RIP Marshall Rosenthal | Bleader

RIP Marshall Rosenthal


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Marshall Rosenthal
  • Ken Ilio
  • Marshall Rosenthal
Marshall Rosenthal, a Chicago journalist who came of age in the 1960s, died in his sleep at home early Monday, four months after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. He was 71.

In 1975, when Rosenthal originated the Reader's Hot Type column, the most turbulent years of his career were behind him. After the Democratic Convention of 1968, he'd begun writing for this city's underground newspaper, the Seed. Seed editor Abe Peck would recall in his 1985 memoir/history Uncovering the Sixties: The Life & Times of the Underground Press, that Rosenthal, "an ex-professor of business turned bearded vegetarian," brought the Seed "a days-of-chaos poem that made the back cover."

His "epiphanies" talked about traveling the country, about Bob Dylan finding peace within himself. He'd sensed 'terrible vibes . . . evil emanations" from the stupid, meaty, blank-faced thugs" of the Red Squad—but also denounced "the shit" of declaring Sirhan Sirhan a Yippie. "He is another casualty, another symbol of how the world madness for killing and oppression creeps into each of us and affects, in the most odious manner, our weakest brothers."

Marshall had come to the Seed to write, and had found an antidote for the loneliness that seared his mind. Now he was alienated from the revolution against alienation.

"Are we staying here fourteen mad hours a day for something beyond ourself?" he wrote in his diary one depressed night. "For 'the world'? To change the WORLD? Watch it brother—I heard you say that.... And what are we—this little part of the world—doing? Well, we are blowing our relationships with the ones we love the most. We are having abortions, and taking body-warping drugs. We are conning advertisers and counting money and buying and selling. We are crossing the street to avoid the beggar, and shouting 'Hooray' when a cop is shot. We are going to totalitarian conventions, and we are feeling important..."

Marshall was betwixt and between. "I'm certainly not at one with the radicals, nor the establishment.... I need orderliness. I am truly getting older..."

Peck soon resigned as editor and Rosenthall succeeded him. In four months Peck was back at the Seed, and a few months after that Rosenthal was gone. "Such," wrote Peck, "was life in the underground-press roller coaster."

Ron Dorfman, a member of the same generation (Dorfman's response to the '68 convention was to be a cofounder of the Chicago Journalism Review), summarized Rosenthall's career in an e-mail:

Like many of our generation, his early career was much more interesting than the later (in his case more lucrative) years—writer and editor for The Seed in its glory days; bartender at O'Rourke's; the original Chicago correspondent of Rolling Stone (housed in the CJR office); developing the weekly arts section, Panorama, for the Daily News with Dick Christiansen; then moving with Christianson to be managing editor of Jon & Abra's ill-fated Chicagoan magazine. Then he went straight and became a TV writer and producer (for WBBM and WMAQ), and then a big-time flack for state and local government and finally the Golden Apple Foundation. And the man was trained as an accountant!

In a longer summation of Rosenthal's life written to provide obituary writers with biographical material, Dorfman described Rosenthal's leave-taking from the Seed. "The staff refused to publish his account of the riot of a long-delayed Sly and the Family Stone concert in Grant Park" in July 1970, balking at Rosenthal's conclusion that "the kids throwing rocks because Sly's entrance was being repeatedly postponed were being thuggish, not revolutionary." This slant, Peck recalled, was deemed "insufficiently revolutionary." So Rosenthal left the Seed, "sold the story to Rolling Stone, and was appointed that magazine's first Chicago correspondent."

Without naming him, on New Year's Eve Roger Ebert wrote of Rosenthal in a reverie on time and death that began "Those who opened their eyes when I did are closing them now." Marshall and I didn't know each other well, but we were in a book group together. A couple of months ago we met at my house to discuss Ebert's memoir. Marshall wasn't expected, but he was feeling good that morning and he admired Ebert's book, so he showed up and said so. He jauntily set off on foot when the discussion was done, and that was the last time I saw him.

"When I was writing my weekly restaurant reviews Marshall was a frequent companion," Don Rose said in an e-mail, "almost always with some kvetch about the food or service. I included references to him frequently as 'The Groaner.' But the one thing he never groaned or complained about was his final diagnosis and continuously failing health. He magnificently faced death with courage and equanimity, never showing a hint of anger or self-pity. A mensch to the end."

Writing his book, Peck asked Rosenthal to look back. "I met a Green Beret," Rosenthal said. "I told him what I was doing at the Seed when he was in Special Forces. And he just said, 'Well, what a time that was.' We both nodded in an unspoken, knowing way—what a time that was."