Michael Hainey
Michael Hainey Credit: Mark Seliger

Sons have endless questions about their fathers. Michael Hainey is a journalist, someone more given than most to asking questions, and his father died when he was six. The mystery of the man was large enough to fill a book.

Bob Hainey was the night copy desk chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. He lived with his family in a house out by O’Hare, and one afternoon in April of 1970 he drove off to work and did not return. Mike grew up with the memory of his dad’s older brother, Dick, an editor at Chicago’s other tabloid, Chicago Today, coming by the house strangely early the next morning to give Barbara Hainey the news that her husband was dead.

Bob Hainey was 35. Barbara was 33. They’d met at the Tribune when he was a reporter there and she was a gofer for the paper’s editorial cartoonists. After they married she stayed home and raised two sons, but she told Mike later that the Tribune years were the happiest time of her life.

Today Mike Hainey is deputy editor of GQ. He grew up knowing his father from scrapbooks and fugitive memories—such as this one in After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story, a memoir Scribner is publishing this month: “I would have been four, maybe five. My brother and I are with our father. Walking through the newsroom. It is his day off. We are here to get his paycheck. The newsroom is bright and big and wide, the largest room I have ever seen. White lights hang overhead. Windows rim the room. And everywhere desks and paper and men. Men in white shirts and black ties sit at battered desks. Some have typewriters. Some do not. Some read pieces of paper. Others type on pieces of paper. Telephones ring. Men yell across the room.”

This is a child’s memory. Why does it move me as I read it? Why do I remember the Sun-Times newsroom of the same era in roughly the same way—as a conglomeration of simple elements? Shouts. Typewriters. Telephones. Tobacco. Hainey continues: “Clouds of cigarette smoke hang over the room like storm clouds in miniature. Some of the men are older than my father. They have hard guts and greased-back hair. When my father walks with us through the newsroom, his hands on our shoulders, guiding us through the labyrinth of desks, men stop us. ‘Your boys, Bob?’ A cigarette jangles from the man’s lip and he slides a red pencil behind his hair-pocked ear. ‘Put ‘er there, son.'”

After Visiting Friends is about Mike Hainey’s quest to solve the mystery of his father. Barbara Hainey had told her sons their dad had a heart attack in his car on the way home from work. She stuck to that story, but at some point Mike Hainey could no longer accept it as true—certainly not as the whole truth. He writes:

“After he died, silence descends. Silence and fear. My twin poles: My binary black holes. I live in fear of upsetting my mother, of even uttering my father’s name. I believe that even by saying his name, I might kill her. Or, she might kill me.”

Mike’s uncle Dick, who might have cleared everything up, died in 1994. For whatever reasons, Bob Hainey’s Sun-Times friends didn’t keep in touch with Barbara after he died, so Mike didn’t know them. When he decided to tackle the silence and fear, he didn’t have much to go on. “While visiting friends” is a perplexing phrase from one of the obituaries Mike dug up. Another said he collapsed on the street in the 3900 block of North Pine Grove, far from the Sun-Times and not along Bob Hainey’s usual route home. Not that his father often came straight home, but the usual places he and his friends went to drink after hours were clustered around the Sun-Times. The address made no sense.

I have never had a stranger experience reading a book. A few pages into After Visiting Friends, I put the book down and stared out the kitchen window. Why didn’t he ask me? I said to myself. I know how his father died and I would have told him.

About six weeks after Bob Hainey died I went to work at the Sun-Times. They put me on nights. There was plenty of in-house lore to catch up on, and the death of Bob Hainey was one of the first stories I heard. I won’t repeat it here because Mike Hainey has a right to reveal it in his book, but it’s a good story about the odd people who come together in a newsroom, and it’s god-almighty sad. It’s a story that belongs in a book that is ultimately an elegy to a vanished era of newspapering, an era I apparently look back on like a wistful six-year-old.

To his credit, Mike Hainey doesn’t milk the mystery for all it’s worth. As he comes to comprehend the last night of his father’s life, he shares what he’s learning, and when the question of how his father died yields to another question just as fundamental, he doesn’t play games to gin up more suspense.

Eventually, Hainey looks up some guys who worked with his father back in the day. Two of them blow him off. Jim Hoge, editor of the Sun-Times then—him I can understand: let friends a lot closer to Bob Hainey than he was decide what the son should hear. But the other, a friend of Hainey’s from the copy desk, bewilders me. Whatever reasons there might still be, 40 years later, to tread lightly, Mike Hainey was a man entering middle age who deserved to know the truth about his father.

But one name leads to another, and Hainey finds what he’s after. He spends hours with Tom Moffett, who succeeded his father on the night copy desk. Moffett takes him to Andy’s on Hubbard Street, the joint where he and Bob Hainey used to drink from 2 to 4 AM most nights. Moffett tells Hainey plenty, and for the rest he tells him he needs to talk to Natty Bumppo.

Natty Bumppo? “He was reluctant to call Natty,” says Tom Moffett, who talked to me the other day from his home in Wisconsin. “The name if nothing else is sort of off-putting. Who would call Natty Bumppo to be a source?”

Natty Bumppo was one of the copy editors on the desk run by Bob Hainey and then Tom Moffett. He was also a law school student named John Dean. Reading Garry Wills’s 1970 book Nixon Agonistes, Dean came across a passage that described the Kennedy-era United States “facing the world with brash nonideological savvy and self-confidence, blazing a new spiritual frontier with Natty Bumppo shrewdness and verve.”

Who’s Natty Bumppo? Dean wondered one night on the desk.

“Nancy was there,” the former John Dean recalled to me. This was Nancy Sterner Moffett, another copy editor, and Tom’s wife. “Nancy said, ‘I think he’s an Indian.’ Tom said, ‘Nah, he’s a scout.’ Nancy said, ‘Maybe he’s an Indian scout.’ I said, ‘I don’t care who he is, I want to be Natty Bumppo.’ And Nancy said, ‘Listen, you can be Natty Bumppo.’ It didn’t occur to me I could until she said that.”

A few years later, he legally changed his name. Bumppo, who wound up a county prosecutor in Kentucky and still lives in that state, tells the tale in a book of his own: War Stories: The Memoirs of a Country Lawyer. The tale concludes, “But only with the emergence of Nixon’s antagonist, John W. Dean III, some years later, and my emergence as a lawyer, did I need to be Natty Bumppo. Judges were saying not only, ‘I thought you were in jail,’ but also, ‘I thought you were disbarred.'”

Nancy Sterner and Tom Moffett had met on the copy desk and were soon married. The marriage required a divorce, which required the services of an attorney, which were provided by the night city editor, who practiced a little law on the side. He and his client, Moffett’s former wife, were soon married to each other and living happily ever after.

I mention these details because the only possible way for me to read Mike Hainey’s book was in the context of its time; and it turns out that was exactly what he intended. “I wanted to write an homage to that era, that world,” he tells me. “I grew up loving newspapers because it was a way to love my father. The time was just so beautiful, right? I wanted to write something you guys would all want to say, ‘Yeah, that was us.'”

I called Moffett and Bumppo because I wanted them to assure me Mike Hainey wasn’t just a slick New York writer pretending to sentiments he didn’t feel because books about sons searching for their fathers sell a lot of copies if they’re heart-wrenching. Moffett and Bumppo vouched for Mike Hainey’s sincerity.

And now that he and I have talked by phone, so do I. “When talking to his colleagues and coworkers,” says Mike Hainey of his dad, “I saw him now as a man out in the world. I saw him as a man in full, I think.”