Canadian reporters in Chicago should take note: Conrad Black, aka Lord Black of Crossharbour, is nothing we haven’t seen before. Black’s blunder was to take his company public, putting his vast vanity and indulgences on a short leash held by stockholders. Sam Zell is buying the Tribune Company to take it private, where goofy media moguls can do what they please. (John Kass’s column Tuesday is essentially an open letter to Zell saying, “Respect us.”)
When Canadian journalists asked a few weeks ago what Chicagoans thought about Black’s federal corruption trial, I had to tell them most Chicagoans weren’t thinking anything. I had a flash of deja vu Monday as another out-of-town reporter asked about the reaction of Chicago to the sale of the Tribune. I said that if she were asking about the sale of the Cubs then we might have something to talk about, but the proprietors of the Tribune haven’t made much of a dent on the public consciousness. Colonel McCormick died half a century ago. His successors have been ciphers. What we know about Zell is that he’s a fierce-looking local guy who rides motorcycles and is taking over an $8.2 billion company with about $315 million of his own money. If you work for him now and the debt’s on your back, you’re probably feeling a little numb. But if you don’t, you probably think a deal like that makes him sound kind of cool. (Here’s a piece that suggests he might not be the world’s shrewdest multi-billionaire.)
Zell keeps a low profile, but he’s no cipher. Freelance writer Joy Bergmann is among the people who have seen how Zell likes to spend his loose change. Bergmann lives in New York now, but in 1999 she had a place on Lawrence Avenue in Uptown, and she could see from the trucks and the work crews that a very big event was coming up at the Aragon Ballroom. The event, she found out, was Zell’s birthday party. She hooked up with Redmoon Theater, which had been hired to provide strolling musicians and masked actors dressed as birds on stilts.
I just called her and asked her to reminisce. “It’s important to remember 1999 — September 1999 — and what a puffed-up era that was,” she says. It was before the economy crashed and before 9/11, and the only thing looming on the horizon was Y2K. The night of the party cops shut down the Lawrence el platform and held back the winos so Zell’s guests could arrive on chartered trains. They wore T-shirts that said “Z2K” and “Zellenium.”
Bergmann remembers “Trojan warriors at the front door and girls painted in gold body paint with vines twisted around their nipples wearing little bikini thong bottoms. They were nymphs of some sort, bodacious nymphs draped along the buffet. I don’t think his guests had a very good time — that was the big take-away for me. The theater people I was with had a really good time and ate great food and saw great entertainment, and the people who were his guests were there to make an appearance with Sam Zell. I didn’t sense a feeling of celebration for this man’s birthday. It was a see-and-be-seen business function.”
For instance, “James Brown was the opening act. The guests ignored him. They treated him like a Holiday Inn cover band. But we performers went apeshit.” Later, Aretha Franklin came on. Her closing number sticks in Bergmann’s memory because for about eight minutes its lyrics consisted of one word, “Jesus.” Then the 200-strong Soul Children of Chicago chorus appeared in the balcony singing:
We’ve got euro-dollar currencies, in our hands.
We’ve got ADI securities, in our hands. . .
The evening’s extravagance suggests that Zell — though he insists he’s getting into media only for the money — has a little William Randolph Hearst in him. Some will say that the only thing that can happen to a newspaper worse than being publicly held is being privately held, and that may be true, but the press lord whose ego knows no bounds is one of the great capitalist archetypes. It’s a role Black played to perfection until ungrateful shareholders did him in, and Zell, with none of them to answer to, might triumph in it. And if Zell ever deigns to meet any of the working stiffs in his employ, he might like them. No journalist would ever have turned his back on the Godfather of Soul.
Meanwhile, the Black trial creeps along, before a Canadian press corps that wonders if a man of Black’s stripe can get a fair trial in this grubby blue-collar town. Who knows? Bergmann recalls a supervisor telling a paramedic posted to Zell’s party. “If you have to deal with any of these people, remember, kiss their asses.” The paramedic wasn’t buying. “Kiss their ass? Maybe you got the wrong guy for this job. Billionaire or no billionaire, I don’t give a shit. Everybody looks the same in the back of an ambulance.”
Black must hope that man’s not on his jury.