• Anthony Suau/Chicago Sun-Times
  • Jane Byrne with Dan Aykroyd and and John Belushi in 1980

When Jane Byrne died last month, the Reader put together a package of articles we’d published on Byrne over the years. They made good reading—better reading, I believe, than the indulgent eulogies other media produced in haste for the occasion. Byrne is easily sentimentalized and we avoided that—by presenting stories written when sentimentality wasn’t a temptation.

For example, there was the one I’d written in 1983, as Byrne left office, defeated by Harold Washington. It was constructed from interviews with people I knew who’d gotten her elected four years earlier—her campaign manager, for instance, and the videographer who shot her commercials. Her ’79 campaign had been the experience of a lifetime for all of them. Her reign was another story—a bizarre disappointment.

But I’m writing here to indulge myself a little. However generous the recent reminiscences, the disappointment was documented. The bizarre might deserve a little more attention than it got. The Harold Washington years, the era of “Before it’s too late” and Council Wars, was grand opera that changed the soul of Chicago. Jane Byrne was an operetta. Or maybe a screwball comedy. It was a cast of eccentric characters acting out, hiding under beds, running in and out of doors. And many of those characters were journalists! We had parts in the farce!

A friend just sent me a link to a story I’d written in early 1980 and forgotten. My friend thinks it’s hilarious, and I don’t think it’s so bad myself. At the time Jane Byrne had been mayor less than a year—but the honeymoon was already over. Chicago was at the stage of not knowing what to make of the woman who now ran it but having a pretty clear idea she wasn’t what the city had bargained for. My story was about absolutely nothing of importance, but it moved that impression along. The cast of characters included the mayor; Mike Royko; the mayor’s husband, ex-reporter Jay McMullen; the mayor’s chief of staff, ex-reporter Bill Griffin; Griffin’s wife, gossip columnist Mike Sneed; mayoral aide Michael Brady; Walter Jacobson; assorted political allies of the mayor; assorted political enemies of the political allies of the mayor.

What happened is that Royko wrote a column accusing Griffin of snooping around into Royko’s private life because “his wife was really on his back to dig something up.” Could this be true? Royko told me his source was Jane Byrne herself, who for reasons it was impossible to even guess at had dropped a dime on her own chief of staff.

I’m pretty sure I remember Griffin sticking his head nervously through the door as I interviewed Jane Byrne at her desk in City Hall. I clearly remember getting a haircut before running over to City Hall because the mayor deserved respect.

Anyway, my story is a taste of how it was in Chicago when Jane Byrne ran things. Hardly any of the principals are around any longer, but Sneed’s still going strong, and I sent her the story Monday and asked if she could tell me what all this was actually about.

Much ado about nothing, she replied (also my impression). “It seems to me you did spent a lot of time writing about a lot of nonsense..which turned out, however, to be a sublimely written and hysterical opus on political skullduggery. I do remember the ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ incident following my brief tenure as Mayor Jane Byrne’s press secretary in 1979. But not fondly.”

Tweedledum and Tweedledee is what Royko’s column called Griffin and Brady.

Sneed went on, “I do recall chuckling about Royko’s column with Griffin and Brady, who were trying to figure out who was Tweedledee and who was Tweedledeedum. . . . I no longer remember the exact reason for Royko’s venom, but he was sensitive about his personal life—and had a habit of using a bar stool as a pulpit—as many of us did back in the golden age of newsprint and Guinness beer . . .

“So much is forgotten; the rest I’m not going to talk about.”

UPDATE: But she had one more thing to say. I’d ended my 1980 story with a note in her defense. I wrote, “I have friends who know Sneed and Griffin well as a couple, and they tell me it is inconceivable that she’d be telling him what to do and he’d be doing it. I believe them.” But now Sneed, long divorced, set me straight. “Michael, just for the record—it is conceivable I would be telling a husband what to do.”