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 Roykos lifetime.
Mike Royko was born
in 1932 in an East European enclave on Chicagos Northwest
side. During service in the Air Force in the early 1950s,
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
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 mans 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 Roykos 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 1960s 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. Roykos
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 Roykos work, Mr. Ciccone presents some
interesting and unexpected facts about Roykos life. Royko
was a passionate lover of music, for example, and he learned to
play guitar during the folk music revival of the early 1960s.
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.
Ciccones 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 Chicagos
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 Roykos 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. Cicciones 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 Roykos
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.
said my friend, You mean he was human?
So he was.