By Michael Miner
The Dastardly Mr. Anglin
Two-fisted Lee Anglin has made so many enemies in his ten years as publisher to the meanest streets of Chicago that I almost want to take his side. But it's hard to do because most of those enemies used to work for him. And there's this: anyone can be waylaid once by a predator bent on vengeance or whatever, but when it keeps happening it starts to look like you're the one with the problem.
Since 1990, when he was 19, Anglin has published a string of partisan neighborhood weeklies on the southeast side of Chicago and the adjacent towns in Indiana. Titles have come and gone, and so have corporate identities: Lakeview Publishing, Sunset Multi-Media, AP Publishing, Anglin Enterprises, Herald News Group, Journal News Group. And there have been bars and doughnut shops on the side.
The Reader's Ted Kleine tells a funny little Lee Anglin tale. Early last year Kleine wrote us a cover story on the Tenth Ward aldermanic race down on the southeast side, Anglin's home base, and it seems Anglin asked to reprint it in his Calumet Journal for $100.
Says Kleine, "When I mentioned the deal to Alderman John Buchanan, he told me, 'Oh, ho, ho, you can kiss that hundred dollars good-bye." Buchanan was right. "Trying to get the money nearly gave me an aneurysm," Kleine says. "I called the office. He told me his secretary would take care of it. She didn't take care of it. I called Hooligan's, the bar he owns in Calumet City. He was never there. Finally, after two or three months of this, I faxed a bill to him 14 times in one day."
That got a response--from Anglin's secretary. She "was furious," says Kleine. "She kept calling back and telling me, 'This is a place of business, not a playground.' But later in the week she called me from her home, told me she was suing Anglin for unpaid wages, and asked if I wanted to join in."
Anglin has raised paying people as little as possible to an art form. His most prolific reporter worked without a salary because he ran ads for her real estate business. Alderman Buchanan contributed a column with the odd title "Voice of the People" in return for visibility and because Anglin "would write stories as a rule that would present the facts as I would want them presented."
The quid pro quo broke down once. Anglin filed to run against Buchanan for Democratic committeeman in 1996, and Buchanan pulled his column. "Quit being a puppet for John Buchanan," Anglin counseled readers in his own column, "Anglin's Angles." "It doesn't get you anywhere. I tried it for 5 years and the only thing that I did was loose [sic] friends, money and respect." By mid-1996 Anglin had dropped out of the race, and Buchanan was back in harness. "I want you to know though that I have not forgotten the terrible and nasty things written in this paper," he told his readers on his return.
What was that all about? I asked both of them the other day.
Buchanan said he and Anglin took different sides in a struggle to control the Hegewisch Chamber of Commerce: "The paper went bad, and so did he." And Anglin explained, "Everybody down in the Tenth Ward said it was myself and the newspaper I ran that got John elected alderman, and I think John forgot that."
Anglin backs down from nothing, including sure disaster. In 1997 he began thinking about buying the Herald News Group, a string of community papers in northwest Indiana that was hemorrhaging money. "I had an attorney, two consultants, and a CPA tell me I was crazy to do it," he says. He did it anyway, promising to pay more than a million dollars. "It was a challenge. I knew going in if I lost, I'd lose big and it would hurt me personally. But if I won, I'd win big and people would love me."
He lost his shirt. Anglin was soon writing memos to his Herald News Group employees that "payroll is the most important issue at hand" but he had come up with a "game plan." The game plan fell flat and by the following January, when he filed for bankruptcy, so many checks had bounced that even the carriers were up in arms. The Times of Hammond ran a feature on an 11-year-old middle-schooler who every day for a week climbed out on the roof of his house to call attention to the $60 Anglin owed him.
Anglin's failure to win hearts and minds was dramatized even more forcefully last month. The big downtown dailies told the story of how he allegedly was surprised outside his Homewood office by a familiar face from the neighborhood who opened fire as Anglin dove for cover behind a car. The getaway car was traced to the office of former alderman Edward Vrdolyak, and police arrested 66-year-old Joseph Sallas, who had spent seven years in a Florida prison after being convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in 1984 and is the godfather of several of Vrdolyak's children.
Anglin escaped harm in this mystifying confrontation, which neither he nor anyone else seems to know what to make of. Rampant skepticism appears founded on twin premises: that when an assailant of Sallas's reputation wishes to shoot you, you get shot and that where Anglin's concerned, nothing is as it seems. Sallas was arrested and jailed--but a couple of days later so was Anglin.
What happened is that Anglin stopped by the Calumet City police station to deal with another crisis, a freshly minted arrest warrant accusing him of "deceptive practices." While he was there the cops somehow learned about another outstanding warrant, this one concerning an old tax debt in Lake County, Indiana. He spent Easter weekend locked up awaiting extradition, and his attorney cleared up the debt Monday morning.
Besides skepticism, the Sallas story met with deja vu. This wasn't the first time Anglin had announced that he'd been set upon. In 1990 Anglin and partner George Grbic took over the floundering Hegewisch News. Anglin says today that he acted at the urging of Vrdolyak, who owned 10 percent of the failing newspaper. "I had just sold a restaurant I had bought a year prior while in high school. I had some money on the side, and so I did it," says Anglin. Grbic says this is nonsense. "He had not one penny. He lived in a basement apartment with cat shit all over the place. I put every penny in that paper."
Horrendously undercapitalized--one autumn they'd stayed in business by betting on football games--Anglin and Grbic went bankrupt in 1994, despite a $25,000 loan Grbic says they got from Vrodolyak. A reorganization set up Anglin and his wife to run the show through a new corporation. In January 1996 Anglin accused Grbic, his abandoned partner, of putting on a mask and bludgeoning him with the blunt end of an ax.
"He got off on my stupidity," says Anglin. "The night that happened the detectives asked if I knew who it was. I told them no, I didn't know. I was going to handle it on my own."
Having thus impeached any courtroom identification he might later make, Anglin then named Grbic as the attacker in his newspapers. Grbic was acquitted and sued for defamation.
"He got 15 grand," says Anglin.
Did he collect?
Not a penny, says Grbic, who denies having anything to do with the assault. "Like the character in Schindler's List," he says, "Lee can look at himself in the mirror and convince himself of anything."
Anglin is as reluctant to describe himself as a journalist as most people are who've seen him operate. "A journalist to me is a Mike Royko, a Carol Marin," he says modestly. "I think anybody could write what I write." Yet as publisher and as columnist he's perpetuated significant newspapering traditions. For example, his running as a Republican for the General Assembly in 1994 and as a Democrat for committeeman in 1996 is no more eccentric than Conrad Black's campaigning for Britain's House of Lords. His peculiar notions of editorial independence--the banner headline in the July 14, 1997, issue of his South Chicago Herald read "This Weeks Editorial Page is Sponsored By: William Chevrolet/GEO"--place him in the vanguard with papers such as the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Sun-Times, which have been fearlessly redefining the wall between church and state. His adventures with spelling and grammar recall the ingenious coinages of Colonel McCormick at the Chicago Tribune. Entrepreneurial forays he and his wife made into the bars and doughnut shops show that he, like the Tribune Company, has an eye for synergy.
And his sledgehammer prose honors a proud newspaper tradition long celebrated in black-and-white B movies screened on cable channels at 2 AM. The chips fall where they may when Anglin says his piece.
"The pleasure that I have is that I can write about these fools"--Anglin's Angles, 1993.
"Are we really racist? What is a racist? Do I want black people living in my neighborhood? No, and they don't want me living in theirs"--Anglin's Angles, 1995.
"When I get done with him he will be picking anchovies out of his rear end"--Anglin's Angles, 1995.
"I think every parent who has kids who also have kids should take and beat the living crap out of them one night, I dont care if they are 45 years old and your 70, then turn around and tell them to beat the living crap out of their kids because 90% of them need it"--Anglin's Angles, 1996.
"I want to use 12 ounce gloves instead of 16 so when I break your jaw and your mouth is wired I can feel the bones breaking"--Anglin's Angles, 1996.
In 1997 the head of the Mexican Community Committee of Southeast Chicago reacted to an Anglin think piece by demanding a face-to-face meeting--"if you have the guts and the things that hang below your large pants."
Anglin didn't give an inch. "Hank, please don't threaten me; I will come down on you like beans on rice," he answered in his column. "We can even look into the funding you receive because I have much info on that. As far as my apology to the Latino community, here it is: 'Kiss My Big White ASS.'"
Journalism purists might find fault with Anglin's quixotic 1993 expedition to the southwest side. Readers of his new Midway Times were told, "What you are going to experience in the next few months is a newspaper [the Southwest News-Herald] that sold its integrity to the congressman [William Lipinski] going up against a newspaper that believes in the freeom of speech and in a good man and alderman, Jim Laski." Laski, who today is city clerk, had ambitions even then, and today Anglin freely admits that he opened the Midway Times, which lasted just a few months, because a political ally of Laski's put him up to it. But then, Marshall Field III launched the Chicago Sun because FDR wanted Chicago to have a liberal counterweight to the Tribune.
Rounding out Anglin's credentials is his flair for the rhetorical turns essential to a columnist. His gift for mixing boundless ego with gagging piety was put on exhibit in 1997 when his son was born. "I found out that no matter how much you own, no matter how many businesses you own, no matter what kind of car you drive, no matter what kind of house you have, no matter how important people think you are, no matter how much money you have or pretend to have, the most important thing in your life is family."
As he wrote this, his family was falling apart. "She wasn't supportive in anything I did," he says today of his wife. "She couldn't figure out what she wanted to do in life. It wasn't doughnuts. It wasn't the newspapers." By May 5, when he published a stirring bid for pity and understanding in the Calumet Journal, his wife had long since taken off.
"This was stupidity on my part," Anglin told his readers, explaining how he happened to wind up in jail this past Easter. "It was embarrassing and painful for Lisa, my fiance and Mikey my son. I had a case in Indiana from a previous business I owned. I had a small amount of restitution to pay, and I did so for awhile until I closed that business and agreed to sell it back to the company I purchased it from. Like an idiot, I thought the debt left with the business, but I was wrong and should have known it."
The upshot, he went on, was that weekend behind bars. "How do you explain it to a soon to be 3 year old. I simply told him daddy was bad and had to stand in the corner for a long period of time. He simply said 'Bad Daddy.' How true, if he knew what 'Stupid' meant; he probably would have added that to his statement. Making a mistake is one thing, and paying the price for it is something else....At 6 foot 300 pounds, I had no problem holding my own in jail. But let me tell you, when I picked up that phone and called Lisa and heard her nervous voice on the other end it made this 300 ponder melt into a pile of sugar and sobbing like a baby melts that pile of sugar even more."
The first time I called Anglin, he was still listening to his attorney, who'd told him to keep his mouth shut. Fortunately, the second time I called he was his old self. "It seems like every time I made money I lost it in another publishing deal," he told me. Yet despite having opened and closed and bought and sold bunches of papers in two states for a decade, going bankrupt twice and, if you believe him, barely and by the grace of God escaping with his life twice, he's still at it. He says the money behind his new Homewood-based Journal News Group isn't his, but he's the publisher and columnist. Like many a worthy journalist, he seems to have discovered that even if he's not much good at what he does, he's worse at everything else. "The doughnut shop was my wife's little venture," he muses. "One day she decided to quit. I wasn't about to make doughnuts, so I closed it down."
His two Hooligan's bar/restaurants, which were his bars in Homewood and Calumet City, are also history. "Too many late nights," he explains. "I don't drink so I don't like alcoholics."
Meanwhile, a contractor named Tom Paxton is hot on Anglin's heels for the $300 he says he's owed for delivering a fancy new $7,000 game system to a Hooligan's a couple of years ago. Paxton doesn't care if he winds up spending a lot more than $300 to get his money. He claims to know contractors who are out a hell of a lot more than he is, and he's chasing Anglin in the name of everybody Anglin ever stiffed.
"You really need to get some help for yourself, because I have NEVER seen anyone that could lie the way you do," Paxton wrote Anglin in October 1998. "It's truly amazing that you actually believe your lies, just like the recent time on the phone when you promised me that your employee was at the bank getting a money order and I would have the payment the next day. That was a month ago, I'm still waiting for the busboy to get back from the bank!!!"
Paxton went on, "I'm going to make sure that I give you that opportunity to throw me through the window like the last guy you said gave you any trouble. Then, I'm going to file a lawsuit against you that will rock your socks. I assure you that I will own those 2 restaurants, and sell them for $150.00 per location."
Paxton showed me copies of three checks he'd received for payment. Each bounced. Each was stamped "Account closed." Now he's got the state pursuing a criminal case against Anglin. He's the source of the "deceptive practices" warrant that had Anglin reporting to the police in Calumet City, where he was arrested.
"He put a machine in that didn't work," says Anglin.
The wonderful thing about all the adversity Anglin's known is that it might turn out to be character building. He doesn't turn 30 until next February.
It's not surprising that the Defender has covered the City Council debate over reparations for black Americans with a lot more intensity than the major dailies. But the difference in coverage has been more than quantitative. On April 27, covering the first day of debate, the Defender carried a large photograph of a 1908 lynching--four dead black men, arms tied behind their backs and nooses around their necks, hanging from a tree in Kentucky. It has run similar photos since. Difficult as they might be for the gentler readers of the Sun-Times and Tribune to look at, these pictures succeed brilliantly in focusing on what reparations would be about.
Oddly enough, the music critics of both dailies got to write for their respective front pages last Thursday. John von Rhein's report of the death of chorale director William Ferris helped lead the Tribune. Wynne Delacoma's obituary of Ferris didn't get that sort of play in the Sun-Times, but she landed on page one describing her first-row view of the Wrigley Field melee between drunken Cubs fans and the Dodgers' bull pen.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian Jackson.