Ivan Dee Makes a Mark

In August of 1974, a floundering city magazine called the Chicagoan introduced its new editor.

He was Ivan Dee.

“Ivan,” wrote publisher S. William Pattis in a letter to his magazine’s readers, “is that special kind of editor who brings intelligence, taste and integrity to a publication. A native Chicagoan, he has resisted handsome offers to move to New York, which is generally viewed as the publishing center of our country.”

The Chicagoan was less than a year old, and it had already been through two owners as well as three editors. Dee would be the fourth.

“Ivan Dee is an outstanding editor who abhors mediocrity and will not settle for less than the best,” Pattis declared. “Ivan Dee is our man for all reasons.”

Dee put out two issues and then Pattis folded the magazine. “Sort of a debacle,” Dee recalls today.

The Chicagoan experience was a nadir. For 17 years there were no zeniths. Dee is a book editor, and from 1961 to 1972 he’d run Quadrangle Books, an estimable house located in Hyde Park. When New York Times bought Quadrangle, renamed it, and moved it to New York, Dee decided not to go.

He worked awhile as associate book editor of the Tribune, left to become executive editor of the old Publishers-Hall Syndicate, paused at the Chicagoan, then spent 14 years in the unlikely position of director of public relations at Michael Reese Hospital. A subordinate recalls Dee as an “effete snob.”

Those sound like the wilderness years, we told him.

“I certainly didn’t feel I was in the wilderness,” Dee responded, “but I always felt I would rather be publishing books and I didn’t hesitate to say so if asked.”

In 1989 Dee walked like he talked. He left Reese and founded Ivan R. Dee, Inc. Dee began by rooting around for classy books that were out of print–“sort of high-class scavenging,” he says–and brought them out in paperback, with an eye to the college market. “For example, we reprinted John Brown’s Body, which is the long Civil War poem by Steven Vincent Benet. In its day it sold hundreds of thousands in hardcover, and it’s still a remarkable book. It has sold very well. It’s been modest by New York standards, but quite well enough for us.”

Dee, Inc., broke into original hardcover publishing last year with China Rising: The Meaning of Tiananmen by China scholar Lee Feigon. Today, Dee’s list has grown to about 25 books a year, just a third of them paperback reprints. He’s doubled his staff–which is to say his son Alexander joined him to handle sales. He tells us he’s on the verge of breaking even. And a book he brought out this month is a literary event.

Well, that’s stretching it. But then, we’re talking about Chicago standards.

From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover is about to enter a third printing. The book has received widespread, favorable, somewhat fortuitous critical attention. And it’s crammed with troubling revelations. As critic David Oshinsky wrote in the New York Times Book Review two Sundays ago, “What is most appalling about these files is the amount of malicious misinformation in them. In 1952, for example, a memo noted that Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois . . . was one of ‘the two best known homosexuals in the state.'”

The source of this intelligence was unimpeachable: a Bradley basketball player who’d chatted up the detective escorting him back to New York to face charges of fixing a game. (The politically savvy hoopster confided that Stevenson, being a homosexual, would not run for president.) The memo landed Stevenson in Hoover’s “Sex Deviate” card file, and FBI memos fretting about his sexuality were still being written and squirreled away 12 years later.

You can read these memos in Secret Files. There’s a memo Hoover wrote in 1959 about the alleged homosexuality of columnist Joseph Alsop. There’s a memo the FBI director wrote his assistants in 1970, after taking a call from H.R. Haldeman. “He stated the President . . . wanted him to ask . . . for a run down on the homosexuals known and suspected in the Washington press corps. I said I thought we have some of that material.”

Your skin will crawl. Not that the shabby notations assembled here are devoted wholly or even largely to the gay menace. Consider this:

Kennedy: “What are you going to say to him?”

Arvad: “I’m going to say ‘Now look here Edgar J., I don’t like everybody listening on my phone.’ You know that somebody is always listening in on this phone.”

Kennedy: “How do you know?”

Arvad: “Why on earth does it always cut? Don’t you notice when we talk there is some cut in it?”

You’ll find the entire conversation, wiretapped in 1942, in Secret Files. It’s between Ensign John F. Kennedy and his Danish lover, a Washington gossip columnist named Inga Arvad whom Hoover suspected of a “most subtle type of espionage activity.” The wiretapping was halted as soon as the FBI discovered that Arvad knew it was going on. But President Roosevelt ordered it resumed two months later, Secret Files tells us. Arvad’s paper was hostile to FDR’s administration; he wanted information.

Secret Files was edited by Athan Theoharis, a Marquette University historian and grand master of the Freedom of Information Act. Years ago, Ivan Dee was Theoharis’s editor at Quadrangle. Hearing that another publisher was sitting on Theoharis’s manuscript–his fourth book on the FBI–Dee told him to buy it back. Dee wanted to publish it.

Secret Files isn’t the fall’s big book on the FBI. W.W. Norton finally published J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets, a biography that Curt Gentry signed to write 15 years ago. Eventually Theoharis, who published his own biography in 1988, decided that Gentry’s book would never appear. But much enhanced by revelations that Theoharis’s FBI requests pried from the Bureau in the 1980s, out it came–a lavishly promoted Book of the Month Club selection whose movie rights have already been sold to Warner Brothers.

Ivan Dee was in no position to launch Secret Files so grandly. But he’s ridden the wave. The two books have frequently been reviewed in tandem; and although Gentry preempted the TV talk shows, Theoharis has been interviewed on radio all over the country. Even Tass asked for a review copy.

Dee and Theoharis will argue that in some respects they’ve produced the more important book. “Gentry’s biography is very derivative,” Theoharis told us. “There’s a lot of new information in Secret Files that Gentry doesn’t have. Look at the sex-deviance-program documents. That’s a whole new story. Gentry has an amusing story about Hoover turning sex deviates into informers. That’s wrong. He was trying to identify them to get them fired.”

We asked Dee what he plans next.

“I’d like the house to publish maybe 50 books a year,” he said. “But no more than that. To continue to do serious books and be more and more selective in the choice of books we publish.”

Dee told us he’s tried to interest some of Chicago’s better journalists in writing for him, but he’s gotten nowhere. “I find journalists on the whole much less interested in writing books than they used to be,” he said. “Maybe that’s just my experience, but I don’t find them very receptive to book ideas anymore.”

What response do you get from them? we wondered.

“Blank. No response. I’m talking about people who are not strangers to me. I get no response at all.”

Sox Celebration

Last week Chicago’s papers told a harrowing tale of terror over Iowa. The left engine had blown out on the chartered Boeing 737 carrying the White Sox from California back to Chicago. “You could hear praying from certain players,” sportscaster Wayne Hagin, who’d been on the plane, told the Sun-Times. “A couple of the players were crying.”

Bo Jackson told the Tribune, “Baseball, salaries, nothing else mattered. I wanted to tell my wife that I love her. I wanted to tell my kids that I loved them.”

Ozzie Guillen reflected, “I really didn’t care about me. My two kids–I almost started crying thinking about my kids waking up the next day to go to school.”

To the cheers of the 65 passengers, the two-engine American West jet landed safely in Des Moines. A second jet was dispatched from O’Hare to bring the team on to Chicago.

A code of silence might be inferrable here, one limiting the tale told by survivors to the drama in the sky. But an AP story out of Des Moines revealed further details. They show up in full force in the latest Baseball Weekly:

“Several White Sox players had an innovative way of killing time when stranded Sept. 15 in the Des Moines, Iowa, airport after their plane developed engine trouble: They drank beer. Trouble was, the bars were closed.

“Police reports indicated someone slipped a lock off a tapper on a beer keg in a snack bar–then the party was on . . . until police arrived. Sox Manager Jeff Torborg was notified, escorted the players back to the gate area, apologized and offered to pay for any losses.”

A caller who pointed us to Baseball Weekly wondered why the Chicago papers missed these developments. (Actually, they were mentioned in Joe Goddard’s Sox notes in the Sun-Times later in the week.) We’d rather fault Baseball Weekly. If we’d seen a jet engine blow up at 37,000 feet in the dead of night and survived to kiss the terra firma, we’d have cracked open a keg ourself. Baseball Weekly had the whole story in hand and didn’t know how to tell it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.