Jeff McCourt exasperated, offended, and alienated so many friends and admirers in Chicago’s gay and lesbian community that they eventually walled him off: McCourt died March 26 at Swedish Covenant Hospital and no one knew until – well they may not know until they read this blog. McCourt vanished from public life in 2000. I learned of his death when his younger brother Dan e-mailed me.
McCourt was a major figure in Chicago journalism over the last quarter century, and I’ve written about him many times in Hot Type, usually when things were going wrong. In 1985 McCourt was an options trader who’d contributed theater reviews and a gossip column to Gay Life under the pen name Mimi O’Shea and then become features editor. His lover, Bob Bearden, was Gay Life‘s sales manager. They believed Gay Life‘s audience deserved and would support a more serious newspaper, and followed by other renegade staffers they walked out and launched Windy City Times. But Bearden soon died of AIDS, and WCT became McCourt’s. Desolate at Bearden’s death, McCourt wasn’t sure he wanted to be a publisher, but adversity – as I wrote about McCourt years ago – “has always focused him.” He built WCT into a newspaper marked by professional reporting standards and political engagement — the paper was instrumental in the passage of the city’s Human Rights Ordinance in 1988.
Yet McCourt could never manage to avoid antagonizing the people around him. In 1987 his editor, Tracy Baim, another founding staffer from Gay Life, walked out and created Outlines. In 1999 a large contingent of WCT staffers led by editors Louis Weisberg and Lisa Neff collected their last paychecks and quit on McCourt while he was out of town. They promptly launched the Chicago Free Press. McCourt was thunderstruck. “I operate in an atmosphere of trust,” he told me. “I don’t operate in an atmosphere of paranoia. If I did, perhaps I’d have been more suspicious.” But a McCourt loyalist in the WCT ranks had written himself a memo while the coup was being plotted, rueing the plotters’ failure “to empathize with a man who embodies so many of the demons they themselves can’t shake. . . . I hope Jeff finds balance and happiness and hope he finds peace from the suffering of the life that he’s living.”
McCourt found none of that. He kept Windy City Times going without missing an issue or dramatically cheapening the product, but ultimately the defection defeated him. He had to compete now against not just one newspaper but two, and to hang on to advertisers he gave them enormous discounts. He owed his printer, Newsweb, so much money that Newsweb took him to court. He was about to shut the doors in 2000 when Baim — whom he’d reached out to for the first time since 1987 — bought the name of the paper to keep it going. Gay activist Rick Garcia told me at the time, “I think Windy City Times has been horribly undervalued and unrecognized for the critically important contributions it has made to the gay and lesbian community in Chicago. McCourt has never gotten the credit he richly and rightly deserves. People bitch and moan because he’s had the courage to expose organizations and activities when they fuck up.”
McCourt had one friend at the end, possibly the only one who knew about his death when it happened. Gregory Munson says he was hired seven years ago by McCourt’s sister, Diane, his legal guardian, to be his “chaperone.” At the time Munson was working for an agency, Always Caring. “He had gotten mugged when he was staying in the Talbott Hotel,” Munson told me. “To my understanding, they found him in an alley unconscious and he went into Northwestern Hospital in a coma.” When McCourt was transferred to a nursing home, Munson went to work for him. “I was originally with him five days a week,” he says. “As time went by it dwindled down to two hours once a month. [His sister] said he was broke. He disputed that but he was afraid to go to court to fight. He just hated that he couldn’t have more control over his own life.”
Munson said that “in the beginning he had a lot of visitors, but as time went on they stopped coming. He had a good memory for things that happened in the past but his short-term memory was his problem. I took him to restaurants, parks, the theater. The last thing I took him to was he wanted some doughnuts, so we went to Dunkin’ Donuts. We had coffee there. Before that he wanted to see Brokeback Mountain — that was the last major place we went.” I asked how McCourt died. “He had HIV for almost 30 years,” Munson said. “So he had that very much in control. It seemed more to me like he just gave up.” The last time Munson saw McCourt, which was a couple of days before he died, he gave Munson a copy of a play he’d written back in 1992, “The Midnight Room.” “He told me to keep it and maybe I could get somebody to enact it.
“We grew very close,” said Munson. “Jeffrey was a good person. He did a lot to help a lot of people and he’ll be greatly missed.”
Dan McCourt says that he and Diane and another brother will scatter some of Jeff’s ashes around his birthplace in upstate New York and other ashes in Chicago.