Federico Camacho and Herman Kogan died about a week apart. They were both in their 70s, and both had lived in Old Town in the days when it had a deserved reputation as an arty neighborhood. Kogan was a newspaperman in the finest tradition of Chicago journalism, a writer of classic Chicago history, an award-winning broadcaster, and a Marine combat correspondent in World War II. Camacho came to the U.S. from Mexico illegally (at first) and became a success by running the Cafe Azteca on North Avenue. To see the obituaries in the daily newspapers, you would think that Kogan’s achievements towered over Camacho’s. But in what they brought to life–an enthusiasm for it, a passionate curiosity about the complexities of human nature, and an egalitarian spirit evinced by their willingness to sit and talk with any punk who had the balls to ask them–they were two of a kind.
I met them both through the folk music scene. We folkies used to do a benefit concert during the Old Town Art Fair for the North Park Study Center, which helped poor kids with their schooling by providing tutoring and other services. The touring company of Second City probably performed, too, since the concert was at Second City; I remember the bartender at my first was David Mamet. The affair was well attended, the people from the study center were great, and after the show, the master of ceremonies, WFMT’s Ray Nordstrand, invited about a dozen of us across the street to the Cafe Azteca for dinner and some pechuga, the almond-flavored Mexican liqueur that has passed on like its foremost Chicago purveyor, Fred Camacho.
During dinner, Ray mentioned Fred’s early involvement with the Old Town School of Folk Music: Someone at the school (my guess is Gertrude Soltker, a cofounder who adored all things Mexican) had suggested one night that all the students and faculty hit the Azteca after class, and the event turned into an impromptu jam session, with Fred’s total approval and support. What had begun as an adult education group was transformed into a social event as well. While the jam session later moved to the Saddle Club a block west (the school was at Sedgwick and North in those days), music continues to this day at the Azteca; the jam sessions were a key factor in the school’s initial success–maybe the restaurant’s, too.
Fred took little of the credit, as we found out when he ambled over to exchange pleasantries with Ray. He was a truly modest man–as his widow told me at his wake, “I think he would be surprised at who turned out; Fred really didn’t have that high an opinion of himself.” In fact, his favorite kind of story was one that he could tell on himself, with a hint of sardonic Spanish wit.
One of his favorites was how he came to own the southwest corner of Wells Street and North Avenue. A Mexican lady owned the lot that the Azteca occupies and a live chicken store on the corner, where the Pizza Hut is today. She wanted to return to Mexico to retire, and was willing to give Fred the property if he would send her a $75-a-month pension until she died.
“I told her I had to think about it,” Fred said with a huge self-deprecating smile. “I just had a little taco stand on the north side of North Avenue, and I didn’t know if I could afford it.” In the early 50s, Old Town was a tough neighborhood with a lot of blue-collar Mexican and Polish residents, but in telling the story Fred would never offer that as an excuse for his indecision. In the end, he agreed to the deal, and when the city widened North Avenue, eliminating his taco stand, he went across the street and opened Cafe Azteca, which some say was one of the first three Mexican restaurants in Chicago. A comfortable outdoor patio ensured the summertime success of the place (and does to this day); during the slower winter months, Fred would travel home to southern Mexico and to destinations all over the world. His touring culminated, in his mind, with a trip to China a few years ago. “To me,” he explained, “the Great Wall of China was as far from here as you could get. I didn’t need to travel after that.” What he didn’t add, typical of Fred, was that the strenuous trip affected his health. In recent years he had to have both carotid arteries scrubbed, and in the last year alone he suffered kidney failure and three heart attacks.
Fred always had a genuine talent for friendship. Once he found out that I knew Will Leonard, the Tribune’s old entertainment columnist and raconteur extraordinaire, we were buddies ever after. Leonard and sportswriter David Condon, who wrote the Tribune’s “In the Wake of the News” column as I grew up, were among those perpetually ducking into the Azteca to sit around with Fred. Until his final illness, Fred regularly visited Leonard’s widow to see if there was any assistance that he could offer her.
But most people had to go to Fred if they wanted to see him. As much as he loved the ladies, traveling, people in general, and his family in particular, the great love of his life seemed to be the Cafe Azteca and the amazing diversity of people that it brought into his life. Toward the end the Azteca was not as fine a restaurant as it had been years ago– Fred had hit on a formula that kept effort to a minimum and profits solid. It was as if a fiery love affair had settled into a comfortable, if more boring, arrangement–an apt relationship for an older man no longer as spry or as hungry as he once was. But it remains a place where you can have a decent meal, listen to Xavier croon Latin tunes, and watch the amazing crowd–rich folks from the neighborhood, businessmen not with their wives, gay and straight yuppies, flight attendants from Harbor Point, and the artistic riffraff of Old Town’s old days returning to the scene of their glorious youthful crimes.
Herman Kogan probably hit the Azteca from time to time; before retiring to New Buffalo, Michigan, he and his wife Marilew lived on Old Town’s Crilly Court, in a row house that’s probably worth a half-million bucks these days. Old Town was a haven for artists a decade ago–one night at O’Rourke’s tavern, you could have spied seven Pulitzer Prize winners elbow to elbow, and I played a set at the Earl of Old Town later that evening for an audience that included Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren (at the same table!), Roger Ebert, Severn Darden, Del Close, and who knows what actors from Second City who are now household words.
Herman was the peer of any of them–the author (with Lloyd Wendt) of a true Chicago classic, Lords of the Levee, which ranks with Boss and City on the Make in its wise and unflinching examination of Chicago society and politics. His other Chicago histories are excellent, his literary criticism in print and on his WFMT radio show was fair-minded if tough (Chicago writers were always whining that he wasn’t the local booster, but there wasn’t a lot of chamber of commerce to Kogan), and he was the best editor, and fortunately the first, to whom I ever sold a free-lance article.
Ray Tate, then the director of the Old Town School, had told me to mention his name when I brought my first story to Herman, and he promised that Herman would yell at me when I did. I wandered into the Show offices of the Sun-Times feeling quite out of place in my Army fatigue jacket, shoulder-length hair, jeans, and work boots, but the secretary was most polite and only asked if I had included a self-addressed stamped envelope. I turned to go, then remembered to mention Tate’s name.
“Ray Tate! When is that sonofabitch going to give me that piece on country ‘n’ western bars?” The man speaking was stocky, with bushy eyebrows, glasses, and rolled-up sleeves; he was marking up copy and piling it into a tray on his desk. “Whaddya got?” When I said I had a feature on U. Utah Phillips, a humorous songwriter, he perked up a bit. “Let’s see it,” he commanded, and began to attack it with a red pencil. In about a minute and a half, he threw it on the stack. “It’ll run Sunday,” he announced. “Sorry I had to cut so much, but I just had a small hole on the front page left.” He had edited 14 paragraphs from a 28-paragraph story in about 90 seconds, but it read fine that weekend.
I had joined some august company; when Kogan edited Panorama, the Daily News arts and entertainment magazine, he had published Mike Royko’s first humor piece, a satire (it galls me to note) on folk music. He published Woody Allen’s humor pieces, at
$25 a throw, and ran an article by a youngster who wanted to write about movies, Roger Ebert. Kogan’s reputation was so golden that I soon learned to mention his name to other editors, who began to buy my stuff. I worked for him until he left Show after suffering a heart attack. I learned much, much more in doing so than I had ever learned at Northwestern’s journalism school.
He was very tough, very fair, and if you pulled a real howler he would stick it to you. One of my most vivid memories is of entering the office to find Herman throwing the entire week’s copy into the air a sheet at a time, screaming at his astonished publisher, “This is a cheap, bullshit newspaper! A cheap, bullshit newspaper!” He had had his space cut back to almost nothing that week, it turned out, and was hinting at his displeasure.
Despite the hard-boiled facade, he was truly intellectual for a career newspaperman. A Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago–his advice to journalism students when he taught at Northwestern was to quit Medill to get a real education–he had a wonderful command of literature and obviously loved to write more than he loved to edit, though he was fine at both.
We had lunch at the Press Club a couple years ago (that way he could be sure that I wouldn’t grab the check–I wasn’t a member). It was a wonderful conversation that I will remember always. Among many other questions, I asked why he had decided to become an editor. The answer was vintage Kogan.
“Editors have the power,” he said. “I looked around the newsroom at the Trib [he was a reporter there at the time] and saw who was managing editor, and I said, ‘I can edit better than him; that guy can’t edit worth a damn!'”
Kogan’s editing career, while illustrious, never culminated in a job as editor or managing editor. That surprised many people around town. One of the reasons may have been that Kogan was Jewish. A veteran of the Sun-Times desk told me that he was present in the newsroom when the paper’s publisher informed his editor that “Chicago isn’t ready for a Jewish managing editor.” Herman would never confirm the story, nor did he attack its credibility; a one-source wonder, it thus remains rumor.
What isn’t rumor is Kogan’s legacy–a significant body of Chicago history, criticism of high quality, reporting of value, and the nurturing of young writing talent.
As Studs Terkel put it during a radio tribute to him, Herman Kogan “knew the book and the street. He understood the street, and he knew the book, and he carried it very, very lightly.”