So, tell the truth: if it was your 55th birthday and you lived in Manhattan, would you fly to Chicago for a party that will be attended mostly by people you really don't know?
Well, you would if you were Jules Feiffer, because that's what he's doing this weekend. Yesterday was the cartoonist, social critic, and occasional playwright's birthday; by this evening, he'll be in Chicago for a celebration of same at the Ambassador West Hotel. After dinner, the public is invited (at $10 a head) to a reception at eight, replete with a reading of messages from the mayor and the governor and what was described to us as "a tribute to his wit." (That's Feiffer's wit, not the governor's.)
Feiffer is no stranger to Chicago—he spent some time here in '61, when Second City concocted a theater piece based on his cartoons, and his three-decade association with Playboy has brought him to town often enough—but the party was hardly his idea. It was conceived by the emigre South African poet Dennis Brutus, a longtime Feiffer fan, who met the cartoonist at Studs Terkel's house over a year ago (Feiffer was in town plugging a book). Brutus decided at 55th-birthday party might be a good idea, and that he, Terkel, and the Troubadour Press (which distributes books and scholarly reprints about South Africa) would be good people to sponsor it.
We got all this from the woman who runs Troubadour press, Yodeta Bee Holley. "Oh, it's not my real name," she told us when we admired it. "It's my spirit name. I don't know if you care to know the whole story. [We did.] I wanted to take a spirit name, because I feel that my fight against apartheid is spiritual. 'Yodeta' comes from combining 'Yoda' and 'E.T.,' who I think of as very spiritual characters, the 'Bee' is from 'Bhold eternal energy,' and the 'Holley' is for the 'Halo of light … . [We missed the rest of the acronym.] That's all. I'm not a loon or anything." We hadn't even asked.
We did ask Feiffer a few things, and he told us to expect a new collection of his cartoons in March; that, despite its title (Marriage Is an Invasion of Privacy), he had taken a new wife in September; and that he was working on a new play but that he always is, "and that bears no relation to reality." So Jules, we wanted to know, how come you're coming out to Chicago for your 55th birthday? "'Cause no one else asked me," he said.
The Exploitation of Jimmy T.
Maybe it's just coincidence, but less than two weeks after the change of owners at the Sun-Times, the paper had earned an official admonishment by Children's Memorial Hospital for a reporter's tactics.
Last week, against the hospital's widely followed rules for the press, a Sun-Timeswoman proceeded unannounced to the second-floor waiting room and sat down to listen to a conversation between a doctor and Kathy Tontlewicz (Tontlewicz is the mother of Jimmy, whose recovering from drowning has captured the city's [and nation's] attention.) In doing so, the reporter clearly violated the sanctity of the waiting room; it serves as a harbor for distraught parents of children often near death—as described in a fine feature in Monday's Tribune. The reporter was spotted by a longtime volunteer of the hospital, who hustled her out with the angry comment, "What a Rupert Murdoch thing to do!" The hospital followed up with a strong official protest.
Some might consider this the enterprising spunk of a good, aggressive reporter; we, however, have no trouble drawing the line when it comes to intruding on worried parents trying to hold each other up. Besides, Kathy T. has been quite good about keeping the press posted via regular news conferences during the last two weeks.
In fact, at a press conference Monday, she displayed quite a bit of annoyance with the Sun-Times, lashing into Kup for saying that she and the boy's father (from whom she is separated) would be brought back together by their son's crisis. At the same time, and again on Wednesday morning's Today show, she also blasted the paper for the hype surrounding its "Jimmy T." fund. The Sun-Times has continually claimed, in print, that the Tribune started a similar fund after the tabloid came up with the notion; Mrs. T. said that's just not true at all.
We didn't see those remarks covered in the Sun-Times. Perhaps they're not as newsworthy as private conversations between doctor and worried mother.
The Exploits of Rupert M.
As the good ship Sun-Times sinks rapidly on the horizon, there's not much for us observers on shore to do. Australia's answer to Captain Bligh seems intent on dismantling what made the vessel run; the rest of us are left to shake our heads, hope that Chicagoans have enough sense to turn their backs on the developing monster, and muse about whether the name "Field" will attain a generic status in modern journalism—in much the way "Quisling" did during the Second World War.
We can also provide a body count. As of Wednesday, the list of Sun-Times editorial staffers who had resigned—or given notice that they'd be exiting through the two-week "window" that provides a healthy severance—numbered 27. In addition to Royko and publisher James Hoge (and the Tribune-bound writers, copy editor, and editorial board chairman we told you of two weeks ago), "the list" now includes several other important cogs in the daily-newspaper machine: executive sports editor Marty Kaiser; city editor Alan Mutter; managing editor Greg Favre (who was fired and given two hours notice to clear his desk); an assistant features editor; four-fifths of the editorial board; and Washington correspondent Bruce Ingersoll, who will join the Wall Street Journal. We also know of at least ten others who will be leaving by next Friday; a good guess is that the total will have neared 50 by then.
There were plenty of fence sitters until this past weekend, when Murdoch unveiled his concept of the new Sunday Sun-Times, which decided the issue for many. If you didn't see it, be sure to get one, because it's a guaranteed collector's item: the official death knell of a decent paper. On the front page, no less than seven headlines crowded for space, including a plug for a double-page spread titled "Proud to be Polish." On page three, next to a skinny New York Post-style story ("Liz quits drug unit") was an instant classic: "Rabbi hit in 'sex-slavery' suit." On page two, where Royko used to appear, was a column by former Sun-Timesman Tom Fitzpatrick, reprinted from the Arizona Republic; a purported conversation between Fitz and Royko's fictional character Slats Grobnick, it bore the headline "Slats' verdict: Turncoat Royko disgusting creep." (As a hatchet man, Fitz may have passed his audition: the composing room was told to keep his column picture handy, suggesting we may be seeing more of him.)
And let's not forget the "Views" section, which was monopolized by a reprint of the cover story in this week's Forbes: a lionizing profile of Rupert Murdoch. We can understand the Sun-Times printing it; what we can't understand how it got into Forbes, with its breathless prediction that Murdoch will someday be considered a "sage," and its shameless apologia that "Murdoch understands that news is, in the end, a form of entertainment." The article forgot to mention that when the news is only a form of entertainment, you end up with the New York Post (which was lauded for its "effective popular journalism").
(The "Views" section, by the way, was a last-minute decision engineered by Murdoch's version of Hademan and Erlichman. They're named Charles Wilson and Roger Wood, and last Friday, they marched in and remade the section—which, as usual, had been finished on Wednesday. But Wilson and Wood have been practicing: they regularly arrive after long dinners, reportedly in much better than average spirits, and rearrange the already composed pages in Rupert's image. That, for example, is how the birthday picture of Cary Grant, originally slated for page 14 or so, ended up on the cover of the January 18 Sun-Times.)
You can see why the staff is dropping like flies. And yet, in the midst of the carnage, Charles Nicodemus remains to fight. Nicodemus is an excellent reporter; he is also the unit chairman for the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and after he had listed those who are leaving, we asked about his plans. "I simply could not cut and run in these circumstances," he told us. Mentioning the need for two strong dailies, he said, "I cannot conceive of abandoning this town to the Chicago Tribune. There are good people leaving, but there are some very good people staying, and we're gonna fight."
An intriguing thought: pockets of loyal resistance fighters, valiantly holding the line against alien invaders in an attempt to salvage their homestead. We're not optimistic about their chances, but we wish them luck. And who knows? Even Don Quixote won a battle here and there.