A Chicagoan in Iowa City

At an age when most writers fear losing their voice, Jon Anderson went searching for his own. He had sacrificed art to craft years ago, leading the life of a journalist, and not always a serious journalist at that. In middle age, Anderson decided to learn how to write words that felt genuine.

Six years ago, Anderson enrolled in Molly Ramanujan’s celebrated Clothesline School of Fiction in Hyde Park. After four years of weekly classes, he took a bigger step. Tapping his cut of the Chicago Tribune’s profit-sharing plan after 11 years there as a feature writer, Anderson resigned from the Tribune, loaded up a U-Haul, threw a party for 200 friends at Riccardo’s, and drove off to a new life as a graduate student at the University of Iowa.

“There are times in life when it takes courage to be dull, and this is one of them,” said Anderson last week. “At a certain time you have to drop the addiction to short-term excitement.” We had called to ask him what he’s up to. “I’m looking for a more personal voice,” he said. “Because what I was doing before, I inevitably hid behind a series of masks, as you always do as a journalist.”

Anderson, who’s 54, was proud to report a 3.93 cum in the graduate courses that are leading him to an MA in writing. “They have a lot of writing programs here,” Anderson told us. “The Writers’ Workshop is totally fiction–prose and poetry. Mine is essay writing and nonfiction prose”–he’s concluded that nonfiction is what he’s best at. “The advantage of mine,” he went on, “is that you can take lots of other courses. I wanted to go into other areas and break out of some of the molds that I had gotten into, so I’ve taken things like the art of the Japanese cinema and video art.

“I came probably as much for the place as the university,” he said. “It’s very much a town for writers. It’s to writing, in a way, what Second City is to comedy, with new ones coming up and old ones coming back to give readings. A real community. You read the New Yorker with special interest because every couple of weeks somebody has a short story or a poem. John Irving used to play volleyball and give a big party every May in the house Kurt Vonnegut used to live in. . . . Jorie Graham, who’s a poet here, just won a MacArthur Foundation grant . . . ”

Raised in Canada, Jon Anderson at the age of 25 was Time magazine’s bureau chief in Montreal. By 1966, he was in Chicago covering the Richard Speck murders for Time. That grisly assignment drove him briefly out of journalism–he quit three months later.

We asked why. “It put me in the middle of things I didn’t want to see, first of all,” Anderson explained. “And second, what startled me was the everydayness of how everybody else I was working with at Time magazine treated it.” Years later he would write a short story for Molly Ramanujan that he called “Which One Was the Swimmer?” It had been a question put to him by a Time fact checker in New York: “Which one was the swimmer? Was that the one who was stabbed in the eye?”

“He was using the same kind of fact-checking techniques you’d use to check a story on baseball,” Anderson said. “That got to me. So I left.”

Anderson spent a year working for Bernie Sahlins at Second City and then went back to journalism. He joined the Sun-Times in time to cover the west-side riot in the spring of ’68 and the Democratic convention in late summer. He was in Hubert Humphrey’s Hilton suite when Humphrey clinched the nomination.

“He went over and kissed the TV screen,” Anderson remembered. “And outside in the street you could hear muffled shouts of ‘Dump the Hump.'”

Three weeks later Anderson married the reporter at the next desk. He and Abra Prentice, a fourth-generation Rockefeller, were no mere husband and wife; they became Jon and Abra, Chicago’s most beautiful couple, occupying a penthouse on East Lake Shore Drive, irradiating Riccardo’s whenever they entered, and writing a celebrity gossip column that trivialized them both.

They gave up the column in 1972. In ’73 they launched the Chicagoan, a slick monthly magazine that Abra bankrolled and Jon ran. They sold it in ’74. It disappeared five issues later. In 1976 the marriage ended.

“It’s very funny,” said Anderson. “When I meet people I don’t know very well in Chicago, they always seem to refer back to something. Some people know me as a Time correspondent. Some people know me as a gossip columnist. There’s a photographer at the Tribune who calls me ‘Hey, Mr. Society!’ because I used to cover glitter when I first went there. So part of why I’m here is to go back through 30 years of clips and figure out what I’ve done and where I’ve been and who I’ve seen and what it means.”

The mother lode is a journal, now 600 pages long, that Molly Ramanujan makes every student keep. “You write in it every day,” Anderson said. “It’s conversations and observations, memories and associations, and that’s the basic material I write from. The whole idea of the Clothesline School is that you build stories out of individual pieces of material. It’s like a clothesline. And when you string them all together they become stories.”

Ramanujan’s students tend to rave about her and Anderson does too. “She has a wonderful sense of where everybody’s edge is,” he said. “She’s very good at taking people and pushing them towards that edge. She made me get into things that–it’s very hard to drop 30 years of the habits of journalism. You lock in certain structures–you think in a certain linear way. And to write fiction or to write even essays you have to break up those structures and think of a number of things at once.

“I covered the Speck murders for Time in a very factual manner and in a very competitive situation. When I turned that into fiction, what was interesting was the very opposite of what was interesting in journalism. What was interesting in fiction was why it affected me so much. And the reason it affected me so much was that it was not eight elderly coal miners I would have felt sorry for but eight young women of the type I was dating at the time.”

Why do you want to leave Iowa? we asked him. For he had said he’d be back in Chicago within a year.

“I think there’s a slowness of pace you have to watch,” he confessed. “Chicago does have the energy level. Chicago does have the sense of the new, the sense of the sharp.

“The French have this whole theory of balances,” he elaborated. “The French invented the weekend, J.J. Rousseau did, and the idea was you enjoyed Paris when you went to New Buffalo–whatever their equivalent of New Buffalo is. Iowa City and Chicago are sort of in tandem.

“This, in a way,” he said, summing up the life he’s lately led, “is what O’Rourke’s could have been–without liquor.”

Disaster at the Tribune

It might be time for the Tribune to pack its metropolitan staff on a bus, rumble off to a farm for the weekend, and get back to basics. In a classic test of journalism last week, the Tribune’s performance was so maladroit we’re not sure that paper knows how to cover a big, breaking local story.

The Plainfield tornado hit Tuesday afternoon and the Wednesday-morning papers were brimming with news of the disaster. But this was no one-day story. Given a day to sort out the calamity and meditate on it, what continuing coverage would the Tribune and Sun-Times provide?

The Sun-Times front page struck the classic note of human pluck: a banner headline, “Hope not shattered”; a big, lovely color picture of a man standing on the rubble of his apartment making a phone call; and a story that began, “American flags flew above the rubble of more than a dozen destroyed homes Wednesday in one small Plainfield Township neighborhood.”

Hokey, life-affirming, and appropriate.

And the Tribune front page? The line story was about Iraq, there were two mediocre pictures of debris, and two tornado stories that were simply bizarre.

One began like this: “Four meteorologists in Kansas City pored over computer printouts, satellite photos and radar screens as they tried to gauge the intensity of a weather system that stretched from Wisconsin to New York . . .”

And the other like this: “The dark clouds that gathered over southern Wisconsin on Tuesday afternoon brought with them the prospect of a summer shower to cool off a sweltering city . . .”

They’re the same story! (Although the first of these articles veered off in various directions and turned out to be the Tribune’s disaster wrap-up.) The same two-day-old story! With devastation, heartbreak, and fortitude abounding, the Tribune focused on the weather before the storm.

The balance of the Tribune’s coverage was scattered like debris over section one, Chicagoland, and the business section. The Sun-Times, meanwhile, jumped its front-page story to page six, which began unbroken tornado coverage that continued through page 16 under the page header “Picking Up the Pieces.” The Sun-Times put its story on the National Weather Service’s failure to predict the twister back where it belonged, on page eight, and rounded out its report with sidebars whose headlines convey their pertinence:

“Answers to your queries about home insurance”

“Recognizing, overcoming trauma”

“If you’re a victim . . .” (a guide to resources)

“Experts offer tips on avoiding repair scams.”

None of these angles occurred to the Tribune. At that weekend retreat, the Tribune’s metro staff ought to be reminded of the age-old dictate to idlers gawking at catastrophe. It applies to newspapers too.

Do something useful.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Kimmich.