For almost nine years starting in June 1926, a blatant New Yorker rip-off called the Chicagoan chronicled the goings-on around our toddling town, from the death of the world’s first flapper to “pious” listings of Cubs games “in anticipation of a world’s series.” The writing was uneven and the copyediting indifferent; the cover art and interior sketches, though, were frequently spectacular—small deco masterpieces.
And then in April 1935, the Chicagoan succumbed to the Depression and disappeared without a trace. Its publisher, Martin Quigley, decamped to New York to work with the Catholic Legion of Decency to impose a production code on Hollywood movies, and most of the rest of its writers and editors went on to obscurity. In the 40s, a University of Chicago graduate named Julia Fay Hecker donated a nearly complete run to her alma mater’s library, where the bound volumes languished, ignored.
U. of C. professor Neil Harris stumbled across the Chicagoan while trolling the library stacks one day in the late 80s. Though he’s a cultural historian, Harris had never heard of the magazine, never seen it referenced in a reference book or scholarly journal. “I was astonished by the cover art,” he remembers now, “and by the general air of sophistication and cosmopolitanism.”
He spent the next several years poring over issues and researching the magazine’s history. He found almost nothing. Quigley failed to mention it in his correspondence—”It was like the sin that dared not speak its name,” Harris says. The New Yorker didn’t bother to take legal action, though the Chicagoan had ripped off its Talk of the Town section. It wasn’t until late into his research that Harris even found a piece of letterhead.
“It was like it had never existed,” he says.
By 2008, Harris had uncovered enough to compile The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age, a handsome collection of some of the magazine’s best art and writing, including a reproduction of the entire issue of July 2, 1927.
Since then, there’s been a renewed interest in the Chicagoan. Last year J.C. Gabel, the former publisher of Stop Smiling, decided to revive it, although only one issue has appeared so far. And now the U. of C. library has digitized almost every issue from the magazine’s original run and put it online in a fully searchable archive.
“People can see how much interesting talent was around at that point,” says Harris. He recommends the writing of Gene Markey (who later moved to LA and married a trio of movie stars) and the artwork of Clayton Rawson, Nat Karson, and A. Raymond Katz, who went by “Sandor.” “Just plunge right in. It was a very vigorous period in Chicago’s artistic, literary, and journalistic history.”