A Doc and His Sox

We called Dr. Harold Klawans, Chicago’s preeminent neurologist, to razz him a little. About 15 years ago he’d prescribed a drug called Fiorinal to stop our headaches. The drug was partly a mild barbiturate, partly a popular analgesic called phenacetin. (Everyone’s taken loads of phenacetin; it was the “P” in the painkiller APC, which military sick bays dispensed by the bucketfuls.)

The thing of it is, a few years later scientists figured out that long-term use of phenacetin was causing devastating kidney damage–that’s how Howard Hughes died. The stuff has also been linked to a rare bladder cancer in women.

“What can I say!” said Doctor Klawans. (We had him cold.) “The problem is, acute pharmacological toxicity is easy. Chronic toxicity is difficult. Then the problem is people who take it for 15 or 20 years, and how are you ever going to test for that?”

We weren’t really mad. Actually, we’d called to talk about old-time baseball players. But Klawans’s new book, Toscanini’s Fumble, also had set us to thinking about modern medicine’s occasional ugly surprises.

Toscanini’s Fumble is a chatty collection of neurological case studies. (Toscanini’s mind went blank during a 1954 NBC concert and he never conducted again. In his book, Klawans diagnoses the problem and says that today it would be treated with ease.) One patient was Klawans’s boyhood friend, Marvin Rotblatt; Klawans recalls the time his father, a physician with the Chicago Board of Health, sterilized some needles on the stove and inoculated both lads in the Klawans kitchen with Salk polio vaccine.

Back then, writes Klawans, the Salk vaccine was made from the kidney cells of monkeys. Which is why Rotblatt (and also himself, Klawans presumes) got a dose of the simian virus SV-40. The exposure did Rotblatt no harm–until his immune system was artificially suppressed many years later for a kidney transplant, and the virus went out of control. Rotblatt soon died of an extremely rare inflammation at the center of his brain–progressive multifocal leukoencephalitis.

As Klawans watched the autopsy that confirmed his diagnosis, he pondered the irony. He would later write: “I remembered my father giving us our first injections of Salk vaccine . . . and talking about the White Sox and the freedom of being able to go to the ballpark all summer long. That freedom had come at a cost.”

Hold on! By this point in either Klawans’s book or the present column, the alert reader will be up in arms. “Marvin Rotblatt isn’t dead! He’s the guy from Albany Park who pitched for the White Sox from ’48 to ’51 and won four games total and last I heard he was selling insurance in the Loop!”

It’s true. In Toscanini’s Fumble Klawans has protected his patients’ identities by having virtually every malady befall some old baseball player.

We encounter Moe Berg’s spasticity (from eating too many chick-peas), John Lipon’s parkinsonism, Mickey Vernon’s dizzy spells, Jim Hearn’s aneurysm, and Mrs. Whitey Lockman’s migraines every time Clint Hartung got her in the sack.

We asked Klawans if he had a problem of his own.

“It’s probably emotional retardation, more an analytic than a neurological issue,” he said. Actually, he went on, he got into the habit of using ball players’ names when he was writing his first book, Sins of Commission, a mystery set in a hospital that came out in 1982.

“It’s a very complex novel,” he said. “Well, if I can remember two names I’m having a good day. I can’t remember anybody’s name but I can remember every ball player who ever put on a White Sox uniform. So I started using Sox names to keep people straight.”

At the last moment, he went on, his editor wanted him to change the names in the book to be on the safe side. “My hero [and alter ego] originally was Paul Richards. He was the head of the neurology department so naturally I named him after the old White Sox manager. His wife’s name was Bobbie. So when I changed the names I made him Paul Richardson, and then his wife became the second baseman for the New York Yankees.”

How can a writer possibly find a sensible name that someone at some time hasn’t already had? Klawans wants to know. Which is why he’s not as worried as he might be about the lawsuit already threatened by a lawyer who called Klawans’s publisher, Contemporary Books, on behalf of an old ball player afflicted in Toscanini’s Fumble with a particularly hideous disease.

Sins of Commission, Dr. Klawans told us, “begins with the hero neurologist driving to the hospital trying to remember who played shortstop for the ’27 Yankees. He can’t remember the entire book, and finally at the end of the book he remembers.”

So who was it? we said.

“Read Sins of Commission, New American Library, paperback out in 1986,” he said, “and you’ll learn who played shortstop for the ’27 New York Yankees, among other things.”

He added, “The rest of the lineup is easy.”

Hotshot, Potshots: The Sun-Times Grooms a Star

Richard Roeper, who is 27 years old, is fluent, friendly, ambitious, smart, and energetic. Thus, he is like many young reporters. But he has one additional talent: the capacity to mine, in clear and simple words, the deeper recesses of his own callowness.

Some of his fellow reporters at the Sun-Times have a problem with that. They eye Roeper as a hotshot being groomed to be a star, which to them represents another triumph of fatuousness over substance.

This is a familiar story in the newspaper business. The mature are forever losing out to the young, who are too new and ebullient to be skeptical of either what they write or how they write it. For two and a half years, Roeper has written a Sunday column in the Sun-Times features section. Now he is a cityside reporter being shifted from beat to beat, learning the ropes, learning Chicago, upward bound.

“What’s really depressing is editors at this paper think what he does is good writing,” a despairing reporter marveled. “If they think he’s a good writer–what does that mean? Fuck! If he’s a good writer, if he does a column, and that’s the best we have–that’s our emblem! our sign! the thing we’re proudest of!

“It’ll be six months and bingo!” this reporter predicted. “He’ll be on page seven.”

This is highly unlikely. A reporter does not show up on page seven–where Lynda Gorov, Tom Fitzpatrick, and Roger Simon once could be found–without knowing a lot more about covering the news than Roeper knows yet. He swears nobody has promised him anything. We believe him. But this does not mean he is not one of the chosen. He is.

Around Roeper in the city room are reporters who are older than he is and think they know more about Chicago than he does, and more about love and suffering and children and death and also more about the very act of writing.

And they do. But they do not write with a special voice–and Roeper does. It is a voice of interest to his paper’s editors because it seems to attract a young crowd that grew up on MTV and reads newspapers indifferently if at all.

“Even now, in the sepia tones of his memories, she stands out in vivid color, like a vision, like a dream. She was 15 years old, and she wore a blue ribbon in her hair, and she was impossibly beautiful. Perfect porcelain skin, ice-blue eyes, the All-American girl next door who could smash hearts by breaking into a smile . . .”

“Close your eyes and think of a woman who is so beautiful that she sparks green envy in women, and inspires men to write love songs. Quick now–what color is her hair? Blond, probably . . .”

“At first I chastised myself for being so superficial. ‘You shallow cad,’ I said to myself. ‘Why are you dating these bimbos?’ ‘Well, because I want to.’ The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’m not going to change my ways. I’m going to continue dating Stupid Girls . . .”

“The way he tells it to me,” said one reporter, “is that he was very happy in features and Kenny [Towers, editor of the paper] had this bright idea they were going to groom him. . . . He wants to learn, he’s nice, he could have been an asshole . . . he’s a nice kid. . . . I personally have nothing against him. . . . I don’t see where he’s got any substance.”

The despairing reporter told us, “Somebody saw a note Towers’s secretary had typed praising [Roeper] for an article he’d done on trying to call up for Cubs tickets for the first night game at Wrigley Field. We all asked each other–has any of us gotten a note–from Kenny for anything? The answer was no. . . . I know Axelrod and Dedinsky [Susan Axelrod is features editor and Mary Dedinsky is metro editor] have gone to lunch with him. They’re courting him. The rest of us haven’t been to lunch with any of these people in a long time.”

Like many young persons in advantageous positions, Roeper is largely responsible for putting himself there. Two and a half years ago, when he had a job writing copy for a company that provided the continuously scrolled news you see on cable TV, he started free-lancing his column to the Sun-Times. A year ago he got a chance to join the paper as a lowly editorial assistant in the features department, and he took it. Now he’s a reporter.

Overall, Roeper has felt welcome on the news side, he tells us, but he’s aware of some resentment. “I think it’s understandable. I think if I was in the same position, I’d feel the same way. It’s only natural to feel resentment and wonder ‘Why not me?’ if they perceive something going on with me.”

But Roeper adds that the Sun-Times sends his column out on the wire and it’s been picked up at different times by more than a hundred papers. And he gets plenty of mail–even though his column is buried in the Sunday paper and the Sun-Times has done nothing to promote it–and it’s 95 percent positive.

“I’m sure if you polled the staff,” said a beat reporter, “half the staff would think that they’d make a better columnist.”

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