New Algren bio slanders my poker table

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Nelson Algren in 1972 - ROBERT MCCULLOUGH/SUN-TIMES ARCHIVE
  • Robert McCullough/Sun-Times Archive
  • Nelson Algren in 1972

A new biography of Nelson Algren is out, and I immediately turned to the part about me. I hadn't come off well in Bettina Drew's 1992 Nelson Algren a Life on the Wild Side, and I wondered if Mary Wisniewski's Algren: A Life would be any kinder.

It isn't, although Wisniewski's more efficient.

Our paths had crossed in 1976, when Algren was leaving Chicago. Drew wrote: "As collectors, fans, hangers-on, old friends, reporters, and photographers descended on the Evergreen apartment, asking, How much for the signed Playboys? Was the dishwasher for sale? Algren gloried in his own swindles: he'd fetched a tidy sum for a table he said was the very one on which he'd played poker with the neighborhood guys while writing Golden Arm. Actually, it was just an old table."

Wisniewski uses fewer words: "Before he packed to leave, Algren held an auction of much of what he had stuffed into his Evergreen apartment over sixteen years, trying to sell every piece of junk he had—photographs, autographed magazines and copies of manuscripts, ancient crockery and a rickety table he pretended was his legendary poker table."

The notion that Algren flimflammed a putz—me—has taken on a life of its own. That's OK. I can live with it.

But what about the table's feelings? Rickety?

How would Wisniewski have any idea whether it's rickety or not? Did she interview me? Did she come by my home, where it's leaned, legs detached, against a garage wall for the past 38 years and ask me to put it through its paces? If Wiskniewski had described it as a wistful table I think that would have been defensible; its old owner was making outlandish claims the table couldn't begin to live up to, and its new owner hadn't played poker in his life and was sure to neglect it.

Emotionally abused table would be hard to argue with.

That's why one of the first things I did when I brought it home was put it in my will. The table, which I bought for $200 in a transaction I've already described for the Reader, will next be owned by someone who deserves to have it: the writer Denise DeClue, who years ago adapted City on the Make for the stage. She'll give it a good home, I think, though when I encouraged her to pick up the poker table at her earliest convenience she moved to Indiana.

It's not that I'm not proud to call the table mine, but at night I hear it crying out in the garage.


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