Stuart McCarrell’s sitting in his office, shuffling through a sheaf of poems he’s written about his old pal Nelson Algren, when he produces an extraordinary document. It’s a letter from Algren, dated February 13, 1992, more than a decade after the writer supposedly died. McCarrell reads it out loud. The prose is gritty yet lyrical.
“You’re probably wondering how in the hell I managed to pull the big slip and fool them all,” says McCarrell, peering down through his glasses and adopting Algren’s high and whiny delivery. The single-spaced, typewritten letter says Algren didn’t die on Long Island in May 1981, six years after he fled Chicago for good. It tells how he switched identities with “Big Swede,” a drunken carpenter who’d suffered a fatal heart attack in Algren’s house, and, with the help of an old gambling crony, “Max the Fixer,” found a new life running a blackjack table in Las Vegas. Algren adds he’s almost finished with a new novel, She Knew What She Wanted, Sometimes, and signs off, “Win a pennant, Nels.”
McCarrell cackles gleefully–as he often does–and leans back in his chair behind a desk covered with invoices. We’re in the small electrical-equipment factory he runs in a second-floor loft at the corner of North and Damen, the heart of Wicker Park, Algren country. “I made all that bull up, of course,” confesses McCarrell, an engineer by trade and a literary man by calling. He first read the letter in public several years ago during the annual Algren birthday bash at the old Bop Shop on Division, though he never expected anyone to fall for it.
“Up until a few decades ago, all the Sherlock Holmes societies used to claim that Holmes wasn’t really dead–that he was raising flowers in the south of London,” says McCarrell. “Of course, because Holmes would’ve been 100 or so by then, it was a sort-of joke. And the same here with Nelson. I wanted to start the rumor that he’s alive.”
Such hoaxes no longer seem necessary: since cofounding the Nelson Algren Committee nine years ago, McCarrell has done more than anyone to keep the writer’s legacy alive, especially in Wicker Park, where the Detroit-born “poet of the Chicago slums,” as critic Malcolm Cowley dubbed Algren, lived for 35 years. It was here that Algren explored the seamy underside of urban America, writing his finest novels, including the saga of a cardsharp junkie, The Man With the Golden Arm, which won the first National Book Award for fiction in 1950. Algren hung out in the area’s taverns, poker dens, pool halls, and police stations, and he carried on a fabled love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist and existentialist, in an apartment on Wabansia.
“He was my friend, and I knew what a great writer he was–he was a great man, a great storyteller–and how important it is that he be memorialized,” says McCarrell, who in the late 60s and early 70s accompanied Algren to restaurants, plays, and Sox games. “But he was neglected in his own city, you see, and that’s one reason why he finally left. So I helped set up the Algren Committee. We’ve worked hard since then–we’ve done 17, 18 major events. We want to further the recognition of Nelson Algren as a major American writer of the 20th century. He does deserve the recognition that we’re starting to get for him.”
McCarrell has been a tireless, almost obsessive, devotee. In 1990 he spearheaded the effort to get the dogleg stretch of Evergreen between Damen and Milwaukee renamed for Algren, though the designation is only honorary (in 1981 Mike Royko convinced the city to officially change the street’s name, but it was changed back when residents complained). McCarrell affixed a plaque to the three-flat at 1958 W. Evergreen where Algren lived in a third-floor apartment from 1959 to ’75. The inscription, composed by McCarrell, reads in part: “Lyrical, tough, tender, compassionate. He showed the people’s pain.” McCarrell also got Mayor Daley and the City Council to proclaim March 28, the writer’s birthday, Nelson Algren Day.
Early next month McCarrell’s group will pull off its biggest coup yet: a new fountain named for Algren will be dedicated in the tiny, tree-lined plaza formed by the crossroads of Division, Ashland, and Milwaukee. For more than a century the intersection has been known as the Polish, or Polonia, Triangle because it lies at the heart of the city’s oldest Polish neighborhood. McCarrell says it’s “been our goal from the start” to commemorate Algren at the spot where Milwaukee, the old “Polish Broadway,” meets Division. “It’s in the center of Nelson’s fictional universe,” he explains–the neighborhood whose crooks, hookers, and hustlers Algren chronicled with what Carl Sandburg called “a strange midnight dignity.”
While Algren’s world has changed–the neighborhood is now largely Latino and gentrifying–many Polish-American shops, businesses, and institutions hang on. And the new fountain has opened an old wound among residents who still remember the ill will community groups felt for Algren while he was alive. Over five decades ago, his novel Never Come Morning was attacked by locals as Nazi propaganda–a “Polish-baiting, church-hating, and filth-dealing book,” said the Polish Roman Catholic Union–and it was banned from the Chicago Public Library. Leading the charge was the Polish daily Zgoda newspaper, whose offices were then located in a white terra-cotta building across the street from the triangle.
“Some Poles aren’t exactly too happy with Nelson Algren,” says Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America. He thinks the writer’s portrayal of the Polish-American underclass was unduly harsh. Never Come Morning struck an especially raw nerve. Had it been published at another time, the book might have been ignored. “But not at the height of World War II,” Lorys explains. “Some Poles couldn’t help but ask, ‘Who’s paying this guy to write this stuff?'”
Lorys and others in the Polish-American community were irked to discover that the revamped triangle was to be named for Algren. The outcry wasn’t just a reaction to Algren, says Zygmunt Dyrkacz, whose Chopin Theatre sits across the street from the plaza; many were angry that a traditional name was being erased from area history. Dyrkacz organized a letter-writing campaign to First Ward alderman Jesse Granato, who had lobbied to get the fountain, and Algren was once again at the center of a neighborhood controversy.
But McCarrell maintains that Algren–the son of a poor Swedish father and a stern German-Jewish mother–wasn’t in the least bit prejudiced against Polish people; in fact, his first wife, Amanda Kontowicz, was Polish-American. McCarrell says Algren was simply writing about the characters he knew: “He felt he was one of them….It is this empathy for the least of these that probably accounts for the savagery of the attacks on Algren’s work.”
A diminutive man with a wispy mustache and boundless energy, Stuart McCarrell sometimes seems a bit of an anachronism in Wicker Park, where authentic nonconformity has largely given way to orthodox hipsterism. “I’m one of the last of the old left-wingers around here,” the 64-year-old proudly declares.
“Stu’s the last of the neighborhood’s great poet-playwright-raconteurs,” says musician and stage director Warren Leming, a longtime resident and Algren Committee founding member. “He’s a real renaissance guy.” Filmmaker Mark Blottner says McCarrell’s own writing “represents an everyday, blue-collar, common-man point of view,” though “he does an amazing amount of research–if you mention some point in history, he can call up tons of facts.”
McCarrell’s double–maybe triple–life is apparent on the second floor of Lodge Hall, 1564 N. Damen, home to his Macan Engineering & Manufacturing Co. for more than three decades. Every day hundreds, perhaps thousands, stroll past the building–its storefront tenants include Cafe Cafina, Harvey J’s clothing store, and City Soles–unaware that there’s a small factory upstairs. In one large, well-lighted room, six people are busy assembling electrical surgical instruments, 80 percent of which are used by dentists. Recalling how Algren would drop by to chat on his way to the old Luxor Baths around the corner, McCarrell says, “Nelson used to think I was a mad scientist.”
Across the hall, a musty, book-cluttered room serves as headquarters for both the Algren Committee and Xenia Press, the imprint that McCarrell and friend Robert Burleigh, a painter and illustrator of children’s books, founded in 1965. McCarrell is its senior editor–and currently its sole author. Through Xenia, which began as a literary magazine, he has published three books of poetry and six plays.
All of McCarrell’s dramas are about the lives of noted historical and literary figures. His major work is an updating of Goethe’s Faust, with settings as varied as the Woodlawn Tap, the Playboy Mansion, and North Avenue Beach. He’s also completed a cycle of works on the women who influenced the German writer in successive decades–Lili, Charlotte, Christiane, and Bettina–and penned a play about Emily Dickinson, Other Summers.
Why has McCarrell spent so much of his life dissecting Goethe’s?
“That’s a damn good question,” he says, quickly adding, “I really think he’s a great, great man, a very complex figure.” Not unlike McCarrell, Goethe was multitalented–a poet, dramatist, and scientist. And Goethe’s Faust, Part I was, says McCarrell, “the absolute perfection of dramatic form. We have epic theater some 150 years before Bert Brecht! It’s wild. And it’s just like my Faust. It’s got 18 songs, it’s a savage political satire, it’s a tender portrait of a tragic love story.” And then he launches into a monologue about Weimar royalty, Beethoven’s popularity, and the French Revolution.
Each of McCarrell’s dramas is attractively packaged, with an essay or two in front of the book and laudatory blurbs by theatrical and literary colleagues on the back cover. None has ever been produced–they’re more for the page than the stage. He’s also not concerned that you can’t walk into a bookstore and buy one of his volumes; he liberally passes his books out and runs a mail-order business on the side (both Stuart Brent and Act One carried McCarrell’s work before going out of business). “I’ve never really made a push on it,” says McCarrell, who’s had poetry published in the New Statesman, New York Quarterly, Catalyst, and various anthologies. He’s planning to make his plays, as well as Burleigh’s poetry, available on a Web site.
Ironically, the only work McCarrell has ever had staged is a book of his poems, Voices, Insistent Voices. A series of 33 dramatic monologues–“poem-portraits”–about writers, artists, and other historical figures, Voices was given its first public reading by Carpet Productions at the Third Unitarian Church in 1992; it received a full stage treatment at the Theater for the New City in New York four years later. McCarrell is looking for a local company to mount the larger production, which was lauded by the Village Voice as “stirring” and “intriguing theater.”
So did Algren read McCarrell?
“Nelson loved Xenia magazine,” McCarrell says. “I spent almost seven years on Faust–three years writing and three and a half years rewriting. About the time Nelson left town I was already revising it. And he would bug me about that because he thought I was spending too much time on it. He’d say, ‘For God’s sakes, Stu, if you ever finish it, it’ll be greater than Streetcar Named Desire.’ He didn’t think I was going to finish it. But I felt I had to breathe life into every speech. The way I work in a play is you get the structure first, and then there’s an awful lot of polishing to be done….Nelson did the same things in his novels, so he should talk. You know, it isn’t for one minute that Nelson threw his novels together.” Eventually Algren got to read Faust, and McCarrell says he liked it.
McCarrell’s just put the finishing touches on his most recent play, Nelson and Simone, which will be out in book form by the beginning of next year. Then he hopes to have it produced. He says it’s the work he was always meant to write–and it’s topical too, given that 300 of de Beauvoir’s letters to Algren have recently been published in a book called Transatlantic Love Affair, edited by her adopted daughter, Sylvie. There’s also a new BBC documentary about their relationship. “De Beauvoir may single-handedly resuscitate Algren’s career and make him an international player again,” says Warren Leming, who discusses Algren in the documentary.
Algren and de Beauvoir, noted for her pioneering treatise on the status of women, The Second Sex, lived together off and on from 1947 to ’51 in his tiny apartment at 1523 W. Wabansia, which was later razed to make way for the Kennedy Expressway. On the day they met, Algren took de Beauvoir on a tour of the Cook County Jail, where he showed her an electric chair. Then they went back to his flat and made love. He wanted her to stay with him in Chicago, but in the end she returned to her long-term union with Jean-Paul Sartre. Algren and de Beauvoir continued to correspond through 1965. But he’d turned bitter toward her because he felt she’d sold him out in her fiction and autobiographical writings. “Procurers are more honest than philosophers,” he later told a reporter. “She must have taken notes every time we made love.”
McCarrell says he found their unlikely relationship a dramatic mother lode. After all, he points out, here was a guy who rode the rails as a hobo during the Great Depression and who was tossed in a Texas jail in 1934 for stealing the typewriter he used to finish his first novel, Somebody in Boots–yet 15 years later he was hobnobbing with Sartre’s existentialist coterie in Paris. McCarrell recalls, “I asked him once, I said, ‘Nelson, where did you get this strong antiestablishment attitude, what happened to reinforce that?’ And he says, ‘Well, there was this Frenchie,’ which is what he called de Beauvoir, ‘this Frenchie.’
“She knew it wouldn’t work, moving here to Chicago–especially 1950s Chicago,” McCarrell says. “She would’ve been completely out of place. I don’t think it would’ve lasted six months if she had married him and moved to Chicago at the time. It was utterly impractical, what he wanted her to do–an everything-or-nothing proposition.”
Algren also visited de Beauvoir in Paris every year, staying for months at a time, while Sartre translated Chicago: City on the Make and Never Come Morning into French. “You know how the French feel about we Americans,” McCarrell says. “But he was more than welcome in Paris. He played that Chicago thing to the hilt–that tough-guy, new-frontier type of thing. And the French and Sartre liked him. As I have de Beauvoir say about him in the play, he was really nowhere near as tough as he pretended to be. He was really a very literate and sensitive guy. Sartre even tells de Beauvoir, ‘I congratulate you on finding a man so suitable to your needs.'” He laughs.
McCarrell began writing Nelson and Simone in 1990 and, after some stops and starts, completed it several months ago. “I finally knew how to finish it,” he says. “My point of view has been, I can’t just have Simone telling about the life in Paris–I have to show it. I have to bring the whole extended family alive, and Sartre alive, and you have to get a sense of Paris, what she’d be giving up. Then I also had to bring the love affair of Simone and Nelson alive too, after they become lovers, the things they do, how her friends are around him….I’m like the proletariat’s Henry James, exploring the whole different attitudes towards life that the French and Americans have.”
Still, McCarrell says, “It was the great tragedy of Algren’s life that he couldn’t work out something with Simone.” He rummages through his Algren poems again and pulls out one titled “Memories.” He reads: “She wore your silver ring and wore it / to the grave / But by the time / you had her out here the century, / the country, your life, had peaked / and headed downhill. And the love / you two had had.”
Trying to talk to McCarrell about his own life can be frustrating. Not that he won’t be forthcoming–it’s just that other subjects keep intruding. You have to keep him focused, lest the likes of Goethe, Hazlitt, and Brecht steer the conversation off course. Ask him for an autobiographical fact and within a minute he’s relating an anecdote about Lord Byron. An independent scholar and self-taught litterateur, McCarrell acts like he knows these people intimately–he lives through the lives he writes about.
McCarrell was born and raised on the south side, in Brainerd. His father was an electrician, his mother a housewife. He went to Calumet High School. “It was the Irish Mike Royko, Peter Finley Dunne, who said that if you go to work for the truth in literature you better have another job on the side. So I decided to become an engineer.” McCarrell earned his bachelor’s in engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and in the early 60s he moved to Lincoln Park to pursue a graduate degree at DePaul University that he never finished. Instead, he went to work for a hearing-aid company and then for the Hallicrafters radio company. “I was writing at this time,” he says, “but not publishing.”
McCarrell and an old business partner–his last name was Canell–formed Macan Engineering in the mid-60s. They first set up shop, making radio components and other electrical equipment, in a loft at 1934 W. North, the building where Urbus Orbis coffeehouse recently shut down. Macan moved into Lodge Hall six months later. McCarrell, a bachelor, didn’t move to the neighborhood until the mid-80s.
He used to see Algren on television and was familiar with the famous pictures of the author taken by photographers Art Shay and Stephen Deutch. He started to notice the writer shambling around the neighborhood. “When you saw him on the street, you would think that’s an average person,” recalls McCarrell. “He always dressed less well than the average person now dresses around here. He dressed very casually, as I always have too, of course–as anybody who has any sense does. You don’t waste any money on clothes. That’s how Nelson was. I had seen him on Kupcinet even before I met him, and that was one of the things about him. The 50s were such a square, brutal age–everybody had to dress up; they all wore ties. They wouldn’t let Bill Veeck in the nightclubs because he didn’t wear a tie. They were crazy. But Nelson wouldn’t. If Kupcinet wanted Nelson on his TV program, he had to take Nelson as he was. Nelson wasn’t about to dress up to be on TV.
“The well-dressed bourgeois squares would ask him, ‘How come you hang out with these people?’ And he’d say, ‘That isn’t the question. The question is, How come I hang out with you people?'” McCarrell laughs.
Their friendship began in 1967. “When Lynn Weimer, who ran Volume I bookstore in Piper’s Alley, told me, ‘Stu, Nelson Algren is signing books here–would you like to meet him?’ I said, ‘Jesus, I’ve loved his work since I was a kid.’ So he took me back, and I met him. It was five o’clock, and the joint was closing. I didn’t want to miss this–I’d just met this great writer–so I said, ‘Mr. Algren, can I buy you a drink?’ And he says, ‘No, I’ll buy you one.’ So he took me to this restaurant-bar at the back of Piper’s Alley–I forget the name of it–and then he called me a couple weeks later. We’d exchanged phone numbers–I wasn’t sure he was gonna call. And so he called me.”
Algren’s critical and commercial heyday had already passed. Back when he’d published Never Come Morning, his second novel, Ernest Hemingway predicted he’d “rank among our best American novelists.” But by the late 60s, the tide had turned against him. He hadn’t published a novel since 1956’s A Walk on the Wild Side, though he was still struggling with a racetrack novel, which he later abandoned. He felt snubbed by the New York critics and publishers–Leslie Fiedler called him the “bard of the stumblebum”–who considered him a hopeless relic of the Depression-era Left. In his hometown, the onetime targets of his vitriol seemed to enjoy seeing the writer fall on hard times. Many couldn’t resist taking a cheap shot, kicking him while he was down. Former Tribune columnist Jack Mabley, who’d been ridiculed in the introduction to Chicago: City on the Make, characterized Algren as a hypocrite, writing that he had “verbally bludgeoned every institution and prominent person in the city”–except Hugh Hefner, because at “Hefner’s Temple of Gauche…the food and drink were plentiful and free.” At one point in the 70s, McCarrell says, all of Algren’s books were out of print.
Still, Algren made a decent living as a nonfiction writer–he’d received a journalism degree from the University of Illinois in 1931. He steadily sold articles, travel essays, commentaries, and book and movie reviews to a wide variety of magazines and newspapers; he even worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam for the Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone (many of these stories and sketches were collected in 1973 as The Last Carousel, which met with positive reviews but dismal sales). While he sometimes published short fiction, he increasingly got by on money from lecturing and teaching at writers’ conferences, as well as on occasional track and gambling winnings.
Algren’s social circle included Royko, Deutch, Studs Terkel, and newsman Herman Kogan. “I suppose Nelson took a liking to me because we shared left-wing politics,” says McCarrell. Algren had made no secret of his political sympathies–he had belonged to a socialist literary group with James T. Farrell and Richard Wright–and his support of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten helped to earn him a 546-page FBI file. “We just shared a lot of things. He had friends younger than me–he had friends of all ages, from their 20s to their 70s and 80s. He’d invite me, but I never went to the track. He went with other people to the track. I was more a neighborhood friend, his White Sox and Second City friend.”
Algren had never learned to drive a car, so McCarrell often drove him to Comiskey Park, where they shared beer and brats. “I had an insurance agent at the time that could get me good box-seat tickets,” says McCarrell. “Every once in a while I’d say, ‘Hey, Nelson, you wanna go?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, all right, Stu, I’ll go.’ We went dozens of times in the 60s and 70s. I realize there are a lot of great people who are Cubs fans, but Nelson and I weren’t among them.”
Before or after games, they’d go to restaurants. “We’d eat at places like the Black Pearl,” recalls McCarrell. “Or we’d have supper at the Vernon Park Tap–it’s called Tufano’s now. He loved that place. And we ate several times with Studs and Ida at Riccardo’s on Sunday morning brunch. That’s where I got to know Studs a little bit.”
McCarrell would also drive Algren to Second City, where in earlier years the writer had walk-on parts from time to time. “He used to take me there,” says McCarrell. “The first several times was fine, but one of the times–I think it was the last time we went there–he actually dragged me out because the material was so innocuous. He felt they’d already turned the corner from being outsiders to being insiders. They now aimed their programs more for the suburbanites….Even in the late 60s, they were starting to pull punches.”
While witty and amusing, McCarrell says, Algren was still bitter over Hollywood’s treatment of The Man With the Golden Arm–he talked of it often. Algren had been paid $15,000 by actor John Garfield for the film rights to the book. But when Garfield died, director Otto Preminger bought the rights from Garfield’s people. Algren went to Hollywood in 1955 to work on the script, and Preminger paid him $3,000 for the screenplay (Frank Sinatra, who played the lead, was paid $100,000 plus 10 percent of the net profits). Later Algren charged that Preminger had swindled him out of his cut of the resale rights. A lawsuit went nowhere. The imperious director had also treated him like a pariah and made a cheaply sensational movie.
“Of course, it was his own foolhardiness and partly his own fault,” says McCarrell. “But Preminger is a bastard. What Nelson says is that he wrote [the book] out of respect for people and Preminger made the movie out of contempt for people. He really hated Preminger.”
McCarrell says that Algren was as intensely private as he was gregarious. “You couldn’t just casually drop in on him,” he says. “He was a strange man who liked his own company. I wasn’t over at his Evergreen apartment more than 20, 30 times, like when I’d pick him up for ball games or sometimes after the nights when he had me at Second City. It isn’t one of these things we saw each other every weekend.”
But Algren still threw his legendary soirees, where literary and media celebrities mingled with local characters and “street people,” according to McCarrell. “Normally, he’d have about 30 people over there. They weren’t wild parties, but they broke up early in the morning.” McCarrell recalls accompanying Algren on trips down Milwaukee Avenue to “buy live-kill chickens and baked goods for the parties. His housekeeper, Mary Corley, prepared it all for him. He didn’t do any cooking to speak of. Mary did housekeeping for me too, at Nelson’s recommendation.”
McCarrell was privy to some of Algren’s troubles. The writer’s second marriage, to actress Betty Ann Jones, was disintegrating in 1966 and ’67, a time McCarrell recalls in Bettina Drew’s biography, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. Also in the book, he remembers how devastated Algren was when Corley died several years later. “He felt terribly bad,” McCarrell says. “It unnerved him, because he was so close to her–it wasn’t sexual or anything like that. She was a black lady who lived on the south side. She was a nice, wise lady.”
Algren often shared stories from his past, McCarrell says. “He had a rough family life with a lot of little tragedies, but he did what he did with the life he had. He had a bitch of a mother, and his father was none too bright. The one who got him to go to college was his older sister Bernice, a schoolteacher. Bernice was really a brilliant touchstone and a tower of strength in Nelson’s life. If she had lived to be an old lady, he might’ve had a much happier and more stable life. She dies painfully of cancer in her 40s, when Nelson’s in his 30s. She had married in the meantime, and he didn’t like her husband. And yet they helped him when he had no money.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about Algren’s life, McCarrell says. “I always say, the bourgeois will accuse Nelson of being a drinker–an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a gambler. He’s innocent of the first two. He didn’t chase women any more than another guy does. Somewhere there’s a sentence in which he says he loved women not wisely but too well. And he certainly didn’t drink excessively, but he liked to have a drink now and then.
“But the third charge is true,” McCarrell says. “He was a compulsive gambler, and it caused him a lot of trouble. He really needed help, but he had nobody who could tell him that….He really needed Gamblers Anonymous. It was a continual drain on him. I don’t think he had the least insight into that this was a problem, because, you see, he enjoyed it. After all, he still got by–it isn’t as if he starved in the street.”
In 1975 Algren auctioned off his belongings (books from his library are still for sale at the store Pop Era in the Flat Iron Building) and moved to Paterson, then to Hackensack, New Jersey. He hoped to help clear boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter of a murder rap by writing magazine articles about the case, but most were rejected. On his publisher’s advice, he adapted the material for a fictional account, The Devil’s Stocking, which was published posthumously in 1983. In 1980 Algren migrated to Sag Harbor, Long Island, near where his longtime friend Kurt Vonnegut lived. “I lost contact with him,” says McCarrell. “I had a couple little notes from him. I was supposed to visit him but never got there. I think he got a little disgusted that I kept saying I was gonna come and I never came.”
Algren once wrote: “You can’t belong to Chicago any more than you can belong to a flying saucer called Los Angeles. For it isn’t so much a city as it is a drafty hustler’s junction in which to hustle a while and move on out of the draft.” Algren quit hustling on May 9, 1981. He died of a heart attack 11 days before he was to be inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
McCarrell has never made it to Sag Harbor, where Algren is buried, but he’s done the next best thing. Five years ago he accompanied Mark Blottner, who was working on a documentary about Algren, to the cottage at Miller Beach in Gary that belonged to the writer in the 1950s and early ’60s. It was now owned by a retired steelworker, with whom the two shared a friendly visit. The trip to the cottage inspired McCarrell to write several of his poems to Algren. One is called “Losing, Losing,” which he now reads aloud: “With dignity and humor / you played out your losing hand. We’re left / with one great novel, a dozen stories, / and the best book ever on Chicago. And / with this place, this symbol of all you / dreamt, and lost, and gave. Thanks brother, / we needed you. We’ll always need you.”
The idea for the Nelson Algren Committee was hatched at the Busy Bee restaurant, where McCarrell was eating lunch one day in October 1989. Local developer John Lubinski–then the co-owner of the Flat Iron and Northwest Tower buildings–asked McCarrell what he thought could put Wicker Park on the map. McCarrell replied that he’d already discussed this with Lubinski’s business partner, Wes Andrews–“Try to spread awareness that a great writer, Nelson Algren, had lived here for the last decades of his life. John thought that was a good idea.” At a meeting the next day, Lubinski, Andrews, and McCarrell met with several neighborhood organizers and decided to throw a party.
“A Nelson Algren Celebration” took place December 2 at Lottie’s Pub on Cortland, where the writer used to drink and play cards. Several hundred people crowded into the cold, dank basement bar–a trapdoor led to the cellar, which had once been a speakeasy.
McCarrell, Terkel, and Shay shared their reminiscences of Algren and read from his works. Leming’s Chicago Cabaret Ensemble performed Algren’s short story “How the Devil Came Down Division Street.” The party–dedicated to the memory of longtime Wicker Parker Eddie Balchowsky, an Algren friend who had lost an arm in the Spanish civil war and earlier that year had jumped in front of a subway train–was a success.
Since then, the committee has staged Algren birthday parties at the Bop Shop and the Chopin Theatre, featuring films, music, theater performances, and readings. Aside from the usual cast of local luminaries, the event has brought in such out-of-town visitors as South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus, who traveled from his home in Pittsburgh to read from The Neon Wilderness. The committee, which has a mailing list of 600, also hosts picnics during the Greening Festival in Wicker Park.
McCarrell and his group have printed a map of Algren’s haunts and conducted neighborhood tours. Points of interest include places where Algren ate and shopped. One address–1860 W. Division, where Frankie and Sophie Machine lived in The Man With the Golden Arm–doesn’t exist. And while the Rainbo Club is not on the map, neighborhood lore claims it served as the model for that novel’s Tug & Maul Bar; Frankie often scored heroin from “Nifty Louie” in the fictional Club Safari across the street.
While “many interesting people, many males, have passed through the committee and made interesting contributions,” McCarrell says, three women–Alice Prus, Char Sandstrom, and Nina Gaspich–are among the group’s most stalwart members. “We couldn’t have survived without them,” he says. “They’re always there to help at each program. A lot of drudge work needs to be done, and they do it. They’re the pillars of the committee.”
In 1972 Prus and her husband bought a house a couple of blocks from where Algren lived. “I was aware of him in the community, and I always thought I’d go over there and knock on his door and introduce myself, but I never had the guts to do it,” Prus says. She explains the committee had always talked of memorializing Algren, and “when we started, we visualized using that triangle for something.”
Earlier this summer the committee discovered that several community groups were already working to put a fountain on the Polish Triangle–the East Village Association, the Old Wicker Park Committee, the Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce, and the Noble Square Homeowners Association. The EVA’s Todd Theisen says the triangle is an ideal site for a fountain. “It serves as an entrance to West Town, and it’s also where the community groups come together.”
Theisen says he learned the city was planning to install fountains at various locations, so he wrote Alderman Jesse Granato, the mayor’s office, and other local community groups “asking them to support improvements in the triangle.” County funds were already paying for concrete median planters along Ashland, and Granato says he’d been thinking about “doing something to enhance the square.” He brought the community groups to the table, lobbied the mayor’s office, “and it turned into a combined effort–we were able to work collectively to make it a reality,” Granato says.
Theisen soon discovered that the city had two fountain programs–one run by the Department of Transportation and the other by the Public Building Commission. The Department of Transportation’s precast-concrete fountains–installed on the boulevard system at Garfield and Western, Drexel and Oakwood, and 26th and California–are more or less cut from the same government-issue cloth. But the Public Building Commission allows for some customization to reflect the character of different neighborhoods, and its program even includes a budget for upkeep.
Since May, the Public Building Commission, working with architects DeStefano and Partners, had designed and built fountains at five sites: Printers Row on Dearborn, Mariano Park at State and Rush, Belden Triangle at Clark and Belden, Bixler Playlot at 57th and Kenwood, and the plaza of the Chicago Board of Trade. Each cost the city about $250,000 out of this year’s $200 million budget for neighborhood improvements. Nevertheless, when Theisen and others went to DeStefano’s downtown offices they ended up “choosing fountain designs out of a catalog.” Several plans were then presented to representatives from the various organizations–which by then included the Algren Committee–at meetings over the summer in Granato’s office on Division. “We all worked hard to make sure, within the constraints of the budget and the size of the triangle, that we selected a unique fountain that represented the architecture of the neighborhood,” says Theisen.
The single-tiered fountain is made of black iron; its bowl is about nine feet in diameter and resembles an oversize birdbath (it will doubtless be used by the plaza’s resident pigeons). Water will bubble up in the bowl and splash over the sides into an 18-foot-diameter pool, which includes four floodlights. Plantings and ornate fencing are currently being installed.
Naming the fountain and triangle for Algren, and having a quote from his work placed around the perimeter of the pool, “was by no means a fait accompli,” says McCarrell, who attended the meetings with fellow committee member Char Sandstrom. But they felt they had Granato’s support. “About a year or so ago, I stopped by his office, gave him the full spiel about Nelson, gave him a lot of literature and material, and convinced him that [Algren] wasn’t anti-Polish,” says McCarrell. At subsequent meetings, he presented biographies to members of the other groups, “so any questions they had we could answer.” While “some already knew a little bit” about Algren, McCarrell says, “we certainly furthered their knowledge.”
In the end, the decision was unanimous: both the fountain and the plaza would be named for Algren. Fountain plans were finalized September 10, and a dedication ceremony was scheduled for early December. A quote from Chicago: City on the Make would circle the fountain’s base: “For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart.”
Early last month, Jan Lorys received a copy of Granato’s First Ward newsletter to be translated into Polish; it mentioned the fountain project. “Then I drove by there and–boom–I saw the city sign for the Nelson Algren Fountain and Plaza,” he says. “That was a burr. I said, come on….It was a case of all or nothing at all.”
Lorys returned to his office at the Polish Museum of America and fired off a letter to Granato, citing many reasons why the plaza should retain its traditional name–he pointed out that more than two million Polish-Americans have lived in the area since the 1880s. “The renaming of the Polish Triangle as the Algren Plaza,” he wrote, “will eradicate an established area name, erase the history of Chicago’s largest ethnic group, and will be an insult to the many large Polish institutions and churches that still exist here…as well as dozens of delicatessens, restaurants and other businesses [and] the many Polish Americans who work here and live here and pay their taxes.”
Chopin Theatre’s Zygmunt Dyrkacz agreed. He persuaded such institutions as the Holy Trinity Polish Mission and Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital–as well as several neighborhood groups (including those that had already agreed to the new designation)–to write letters to Granato requesting that the plaza’s historical name be made official.
The windows of Dyrkacz’s office offer a panoramic view of the plaza and the fountain construction site. He says he’s worked hard to make Chopin the largest artistic institution in the area, and over the last decade it’s developed into a unique cross-cultural gathering place, where artists of all colors and ethnicities and disciplines can work, fostering what Dyrkacz likes to call a “village effect.” He’s long known of Algren’s work and has nothing against him–after all, he says, Chopin hosts Algren Committee parties and he and McCarrell are “good friends.” (The feeling is mutual. “Ziggy,” says McCarrell, “is a fine young man, and very un-American in the sense he’s not mainly interested in money.”)
While Dyrkacz acknowledged that Algren deserves a memorial in the area, he thought it was unfair that the triangle was to be named for the writer, especially when, as he wrote in his letter, “Polish-Americans don’t have a single such distinction in their most historically significant place in the United States.” Dyrkacz went to the library and found numerous references to the area as the Polish, or Polonia, Triangle in city guidebooks, ethnic histories, and Algren’s writings. He included these citations along with his letter.
“Algren is tied up with the Polish community,” Dyrkacz says, “but putting ‘Nelson Algren Fountain and Plaza’ there without mentioning the Polish-American community extends a one-sided view of society. If you have an absence of that, the picture is not true–the Polish will see this as an unresolved issue. It’d be like going to an Indian reservation and naming it for a white author who wrote about the Indians and not naming it for the Indians themselves.”
The outcry came as a surprise to many. But in 1942, Algren’s second novel, Never Come Morning, hit the streets of Wicker Park like a bomb. Lorys explains, “Part of the literary output of Mr. Algren–Never Come Morning and The Man With the Golden Arm–was and continues to be controversial because of its total focus on the Polish-American underclasses.” Alice Prus, who’s Polish-American, recalls once mentioning the writer’s name to former northwest-side alderman Roman Pucinski. “And he just went off.”
Never Come Morning is still a bleak and brutal book, a crudely poetic and psychologically charged tale of crime, retribution, and perhaps redemption. Set mostly along West Division in the vicinity of the triangle, the novel concerns 17-year-old would-be prizefighter Bruno “Lefty” Bicek and his descent into petty crime, drunkenness, and murder (he kills a man who participates in the gang rape of his girlfriend Steffi Rostenkowski, who then becomes a prostitute). The book was widely praised when it was published and eventually sold over a million copies. The New York Times called it “brilliant.” In the New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman described the novel as “an ugly, effective slice of low life.” And Ernest Hemingway said, “This man Algren can write the pants off Farrell.” In the book’s introduction, Richard Wright wrote, “To the greater understanding of our time,” Never Comes Morning “portrays what actually exists in the nerve, brain, and blood of our boys on the street, be they black, white, native, foreign-born.”
But Chicago’s Polish-American leaders thought Never Come Morning defamed their community; it had come out at a time when Poles (half of them Jews) were being killed by the Nazis. The Polish Roman Catholic Union, the Polish daily Zgoda, and other Polish newspapers and institutions launched an excoriating attack on the book, writing articles and sending letters to Mayor Ed Kelly, the Chicago Public Library, and to Algren’s publisher, Harper and Brothers. One Zgoda editorial was typical: “The author is a product of a distorted mentality, for in his treatment of inmates of houses of ill repute he is in an element all his own and no doubt was on a narcotic jag when he concocted this story….When free copies begin to find their way into the hands of unsuspecting victims it’s a signal that this anti-Polish propaganda is definitely directed by Nazi money.” Algren, it continued, “cannot possibly be without malice in his heart against the Poles.” The Polish American Council even sent a copy of a resolution condemning the novel to the FBI.
Though Algren and his publisher tried to defend themselves–according to Algren biographer Bettina Drew, the writer told a library meeting that the book had nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with poverty–Mayor Kelly banished Never Come Morning from library shelves; even as late as 1962, when Algren wrote a new preface for the book’s second edition, he couldn’t find it in the library.
Algren later summed up the Never Come Morning controversy as the “long mindless jackass bray that once wound down West Division Street,” and he lashed out at the “crocodilism of minds (transfixed around 1903) that conduct the affairs of the Chicago Public Library.” But in 1988, when the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center mounted the exhibit “Writing in the First Person: Nelson Algren 1909-1981,” the Never Come Morning imbroglio was not glossed over.
In the same spirit of truthful reconciliation, the plaza fracas has had a happy ending. After receiving a dozen letters, Alderman Granato, in consultation with community groups, had the Nelson Algren Fountain and Plaza construction signs taken down in mid-October. New signs went up announcing the Nelson Algren Fountain at the Polish Triangle.
“This is how you show the maturity of a community working together,” Granato says. “The Polish community has been able to work with us, and I’m glad it turned into a very nice compromise.”
Jan Lorys says he’s glad too–sort of. “We could’ve really complained, but we said, OK, let’s compromise. We keep the historic roots as well as a salute to an American literary icon–though I don’t think kids in high school even read him anymore.” While Dyrkacz did attend some early EVA meetings, both he and Lorys say the conflict might have been avoided if Polish-American groups had been invited to the fountain meetings in the first place.
McCarrell says he found the name change “perfectly acceptable,” pointing out that Algren himself would probably approve. And though he concedes that he and other groups may have been insensitive to the Polish community’s claims on the plaza–and miscalculated the depth of animosity some area Poles still feel toward the author–he adamantly maintains that Algren had no malice in his heart toward the Polish people. He says every ethnic or racial group is insulted when one of their own depicts them in a bad light–Algren may not have been Polish, but he lived among them. “He wrote about what he knew–what’s he going to write about? It was too subtle for some people to understand, but Algren had tremendous love and compassion for Polish people. They just know that he showed these Polish crooks and Polish whores. He shows the best and worst of human beings, and the human beings happen to be Polish. Some people don’t want a balanced picture of a group–they want to think there’s no such thing as a bad Pole. Every group thinks the same thing. It’s a cultural phenomenon, not an ethnic phenomenon.”
Zygmunt Dyrkacz sees the plaza outside his windows first thing every morning. What does he think? While he’s pleased with its new name, he wishes the triangle had been graced with a beautiful artwork instead of the fountain. “This is good, and I appreciate it,” he says with a shrug. “But my vision was different. The fountain could be artistic instead of looking manufactured. The gateway to Wicker Park should have something better, more artistic….But we’re all still very good neighbors.”
McCarrell loves the quote embossed on the plaza surrounding the Nelson Algren Fountain. He reads it with reverence. “For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart.”
“A lot of us came up with it,” he says excitedly. “We had discussed several different quotes, but then we decided above all on this one from City on the Make. The others just weren’t nearly as suitable as this one–you can’t beat it. Indeed, I called some people from other committees to reinforce that that was the one we had agreed upon, and so that’s the one that’ll be carved.
“I think it’s a good Democratic Party quote,” McCarrell goes on. “It’s not a Republican quote. It’s always been a big Democratic town–with a small ‘d’ and a large ‘D.’ It’s to the left of the Democratic Party too. It ties in with a lot of things–how Chicago is a city of workers, how important Chicago is in labor history, and it also in a way speaks to Polish immigration, how these were all workers….It’s a nice quote, and it’s true, and it’s what Algren felt and, I guess, what we all feel.”
Next year marks the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Algren Committee, as well as the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Man With the Golden Arm, and McCarrell promises to throw the biggest Algren birthday party yet. Eventually he’d like to have an Algren-related artwork installed in Wicker Park, perhaps a permanent sculpture in the Polish Triangle. “But that,” he says, “will be more in the future.”
Would Algren appreciate having a city fountain named after him?
“If I know Nelson, he’d pretend he didn’t, but he really would,” says McCarrell. “He’d say”–he waves his hand dismissively–“‘Oh, Jesus Christ, what the hell.’ Like I said, he pretended to be a real tough guy, because this was Chicago. But he’d really be secretly very happy. He’d go home and smile.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Nathan Mandell.