How should the work of Mike Royko be remembered? –Chicago Magazine
It’s a sad truth of the trade that no one remembers the journalist. Ernie Pyle, the World War II correspondent who was killed on Ie Shima, was a household name in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, the Chicago Public Library has 10 copies of his books. Only one is extracted. Great literature is timeless, like the Beatles. Even great journalism is dated, like the Turtles.
But what about Mike Royko, who died 25 years ago this week? He won a Pulitzer Prize. His biography of Richard J. Daley, Boss, which sold over a million copies. It was syndicated to 600 newspapers. Here is what happened when a seasoned reporter mentioned Royko to a IohyournotaIIsm student.
“Sorry,” said the student. “What was this journalist’s name again?”
“Mike Royko,” I say.
“Can you spell it?”
“Never heard of him.”
While Royko is revered by Chicago journalists of a certain age, and while his framed columns still grace the walls of his beloved Billy Goat Tavern, most of his work has gone the way of every newspaper – in the recycling shredder. Should we remember his work, any more than that of Walter Lippmann or James Reston or Russell Baker or Red Smith? Some of them, which is more than can be said for most journalists.
I’ve re-read a lot of Royko this year, and I think his greatest achievement was as a chronicler of that era – from the 1930s to around the 1980s – when white ethnicities were the dominant political and cultural force in Chicago, and most of the oldest cities in the country. Royko was proudly ethnic and proudly from the neighborhoods. Her father was Ukrainian. Her mother was Polish. He grew up in an apartment above a tavern on Milwaukee Avenue. From the beginning of his career, he was nostalgic for this world, which disappeared a little more each year that he wrote. His very first column in the Chicago Daily News, on September 6, 1963, was a conversation with a former neighborhood innkeeper who had taken up driving a taxi because his best customers had moved to the suburbs. He was thinking of opening a tavern in the old town, but “[y]You have to play music for long hair on a record player. And people sit down to play chess. Then these clumsy folk singers come in and play the guitar. At least, if it was an accordion…”
(Royko’s fictional alter ego, Slats Grobnik, took accordion lessons as a child. The accordion was the perfect instrument for a tavern, loud enough “to drown out the sound of crushing feet, crashing glasses, breaking and falling bodies”.)
Royko has published six column collections. My favorite is his first, Against a current, which came out in 1967 and generated a famous photo of Royko at a book signing with Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren, who obviously considered him a literary peer. (It has been reprinted by the University of Chicago Press as First Royko.) My favorite column in this book is about an old woman who ran a dry cleaning business on California Avenue. He never named her. He may have made it up. Or he might have based it on his mother, who ran a small tailor shop. The woman’s children begged her to close up shop and move in with them, but she couldn’t leave the neighborhood, one of those tight-knit ethnic ghettos filled with first- and second-generation Americans who was a bridge between the old world and the new: “Sometimes the seedy store was so crowded that it seemed prosperous. The old ladies and old men of the neighborhood found it a pleasant place to sit and talk. The lady provided them with chairs, coffee, and if anyone walked around the block to buy a liter of beer, she would provide the glasses. The neighborhood could be described as run down. A casual punk would break into one of the neighborhood taverns or restaurants, wave a gun, and scoop $50 or $100 from the till. This never happened in the cleaning store because even a novice thief could see that he wouldn’t benefit much from being bold.
Royko also wrote about Dutch Louie, who slept on a cot in the basement of a tavern near Logan Square, where “[h]His job was to sweep, mop, wash the windows, empty the spittoons, feed the Doberman, run errands, fuel the furnace, and act as a backup watchdog in the event of a burglary. One morning, after “a good meal and a good pint,” Dutch Louie did not come upstairs. “There is nothing more dignified than going quietly, everyone agreed.”
Naturally, Royko viewed the Chicago of his youth as the real Chicago and its people as the real Chicagoans. In the 1980s, after the death of his first wife, he moved into a skyscraper by a lake and had fun making fun of the folk customs of his new yuppie neighbors: jogging, low-calorie meals, cocktails in fern bars. He wrote a very funny column expressing his horror when a young Iowa publicist won his annual Royko’s Ribfest: “I didn’t even know WASPs ate anything but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “
Naturally too, as Royko grew older, his resistance to the modern world – always a theme of his chronicles – grew. In the 1960s, he wrote against the Vietnam War and in favor of Martin Luther King. In the 1990s, he wrote against compassion for AIDS patients and homosexuals in the military. He wrote a column chastising black people for giving their children ‘unusual’ names and, posing as a supporter of Pat Buchanan, satirically called Mexico a ‘corrupt narco-state’ and a ‘useless country’. “. Well, Royko’s other white ethnicities had also become more conservative. They were the backbone of that electoral bloc known as the “Reagan Democrats”. After Royko’s death, the Grandstand gave John Kass his place as a resident of curmudgeonly white ethnicity. Kass was constantly reminded ‘you’re not Mike Royko’, but he wasn’t that very different from the Royko he replaced.
U. of C. Press published another Royko collection, Once again, which covered his entire career, from the 60s to the 90s – at that time he was mainly a satirist and pundit. Today, it’s not so interesting to read his marriage advice to Prince Charles and Princess Diana, or his imaginary conversation with Rodney King. It is not a sin for a newspaper column to appear dated. Newspaper columns are only written to last one day. A newspaper column that still reads like big news, nearly 60 years after it was written, is a work of journalistic genius. Royko produced a few. They hold as well as Algren or Steinbeck. It’s quite a legacy for a journalist.