Crime Is His Specialty

The police and FBI also categorize crime, but Jim Agnew’s methods make theirs look crude. Violent crime, nonviolent crime, murder, robbery, arson–this ancient breakdown doesn’t come close to meeting the standards of Agnew’s new magazine.

“Consider the presidency: I put that down as a crime category,” said Agnew, who devoted two of the first five covers of his promising bimonthly, Real Crime Book Digest, to the assassination of JFK.

You wouldn’t include just any book on the presidency? we asked him.

“No. But if it’s a biography of Lyndon Johnson–didn’t he get into his election rigging early on, and didn’t he get into Bobby Baker? Truman and his scandal–his friend Tom Clark arranged for about five Chicago hoodlums to be released all at the same time. Willie Bioff testified they were shaking down the Hollywood movie industry through the projection-booth union. [Bioff, the union president, later was assassinated.] Then they were all convicted and they were sent to Atlanta and they were all released at the same time, which was unheard of. The minutes from the parole board were never made public. This supposedly was arranged through the Truman administration, through Tom Clark, the attorney general, and I believe Tom Clark was named a Supreme Court justice. And that’s how the presidency comes in.

“And then of course you’ve got Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and the Sam Giancana business. John Kennedy’s father and his ties to Frank Costello and the bootlegging. It goes on and on.”

Although columns and interviews do more than merely flesh out Real Crime Book Digest, its reason for being is its thumbnail sketches of recent crime books, as idiosyncratically defined and sorted out by Agnew. The insight that led to Real Crime was Agnew’s observation that about 500 books are published each month that would interest the vast market for anything between covers that pits good against evil.

The October-November issue listed 80 books, including Never Let Them See You Cry by Miami police reporter Edna Buchanan, in the “Anthologies” category; Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom by legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, in the “Abortion” category; The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story by David Brock, in the “Current Affairs” category; and Marilyn Monroe: The Biography by Donald Spoto, in the “Marilyn Monroe” category.

Agnew’s mentor is Jay Robert Nash, the city’s bard of mayhem. Historian, encyclopedist, and theorist (his is the proposition that it was not really Dillinger who died in that alley alongside the Biograph), Nash knows more about crime than any five gangland corpses you can name. In 1969 Agnew was Nash’s associate editor at the late Chicagoland magazine, and from ’73 to ’81 he did research for Nash’s books. Later he became chief researcher for the Illinois Police & Sheriffs News, a job he’s hung on to.

But Agnew’s expertise runs even deeper than his resume. In 1947, when he was one year old, his family bought the oldest single-room-occupancy hotel in Uptown and moved into it. Now Agnew runs the SRO and lives there still.

“One of our tenants was a cellmate of Nathan Leopold. He gave me Leopold’s life story, Life Plus 99 Years, and I read it and I’ve been hooked on crime ever since. Of course Elmer Gertz is now one of my columnists. He got Leopold out of the joint.”

We asked Agnew what he’d say was the worst crime in his building he could remember. “There was an attempted rape a long time ago,” he said. “It’s mainly domestic violence. There was a home invasion last summer. A bunch of drunken hillbillies who didn’t like one of my black tenants and broke down his door with a baseball bat. And they’re doing five years for it.

“One of my former tenants is on death row now. I evicted him because of rowdiness. He moved a block away. His new landlord evicted him. He went back there to his apartment on the second floor, put a bunch of old clothes down outside the door, and set it on fire. The fire spread everywhere and killed three Puerto Rican guys on the third floor.

“‘Yellow Kid’ Weil owned the building next to me. He was convicted for selling counterfeit bonds in the 1940s. That was his third time up. Back then if you were convicted four times you got life. That’s when he became a street philosopher. I knew the Kid. I was with him just before he passed away, when he was 100 years old. The executor of his estate told me that towards the end he’d go to wakes, and when the family was mourning he’d rifle the coats.

“And next door to me was the McCready Funeral Home, where they brought Dillinger’s body. That’s where Nash got into that John Dillinger theory, because the undertaker, Mr. McCready, had the wrong date entered in the ‘incoming’ ledger. It was a week earlier.

“And next door in what is now the Alden, which the Yellow Kid owned, there was a nightclub called the Chit-Chat Lounge, and that was run by some member of organized crime.”

Agnew said that when he was in high school he held a part-time job running the elevator at a Loop hotel called the Randolph Tower. Upstairs was a health club frequented by men with smart suits, manicures, and Florida tans. One of them was arrested in the lobby, and the next morning Agnew saw in the paper that he’d been ferrying Felix “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, the head of the Chicago syndicate. “I only saw Tony Accardo once,” says Agnew about a more recent godfather. “He had on a blue sharkskin suit. He always took the freight elevator.”

Last year Agnew was talking to his friend Eric Rubenstein, who’s president of the Single Room Operators Association of Chicago. Agnew asked Rubenstein if he had any idea how many true-crime books come out that no one ever hears of, and he revealed his plan to fill this flagrant hole. Are you sure you can get hold of those books? Rubenstein asked. Agnew wrote to some publishers asking for review copies, and about 200 came back almost immediately.

At that point Rubenstein agreed to put up 70 percent of the money.

The money–the stake–has mounted to somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000. Last March Agnew printed 5,000 copies of issue one and mailed them all to the “creme de la creme.” Some went to librarians, others to Supreme Court justices, judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys, parole officers, and FBI officials named on a list he bought from the Criminal Justice Institute for $300. “I thought they’d look at a category like rape or something and say, ‘We’ve got to get this. We’ve got to keep in front.'”

They didn’t. With each copy he enclosed a subscription form and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. About 75 of the 5,000 subscription forms came back, teaching Agnew an important lesson about mailing lists. But because he’d picked up some advertising and a small but classy distributor in Texas called Fine Print, Agnew was able to persevere, and since then the watchword has been “slow and steady growth.” Now, he tells us, Real Crime is for sale in 50 cities coast to coast, the print run for the new issue (the one with John Wayne Gacy, “The Countdown Begins,” on the cover) is up to 13,500 copies, and the by-now regular features include Gertz on the law, former FBI superstar Bill Roemer on organized crime, and novelist John Fink on what Agnew chooses to call “real-crime fiction.”

Since Agnew’s editorial budget isn’t anything you could take the bus to Paducah on, we wondered how he did it. Three ways, he said. (1) His writers write books, and they like the exposure to Agnew’s readership. (2) “They just like the action.” (3) “I bamboozled them.”

He’s been refining his magazine issue by issue and has come up with a nicely creepy way of closing it. He calls his last page “Crime Scenes.” This feature began an issue ago with a photograph of a simple brick two-flat on West Ohio Street. This was the building where fetching parricide Patricia Columbo was born.

More Commentary on WBEZ

We’ve come in for some modest haranguing from insiders at WBEZ–that is, from people who still work there–over our item two weeks ago on programming director Torey Malatia’s new plans.

Malatia announced several changes effective the first of the year, but the one thing he did immediately was yank musical eclectic Stuart Rosenberg off the air. Rosenberg asked if he could do Radio Gumbo or The Earth Club one more time and tell his fans good-bye, but Malatia said no.

Our mail ran in Rosenberg’s favor. But from inside the station we were urged to consider Malatia’s position with more sympathy. At stake is musical programming of any kind, and Malatia is trying to save what he can. His orders are to attract more listeners who tune in more hours and pledge more money. And researchers tell him to get rid of all the music because it’s commentary, not music, that WBEZ’s most constant, most giving audience tunes in for.

Whether added revenues are needed primarily to finance the dubious shift of operations general manager Carole Nolan wants to make from WBEZ’s dingy Loop aerie to swell new quarters at Navy Pier is an important question; but from where Malatia sits it’s beside the point. He’s simplified the musical programming to music with African roots–jazz and blues–not because he admires “homogenization” (Rosenberg’s dismissive word) but because a little more predictability might reassure more listeners than it dismays.

So we were told. A telltale sign that our grip on the steaming cauldron that is public radio in Chicago was less than viselike was our reference to the offer Malatia made Rosenberg to let him “cut a card”–that is, record a taped message bidding his fans adieu. The correct expression is “cut a cart,” cart being short for cartridge, which is a short, endless loop of tape that can be played endlessly. Rosenberg sniffed at the offer and turned Malatia down flat.

We can forgive ourself for fumbling the nuances of a story, but to screw up the nomenclature is a terrible thing.

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