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Rick Kogan might be sentimental—just don't call him a sentimentalist

The storied Tribune columnist gets a "mea culpa" from Trib theater critic Chris Jones.



Not many Chicago writers would mind being mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Algren, but Rick Kogan read the Sunday Tribune and was bewildered. Here was drama critic Chris Jones writing about Rachel Shteir's now notorious review of three Chicago books, published the week before in the New York Times. Shteir had made a bizarrely overstated case against the city, and Kogan belonged to the multitude that didn't think much of it. But now Jones seemed to be endorsing the review at Algren's expense. And Studs Terkel's. And Roger Ebert's. And Rick Kogan's.

Kogan is Jones's colleague at the Tribune, and he thought they were on good terms. "I sent him a nasty note," says Kogan, who tells me he was less angry than confused. Jones had written that "L'affaire de Shteir" would be familiar to all readers who haven't "been too busy crying over the Chicago Cubs, sitting in a storefront theater, burying your head in the writings of Nelson Algren or Rick Kogan, or otherwise acting like an unreconstructed Chicago sentimentalist."

That looked to Kogan like an insult (likewise to me), and later in the piece Jones upped the ante. "What Shteir was really deconstructing, of course," he wrote, "was messy, Chicago-style sentimentalism, a tradition that surely includes [Sun-Times columnist Neil] Steinberg [author of one of the books she'd slammed] and Kogan, as wells as the likes of Studs Terkel and Roger Ebert," all of whom, in her view, "stand for the heart of a city, a bleeding organ."

"All of us without question had a sentimental side," mused Kogan, "but who doesn't?" Sentimentalist, however, seems to say that's all there is.

Kogan isn't some cheap perfume. Chicago journalism is almost as dynastic as Chicago politics, and Kogan is its rawest, most complicated heir. His father, Herman Kogan, was—as journalists of a certain age like to say about each other—legendary. In 1963 he founded Panorama, the weekend culture section of the late, great Daily News. Later he was literary editor of the Sun-Times. On weekends he talked about books on WFMT. He wrote books brimming with local lore.

Rick came along and wrote similar books. He's worked for the Daily News, the Sun-Times, and, since 1989, the Tribune. In the early 90s he edited the Tribune's daily Tempo section. He's been twice married, briefly. He's 61 and says, "My career has been my life." I've told Kogan to write a memoir. Ebert wrote one, but Ebert had to come to Chicago to meet the people Kogan grew up with. "Everything swirled around that crazy second-floor apartment in Old Town," says Kogan of his parents' place. "To walk into this living room filled with smoke and clinking glasses and music and Studs and Nelson, Marcel Marceau, Mort Sahl, Ebert—you don't wind up in life being starstruck after that kind of childhood, and it served me well."

Chris Jones should know I'm on record myself calling Kogan a "Chicago press lifer who wears his heart on his sleeve, and it's a heart that could have been minted in about 1930." But here's the occasion: It was 2008, and the Tribune was deep in the toadying depths of the Sam Zell era. Kogan, introducing Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice, who was about to receive a Studs Terkel Media Award, shared his thoughts. "Those of us at the Tribune," Kogan said, are "besieged" by "deranged memos" from new bosses that say "reimagine, reinvent, reinvent." And that was OK. "What troubles me is that these people—these new owners and the people at the Tribune who are sort of shamelessly taking off their coats and ties and wearing sweaters to cotton up to the iconoclastic, motorcycle-riding crowd seem to have forgotten that the soul of a newspaper and the soul of a city is in the word."

Not in the graphic design. Not in the nimble migration across multimedia platforms. In the word. People I knew in the audience didn't think Kogan sounded like a naive twit. They thought he sounded like someone who didn't give a damn if he were fired.

Says Kogan today, "You can only do so much bitching to bartenders at the Billy Goat—or to your colleagues. It was my intention not to be provocative but to say what was on my mind at a ceremony that honored one of my great heroes. It wasn't refusing to sign a loyalty oath."

When Kogan ran Tempo he had a brilliant staff and they wrote about everything under the sun. Then the Tribune, perversely, decided to tear Tempo apart. Kogan was moved out, and I wondered if he'd quit. He'd told me Tempo editor would be the last Tribune job he ever held.

"I told everybody that," says Kogan. "I'd been working for newspapers since I was 16, and I thought this would be a great way to go out. 'While I'm Tempo editor I'll finish my novel and get paid for it and begin that life.' I was not expecting to ever look for another job." What happened? "I was never able to finish my novel," he says. "I have never had any kind of exit strategy or career path. I don't quite live paycheck to paycheck, but close enough."

Today Kogan writes a weekly column for the Tribune, and he's the de facto eulogist for the top cultural figures of his generation as they disappear. A couple of days ago it was Earl Pionke of the Earl of Old Town, the joint Kogan's dad used to take him to on Sunday afternoons. In March it was Roger Ebert. When the city honored Ebert in a celebration at the Chicago Theatre, Rick Kogan remembered him as a family friend and alcoholic.

"My father, Herman, gave Roger his first Chicago byline, a piece in Panorama in the Daily News about the death of Brendan Behan," Kogan wrote in a tribute read, appropriately, by a barkeep—the Old Town Ale House's Bruce Elliott (Kogan was away at a speaking engagement in Wisconsin). "Roger was paid $25 for 800 words and he went on to give my father and the city and the nation millions more."

Kogan continued, "My mother, Marilew, made Roger dinner many times in Chicago and in Michigan and he saved her life by getting her in AA. Roger, God love him, was never able to stop me from drinking, but he was never able to stop me from reading his newspaper poetry. And so, quoting Brendan Behan, 'The most important things to do in the world are to get something to eat, something to drink and somebody to love you.' Roger, the Kogans loved you."

Kogan still has a copy of Ebert's Behan piece—written when Ebert was 21—and he tells me that if he'd been at the Chicago Theatre for Ebert's celebration he would have read from it. His voice, steeped in whiskey and nicotine, would have done both Ebert and Behan full justice.

Like his father before him, Rick took his voice to the airwaves. He recently finished a six-month assignment as afternoon host on WBEZ, and before that he had a weekend show on WGN radio. A young WGN intern asked him where he'd gone to develop that amazing voice of his because she wanted to go there and get her own. "I said I didn't go anywhere," Kogan tells me. "And she said, 'Oh, I see. Talent won't share.' And I said, 'Look, honey, I didn't go anywhere. If you want to spend the next 30 years drinking and smoking at the Billy Goat so you can have a radio show, be my guest.'"

Chris Jones just called. He sputtered. He said "mea culpa" a half-dozen times. "I'm a huge fan of his," he insisted. "OK, so I was sort of trying to say that I was putting him in with my category of writers who loved Chicago, and my intention was to include myself in this category and to say that this sentimentalism, which includes Studs Terkel and Ebert, stands for people who are the heart of the city. [Shteir] is a cold intellectual, if you like, and they are trying to argue the logic of love. And I say I'm that way. Who wants to live in a city they don't love!"

That really didn't come across, I said.

"Mea culpa," said Jones again.

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