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Wrestling in the Halls of Academe/Digging for Meaning

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Studs Terkel fished into his shirt pocket and took out a folded piece of white paper. It was a Garry Wills column unseen in Chicago, and Studs wanted me to give it some ink.

Studs has been Wills's champion for a long time. Their friendship reaches back to the early 70s, when Wills and Studs's wife, Ida, wound up in jail together after a Washington, D.C., demonstration against the war in Vietnam. Studs admired one Wills column so much back then that he ran off a stack of copies and passed them out to everybody on his bus. Today, Wills's syndicate sends Studs a copy of every column Wills writes.

I'd run into Studs one night last week at Midway Airport--he'd been in New York to accept a Sidney Hillman Foundation award--and gave him a lift home.

"You gotta read this," said Studs.

He'd apparently stuffed the Wills column into his pocket so he could show it around on his trip. He told me gleefully that Wills was weighing in on the new Saul Bellow literary controversy. By Bellow's own admission, his new novel, Ravelstein, is based on his long friendship at the University of Chicago with Allan Bloom, whose 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, gave him a taste of the high fame Bellow has known for decades. If you accept as fact everything Bellow says in his roman a clef, Bloom was not only gay--something apparently everybody close to him knew--but when he died in 1992 he died of AIDS. In short, Bellow outed him. Depending on who's passing judgment, Bellow's treatment of his late friend is either forgivable or unforgivable or neither, because it's art. What no one's questioned is that Bellow and Bloom are giants.

No one until Wills.

As Studs poured the port in his kitchen, I read the Wills column. There have been some wise and sympathetic reviews of Ravelstein, notably one by Louis Menand in the New York Review of Books. Menand told us that Bloom was someone Bellow never knew quite what to make of--"a man who spent the millions he made from the publication of a cultural jeremiad on wall-mounted television screens, high-end audio systems, four-star hotel rooms, and Armani suits." Menand argued that it isn't Bloom whom Bellow outs, but Bellow himself, whose surrogate in the book is the unattractive narrator "Chick," a brittle, resentful, needy Jewish writer. According to Menand, Chick's hidden agenda in telling Ravelstein's story is to settle scores with his narcissistic witch of an ex-wife. "Not a single incident or character feels truly fictional," reported Menand, who concluded, "Subtle but unsparing honesty."

Wills thinks Ravelstein is awful. Ditto The Closing of the American Mind, which he dismisses here as a "sophomoric rant against modernity" that was "pretentious but shallow" and also "grim, humorless and vindictive."

Wills says Bellow wants to show that "the crank was really funny, warm, and ready to accept much of the indulgent modern life castigated in his book." The scandal, according to Wills, isn't that Bellow invaded his friend's private life but that he subscribes "to the superstition that Bloom was a deep thinker." Bloom wasn't and Ravelstein isn't, says Wills, who dismisses the purported wisdom of Bellow's hero as "self-important sloganizing." Bellow's book is so "shockingly bad," Wills tells us, that the only thing that kept him slogging through it was "a morbid interest to see what Bellow will do in outing other members of the Chicago faculty." Wills marvels at Bellow's "cruel violation" of one of his former wives, brought into the novel to be torn to pieces by "two pompous intellectual vultures," and concludes that he put the book down grateful to escape "the fetid enclosure of Bellow's mind."

Wonderful stuff, said Studs, who's partial to any eloquent shiv job on the University of Chicago, he being an alumnus who laughs at its pretensions. As he told me in the car, he thinks it's a hoot that U. of C. traditionalists have gone to the barricades vowing not to let their school turn itself into another Northwestern. "Northwestern's a better school," said Studs. "How many innocent people did Chicago get off death row?"

Wills teaches at Northwestern.

Studs has no use for The Closing of the American Mind either. In his view the idea of a literary "canon" is ridiculous. "At one time it was only the Greek and Latin classics--that was the canon," he said. "If it was written in English--that was no good! Then anything written by an American was unacceptable. Hawthorne and Twain--especially Twain."

Bellow doesn't impress Studs either. He told me, "As Leon Despres said once, 'If only Algren had been writing about middle-aged Jewish intellectuals, then he'd have won the Nobel Prize.'"

Studs wanted to know why the Sun-Times passed up Wills's critique. Now and then that newspaper publishes a Wills column, including his recent tribute to the late Ida Terkel. But the Ravelstein dissection didn't see print, and Studs was puzzled.

"I didn't see a point in launching an intense personal attack on Saul Bellow and the late Mr. Bloom," explains Steve Huntley, the editorial-page editor. He says he admires Wills as an author but decided that because the Sun-Times hadn't covered the Ravelstein debate when it erupted its readers wouldn't know what to make of Wills's revisionist contribution.

I think Huntley missed a golden opportunity. The Sun-Times could have played an important role in fostering a major local intercollegiate literary pissing match. What's a newspaper for anyway?

Digging For Meaning

Fortunes are like people. Before they grow up and settle down, some have a lot more fun than others. There's a new book out that tells a happy tale. The family fortune that today allows Chicago's Joyce Foundation to do so much worthy giving in the sober realms of education, environment, and gun control was, in its frisky youth, devoted largely to a world-class high-maintenance bimbo.

Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce labors to justify the attention it's paying its subject, who's forgotten today and at her apogee "had no discernible talent except self-promotion."

That's to quote the book jacket, not the book, which you might want to read this summer if you've scheduled more beach time than is good for you. Or you can savor the press release sent to our city's newsrooms from New York: "As it happens, Peggy Hopkins Joyce has a LOCAL CHICAGO CONNECTION...Her third--and only true millionaire--husband was Stanley Joyce, a Chicago lumber baron. In fact, The Joyce Foundation still exists in Chicago, and was a resource for Connie Rosenblum in the writing of GOLD DIGGER." The release also tells us that Peggy Joyce was the prototype for Lorelei Lee in the 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Yes, the Joyce Foundation still exists, and not as some doddering vestige of the Jazz Age. It has assets of nearly a billion dollars and last year gave away $34 million. Rosenblum came to the foundation to do research on the Joyce family, and the foundation repaid an old debt by allowing her access. It owes Peggy Hopkins Joyce. If she'd hung on to her husband and outlived him, there might be no Joyce Foundation today.

Rosenblum marches briskly through the saga of husband number three. After all, there are still three more to go. The year was 1919. He was "a slight, unprepossessing figure...something of a mama's boy." She was frolicking in lilac pajamas on the stage of Chicago's Wood's Theater in a farce called A Sleepless Night. "Who's the boob?" she wondered, peeking out from behind the curtain at an "owlish-looking creature" who showed up nightly in the same box.

"He's a man who is crazy to meet you," said a friend. "He has all sorts of money."

They met, he proposed, and she wondered. "After all, I have to get a divorce and divorces cost money and Stanley loves me and has the money, so maybe I had better do what he says." She decided, "It is better to be mercenary than miserable."

After digressing to note that Joyce wooed Hopkins at the same time the Illustrated Daily News was being launched back in New York--making a spurious connection between her heroine and the birth of tabloid journalism--Rosenblum buckles down to the marriage. "Peggy often described how she locked herself in her bedroom on her wedding night and refused to let her new husband enter until he shoved a $500,000 check under the door. What was more, she added, 'I cashed it the first thing in the morning before he was awake.'"

Time for another digression, this time to draw helpful distinctions between the old-fashioned courtesan who was a cornerstone of European society and the new-breed American gold digger, characterized here as a "renegade." Then Rosenblum recounts how Peggy began tearing through Stanley's money--acquiring the mansion in Miami, the string of pearls that cost more than the house, the swimming pool, the pet monkeys. He was dreary: "taciturn, uncomfortable around people, and standoffish to the point of rudeness." She was calculating: "She realized from the beginning that the marriage would be a sham." They quarreled. She strayed. She told herself, "If husbands were clever they would never let us see them in the morning because that is the time a woman thinks. I lie awake sometimes in the morning or early afternoon, because we do not rise generally before two and I look at Stanley in the other bed and 'My God,' I think, 'Whatever made me marry that!'"

They went to Europe together, and the future needy causes of Chicago can thank God he came back alone. The divorce, roughly a year after the wedding, made headlines everywhere. She played the press like Roxie Hart and came away from the trial with nearly a million dollars in jewels, though not much else of his except his name. That she kept till her death in 1957. In 1944 Stanley Joyce had "died alone in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a broken, pathetic figure. His five-million-dollar fortune went to his twenty-one-year-old niece, Beatrice, his only surviving relative."

A good thing it did. Beatrice Joyce Kean established the Joyce Foundation in 1948, and when she died in 1972 it received 90 percent of her estate, or more than $100 million. It's been growing ever since.

Spokesman Mary O'Connell says that when she joined the foundation she heard talk about a lively past, but she didn't know what it was until the book came out. "I, like you, have read through it," she says, "and our basic line is, 'That was a colorful part of the family's history, and now if you want to see all the good things the money's doing, check out our Web site."

O'Connell spent just enough time with Gold Digger to spot a reproduction of a 1931 New Yorker cartoon captioned "Those Peggy Joyce revelations are rather corking, aren't they?" "It suggests she was a well-known character," she observes.

The question is, for what? The author concludes that the importance of Peggy Joyce lies in the fact she did nothing to deserve it. "What could be the lasting significance of a woman whose primary claim to fame was the number of times she had been a bride?" Rosenblum asks, and therefore nominates her as "a harbinger of a new age," the age of the "modern celebrity" who triumphs in an "image-driven culture." She was even more. "Peggy was the first real indication that the components of 'marrying up' might be reshuffled so even a girl from humble circumstances could reap its rewards," Rosenblum tells us. "She democratized the act of marrying glamorously."

That accomplishment should add bounce to the step of everyone at the foundation.

News Bite

You can libel with a simple headline, and someone needs to tell the Sun-Times. On May 23 the Sun-Times told the complicated story of an American woman abroad who'd left her Italian husband and returned to the States with their three-year-old daughter. Citing an international treaty, a federal judge in Chicago ordered her to return to Rome so that an Italian judge could sort out the question of custody.

The front-page headline: "Kidnapped girl must go home."

The Sun-Times did run a correction allowing that to call the affair a kidnapping was a reach. But a headline over a page-three story in the same paper hasn't been retracted.

Cook County sheriff's police claimed they'd busted a call-girl operation in Palos Park, arresting a businesswoman who operated out of her home and a couple of women who worked for her. The businesswoman insisted she ran a legitimate business. Nevertheless, the Sun-Times published mug shots of all three suspects. Suspects, mind you.

The headline: "Pricey prostitutes nabbed."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of Joyce Foundation/courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.

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