Imagine living decades from now and knowing no more about these times, our times, than what you’d picked up in a handful of memoirs, from whose tall tales and outright lies you got the idea that ours was some sort of golden age, perhaps Chicago’s extravagant last gasp as a stage on which politicians and newsmen overacted without shame, dazzling each other and themselves.
Suppose you were so stuck on this goofy idea that you’d bartered your soul for an evening in our midst. And suppose you chose that evening wisely. We might then have seen you, visiting this dead and buried past, on the evening of November 23, 1987, at the going-away party for Basil Talbott Jr.
Having read those memoirs that turned your head–his own not least among them–you’d have known Talbott as a rare and enigmatic man. You’d have read about his father, who came to town as a vaudevillian and never left, applying at the City News Bureau when vaudeville collapsed and making his career here as a newspaperman. The younger Talbott might have puzzled you: He was not quite the finest raconteur of his generation, not the most flashing wit or most graceful writer. But he was someone who knew everyone, a curly-headed bachelor adored by many of the most intense and talented women of his era. Adored–as best we make him out–for qualities that centered on honor and authenticity.
“I see no agendas going in him,” said Lucy Salinger, the woman who brought the film industry to Illinois. “His knowledge of and commitment to Chicago politics is just beyond belief.” And Marla Donato of the Tribune explained, “There are so many jerks out there and here’s this one guy who’s really great. He’s helped keep me together more times than I can remember.”
“Chicago is full of fascinating women,” Talbott told us grandly. “And I happen to know a good many of them.”
Here is the moment we remember best from his farewell party: Michael Howlett Sr., leaning on a cane, proclaiming to all assembled that “the best thing that could happen to this state would be for Neil Hartigan and George Ryan to run for governor” (both Ryan and Hartigan had just stepped to the microphone to hail the departing Talbott). At this the great architect Walter Netsch muttered tartly, “I think my wife would do better” and strode off.
But you might have been more taken by another moment–perhaps the reunion of the legendary Sun-Times night side of 1969: Tom Stites, Bill Granger, Paul McGrath, Jim Tuohy, Paul Galloway–guys with the right stuff, remembering how Granger stashed a My Lai veteran in the Executive House and sprang an exclusive every day for a week while the other papers went crazy. And how when the Tribune finally came up with their own veteran–someone who worked in their own composing room–Paul McGrath tracked him down and quizzed him. “Yes, but I can’t talk to you about it,” said the veteran to every question, until McGrath had confirmed the entire story; whereupon, McGrath recalled, “We sat down and took their scoop away.”
Or maybe you’d have been most impressed at such giants of the age as Richard M. Daley, Ed Vrdolyak, and Dawn Clark Netsch–all come to say farewell. And at such luminaries as Len O’Connor, Walter Jacobson, Studs Terkel, Don Rose, actress Barbara Harris (an old neighbor of Talbott’s), Joel Weisman, Anne Keegan and Len Aronson, and dozens of other mavens who may seem more heroic to you than they do even to us because the memoirs that will paint them in bold strokes have not yet been written.
There in the Zolla-Lieberman Gallery in Chicago’s legendary River North district, amid walls teeming with paintings no one paid any attention to, was nearly a wake. When so many movers and shakers come out to say good-bye to a reporter who is merely leaving town, the leave-taking is self-evidently as preposterous as death. But Basil Talbott, commanding friendships and loyalties that a publisher could only dream of, refused to object to his destiny.
“I’ve given up smoking and I’ve given up drinking,” he said at his party, “and now I’m giving up the City Council.”
Talbott had a keen sense of himself as the embodiment of an era. He began covering politics in the 60s in Springfield, where “politics is the most intense and most creative,” he thought, and where, with few exceptions, Chicago’s warlord politicians cut their teeth. The mythic Richard J. Daley came of age in the legislature; so did the mythic Harold Washington.
“I spotted him early in Springfield as a force,” Talbott said of Washington. “With that quick mind, he could give you conceptualizations that made your story. He was also very friendly.”
As was Talbott to him. “Everybody covers insurgents like they’re heroes.”
Talbott became political editor of the Sun-Times soon after Mayor Daley died and held the position through the Bilandic and Byrne interregnums. Shortly before the reelection of Harold Washington, whom Talbott considered to be, like Daley, a coalition-building political genius, his editors reduced him to columnist. In a second curious move, they invited him to shift to the Washington bureau, and he accepted.
“Well, it’s about time isn’t it?” Talbott told his friends. “I’ve never lived more than five miles from where I was born–Henrotin Hospital. I don’t know what to do–sew tags in your underwear? What do you do when you move away?
“Maybe,” he said, “it will make me a little younger to be a 50-year-old cub reporter. I think I have the energy to do it.” He chose to construe his apprehensions as evidence that he had recaptured some sort of youthful enthusiasm that no one felt was missing. “It would be a little fuddy-duddy of me not to leave town,” he insisted. “If I don’t leave now I may never have another experience in my life.”
It was not such a bad time to go, he argued. He had covered politics here through what he called a cycle, from a time when the civil rights movement began stirring awake Chicago’s blacks to the hour when blacks, in coalition with Latinos and white liberals, controlled the city.
Stories rolled out of Talbott with a fetchingly ingenuous immodesty. He’d spotted Harold Washington as a comer before just about anybody else did, he explained to us; and he remembered riding around with Washington during the ’77 mayoral campaign, Clarence McClain doing the driving. “Nobody was paying any attention to him,” Talbott said.
His pals cooked up a “press conference” for Talbott at his going-away party–Len Despres, Cecil Partee, Don Haider throwing him zingers–and just about the time it ended Harold Washington showed up. “Five minutes” he whispered to a bodyguard as he made his way through the crowd. And when he stood at the microphone and before Talbott, who listened with his head cocked and a big grin on his face, the mayor also remembered those early days in Springfield, when he had no quarrel with anything Talbott ever wrote about him, as well as the recent years when Talbott had been, as he was bound to be, critical.
“There were times when I thought you were totally, completely, and absolutely hip-to-hip wrong,” said the mayor. “On the other hand, there are those times when you were completely right.” He presented Talbott with a Chicago 150th-birthday banner covered with candles, and he milled around for another half an hour hailing old friends and shaking hands. Older by 15 years, Washington was nevertheless a contemporary of Talbott’s; their careers had progressed over two decades within the same political revolution in Chicago.
As had ours. That revolution, if any of us stopped to think about it, was our times. Journalism is inseparable from the stories that are there for it to cover. And our events were great ones indeed, stirring enough when gingered up a bit to seduce a romantic such as you from your antiseptic future.
A day and a half later Harold Washington was dead. Basil Talbott never saw him again; nor did almost anyone else at Talbott’s party. Talbott’s farewell was the mayor’s last social event.
“He died while I was packing,” Talbott told us afterward. “It’s all been very disruptive. I would like to stay for a little while. I want to see what’s happening. But my editors think I have to follow my commitment and go to Washington.”
He said, “Chicago is like an addiction. I think I have to go. I have to shake this addiction. When you go to the post office and get stamps for the invitations to my party, and the man says ‘Mr. Talbott, why are you getting 350 stamps?’ and the lady down the line says ‘Oh, Basil’s going to Washington'”–well, said Talbott, you know then you’ve become a celebrity.
And, he continued, not very convincingly, “it sort of gets in the way of being a journalist. I like to be a big shot in my hometown, but as a reporter I don’t like to be part of the story. Perhaps to find my real career again, I have to get away.”
With only that one evening in our Chicago, you’d have missed the column Basil Talbott wrote for last Sunday’s paper. He said farewell twice in it, farewell to Harold Washington and farewell to Chicago. “Poignant, eh?” you’d have said as you read it, and it was.
But we are just kidding around here about the future. In journalism there is only yesterday and today: yesterday is the day that can hurt a long time, but today is the only one that matters.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.