children, Families & Communities” conference in Kearney, Nebraska, this past fall. Over 400 people from 92 Nebraska communities. Sam Meisels from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute also provided substantive opening remarks.
  • Princeton University’s Eldar Shair spoke on “scarcity” and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha spoke on the Flint Water crisis and advocating for social justice at the Alliance for Early Success annual summit in Atlanta.
My friend and former boss Dan Pedersen is another of the all-time great raconteurs. Dan reminisced about his career in journalism in a podcast hosted by John Dechant – and what a journalistic career it ‘twas: overseeing the first Iowa poll for the DesMoines Register, working for Newsweek in LA and Houston and Atlanta, serving as Newsweek’s London Bureau Chief during Thatcher’s reign and Diana’s death, and being the only Western journalist present the night the Berlin Wall fell.

Anand Giridharades, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” offered some challenging perspectives on philanthropy during an interview in Omaha this past Spring. Anand’s book is a must-read.

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders’ Meeting in Omaha. Their marathon, 6-hour Q&A with shareholders, journalists and financial experts is always an insightful, inspiring, energizing event. If you want to learn about business, learn from the best.

GOP consultant Kevin Madden and Democratic consultant Sean Sweeny discussing early childhood, the 2020 election, and the future of America during a dinner hosted by First Five Years Fund at Charlie Parker’s Steakhouse in Washington, DC. (Kevin and Sean have since moved on to other positions.)

Amara Enyia at a house party hosted by Dennis Puhr during the Chicago Mayoral election. One of my favorite rabble-rousers, Susan Strong-Dowd, invited me to attend.

Former US Representative (and Ted’s son) Patrick Kennedy, Parkland shooting survivor and activist Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, mental health expert Linda Rosenberg, musician Travis Atkinson, social worker James Wallace and Thresholds CEO Mark Ishaug at Thresholds’ 60th Gala Dinner this past May at the Chicago Hilton.

A lunch conversation with Marie Newman, who is seeking to unseat conservative Dan Lipinski in the US Congress. A few of my other favorite rabble-rousers – Nancy Shier, Ed Underhill and Angela Hubbard – joined Robert and me in getting to know Marie this past Spring at the Cliff Dwellers Club. Thanks to Shannon Hunt-Scott for introducing us to this smart, formidable progressive champion.

Tracy Baim 35th Anniversary Tribute at Sidetrack. The place was packed with changemakers – and Tracy is a giant among them. She was interviewed by none other than Cheryl Corley.

Celebrating award winners Owen Keehnen, Lori Cannon, Paul Highfield, and Carrie Maxwell and hearing from the great Victor Salvo at the Legacy Project unGala in October at Chez Event. Plus, Liam Nolan and Ed Underhill joined Robert and me at this historic event celebrating LGBTQ history.

Thom Clark, Katy Hogan and Michael James invited Erikson Institute’s Cristina Pacione-Zayas and me to preach the early childhood gospel on their Heartland Radio Show this past November. Want to feel better about the future? Get to know Cristina.

And I closed the year by learning this past Monday (along with nearly 1,000 other guests) from powerhouse Stacey Abrams at the Girls, Inc. annual luncheon in Omaha. Want to feel better about the future? Get to know Stacey, too. And register to vote – and vote!


November 27, 2019

I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections
Nora Ephron

Looks Easy – Nora Ephron wrote like she spoke and made it look easy, which it ain’t. Plus, she was funny. About Lillian Hellman and the movies, Thomas Friedman and Christmas traditions. About a whole lot of things, including journalism and inheritances. And dying. She was very good on dying. “What I Won’t Miss” and “What I Will Miss” are hilarious and heartbreaking.


The History Boys
Alan Bennett

Your Story – Every emerging writer is advised to tell their story in their own voice. Solid suggestion, and here’s proof. We’ve seen this story, in one shape or another, a few times before – a classroom of students whose lives are changed by a maverick teacher. In Alan Bennett’s voice (and such a distinct voice it ‘tis), the students are British boys and the teacher is a rumpled scholar. The story follows the students’ journey as they learn how to learn while preparing for very competitive university entrance exams. The play – which celebrates history, truth and the value of art and education – is funny, erudite, moving, and quite necessary.


The Style’s the Man:
Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal and Others
Louis Auchincloss

Discoveries – I’ve searched high and low for this out-of-print book and found it the other weekend tucked away on a shelf just waiting for me at Myopic Books in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. (The shop is a gem; widely stocked, well-organized.) I was rendezvousing at Myopic with my old friend, Ed Underhill, who decades ago first alerted me to Louis Auchincloss. Ed is a lawyer and a writer, as so was Auchincloss, who I now think of as the great chronicler of the American Establishment. With wit and other considerable skills Auchincloss provides insights in these essays into the lives and work of some of my favorite writers – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gore Vidal, Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Henry James. Auchincloss’ writing comes most alive for me, no surprise, when our interests intersect; yet, his perceptions of others – William Gaddis, Marguerite Yourcenar, Marcel Proust – are educational. (However, his defense of Ivy Compton-Burnett against criticism from Joyce Carol Oates rather proves Oates’ point.) In the midst of all of this literary glory – is there any better “inside baseball” than writers writing about other writers? – two deeply mistaken assertions about the growth of Edith Wharton’s literary reputation jump off the page. Auchincloss, writing in the 1990s, attributes Wharton’s late-20th century rise to three reasons: “first and foremost to her penetrating analysis of the mores of New York City’s financial upper class, couched in hard, glittering prose and garnished with scathing wit; secondly, to the fact that that class is now enough in the past to have become history and no longer arouses the envy and resentment of the less privileged; and finally to the force of the feminist movement, the extremists of which seek to deify women of past accomplishment.” On those second and third points, ol’ Louis is just flat wrong – and one might say, in fact I think I will say it: myopic. To claim that class somehow stopped mattering in the Clinton years is akin to saying race stopped mattering in the Obama years. Both eras offered a veneer of progress; but, the first only stoked worse economic inequality and the second only revealed deeper racism. And to criticize feminists tell us more about Auchincloss than it does feminists. What really elevated Wharton’s standing? The movies. “The Age of Innocence.” “Ethan Frome.” The style’s the man, indeed.


August 22, 2019

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights
David Margolick
Foreword by Hilton Als

Blood at the Root – David Margolick has written a concise, compelling anatomy of a song and its impact – this dirge, this hymn, this anthem that is needed even more today when a blatant Republican racist occupies the White House. Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” about 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama to a white man. For the next 20 years, the song and its most famous singer became forever intertwined, both retaining their punch to this day.


The Pat Hobby Stories
F. Scott Fitzgerald

My Old Pals – My dear friend and fellow writer Ed Underhill gave me this book earlier this year. After reading these stories, I wrote back to Ed; here’s an excerpt:

“How is it that over my 60 years Pat and I have not yet met? I love him.

Pat is so scheming — and, really, who among us isn’t? In one way or another? Who isn’t relying upon too many of the old tricks to get by at this point? And who isn’t tiptoeing around in one form or other, whether it’s a stealthy sneak out of a room or a loud, over-confident march into a room?

Fitzgerald is so damned talented — hits the bullseye more than any other writer. And always offers lessons in vocabulary; for me:


Metafiction was created in the 1970s to describe some of the writers working in the 1960s. Scholars later applied the term going all the way back — to Chaucer, others. But these Pat Hobby stories are metafiction, too: the desperate writer writing about a desperate writer, and the back-story Arnold Gingrich provides only further spotlights the depth of the desperation and the meta aspects of the whole enterprise.

You once keenly observed that no man in his forties should read Fitzgerald on a summer afternoon ... was that it? No. It was phrased better than that ... Well, this isn’t as poignant, but I now think these Pat Hobby stories are the best stories to read while boozing on a summer afternoon. Man, they make you thirsty!

Last, but not least: Every time I read how Pat was “forty-nine years old,” it rang like a death knell. No doubt Fitzgerald’s intent. But now that I’ve finished the book, I can’t help but think, Ah, to be forty-nine again.”


AROUND TOWN: “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “How to Hold a Woman,” and the Rate of Reveal

Chicago is a terrific city for stories, readers and writers. Earlier this summer, Sheila Sachs and I had the pleasure of participating in a Sunday dinner party benefiting the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, hosted by Ed Underhill and Liam Nolan at their stylish new digs in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The guest of honor was the multi-talented Audrey Niffenegger, author of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” a wondrous, romantic novel featuring the sweep of the great epics combined with fresh ingenuity. The Hall of Fame’s Donald G. Evans interviewed Audrey and led the guests in an evocative conversation. Dinner before (a delicious pasta and salmon supper) was prepared by another talented Chicago writer, Billy Lombardo, author of “How to Hold a Woman.” Afterward, some of us gathered on the rooftop deck for drinks and continued conversation as the sun set. In part, we spoke about a point Audrey shared earlier in the evening regarding the craft of writing: the fact that how writers regulate the rate of revealing information to their readers can make or break a story’s credibility. Both “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “How to Hold a Woman” are excellent examples of the good that comes when writers have their hands firmly on the throttle.


Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems
Ted Kooser

Heartland – This book is a fine introduction to the two-time U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer who was born in Iowa and has long lived in Nebraska. You can hear the prairie breeze singing through his words. From “Pearl” –

I called out, “Pearl,
it’s Ted. It’s Vera’s boy,” and my voice broke,
for it came to me, nearly sixty, I was still
my mother’s boy, that boy for the rest of my life.


May 18, 2019

I’m Not Here to Give a Speech
Gabriel García Márquez

Gabo Speaks – In these 21 speeches, the Nobel Prize winner lyrically addresses numerous subjects, from cinema to literature to Latin America and politics to friendship and love. His whimsical voice is unmistakable, his profound insight so dearly missed from commenting on our world today. And still, his words continue to live, and his commentary remains accurate. “As I have tried to show in some of my books – if not in all of them – I trust more in these absurdities of reality than in theoretical dreams that most of the time serve only to muzzle a bad conscience,” Márquez says in 2003 remarks recorded for the 200th anniversary of the University of Antioquia in Colombia. He adds later, “I would dare to believe that the dream of Don Miguel de Cervantes is now at the right point for us to glimpse the dawn of a calmer time, that the evil that overwhelms us will last much less time than the good, and that on our boundless creativity alone depends knowing now which of the many roads are the right ones, in order to experience them in the peace of the living and enjoy them by right and for ever more. Amen.”


Red Harvest
Dashiell Hammett

Hardboiled Literature – Another fine example of why Dashiell Hammett is considered a great writer and a cut above a “mere” detective story writer. Sure, this 1929 novel features a lot of pulp. “I gathered she was strictly pay-as-you-enter.” “A bullet kissed a hole in the door-frame close to my noddle.” “The room smelled of laudanum.” “At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.” But then, about three-quarters of the way deep into the story and after nearly 20 murders plus twice as many double-crosses, the hard-drinking, tough-living Continental Op confesses he’s on his own journey into the heart of darkness. If the Continental Op isn’t free from bloodlust and corruption, who is? This scene is followed by a masterfully rendered dream sequence in which the Op wanders streets in towns across America, and the whole book is elevated into the realm of literature.


Here is New York
E.B. White

Time and Place – You’re remembering how much you love New York and how much you admire E.B. White and how perhaps you’ve already read this long, loving essay published in 1949, originally in Holiday magazine, and then the jolt strikes: the broad ethnic generalizations typical of the exalted writers of the time, still far too typical today, the whitest of white privileges cloaked even in the wardrobe of “progressive” argument. There is no one writer who can sing the song of any time or place because there is no one song to be sung.


April 21, 2019

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

And So, We Beat On – I’ve tried for weeks to craft a profound statement about this excellent novel; but the story is so electrifying, the writing so exhilarating, that all I can muster is: Read. This. Book. “The Great Believers” is the most absorbing novel I’ve read in a long time. Couldn’t put it down. Cried a thousand tears. And laughed, too. Still, now, I’m out of breath, and my mind, my heart, is overwhelmed with the lives of these people I’ve come to know. I feel this, so truly: Yes, I know them. If you’re looking to read a captivating story or learning how to write a captivating story, “The Great Believers” is a must-read, must-study.


See What Can Be Done:
Essays, Criticism, and Commentary
Lorrie Moore

A Writer on Writers and Writing – This 407-page essay collection by acclaimed fiction writer Lorrie Moore covers numerous subjects adeptly and artistically; the book sings particularly to me when Moore turns her keen eye, skilled sense of the telling detail, and mighty ability to wield words onto the work of fellow writers. When she notes: “Writing is both the excursion into and the excursion out of one’s life. That is the queasy paradox of the artistic life.” When she praises the craft of Anne Beattie – Beattie’s endings, Beattie’s dialogue. When Moore wonders about Dawn Powell’s influence: “So current and alive is Powell’s epistolary voice, even in the earliest letters, that one is tempted to suggest that what we now think of as the contemporary American voice – in journalism and the arts – is none other than hers: ironic, triumphant, mocking, and game; the voice of a smart, chipper, small-town Ohio girl newly settled in New York just after the First World War.”  When Moore criticizes Nancy Milford for applauding Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” calling it mawkish and folksy; Moore obviously never experienced Eugene Burger’s performance of the poem! When Moore observes, “That many young people are already writing their memoirs is no longer a funny thing to say but an actual cultural condition.” And, ultimately – perfectly – when Moore relates a story about John Cheever, told by a painter at Yaddo. “She was sitting next to Cheever discussing upstate New York, and told him, ‘Last year, I went to Cohoes to buy shoes with Hortense.’ ‘Oh, what a wonderful sentence!’ he exclaimed. I went to Cohoes to buy shoes with Hortense! At which point the painter thanked her lucky stars that she wasn’t a writer, since she had no idea what was remotely lovely about that sentence.”


Ernest Hemingway on Writing
Edited by Larry W. Phillips

More Advice from a Working Writer – I picked up this book in the gift shop of the Hemingway House in Key West and was surprised to read so much sound advice packed into such a slender volume. From a 1959 letter to L.H. Brague Jr.: “I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” From a 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best – make it all up – but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.” From Death in the Afternoon: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.” From a 1925 letter to Fitzgerald, discussing the importance of subject matter: “Love is also a good subject as you might be said to have discovered. Other major subjects are the money from which we riches and poores. Also avarice. Gentlemen the boy lecturer is tired. A dull subject I should say would be impotence. Murder is a good one so get a swell murder into yr. next book and sit back.”


AROUND TOWN: Anna Deveare Smith

The supremely talented actor Anna Deveare Smith wowed the standing-room only crowd at the Chicago Hilton ballroom during the April 10 luncheon benefiting early childhood powerhouse Ounce of Prevention. In part, Smith channeled Stephanie Williams, an “emotional support teacher” who worked with an 11-year-old boy who, in a rage, uprooted a tree. Smith also performs the calm, chilling words of social justice activist Bryan Stephenson, a founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. The museum honors more than 4,000 African Americans lynched in the United States. The luncheon also featured remarks by Jamal Poindexter, an Educare Chicago graduate who is now 19 years old, and a trailer for a new documentary, “Tomorrow’s Hope,” which tells the stories of three Educare Chicago graduates (including Jamal) and features reflections from three of my formative teachers in the early childhood field: Portia Kennel, Brenda Eiland-Williford and Jackie Robinson.


Scrapbooks: An American History
Jessica Helfand

Personal Histories – What is this ChicagoWriter blog but a scrapbook of sorts? A personal history, filled with reflections on the books I read. Helfand’s book takes a big-picture look at dozens of personal histories, from many walks of life, and creates an endlessly fascinating tapestry that cannot be digested in one reading. Too many images, too many words. My friend Oz presented this book to me as a gift some time ago, and it’s a book I find I keep returning to finding some new secret with each read. The gift that keeps on giving, indeed. Thanks, Oz!


Ernest Hemingway: Artifacts from a Life
Edited by Michael Katakis, with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway and an afterword by Sean Hemingway

No Stone Left Unturned – I’ve written before about the “Hemingway Industry,” the seemingly endless effort to mine and perpetuate the legacy of America’s most influential writer. The industry exists because of consumers like me – I eat up this stuff – so I’m not complaining. And this time around, the “stuff” is good, from the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library. Dig in.


April 20, 2019

Winners Take All:
The Elite Charade of Changing the World
Anand Giridharadas

The Poor Get Poorer – Journalist Anand Giridharadas uses effective, evocative reporting and well-told, real-life stories to make a compelling case that “generosity is not a substitute for justice.” While U.S. philanthropy might produce marginal change, the vast majority fails to fundamentally shift power and systemically create conditions in our capitalistic society that would make such generous philanthropy unnecessary in the first place. Economic inequality is worsening dramatically while digital progress further fragments the social bonds that hold society together and growing diversity stokes fear in half the population. Americans talk – often yell – at one another about gender and race, but little conversation occurs around class. Until we reckon with “capital supremacy” – woven together with male supremacy and white supremacy – we will not get to the root of solving poverty. In the meantime, philanthropy should look toward solutions – and “we’re drowning in solutions,” Giridharadas noted in a recent conversation about the book, so he means systemic solutions – that are public, democratic, institutional and universal.


The Embezzler
Louis Auchincloss

The Rich Get Richer – If Edith Wharton was the great chronicler of the Gilded Age, Louis Auchincloss was the great chronicler of the Establishment. This superb novel – published in 1966 and, sadly, like the rest of Auchincloss’ works, now out of print – is told in three parts from three perspectives: Guy, the embezzler; Rex, his friend and nemesis; Angelica, his wife. “I have the distinction of having become a legend in my lifetime,” Guy tells us in the beginning, “but not a very nice one.” Guy and Rex are Wall Streeters. Angelica might be the most wily of the three. “Of all our novelists,” Gore Vidal once observed, “Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs … Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives.” Auchincloss died in 2010 at the age of 92 after writing and publishing more than 60 books. Too bad he isn’t still alive and writing today, illuminating this new Era of the One-Percenters.


Tell Me About It:
LGBTQ Secrets, Confessions, and Life Stories
St Sukie de la Croix
Owen Keehnen

Our Stories – Writer-hisotrians St Sukie de la Croix and Owen Keehnen have created an eye-opening, funny, deeply moving collection of interviews in the mode of the great Studs Terkel. They asked people to share their real-life LGBTQ experiences. Humans share stories to make sense of the world. This is fascinating and fun reading. I have the honor of appearing in volume one. If you’d like to participate in a second volume, contact Owen and Sukie:
OwenKeehnen@yahoo.com and Sukie@ChicagoWhispers.com


Writers and Their Cats
Alison Nastasi

The Cat’s Meow – Why do cat owners love their cats? Well, as Jean Cocteau wrote, “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.” This heartwarming book showcases photographs of 45 writers and their little lions, while also providing a brief written snapshot of each writer. Charles Bukowski writes in a letter to his friend Carl Weissner, “I don’t like love as a command, as a search. It must come to you, like a hungry cat at the door.” Colette notes, “There are no ordinary cats.” Ernest Hemingway praises felines: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feels, but a cat does not.”


Setting the Table
The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business
Danny Meyer

No Reservations – The first seven years I worked were at Fulton St. Fishery & Market, a suburban Chicago restaurant that opened in 1976. On Milwaukee Avenue, in northwest Wheeling, up the street from Le Francais and Don Roth’s. Busboy, waiter, host. The money I earned paid for college; I realize now the social skills I learned have served me well throughout my career and life.

“Setting the Table” is full of tips about building those social skills and other learning from other good lessons. Danny Meyer’s ideas about hiring managers and looking for “51 percenters,” the core emotional skills each needs, and his outline of the “Yes Criteria for New Ventures” are extraordinarily valuable – and transferrable to other fields. I was most struck by how he thinks about stakeholders; the idea that someone (staff) must be tended to before the customer is revolutionary. I work in the early education field – and I’m old enough to remember all of the work done to make early education “child-centered, family-focused.” Now, when the early ed field is facing a workforce crisis (not unlike the restaurant business and so many fields), I’m rethinking how early ed really needs to become staff-focused first to truly reach a place where children and families are best served.

And for anyone who just loves restaurants, this book offers a buffet of page-turning stories. Lessons, here, too: the aesthetic components of a memorable experience around a dinner table. Made me think how the people I worked with back at Fulton St. in the ‘70s were the first people I knew who hosted real dinner parties in their apartments – candles lit on the table, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn recordings playing softly in the background, cocktails served first in the living room before we all sat at the dining room table where we drank wine with our meals. This was not the way food was served in the house I grew up in. But it was the beginning of developing a way of treating people, not only at work in a restaurant but at home and among friends.

“Setting the Table” also honors Irving B. Harris, Danny Meyer’s grandfather. I met Mr. Harris when I worked in the 1980s at the American Academy of Pediatrics, doing public relations. I saw him in action more frequently when I went to work for a Chicago nonprofit called Ounce of Prevention in the late 1990s. Irving was a force to be reckoned with in the early childhood field, decades ahead of his time.

My two favorite Irving stories: First, Mr. Harris, the Ounce and the Chicago Public Schools partnered to create the first Educare center on the city’s south side. Educare was then just a promising idea – a way of preparing infants, toddlers and preschoolers for success in school and life. Now it’s a coast-to-coast network of two dozen Educare schools doing some of the most innovative work in the field. One summer day at the construction site of that first Educare in Chicago’s Grand Boulevard neighborhood, I found myself walking beside Mr. Harris. We didn’t have a name for the place yet, so I piped up as Mr. Young P.R. Professional. “Mr. Harris,” I said, “I can’t think of a better name than calling this the Harris Center!”

Irving was a truly towering figure, in stature as well as height, and he looked down on me with a withering look that said, “Who the hell is this kid?” I gulped.

“We’re going to call it ‘Educare,’” he explained. “Bettye Caldwell, a pediatrician in Arkansas coined the word. It combines education and care.” He was always teaching.

My second story was a few weeks after Mr. Harris turned 90. (He passed away, at 94, I believe, in 2004.) I was editing something he had written, and I telephoned to offer my suggestions. “Let me find my copy,” Mr. Harris told me on the phone, and I could hear papers rustling on his desk.

I took the moment’s opportunity. “Mr. Harris,” I asked, “do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“What is it?”

“What’s it like to be 90?”

He paused. Then, with a booming, beaming voice, he replied: “Goddamn. It’s awesome!”


Presumed Innocent
Scott Turow

Literature – Published in 1987, this novel remains a literary page-turner – a murder mystery/courtroom drama in which the prose swoops and soars to reveal the heights and depths of the human heart. No mere paperback thriller here: “In me, some human commodity is lacking. And we can only be who we can be. I have my own history; memories; the unsolved maze of my own self, where I am so often lost. I hear Barbara’s inner clamor; I understand her need. But I can answer only with stillness and lament. Too much of me – too much! – must be preserved for the monumental task of being Rusty.”


Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire:
101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life
Edited by Graydon Carter
Illustrated by Risko

Make that 102What is your idea of perfect happiness? A Sunday morning with Robert, Gypsie, coffee and the newspapers.

What is your greatest fear? That America has succumbed to fear.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? This constant need to do the Irish jig.

What are the traits you most deplore in others? Corruption, bigotry, stupidity.

What is your greatest extravagance? Our annual stay at the Casa Marina in Key West.

What is your favorite journey? To Omaha.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Courage, temperance, justice, prudence, humility, kindness, generosity, patience, integrity, honesty, gratitude, compassion, sincerity, respect, loyalty – they’re all pretty good!

On what occasion do you lie? Lie? Why, I never lie, sir.

What do you dislike most about your appearance? This striking resemblance to Brad Pitt. It’s very confusing for his fans. And mine.

Which living person do you most despise? Mitch McConnell because he makes Trump possible.

Which word or phrase do you most overuse? Terrific!

What is your greatest regret? I have several, all regarding friends I feel I’ve let down in one way or another.

What or who is the greatest love of your life? Robert Charles.

When and where were you happiest? Our wedding day. Bliss.

Which talent would you most like to have? To play piano.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? The life Robert and I have created together. Close second: the role I’ve played in helping to create and sustain the Educare Learning Network, Alliance for Early Success, and First Five Years Fund – I’m just one small cog in a very large machine. Close third: Writing and publishing, “What You Don’t Know About Men,” though I hope my best writing is still to come.

Where would you like to live? I’m a Chicagoan and Chicago feels right as a home. But, if we could, Robert and I would spend our winters in Key West or California (Beverly Hills, San Diego, Sonoma.) Does anybody have a few million dollars to throw our way?

What is the quality you most like in a man? I’ll leave that to your imagination.

What do you most value in your friends? Wits. I’ve successfully surrounded myself with people smarter than me and people who make me laugh.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Gatsby. (That’s your cue to reply, “Gatsby? What Gatsby?”)

What is your motto? Non sum quails eram.


January 19, 2019

The Michelin Guide – Chicago, 2019

Bon Appetite – Chicago has one three-star Michelin-rated restaurant (Alinea), three two-star establishments, 18 one-star eateries, and hundreds of yummy joints throughout the city. I’m not in the business of reviewing restaurants, but here are the neighborhood places Robert Charles and I dine at again and again. 

Our newest favorite restaurant? Frunchroom, near Six Corners in the Portage Park neighborhood. We know and love owner Matt Saccaro, but we love his restaurant because of his trout salad. (Oh, and his Kale Salad ... and his cheeseburgers ... and his milkshakes made with Zarlengo’s gelato … and we haven’t even yet tried his pizza.)

Robert and I live in Edgewater and can walk easily to Andersonville and Uptown. Our neighborhood go-tos?

·       Edgewater Beach Café – located in the historic, pink Edgewater Beach Apartments building off of Lake Shore Drive; Owner Zung Dao works the front of the house; Chef Kim, Zung’s wife, is the wizard in the kitchen.

·       Andie’s – Mediterranean. I was introduced to Andie’s years ago by my beloved friend George Savino, back when this veteran of North Clark Street was a small storefront operation.

·       First Slice – Mary Ellen Diaz’s delicious café where the “first slice” of the profits helps to feed the homeless.

·       JB Deli – how can you not love a deli tucked inside a corner pharmacy?

·       Tank Noodle – Among the endless options in Little Vietnam, Tank Noodle has withstood the test of time.

·       Mia Francesca on Bryn Mawr – somehow the food tastes even better when you sit at the bar.

·       La Boulangerie – tres delicieux!

·       Calo – when you have a taste for everything.

·       Mas Alla del Sol – excellent food and Darcy, a server, lights up the room.

·       Income Tax – the hottest of the hot new places.

·       Tweet, M. Henry and Nookies – the triple play for breakfast.

·       Hot G Dogs – to hot dogs what the Billy Goat Tavern is to cheeseburgers.

·       Broadway Cellars – the epitome of a fine neighborhood restaurant.

·       Lao Sze Chaun – part of the empire of Tony Hu, the former ‘Mayor of Chinatown’ who had a little run-in with the feds over wire fraud and money laundering. (Hey, it’s Chicago.)

·        Lickity Split – the best corner ice cream shop

Other favorite haunts:

·       Caro Mio – delicious Italian fare and the best BYOB, in Ravenswood

·       Mario’s Table – yummy Italian food in the Gold Coast, with ten thousand memories of dinning here with Eugene Burger

·       Ann Sather’s – the best breakfast in Boystown … and those cinnamon rolls!

·       Yes, in Ravenswood, and Jin Thai, in Edgewater – there is no shortage of Thai options in Chicago; these are among the best.

·       Greek Islands – the quintessential Greek-American restaurant in, where else? Greek Town.

·       Bistro Campagne and Chez Moi – If you’re looking for French bistros, you’ll do no better than Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square and Chez Moi has become our favorite destination for a New Year’s Eve-Eve get-together with Ross and Pamela Johnson.

As much as I enjoy dinning out, there’s no comparison to a home-cooked meal. For that, I turn to the Three Wise Men: (1) Robert Charles, though he says he more enjoys baking; (2) Jim Harisiades, a friend and neighbor here in Edgewater. We call Jim’s dining room our favorite Greek restaurant, and (3) Randy Zweiban, a true chef, the former owner of Province, and, yowzah, can Randy cook.


CHICAGO VOICES: Michael Burke’s remarks at the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony for Henry Blake Fuller

Presented November 16, 2018, at the Cliff Dwellers Club

Good evening! My husband, magician Robert Charles, and I, love the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame – and we’re proud, “card-carrying” members of the Cliff Dwellers Club. So, it’s a thrill for us to participate in this Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Henry Blake Fuller, which, fittingly, is being celebrated here at the club that bears the name of Fuller’s most popular novel.

I would like thank Don Evans for this opportunity. And I’d like to also thank Bill Getzoff, who years ago wrote about Fuller in the Cliff Dwellers Club newsletter. That was my first introduction to Fuller – so thank you, Bill, for opening my eyes.

I also want to thank Eve Moran, and Don, Victor and Michelle and everyone here at the Cliff Dwellers for making us all feel so welcomed and at home. As you always do.

And, mostly, I want to thank you – “The People,” as Carl Sandburg would sing. Thanks for joining us this evening.

I’m going to read two brief samples – small excerpts from the openings of “Bertram Cope’s Year” and “The Cliff-Dwellers.”

“Bertram Cope’s Year” was published in 1919, just about 100 years ago. It’s become known as the first homosexual novel – so I’m only going to read the dirty parts! Actually, it’s all quite understated and subtle.

In “Bertram Cope’s Year,” the town of Churchton sounds suspiciously like Evanston and the unnamed University seems a lot like Northwestern.

Bertram Cope is an attractive, young English instructor, spending a year on his thesis and advanced degree. Cope becomes the object of desire of an older woman – who we’ll meet in this reading – two older men and three young women. Put another way, Bertram Cope’s dance card was full.

Fuller is a fascinating storyteller – funny, formal, informal; his stories often narrated directly to the reader, which was not uncommon back then or even today.

“Bertram Cope’s Year” has 31 chapters, each titled something like:

1. Cope at a College Tea
2. Cope Makes a Sunday Afternoon Call
3. Cope Is "Entertained"

And so on … So, here’s a portion from Chapter 1: Cope at a College Tea:

What is a man's best age? Peter Ibbetson, entering dreamland with complete freedom to choose, chose twenty-eight, and kept there. But twenty-eight, for our present purpose, has a drawback: a man of that age, if endowed with ordinary gifts and responsive to ordinary opportunities is undeniably a “man.”

Whereas, what we require here is something just a little short of that. Wanted, in fact, a young male who shall seem fully adult to those who are younger still and who may even appear the accomplished flower of virility to an idealizing maid or so, yet who shall elicit from the middle-aged the kindly indulgence due a boy.

Perhaps you will say that even a man of twenty-eight may seem only a boy to a man of seventy. However, no septuagenarian is to figure in these pages. Our “elders” will be but in the middle forties and the earlier fifties and we must find for them an age which may evoke their friendly interest and, yet, be likely to call forth, besides that, their sympathy and their longing admiration and, later, their tolerance, their patience, and even their forgiveness.

I think, then, that Bertram Cope, when he began to intrigue the little group which dwelt among the quadruple avenues of elms that led to the campus in Churchton, was but about twenty-four – certainly not a day more than twenty-five. If twenty-eight is the ideal age, the best is all the better for being just a little ahead. Of course, Cope was not an undergraduate, a species upon which many of the Churchtonians languidly refused to bestow their regard.

"They come, and they go," said these prosperous and comfortable burghers; "and, after all, they're more or less alike, and more or less unrewarding."

Besides, the Bigger Town with all its rich resources and all its varied opportunities lay but an hour away. Churchton lived much of its real life beyond its own limits, and the student who came to be entertained socially within them was the exception indeed.

No, Bertram Cope was not an undergraduate. He was an instructor; and he was working along in a leisurely way to a degree. He expected to be an M.A., or even a Ph.D. Possibly a Litt.D. might be within the gift of later years. But, anyhow, nothing was finer than "writing" except lecturing about it.

"Why haven't we known you before?" Medora T. Phillips asked him at a small reception. Mrs. Phillips spoke out loudly and boldly and held his hand as long as she liked. No – not “as long as she liked,” but longer than most women would have felt at liberty to do.

And besides speaking loudly and boldly, she looked loudly and boldly and she employed a determined smile which seemed to say, "I'm old enough to do as I please." Her brusque informality was expected to carry itself off and much else besides. "Of course, I simply can't be half so intrepid as I seem!" it said.

“Known me?" returned Cope, promptly enough. "Why, you haven't known me because I haven't been here to be known."

He spoke in a ringing, resonant voice, returning her unabashed pressure with a hearty good will and blazing down upon her through his clear blue eyes with a high degree of self-possession, even of insouciance. And he explained with a liberal exhibition of perfect teeth that for the two years following his graduation he had been teaching literature at a small college in Wisconsin and that he had lately come back to Alma Mater for another bout.

"I'm after that degree," he concluded.

… And Cope’s year unfolds from there.

Because the Cliff Dwellers Club is 22 stories up in the air, it seems fitting to read a portion from Fuller’s novel, “The Cliff-Dwellers,” as well.

“The Cliff-Dwellers” was published in 1893, about 15 or 16 years before “Bertram Cope’s Year.” This would’ve been about 22 years into the rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire. It opens with some beautiful, language describing the canyons of skyscrapers and downtown buildings of Chicago – then and now. And then it zooms in on a skyscraper called The Clifton, which is where most of the action takes place … I’ll pick it up there and read just a page or two.

From the beer-hall in its basement to the barber-shop just under its roof, the Clifton stands full eighteen stories tall. Its hundreds of windows glitter with multitudinous letterings in gold and in silver, and on summer afternoons its awnings flutter score on score in the tepid breezes that sometimes come up from Indiana.

Four ladder-like constructions which rise skyward, stage by stage, promote the agility of the clambering hordes that swarm within it, and ten elevators – devices unknown to the real, aboriginal inhabitants – ameliorate the daily cliff-climbing for the frail of physique and the pressed for time.

The tribe inhabiting the Clifton is large and rather heterogeneous. All told, it numbers about four thousand souls. It includes bankers, capitalists, lawyers, promoters, brokers in bonds, stocks, pork, oil, mortgages, real-estate people and railroad people and insurance people (life, fire, marine, and accident), a host of principals, agents, middlemen, clerks, cashiers, stenographers, and errand-boys as well as the necessary force of engineers, janitors, scrub-women, and elevator-hands.

All these thousands gather daily around their own great camp-fire. This fire heats the four big boilers under the pavement of the court which lies just behind, and it sends aloft a vast plume of smoke to mingle with those of other like communities that are settled round about.

These same thousands may also gather in installments at their tribal feast, for the Clifton has its own lunch-counter just off one corner of the grand court, as well as a restaurant several floors higher up. The members of the tribe may also smoke the “pipe of peace” among themselves whenever so minded, for the Clifton has its own cigar-stand just within the principal entrance. Newspapers and periodicals, too, are sold at the same place. The warriors may also communicate their messages, hostile or friendly, to chiefs more or less remote for there is a telegraph office in the corridor and a squad of messenger boys in wait close by.

In a word, The Clifton aims to be complete within itself, and it will be unnecessary for us to go afield either far or frequently during the present simple succession of brief episodes … in the lives of the Cliff-dwellers.