Who Will Buy These Memories?

Radio legend Ed Schwartz is in anguish. He wrote former radio-TV critic Gary Deeb to denounce him as “a gross failure and an ethical disgrace.” When Deeb didn’t reply, Schwartz posted the letter on Jim Romenesko’s popular media Web site–the national hot stove of gossiping journalists. And this week in the column he writes for the Lerner papers, Schwartz says that what Deeb did “is more than a sellout, it is a moral burnout.”

Deeb’s sin was to auction off on eBay this month a packet of old letters from, according to Deeb, “the biggest personalities in Chicago radio history.” Schwartz was one of those personalities, for 30 years a mike man at WLS, WIND, WGN, and WLUP. Hardly flattered to be ranked among titans, Schwartz told Deeb in the unanswered letter, “You have violated every ethic of the profession of journalism.”

If the name Gary Deeb means nothing to you, that goes to show what a few years will do. In 1973 Deeb came to Chicago from Buffalo, his hometown, to be the Tribune’s TV and radio critic. Indifferent to the metaphysics of TV as a medium, Deeb tore into the venality that stamped it as a business. Loathed, feared, applauded, and sucked up to, Deeb was nationally notorious when he moved over to the Sun-Times in 1980.

Then in 1983 he made the career move that nobody has ever understood. He took a job as a critic for the station he’d excoriated most, WLS TV, Channel Seven.

If WLS hired Deeb to shut him up, it worked. His old readers watched appalled as Deeb, the fearless media analyst who’d let the chips fall where they might, shilled for ABC programs. Deeb’s new job not only silenced him, it discredited him. And as the years went by, the on-air time WLS allowed its old nemesis steadily diminished to the point where he all but disappeared. Deeb finally went back to Buffalo in 1996–twice married and twice divorced in Chicago, 50 years old, and nearly as obscure as he’d come.

Now Deeb is cleaning house. For almost two years he’s been peddling letters, books, tapes, and the like on eBay, bringing in several thousand dollars. On January 29 Robert Feder–the Sun-Times TV-radio columnist Deeb hired long ago to be his legman–reported that Deeb’s “latest offering” consisted of letters from various “radio celebrities.” Touting this treasure on eBay, Deeb made it sound priceless: “A SPECTACULAR CHUNK of WINDY CITY BROADCAST HISTORY.” (The capital letters are Deeb’s.) The letters came from Deeb’s “personal archives,” some “loaded with praise,” others “extremely angry,” and many offering “a portrait of a broadcaster baring a piece of his or her soul. Several are nothing short of electrifying.” This is it, said Deeb, a “HUGE TREASURE TROVE FOR CHICAGO RADIO FREAKS–and a ONCE-in-a-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY.”

He went into the specifics of the letters. There were two from Larry Lujack. One had “Uncle Lar beefing about too much kindness shown rival Fred Winston (‘I’m more worried about my next golf score than I am about Fred’).” In the other he was “contending that he’s never been against WLS hiring Steve Dahl (‘complete fabricated bullshi–!’ and ‘F— the truth’).”

A couple from Bob Sirott sounded as electrifying as cream cheese. One was “A Sirott thank-you for speaking to his class at Columbia College.” There were also letters from Wally Phillips, Paul Harvey, Chet Coppock, Gary Meier, Robert Murphy, and a few towering figures of Chicago radio history I’d have to do a Google search to identify.

And two from Schwartz. Deeb quoted one from 1983 at embarrassing length: “It pains me greatly to think that you might feel that the respect and loyalty I have for you have lessened….I can’t believe that as fair as you’ve always been with me that you won’t give an old friend and admirer a chance to get straight.”

“I swear to God,” Schwartz says, “I don’t know what that could be in reference to. I don’t recall ever having a problem with him.”

Schwartz spotted Deeb’s E-mail address on eBay and wrote him in a fury. I too wrote Deeb, and he didn’t answer either one of us. Deeb still has a semblance of a career in Buffalo, hosting a cable TV show and a 7 AM Sunday radio show as the “voice of Living Prime Time,” an organization whose purpose seems to be helping baby boomers deal with old age. Living Prime Time gave me a phone number for Deeb, but he didn’t return my calls.

The winning bidder for these letters was a 56-year-old wholesale video distributor in Will County, Illinois. “I was a reader of Gary’s column in the Chicago Tribune,” he E-mailed me, “made it a point to watch him on channel 7 and also [was] a fan and listener of many of the letter writers.” An old hand at bidding on eBay, where he’d previously collected limited-edition prints and antique clocks, the distributor bided his time when Deeb launched the auction on January 28, but on February 2, a few seconds before the auction closed, he pounced, raising the last bid by $5 and walking away with the 29 letters for $420. “A fantastic buy,” he exulted. What’s more, he bid on a separate set of 11 letters from Chicago TV personalities Deeb was auctioning off at the same time, and got them for $81.

“So I have 40 letters for around $500,” he wrote in his E-mail. “I wasn’t a letter collector before and have no immediate plans.”

Though Deeb wouldn’t respond to Schwartz or me, he dropped the distributor a friendly note. “Thanks for that fast payment via PayPal this morning….I appreciate it….I appreciate your kind words about my days at the TRIBUNE and my even longer time at WLS-TV–and of course, the SUN-TIMES in between. Those 23 years in Chicago obviously were the greatest of my professional life–a truly spectacular city to work in and live in.”

Deeb said he’d stay in touch. “It’s great to trade with you on Ebay–and I’ll contact you when I gather more Chicago broadcast letters from my basement crates o’ stuff.”

Crates o’ stuff! Schwartz had better brace himself. There’s not much he or anyone else can do to head off Deeb. Send someone a letter and it’s his letter. And in the opinion of Reader attorney David Andich, if you’re a radio or TV personality and you send a personal letter to a columnist who makes his living writing about radio and TV personalities, your reasonable expectation of privacy should be just about zero.

Sirott wasn’t offended by the auction. “I’m just concerned about Gary,” he said. I reached Lujack by phone in Santa Fe, “just listening to the coyotes howl and the wind blow free. Staring at the moun-tains and waiting to die.” If Lujack gave a damn what Deeb was up to, he wasn’t going to let me know. “It’s more than a little sleazy, but heh, it’s Deeb–what do you expect?” he said. “My God, if he needs the money that bad, hey, I guess you do what you have to do.”

So that leaves Schwartz, angry enough for them all. It turns out that the ingratiating letter now in a stranger’s hands was written on November 30, 1983, soon after Deeb left the Sun-Times. Schwartz felt cut off by Deeb and wrote wondering what he’d done wrong. But maybe he hadn’t done anything wrong. Maybe Deeb wasn’t so much mad as embarrassed. Today Schwartz is willing to consider that. “It could have been very uncomfortable when he went over to Channel Seven,” he says. “He’d been battering them all the time, so maybe he didn’t want to talk about it.”

Deeb is now back on eBay hawking other goods. There are notes from Morley Safer, John Chancellor, and Robert MacNeil to bid on, as well as a note from Gwyneth Paltrow’s father, Bruce, the TV producer. And another from actress Esther Rolle. “Congratulations on your new job,” she wrote Deeb when he left the Tribune for the Sun-Times. “That’s what I call ‘movin’ on up.’ I’m sure you’ll be happy there. May I wish you and Sandra much happiness and a long life together. I’m truly happy for you both.”

What a lovely letter! Out it goes.

Words Fail Him

Many great novels wander through time, but the characters usually stay put. Josh Winkler, the hero of Charles Dickinson’s A Shortcut in Time, follows his daughter back to 1918, altering events while he’s there just enough to change every life around him in the here and now. I suppose I could say this novel is about a father’s relentless love for his daughter, and about how it is that some wives are more willing than others to keep faith with a lunatic.

Dickinson works nights at the Tribune. He sits on the metro copy desk. Copy editors are indispensable to a newspaper but totally unsung, and many are marked by a sense of grievance. Dickinson’s the very rare copy editor to make a name for himself. Years ago he published four novels and sold several short stories to the New Yorker. Critics praised the wry magic realism of his prose–spare, rhythmic, never in a rush. Sitting on the rim, he didn’t have to mutter to himself that he knew a hell of a lot more about writing than the rich and famous columnists whose copy he resuscitated. He’d proved it.

But then the New Yorker brought in new editors who didn’t buy his stories. There were no new novels. I heard that he’d left the Tribune, that he’d given up writing.

“Twelve years ago,” says Dickinson, “that was the last one that got published. Between that and A Shortcut in Time I wrote three different novels that for one reason or another–they weren’t good enough, I guess. One I pulled back myself after finishing it, and the other two I thought should have been published, but I couldn’t find anybody. In retrospect, I guess they weren’t very good. I don’t really remember them. It’s like I’m working off the bad karma I worked up publishing Rumor Has It.”

Rumor Has It was Dickinson’s newspaper book. It was set at a woebegone Chicago tabloid about to go under, a tabloid very much like the Sun-Times, where Dickinson worked for six years, jumping to the Tribune just before the book came out in 1991. His fictional Bugle was peopled by journalists remarkably similar to specific friends at the Sun-Times. “A lot of people had hurt feelings,” he says.

Rumor was an excellent novel. “Man, that book was so dead-on for what the Sun-Times was like then,” says Bill Adee, too new to the Sun-Times to be in it. “‘Rumor has it’ was always how a sentence would start at the Sun-Times, so it was a perfect title for the book.” The Sun-Times’s sports editor, Adee came over to the Tribune last year, spotted Dickinson, and told him it was the best newspaper novel he’d ever read. Says Dickinson, “He would mention lines from it that I didn’t remember and characters I didn’t remember.”

Says Adee, “He’s still wearing his Hawaiian shirts, so he hasn’t changed a bit.”

Dickinson resigned from the Tribune on January 1, 2001, to find out if he could write full-time and still support a family. He couldn’t. “They were nice enough to take me back because basically I ran out of money,” he says. “But those 603 days were really great.”

He spent them how?

“I became a baseball umpire and a basketball and football referee. I was an election judge, and I volunteered at a teen center in Schaumburg. It was fun.”

While writing full-time?

“Sitting on the copy desk I felt like I was not out in the world,” he explains. “Part of leaving was to get away from that sense of being in the same place all the time, letting the world come to you in the stories you edit. I wanted to do something different–and write. My concentration span is so short nowadays. I can get quite a bit done in two hours or so, and those were things I did with the rest of my time.”

Has he ever been tempted to write for the Tribune?

“It’s ironic you ask me that,” he says. “I used to be a sportswriter at the Daily Herald. I got out of that because I didn’t like interviewing people.” Metro editor Hanke Gratteau recently asked Dickinson to become the Tribune’s head obit writer, a job that requires a certain sensibility. “I was flattered they’d asked me,” he says. He’d known the job was open; he’d even thought about applying for it. When asked, he brooded, but then he said no because it would mean working days. He wants his days free to write fiction.

A Shortcut in Time is set, in all its eras, in the town of Euclid Heights, Illinois, which is inspired by Arlington Heights, where Dickinson lives. One big difference is that in Euclid Heights a dashing young man compromised by a trace of black blood was lynched in 1908 after a 15-year-old local girl disappeared, and nothing of the sort ever happened in Dickinson’s suburb.

The missing girl shows up at Josh Winkler’s house telling a story that Winkler–an unsuccessful artist with plenty of time on his hands–is much more willing to consider seriously than his wife, a stressed-out pediatrician. The issue further vexes the marriage–which is no worse than many–and their union takes an unusual turn when Winkler’s excursion to yesteryear happens to undo the circumstances that led to it. But if fate takes one wife, it provides another. Winkler’s daughter Penny reluctantly re-turns from her own visit to 1918 to discover she now has no mother–or rather that her mother married someone else instead and has no idea Penny’s her daughter. Don’t try to diagram this, but on the level that matters it works.

“I didn’t try to explain anything,” says Dickinson. “I figure it can’t happen, so why try to tell how it happened?”

The time-travel aspect to A Shortcut in Time perplexed the mainstream publishers who rejected the manuscript. “So my agent sent it to Tor, which is a science fiction house, and they bought it under their Forge line, which is not so much hard-core science fiction,” says Dickinson. “And they’ve done a good job on it.” The novel reached stores at the end of last year. “It’s the first book I’ve published since the Internet became so prevalent, and it’s amazing how much you can keep track of that was in the dark before. It was 104,000 on Barnes & Noble. It passed 50,000 books in one weekend and fell back almost as far the next time I checked. It was surreal. I couldn’t imagine all those books out there, so I stopped watching.”

He says, “In the original ending of the book the daughter doesn’t get back, and my son says he actually likes that ending better because it was more heartbreaking. But my editors said it couldn’t end that way.”

In my reading, Josh Winkler returns to our day dying of the influenza bug he picked up in 1918. He doesn’t realize that he’s doomed, and oddly enough, Dickinson doesn’t either. Winkler has slipped the traces not only of time and matrimony but of authorship. Dickinson is under the impression that when he caved in to editorial pressure he gave his book a happy ending.

News Bites

On Monday Steve Neal writes a hard-hitting Sun-Times column trashing 47th Ward alderman Gene Schulter on behalf of Neal’s friend, 47th Ward committeeman Ed Kelly. On Tuesday Mark Brown writes a hard-hitting Sun-Times column laughing at Kelly, cheering Schulter, and–you figured this out if you’d read Monday’s paper–grabbing Neal by the nose and twisting it.

The newspaper game at its finest.

It could be a long year for Conde Nast’s Lucky magazine, listed in the new Chicago white pages as Yucky magazine.

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