Hot Air: Heroes and that Villain, Reality

I have to steal Dotty Sharp’s signature line here:


There are no other words for this photo, from the Chicago Tribune‘s archives. It was taken at the 1967 book-release party for Mike Royko’s first collection of columns from the old Chicago Daily News, entitled Up Against It.

From the left, there are the inimitable Studs Terkel, Royko himself, Volume I bookshop owner Arlene Wimmer, and the brilliant but unpredictable author Nelson Algren. Two of them — Studs and Royko — were my idols growing up. Algren I learned to appreciate only after I’d turned 30. He penned The Man with the Golden Arm, for which he won a National Book Award in 1950. The Nat’l Book Foundation, the org. that now administers the award, in one of its historical retrospectives, dubbed Algren, “the bard of the down and out.” He also won three O. Henry Awards for his short stories. Algren in 1951 wrote a harsh but fond ode to the city called Chicago: City on the Make. In it he described the sharpies, the slums, the alleys, the crooks and the politicians (often — too often — the same guys), the sirens (emergency vehicular and otherwise), and all the other hustlers and locales that defined my beloved hometown. Pols and church leaders, natch, condemned the book.

Oh, how I wish I could have been a part of that gang in the photo, knocking back bourbons with Royko, commiserating about the Cubs with Studs, and hoping against hope Algren would wax poetic about his torrid love affair with Simone de Beauvoir.

The only problem is I would have been 11 years old at the time. I doubt if even Royko would countenance boozing it up with a pre-adolescent. Studs would have slipped me a fin and told me to go pick up a few cigars for him at Old Town’s Up Down Tobacco Shoppe. Algren probably would have snarled, “Get the hell away from me, kid.” My kind of guys all.

As for Wimmer, it’s a good bet she’d have echoed Algren’s sentiment. She’d have been my kind of guy as well.

At 11, I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce Simone de Beauvoir, let alone know who she was. Nor would I have sensed that Algren was cozying up to Wimmer, who herself was probably smitten with the literary lion/old goat.

Still, when I caught sight of this pic Friday afternoon, I felt like an 11-year-old once again, mooning over a these idols. Funny thing is, I dreamed of becoming a celebrated author like them but reality is a cruel fascist: I turned out to have more in common, professionally, with Wimmer. Sigh.


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