Jeanne Bishop, This Is Your Life
On November 7 a Chicago writer named Douglas Post wrote attorney Jeanne Bishop to tell her about his new play. "This is likely to be one of the stranger letters you have ever received," he began. He introduced himself as a playwright who'd been around Chicago for years and whose latest play, a "political drama" called Somebody Foreign, would soon have its world premiere here. "The play centers on the story of a woman whose sister and brother-in-law are murdered in their North Shore town home and who, because of her affiliation with certain human rights groups in Northern Ireland, becomes the target of an investigation by the FBI, the local police, and the media.
"This scenario will obviously strike a familiar note with you," Post went on, "but my play is a work of fiction and not a documentary."
On the eve of Palm Sunday 1990 the sister and brother-in-law of Jeanne Bishop were murdered in their Winnetka townhome. Any North Shore murder is a big story, and the FBI made this one even big-ger: it told the media it suspected the murders could be explained by a connection between Bishop and the Irish Republican Army, which might have assassinated the wrong sister. Bishop went through months of hell, and in the end a local troublemaker, 16-year-old David Biro, was arrested and convicted of the murders. In 1992 John Conroy told Bishop's story in the Reader, and since then Bishop, a Cook County public defender, has said no whenever the media ask her to relive the nightmare. She's an outspoken foe of capital punishment, and only in that role will she talk about the crime.
Post wasn't asking Bishop. He was filling her in. "In my efforts to create a timely drama," he wrote, "I have drawn from the public record. But I have also gone out of my way to fictionalize my story creating a new location, new people, composite characters, actions which never occurred, and events pulled completely from my imagination.
"That being said, I would feel remiss if I did not let you know that this play was being produced. . . . It has always been my plan to contact you regarding this play, but I wanted to wait until I had finally secured a production."
Post wouldn't talk to me, but between the lines of his ungainly letter I see someone in a tight spot hoping to wriggle out. Through ingratiation and bluff, he wants Bishop to accept the play as a fait accompli.
"I cannot imagine what this letter might mean to you and would certainly understand if you decide not to respond," Post continued. "However, I hope you do. I'd very much like to meet for a cup of coffee and to present you with a copy of my play." He invited Bishop "to be as much or as little part of this production as you care to be."
If Bishop hadn't responded Post could have told himself that was that. But she did. She asked for the play, read it, and found a lawyer. She and the lawyer, Todd Musburger, met with Post, and she told him she felt violated. The play did what she would never do: it commercialized her tragedy.
A better time for Post to talk to Bishop would have been before he wrote a word. A better time would have been before workshopping the play in productions in 2003 and '04. But he waited until City Lit Theater had bought the rights to Somebody Foreign, scheduled it, cast it, and begun promoting it as "a world premiere play, based on a true story."
Bishop told Conroy about Post's play. When he read it he recognized not only facts from his Reader article, "The Irish Connection," but language.
Conroy: "No American has ever been killed in the Northern Irish conflict. The IRA publicly claims its killings, even its mistakes. If anyone in Northern Ireland had wanted to kill Jeanne Bishop, it would have been a hell of a lot easier to do so ten days earlier, when she was in Belfast. Furthermore, Bishop's phone number was listed in the Chicago phone book."
Somebody Foreign: "Has it occurred to you that no American citizen has ever been murdered by the IRA? . . . That the organization publicly takes credit for each and every one of its killings? Even the mistakes? . . . And that it would have been a hell of a lot easier to kill me two weeks ago when I was in Belfast? . . . And I'm in the phone book. I'm listed, for Christ's sake."
Conroy: "Biro was notorious within the police department for his activities, which according to a recently filed civil suit included attempting to poison the milk in his family's refrigerator, shooting a seven-year-old child with a high-powered BB gun, setting another child's clothing on fire, and firing the BB gun at a woman in a car, shooting out her windows. . . . Biro lived two blocks from the police station. In the six months between the murder and the tip that led to his arrest, no one from any law enforcement agency had knocked on his door."
Somebody Foreign: "Swanson had a history of bad behavior including trying to poison his fam-ily's orange juice, hitting a seven-year-old with an ax, and setting a neighbor's porch on fire. . . . In the six months between the time of the murders and the moment of his arrest, no one had even knocked on his door. Swanson lived a block and a half from the police station."
Such derivative language would be unsurprising in a first draft. This was at least Post's ninth.
Because the story of Post's "Liz" was so obviously her own, Bishop worried that audiences would assume plot elements Post had concocted were true to her life: ele-ments such as Liz's belligerence, a flirtation with her lawyer, that lawyer's craven decision to drop the case, her law firm's craven decision to fire her, her rage at the local police. She told Post his play would do what the media had done in 1990, the very thing the play claimed to be protesting--it would misrepresent and exploit her.
Post said he'd see what he could do. But Terry McCabe, City Lit's artistic director, set him straight. He wrote Post: "You ask what the consequences to City Lit would be of canceling the production or sub-stituting another play in place of yours. To be plain, they would be fairly catastrophic. We would suffer irreparable harm, both in immedi-ate financial terms and in long-term damage to our ability to conduct our business successfully. . . . The production has been in the works for months. Designers have been hired and have already designed the show; they will have to be paid in full whether the show goes up or not. Actors have been cast. . . . If we now pull the rug out from under them, we will need to compensate them for the lost employment. We have also received thousands of dollars in funding from a grantor for Somebody Foreign: this money was given specifically to defray certain higher-than-City-Lit-is-used-to expenses necessary to producing Somebody Foreign." If the play's canceled "the money will have to be returned."
Next McCabe tried to reassure Post: "Everyone at City Lit shares your concern that Ms. Bishop's privacy be respected. Since we came to understand the delicacy of the matter, we have refrained from any reference to the play having a historical basis. In the press release, the stagebill, and any other pertinent promotional materials, we intend to include a statement that the play is completely a work of fiction."
Then McCabe tried out an argument he must have prayed would work on Bishop: "City Lit has no interest in publicizing anybody's personal pain, and there is no reason to think that a production of Somebody Foreign will publicize Ms. Bishop's. With all due respect to her ordeal, it may be possible she overestimates the number of people who remember it. I live on the North Shore and did so at the time of the historical events, and I never heard of the story until I read your play." He told Post, "The only way I can see that the tragedy makes its way back into the newspapers is if City Lit comes under pressure to pull the show."
McCabe told Post to let Bishop see his letter if Post thought any good might come of it. That's what Post did.
The meeting with Musburger and Post had left Bishop hoping the play would disappear. She and Musburger refused to discuss Somebody Foreign with me then because she wanted it to go quietly--no voices raised, fingers pointed, or attention paid. But on January 15 City Lit announced that previews would begin February 10.
The announcement described Somebody Foreign as the "first production in 'Chicago People,' City Lit's projected series of plays and literary adaptations that take as their subject the Chicago area and its people." Post's play, it said, concerned "a Chicago woman, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at a local university and a human rights activist who has worked in the Gaza Strip on behalf of Palestineans, who becomes--after the slaying of her brother and his fiancee--the target of investigations by the FBI, the local police and the media." Any similarity to actual persons or events "is purely coincidental and unintentional."
McCabe was quoted. "Though fictional," he said, "the play raises real-life questions of citizenship and privacy that resonate in these days of heightened security, but it is too intelligently written to pretend there are any easy answers."
Were the revisions skin-deep? Musburger asked for the new draft, and when City Lit dragged its feet Bishop decided it was time for her lawyer to talk to me on the record.
Bishop was eventually allowed to read the overhauled script, on the condition she keep the new plot to herself. But she let her lawyer know how she felt about it. "There are some obvious changes from the first draft," Musburger told me this week, "but there remains acute disappointment over the entire project in her mind."
He wasn't sure what Bishop would do next, but he didn't expect her to let the matter drop. But it's safe to say that if moral suasion fails, the inspiration for Somebody Foreign won't be at the cast party.
8 "Osama bin Laden, like Mick Jagger, cannot relinquish the microphone." Grabby opening line to a Tribune editorial, I guess, though when the latest bin Laden tape surfaced the paper reported that it was the first time he'd been heard from in 13 months and people weren't sure he was alive.
The January 21 editorial did a crackerjack job of sticking out its tongue at the fugitive. His "sporadic rants" remind us that we're at war, said the Tribune, and his "vague offer of a truce" will fall on deaf ears. "There will be no U.S. truce with Al Qaeda, not with Bush in the White House." That Bush--what a warrior!
Earlier this month I ticked off some readers by agreeing with the Tribune that a serious case can be made for the war in Iraq. I was hoping the public, the media, and the Tribune specifically would move on to a more useful topic: How competently is the White House waging the wars it's in--the one against Iraqi insurgents, the one against worldwide terrorism, and the one against Al Qaeda that the Tribune seems so gleeful about, even though more than four years after 9/11 bin Laden's still making tapes.
"Ask not, Osama, for whom the missile-armed drone next searches. It searches for thee," said the Tribune. Now that it's got its rocks off, is it capable of serious thinking?