Public Affairs, 2001

Anyone who lives, or has lived, in Chicago knows the name of Mike Royko. His daily column ran almost uninterrupted in three successive Chicago newpapers beginning in 1964 until his death in 1997. During that time, Royko developed a reputation as a perceptive commentator on issues of the day, a critic of corrupt politicians, an advocate for the common man and a great humorist. Both admired and criticized, Royko was a regular part of many readers’ mornings. In his new biography, Royko: A Life In Print, former Chicago Tribune editor F. Richard Ciccone presents a portrait of the man, a sense of the times in which he lived and a look at how the newspaper business changed during Royko’s lifetime.
        Mike Royko was born in 1932 in an East European enclave on Chicago’s Northwest side. During service in the Air Force in the early 1950’s, he wrote articles for his base newspaper. When he returned to civilian life, he went to work for the City News Bureau in Chicago, which served as a training ground for many journalists in that city. After several years of working as a reporter and editor, he began writing a column for the Chicago Daily News in 1964.
         His roots in working class Chicago often provided subject matter for his columns. His recurring fictional character, Slats Grobnik, commented on issues from a working man’s point of view and provided some of the funniest moments in his work. He also wrote about ordinary people caught up in the system and often publicly pressured city officials to act on their behalf.
         In this sense, many of his columns were a reflection of his professional roots. Mr. Ciccone points out that Royko began his career in “The Front Page” era, when journalists often lacked formal education, learned their craft on the job and thought of themselves more as workers and less as professionals. Most newspapers were not owned by large corporations, as they are today, and journalists were generally free to pursue their own crusades.
         But unlike the sensational and muck raking news stories of the Front Page era, many of Royko’s columns dealt with issues of social justice both inside and outside the borders of Chicago. On one of the rare occasions when he left the city to cover a news story, he travelled to Selma, Alabama in the mid 1960’s to report on the Civil Rights movement, taking a stand against racism at a time when it was often dangerous to do so.
         In his hometown of Chicago, Royko often took on the administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley. His columns about “da mare” brought to the light many of the problems of the Daley administration. Royko’s biography of Daley, Boss, remains to this day an excellent study not only of a contemporary political figure, but also of the inner workings of a political machine.
         In addition to commentaries about Royko’s work, Mr. Ciccone presents some interesting and unexpected facts about Royko’s life. Royko was a passionate lover of music, for example, and he learned to play guitar during the folk music revival of the early 1960’s. He prided himself on being able to hum all nine Beethoven symphonies and he could discuss with authority the differences between symphonies conducted by Leonard Bernstein and Sir Georg Solti.
        Likewise, he was serious about learning the writing craft and developed a clear, precise and forceful writing style. He was known not only as a reporter but also as a writer. After the success of Boss, he even considered writing a novel. Among his literary friends were Nelson Algren, who once dedicated a book to him, and oral historian Studs Terkel.
        It is clear from Mr. Ciccone’s portrayal that Royko was a far more complex man than his columns might lead one to believe. Royko grew up in an ethnic neighborhood not known for its liberal attitudes but he still became a voice for liberal social policies. In person, he was often funny and gracious. But he could also be a trial, struggling with alcohol for much of his life.
        He was deeply concerned about the common man and very sympathetic to the concerns of Chicago’s minorities. At the same time, however, he was known to use racial epithets in private and came under fire from time to time for being insensitive to minorites. One of his columns on Mexican drug lords even led to demonstrations and demands that he be fired.
        He craved attention but at the same time felt uncomfortable with his own celebrity. He was at home in neighborhood taverns in the company of men, yet some of his closest personal friends were women. He was very demanding of his staff and could be a very difficult employer. Nevertheless, his “legmen” were intensely loyal to him, and he to them, and they often remained his friends after they left his staff.
        Mr. Ciccione presents a well-rounded portrait of Royko. By bringing out both the good and the bad of Royko’s life, Mr. Ciccone avoids the hagiography that this book could have easily become and leaves us with a very believable portrait of the man. Mr. Ciccione’s writing style is informal and while it seems too colloquial at times, it nevertheless sets the proper tone for this story.
        While I was reading this book, I talked about it a number of times with a friend. I told her how interesting the contradictions in Royko’s life were. He was attacked by conservatives for being too far left and by liberals for being intolerant. But he never lost the support of his regular readers, who were many. He was a demanding person, even vicious when drunk, but he had loyal friends. He never turned away from his working class roots, but he was also quite urbane far more broad minded than he may have seemed.
         “Wow,” said my friend, “You mean he was human?”
        So he was.