Robert Ryan in Caught
Robert Ryan in Caught Credit: Courtesy Scott Marks/

The full autobiographical letter that Robert Ryan wrote to his children can be found here; for more on Ryan’s filmography and an appreciation of his work, see “The Essential Robert Ryan.”

On-screen, Robert Ryan was a man with secrets. Film noir fans remember him as the bigoted army sergeant concealing his murder of a Jewish man in Crossfire (1948), or the small-town projectionist eaten up by his love for another man’s wife in Clash by Night (1952), or the seething detective whose closed-door brutality against witnesses has begun to soil his reputation in On Dangerous Ground (1952). Born in Chicago on November 11, 1909, Ryan enjoyed a 30-year career in movies, and by the time he died of cancer in 1973 he’d played everything from romantic leads to western heavies, from Jay Gatsby to John the Baptist. But the persona that lingers is that of a strong, intelligent man guarding some storm of emotion—fear, guilt, helpless rage. Even in broad daylight he seemed cloaked in shadow.

Offscreen, he was also something of a mystery. In Franklin Jarlett’s Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography (1990), even Ryan’s closest friends describe him as moody and intensely private. Interviewed for this story, his children concurred.”He was a very sweet guy,” remembers Lisa Ryan, who lives in San Francisco and works for a green nonprofit. “He was incredibly shy, although—I guess this is what actors can do—he could just turn on when the situation called for that. But basically he was a very quiet, introverted guy. You wonder, looking at some of the parts that he played in movies, what it was in him that was able to access those really dark, scary characters.”

Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch (1969)

“He wasn’t an easy guy to be close to,” says Cheyney Ryan, Lisa’s older brother, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon. By all accounts, the person who knew Ryan best was his wife of 33 years, Jessica Cadwalader, a writer of mystery novels and children’s books who helped inspire his devotion to liberal social causes. They had a passionate commitment to education and together founded the Oakwood School, a progressive grade school in Los Angeles. “They had enormous respect for each other,” Cheyney recalls. “It’s not easy being married to a movie star. And also, you know, my father drank. My mother drank too—they both drank a lot. So I think there was a fair amount of moodiness around sometimes.”

“I think he had a lot of demons,” says Walker (formerly Tim) Ryan, a musician and teacher in Eugene, Oregon, and the eldest of the three children. “He certainly talked about his depressions as he got older. And he came from a generation where, if you were a man, you just stuffed all that stuff. As far as the darkness, he used to talk about Black Irish moods. . . . I think that’s what part of his attraction to [Eugene] O’Neill was. The Irish are essentially either really happy or really depressed. He enjoyed a joke, he did like to have a good time. And then there were these days when he would just sort of sit in his room. I think he had ghosts. And what they were, I don’t know.”

Ryan never told his children much about his years growing up in Chicago—both Walker and Cheyney say they learned more about his youth from Jarlett’s book than they ever heard from their father. But earlier this year Lisa discovered a 20-page letter by Robert Ryan, addressed to his children and probably written in the early 1950s, in which he detailed his family history and his memories of the city. She’s shared this document with the Reader (the full text can be found here). Nostalgic and sometimes drily witty, it offers a revealing glimpse into Ryan’s stoic personality as well as evocative recollections of Chicago in the teens and 1920s. It also alludes to some of the pressures and traumas that may have shaped him, including one that completely escaped Jarlett: the involvement of Ryan’s father in a horrific south-side construction fire that claimed at least a dozen lives.

Ryan as a child in UptownCredit: courtesy robert ryan family

John Ryan, Robert’s paternal grandfather, emigrated in 1862 from Thurles, County Tipperary, and settled in Lockport, 30 miles southwest of Chicago. At the time Lockport was headquarters for the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which predated the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. John Ryan established a boatyard that enabled him to support his wife, Johanna, and their eight children, and according to his grandson he once served as superintendent of the canal’s Lockport section.

Robert’s father, Timothy Aloysius, was born in June 1875, the second child of a Roman Catholic family that his son described in the letter as “hard-working, devout, honorable, and fine looking. . . . Although my grandfather drank a quart of whisky a day for sixty-five years, he was never drunk or out of control. My father was the only one of the sons who drank, and after a rather fast start he stopped entirely when he married—never to drink again. The Ryans did not gamble, loaf, swear, drink, smoke, break the laws, cheat, or hurt people in any way. (Except my father, who did the first five of these things at one time or another.)”

As a teenager, Tim moved to Chicago and lived with his uncle, Timothy E. Ryan, who occupied a mansion at 63 Macalister Place in what’s now the Near West Side neighborhood. Fourteen years older than his brother John, T.E. Ryan, as he was known, had made a fortune in real estate and established himself as a major political force in Chicago. In the 1890s he served three terms as West Town assessor, and from 1902 to ’06 he would serve as Democratic committeeman for what was then the 19th Ward. His popularity and influence were such that during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition he was named grand marshal of the Irish Day parade. Tim proved to be an eager political protege of his uncle, and in 1899 he was appointed chief clerk in the city attorney’s office. Five years later, when he ran for the state board of equalization in the eighth congressional district, he billed himself as T.A. Ryan.

“Father’s duties have always been somewhat vague in everyone’s mind,” Ryan wrote. “In his twenties he seems to have been occupied principally with fancy vests, horse racing, attending prizefights, and a great deal of social drinking. In short a rather well-known and well-liked man about town. These entertaining activities were all financed gladly by his uncle. He also seems to have been one of the first men in America to own an automobile.”

Timothy Aloysius RyanCredit: courtesy robert ryan family

During these years, Tim Ryan “evidently was in the construction business briefly (which he ignored) and ran for political office (as west town assessor)—wherein he was defeated. His subsequent stories were all of practical politics as opposed to academic or theoretical politics—about which he knew little. He also worked for the Peoples Gas Company. This job lasted one day and was always good for a one-hour story.”

By 1907, Chicago was home to at least five of John and Johanna Ryan’s eight children—Timothy, Lawrence, Thomas, Joseph, and John Jr. That same year Larry Ryan introduced Tim to Mabel Bushnell, a 24-year-old secretary at the Chicago Tribune. Raised in Escanaba, a port town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she was of English descent and an Episcopalian, but Tim went for her anyway. “Father subjected mother to a 1907 version of the high life—fancy restaurants, champagne, hansom cabs, and the theater every night,” Robert wrote. “The two impediments to marriage were Dad’s religion (Roman Catholic) and his drinking (habitual). He finally convinced mother that she was not obliged to become a Catholic; he also quit the bottle for life. They were married sometime in 1908 by a priest and a minister and retired to a very different life than they had been living.”

Mabel Ryan turned out to be the only paternal grandparent Robert Ryan’s children would ever know; after he found success in the movie business, she moved to Los Angeles along with her sister, Blanche. “She was this kind of high-Anglican Church person,” recalls Cheyney. “I always got the feeling that her family might have thought she seriously married down by marrying my grandfather.”

If so, that feeling may have been more about ethnicity or religion than finances. “The Bushnells were considerably less affluent than the Ryans,” Robert wrote, “and over the years my father made several advances to various members of the family. He was pretty good about it but occasionally found it helpful to remind mother of this fact.”

By the time Mabel was expecting her first child, however, Tim Ryan was “broke,” possibly the result of having fallen out with his uncle. Larry, seven years younger than Tim, had been working for T.E. as a clerk and was accused by him of having embezzled a small amount of money. “Larry was about as liable to have done this as to burn down the Holy Name Cathedral,” Ryan wrote. Tim sided with his brother and moved out of T.E.’s mansion; when Robert was born, his parents were living in a six-unit apartment building at 4822 N. Kenmore in Uptown.

To a modern reader Robert’s memories of the neighborhood might seem almost idyllic. “I can’t remember a time when there weren’t some automobiles around,” he wrote, “but in my earliest years they were very seldom seen. Almost all heavy hauling was done by horse and wagon, and the alley, which was the commercial thoroughfare, was full of various dobbins hauling ice, garbage, groceries, etc. In the hot summers the horses wore straw hats. The horses got to know the various stops and often would break in a new driver by showing him where to go. I remember my father taking me over to a nearby fire station and showing me the white horses that pulled the fire engines—the fire chief’s name was Flavin. At that time, I am sure that every fireman, policeman, and prizefighter in Chicago had an Irish name.”

A second son, John, arrived two years later, but he died in June 1917, two months shy of his sixth birthday. The cause was lobar pneumonia, probably brought on by influenza, though his death predates by nine months the first observed U.S. cases of the virus strain that caused the savage 1918 pandemic. Ryan rarely mentioned his brother to his children and in his letter regretted that he couldn’t recall more about him, describing him only as “a rather solemn, gentle little fellow.” But the little family was stricken by the boy’s death, and according to Ryan’s biographer, after the actor was diagnosed with cancer at age 60 he admitted that he’d always been haunted by his brother’s demise. “I remember the terrible day that he died,” he wrote, “and the feeling of my mother and father that he might have been saved. Certainly today he would live. . . . His death shook up my parents terribly, and they decided to move immediately.”

The Ryans relocated to an apartment several blocks northwest, at 1408 W. Winona. “The neighborhood was in some ways less desirable. But nothing mattered. We had to move and we did.”

He remembered the apartment on Winona mostly for its proximity to Essanay Studios, the pioneering film production company at 1333-45 W. Argyle that helped launch the careers of Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, Francis X. Bushman, and Charlie Chaplin. “Most of them lived in our neighborhood,” Ryan wrote, “and I recall scenes being shot up and down the street. At Winona a bunch of us went on Saturday and worked as extras in kid movies starring Mary McAllister—the first child star. For this we got $2.50 a day and I started as a movie actor—a career I was not to pick up again for nineteen years.” After four years at this address, the family moved again, to an apartment at 5900 N. Kenmore in Edgewater, a nicer location that reflected Tim’s growing prosperity in the construction business.

Following their break with T.E., Tim and Larry had joined their brothers Tom, Joe, and John as partners in their fledgling business, Ryan Construction. “The principal jobs were street paving and large sewer building,” Ryan wrote. “They became very prominent in the business and at the time of the 1929 crash were probably worth four or five million dollars. Dad’s duties were in the beginning as a superintendent of sewer construction—this finally became the important part of their business. He also was immensely valuable as the contact who knew and was liked by the big Chicago politicians who doled out the jobs.”

The most important of these, no doubt, was Ed Kelly, chief engineer of the sanitary district. Kelly had put in 30 years with the district, but he had no formal training and was widely regarded as having climbed the professional ladder on the basis of his political connections. (According to his 1984 biographer, Roger Biles, one journalist accused Kelly of farming out his technical work to consultants.) In 1928 the district’s aptly named “Whoopee Era” came to an end when Kelly and 12 others were indicted for having pocketed $5 million in graft. More than 700 witnesses testified to the gaping discrepancies between the district’s stated expenditures and what contractors were actually paid. The district payroll was said to be padded by as much as 75 percent. The trial revealed that bids were opened and altered so that favored firms could be awarded lucrative contracts. “It became widely known that a well-greased palm was essential to doing business with the department,” Biles wrote. “Some trustees received gifts of twenty-five cases of liquor a month from favored contractors.”

The Ryan family’s rising fortunes were hardly lost on young Robert. “Things were better now: we had our first automobile; nice furniture was appearing in the house. . . . We had our first car, not long after followed by Cadillacs and Pierce-Arrows with chauffeurs (unliveried). My parents took a trip to New York and saw all the shows. Somewhere along the way I owned a Ford ‘roadster,’ numerous bell-bottom trouser suits, a fur coat, and whatever else I needed. Dad and Mother spent their summers at Crystal Lake, where they took up golf. I spent most of mine at Camp Kentuck near Phelps, Wisconsin, which was populated mostly (the camp) by boys from the Chicago Latin School. In the winter Dad and mother went to a lot of parties and Dad became a patron of the Chicago Opera Association.”

Ryan’s letter may be most intriguing for the portrait it paints of his father, who never lived to see his grandchildren and whose grandchildren were told next to nothing about him. “He was a big man (6’4″-250 lbs.) with a radiant personality and strong sense of humor and was idolized by many people,” Ryan wrote. “His other side was only displayed at home and was very hard to take.” He didn’t elaborate.

Tim Ryan was “hard-working when there was a job at hand, but I think now that he was (in the career sense) almost totally without ambition. The company was really run by Tom, a rather cold and shrewd businessman. . . . Dad, I think, would have been content to have enough money to live well, eat well, play bridge, and tell stories to his rather small circle of friends. He was always generous and kind to me, in a day when father-son relationships were not thought of as they are now.”

Ryan as a football player for Loyola AcademyCredit: courtesy robert ryan family

In 1923 Tim and Mabel Ryan enrolled Robert at Loyola Academy, a Jesuit high school for boys then located in Dumbach Hall on the Rogers Park campus of Loyola University. (The school moved to Wilmette in the 50s and went coed in 1994.) Tall and muscular, he distinguished himself in athletics (football and track), but he also excelled in rhetoric (the debating society, the literary society, the school magazine) and in his senior year won an award for “combined excellence in scholarship and athletics.” According to Cheyney, Robert spoke most fondly of his English teacher, Father Conroy, who introduced him to Shakespeare. The priest spent an entire semester on Hamlet and, probably more than anyone else, was responsible for Robert’s interest in theater.

His father wanted him to go to college and then join the family construction business. Eager to get away from his doting parents, Robert enrolled at Dartmouth, a decision that perplexed his father. “He didn’t get the point—packing off 1,300 miles to the state of New Hampshire when there were five colleges to be had within an hour’s drive,” wrote Robert. “Mother must have sensed that I should go—though I hope she didn’t know how much I wanted to go. You cannot know the difficulties that attend an only child. Two big grown-ups are beaming in on him all the time—even when he isn’t there. It is a feeling of being watched that lingers throughout life. And the feeling it engenders is escape.”

Robert played football at Dartmouth and, having learned boxing as a boy, took up the sport anew with great success; he was the school’s heavyweight champion for three years, retiring undefeated. He majored in English and made Phi Beta Kappa his junior and senior years. His letter describes Dartmouth as “a nice warm atmosphere where I was somebody. . . .While I was there we had the crash (or start of the Depression), and I was hardly aware of it till about two years later. Also there was a terrible fire in one of my father’s tunnel projects and 14 men were killed. I am sure that both of these events caused my father’s early death.”

The fire broke out on Monday, April 13, 1931. Ryan Construction had contracted to build the 22nd Street section of a huge, $2.1 million concrete intercepting sewer that would begin at Grand and Jefferson and travel southwest to the sanitary drainage and ship canal. This 225-foot section, an ovoid tunnel 17 feet tall and 35 feet below ground, ran east-west between Ashland and Laflin, with the air pressure maintained at a rate of five pounds to the square inch to keep the tunnel from collapsing. Inside the tunnel at each end of the section was a metal chamber about six feet high and 40 feet long, accessible from the tunnel through an outer and an inner door that together created an air lock. A pump above each chamber provided continuously circulating fresh air from above, so workmen could get a break from the fetid air inside the tunnel. The only way back to the surface was a short work tunnel that led from the center of the main tunnel south to an elevator shaft.

Newspaper accounts from the time vary in their details, but apparently the fire ignited sometime around 5:30 PM, as the day shift was about to knock off. Though the actual cause became a matter of dispute, the Chicago American quoted Albert Martino, a cement worker, saying that air leaks had been detected in the concrete at the west end of the tunnel and that he’d been sent down with a candle to plug them with sawdust. (The open flame served to locate air movement.) Timber and sawdust were major components of the construction job: wooden forms used to mold the concrete were braced against the earthen walls and anchored in place with sawdust packs. Martino told the Chicago Evening Post, “I saw what looked like a lump of concrete and I examined it closely. Instead it was sawdust and it caught fire from the flames of the candle. Then I saw a number of fires starting around me.” The fire began to spread through the timber and sawdust between the concrete and the earth.

James Marek, a laborer interviewed by the American, described the confusion inside the east air chamber as the tunnel began to fill with smoke: “It was getting close to the end of the shift. Most of us were thinking of going home, talking of it now and then. I was hungry, and wanted to get home to the good meal that would be waiting for me. Suddenly the place began to fill with smoke, and we knew there was a fire. We couldn’t see any flame and couldn’t tell where the smoke was coming from. We went outside into the tunnel, thinking we’d get out before it was too late. It was no good. The smoke drove us back. We went into the locks again.”

At street level a foreman noticed a ribbon of smoke drifting up from the elevator shaft and, fearing an electrical fire, sent three electricians down to check the wiring; they found nothing wrong. Tim Ryan learned of the fire around 6 PM, and the first workmen to flee the tunnel reported a smell of burning insulation, which led him and his crew to believe the cause was indeed electrical. Morris Cahill, the construction superintendent, was worried that if the fire reached the east end and destroyed all the hoses maintaining the air pressure belowground, the entire tunnel would collapse. According to the Daily News, loyal employees begged Ryan to let them extinguish the fire: “We’ll be OK, boss. Let us go, please. It’ll mean your contract if we don’t.”

Without waiting for Ryan’s permission, an assistant foreman led a party of men down into the tunnel; Cahill made three trips down but each time was overcome by smoke. With no word from the men below, Ryan summoned the fire department around 7 PM.

Truck Company 14 was first on the scene, and its commander, Captain James O’Neill, led a party of four other firefighters down the elevator shaft. Engine Company 23 followed soon after. “My men are in there!” Ryan exclaimed, according to the Daily News account. “What are we going to do?” Six more firefighters descended into the tunnel, among them William Coyne and William Carstens. At this point confusion over the fire’s cause and ignorance of its severity may have been as deadly as the blaze itself: incredibly, the first two rescue parties went down without the benefit of gas masks. Before long three firefighters from the first party returned to the surface, gasping for air, but O’Neill and the fifth man remained below. Shortly after 8 PM, Division Marshall Patrick Pierce arrived and led yet another party into the tunnel.

Early attempts to extinguish the fire focused on a foot-wide opening in the concrete near the top of the tunnel. Pierce’s men climbed onto scaffolding and used water pumps with attached garden hoses to irrigate the timber and sawdust, but this was slow work. The men began to get dizzy, and Pierce scuttled the operation. He went back up to ground level to collect some more men, but when he returned he discovered that smoke was beginning to creep into the work tunnel that connected the elevator shaft to the sewer. At this point about 40 laborers and firefighters remained in the tunnel (including O’Neill, Coyne, and Carstens). Pierce led them into the east air chamber and ordered Robert Kelly, the laborer monitoring the air lock, to seal them safely inside.

Hours passed. “Sometimes we could hear the men who came down in the smoke masks stumbling around in the tunnel,” Pierce later told the Chicago Herald Examiner. “We couldn’t open the door, though. We thought the men probably had masks and we knew that we’d suffocate if we got out of there.” By now the smoke was so thick that firefighters sent to recover the missing were going down in three-man crews, linked together at the waist with rope, and crawling on all fours through the main tunnel. After reaching the end of the line, about 50 feet into the tunnel, the last man on the rope would yank on it as a signal for the next man up to reel him back in. Gas masks had arrived on the scene, though their oxygen supply was good for only 30 minutes; many men stayed longer, unwilling to give up their search, and returned to the surface suffering from smoke inhalation.

By midnight the construction site looked like the scene of a mining disaster. A light wagon trained its searchlight on the mouth of the elevator shaft, and thousands of spectators, some of them distraught family members of Ryan employees, were being held back by a police cordon. Hospital squads had arrived on the scene and set up shop in a neighboring lumberyard. More than two dozen firefighters had already been taken to Saint Anthony Hospital, and the fire department had by now dispatched a full quarter of its forces to 22nd and Laflin. Firefighters attacked the superstructure over the elevator shaft and eventually managed to tear the roof off in an effort to provide more ventilation. Mining equipment arrived, and mine workers from around the city converged on the site to volunteer their services. After the utility companies shut off the electricity and the 22nd Street gas main (located a perilous ten feet from the tunnel), crews of men with picks, shovels, and pneumatic drills started three new ventilation holes in the concrete—one above each air chamber and another at the center of the tunnel.

No plan was too far-fetched: a professional diver who lived on the north side was recruited to venture into the tunnel in his wet suit, but after only a few minutes he signaled for help and was brought back up. “It’s so hot down there it’s melting the rubber off my suit,” he told the Daily News. A description in the Evening Post sounds like something from Dante: “Terrific heat developed in the cramped quarters underground. Blazing timbers fell. . . . Water, poured above the tunnel in a vain effort to cool it and dissipate some of the fumes, eddied, four feet deep in spots, and made it impossible to see even inches ahead in the thick white mist.” Scalding water dripped from the ceiling of the tunnel.

Sometime during the night, the air supply inside the east air chamber failed, and the laborers and firefighters trapped inside decided to make a break for it. Pierce tried to dissuade them, but, according to the Daily News, Coyne and Carstens told him they would “rather die fighting than cooped up like a couple of rats.” Reluctantly, Pierce agreed to send out a party of ten laborers, escorted by Coyne and Carstens. But when Kelly opened the air lock, the workmen stampeded. Cursing them, Pierce managed to get the door closed again. Of the 40 men originally sealed inside the air chamber, only 16 remained.

“I don’t know what became of the others,” James Marek, one of the laborers who left the air lock, told the American. “I couldn’t feel any of them close to me. Again and again I tried to find my way out. It was no good. The place was dark—pitch dark. You couldn’t see your hand before you. We didn’t know the layout, and there wasn’t any way to get our bearings. All the time the smoke kept drifting in, thicker and thicker. I stumbled over something. It was soft. I know now that it was a dead body. I stumbled over two others. Dead they were, those men, and I stepped on them. God, it was awful.”

Both Coyne and Carstens collapsed and died of carbon monoxide poisoning before they could reach the elevator shaft.

Outside, the rescue effort was beginning to reach across state lines. Henry Sonnenschein, secretary to Mayor Anton Cermak, brought word from his boss, who was vacationing in Miami Beach at the time, that the city would “spare no expense” in addressing the crisis, which threatened to become a citywide calamity if the fire managed to breach the east and west walls of the tunnel into the remainder of the sewer line. By 3 AM a rescue squad from the federal mining bureau had roared out of Vincennes, Indiana, for Chicago, escorted by state police. A squad from the state mining bureau in Springfield boarded a special train with right-of-way cleared to the site of the disaster.

As it turned out, the most important call may have gone out around 2 AM to Peter Pirsch of Kenosha, Wisconsin. An inventor, Pirsch had been been trying, without much success, to interest the Chicago Fire Department in a smoke ejector truck he’d designed. Now they were plenty interested. Unfortunately Pirsch had taken the vehicle apart to make some adjustments—even the tires had been removed—and he and his son set to work reassembling it. A modified fire truck, the smoke ejector was essentially a gigantic vacuum cleaner on wheels: long, flexible 14-inch tubes were designed to suck smoke out of enclosed spaces, and a fan, driven by a 90-horsepower motor, expelled the smoke out the back of the truck. By 6 AM the Pirsches had finished their work and were speeding toward Chicago.

By that time the 16 men still shut in the east air chamber had been given up for dead; the gas-bloated body of William Carstens had already been recovered not far from the elevator shaft. Sweltering, the trapped men stripped off most of their clothes and lay on the floor. Some prayed or sang, but mostly they were silent. A peephole through the door allowed them to monitor activity in the tunnel, and by morning they began to notice that the smoke was clearing—it had been sucked out of the tunnel by the smoke ejector, which sprayed fumes and debris over the startled crowd outside. Finally Pierce announced the time had come to leave. Crawling on their hands and knees, all 16 men managed to reach the elevator. When the first six unexpectedly emerged from the shaft, blinking in the morning sunlight, the crowd roared.

Around 1 PM on Tuesday, rescuers recovered the last dead man from the tunnel: Captain James O’Neill, who’d led the first rescue party 18 hours earlier. His body was found facedown in the muck, just outside the door of the east air lock; he’d been trampled by the stampeding workmen as they tried to escape. The final death toll was four firemen and seven laborers, plus a policeman who’d been run over at 22nd and Damen by an ambulance racing from the scene. Nearly 50 other people had been injured, some seriously. Later that afternoon, the young widow of Edward Pratt, a firefighter whose body had been recovered overnight, broke past the police cordon and tried to hurl herself down the elevator shaft.

Herman Bundesen, the Cook County coroner, had been on the scene of the disaster since Monday night, and on Tuesday afternoon, in the county morgue, he convened an inquest to determine what had caused the fire and how the 11 men had died. Ed Kelly served as technical adviser. (The “Whoopee Era” graft case was still crawling through the court system, but Kelly had wriggled free of his indictment when a judge forced the prosecutor to reassemble his case. Two years later Kelly would be elected mayor of Chicago.)

Called to testify, Tim Ryan wept as he recalled the first crews of firefighters going after his trapped workmen: “I saw men going down into that reeking tunnel without gas masks—without masks. I never saw such courage displayed in my life.” Neither he nor his construction superintendent, Morris Cahill, said he could state with certainty what caused the fire. “No mention was made of the statement of Albert Martino that he had dropped a candle in some sawdust as he was mending leaks,” the Evening Post reported. The inquest was adjourned so that the jurors could inspect the tunnel personally the next morning.

By then the tunnel section had been completely flooded to extinguish any remaining embers and then drained again. When the inquest reconvened a week later in a courtroom at City Hall, the jury was unable to corroborate the candle story and declared the cause of the fire unknown. All 11 men, the jury ruled, had died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by smoke inhalation. “Unofficially, the jury members expressed the view that no human agency was at fault in the fire and tragedy that followed; that all precautionary measures were maintained by the contractors to safeguard life,” the American reported on Wednesday.

The jury also issued a list of 20 safety recommendations, among them that noncombustible materials be used to plug leaks and fill voids between timbers, that smoking and open flames be forbidden in any tunnel or shaft, that air locks be equipped with emergency exits, and that all tunnels be supplied with telephones and lighting and ventilation systems. As an attorney for the sanitary district explained to the Evening Post, the city was indemnified against liability for the workmen’s deaths; any settlements to their families would be paid by Ryan Construction through its compensation insurance.

One can only imagine what effect this tragedy had on the Ryan brothers and their families, including young Robert. According to Franklin Jarlett’s book, he went to New York City after graduation, hoping to find work as a newspaper reporter, but the grinding poverty of the Depression (and, Walker Ryan thinks, his fascination with Eugene O’Neill’s seafaring past) led him into a two-year stint as engine room janitor on a freighter making runs to Africa. At some point after that, Robert returned to Chicago to help out with the family business.

Ryan as a student at DartmouthCredit: courtesy robert ryan family

Tim Ryan died in April 1936, at age 60, though the cause is a matter of some confusion. According to Jarlett—a neophyte writer from Philadelphia who died in 2007 and whose book provides minimal footnotes—Tim was run over by a car and visited by Robert before ultimately dying from his injuries. That story doesn’t really square with Robert’s statement that the stock market crash and the trauma of the tunnel fire “caused my father’s early death.” For years Cheyney and Lisa Ryan have suspected that their grandfather killed himself, though suicide is a mortal sin for Catholics and, according to Tim Ryan’s death notice in the Tribune, his funeral mass was celebrated at Immaculate Conception Church in Norwood Park. “Nobody talked about it,” says Cheyney. “And it’s not just that no one talked about how he died, I don’t remember my father even mentioning that my grandfather died. In that generation, someone committing suicide, particularly if it was related to business or a crisis, people didn’t acknowledge that.”

According to Jarlett, Robert made an effort to fill his father’s shoes at the construction firm before slipping into a downward spiral of dead-end jobs: clothes model for a department store, bodyguard for a union representative, cemetery plot salesman, bill collector. Mabel Ryan got in touch with Mayor Ed Kelly (described in the book as her childhood friend and fellow Irish, though they grew up 300 miles apart and Mabel was English) and got Robert a hack patronage job passing out school supplies. This post turned out to be so tedious that Robert, who’d become active in community theater, announced in 1939, to his mother’s dismay, that he was moving to Hollywood. He seldom returned to Chicago. Walker remembers a trip back in March 1963 to bury his grandmother, and Cheyney visited the city with his father in August 1968: he protested the Democratic National Convention in Grant Park while Robert served as a New York delegate for Eugene McCarthy inside the convention hall.

In many ways Robert Ryan’s letter is an ordinary document, though its author had already begun to demonstrate an extraordinary talent and a willingness to explore on-screen the dark corners of the soul. The text ends shortly after his allusion to the tunnel fire, almost as if the past had become less welcoming to him and his children than before. “I shall stop here because what else there is to be said you already know much about,” he wrote. “Such things as have been said and written about me are, in the main, fairly accurate. At least they will serve to satisfy any curiosity you might have.

“Read this with my love.”