The Babe


The boys pestered the Dad to have a dog. Katie gave them no support. They were told, there is no room for a dog in the flat and dogs were dirty; granted you could get a puppy for nothing at all, that's not the question. One morning the Dad had been walking along and met a man he had seen before, with a puppy scampering around his ankles, who said "Good morning, Maestro!" and the Dad replied, "Good morning, that's a nice little beast you have." "Do you want him?" said the man. "You can have him." "No, thanks, we have no place for him." Just after the man turned the corner of Sedgwick Street, a pistol shot rang out and the next morning the newspapers said a man had been killed there. Was it the man with the puppy? No, said the Dad, it was someone else, another man. What happened to the puppy, they asked. I have no idea, he replied.

The event was unique; their immediate neighborhood was quiet, or, rather, crimeless, for the children were often noisy at their play, there was many a vocal bang-bang-bang, and quarrels erupted continually as to who was hit and who was dead. The Babe was not interested in gangsterism anyhow. He had his own unidimensional scenario going for him in the Golden West. He found the characters of crime repellent, not at all romantic, or noble or clever or handsome. He skipped over the crime news in his perusal of the daily press. He was deviant, for most Chicagoans doted on the grisly criminal scene. He was unmoved by the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929; seven more bums done in; whereas the press and movies began promptly to build an exuberant bloody myth to boost the City's pride. He could thus be said to be out of step with the times.

But the din raised over crime, vice, and gangsterism drowned out the facts of daily life. It would hardly be credible to the awed populace of the Chicagoland region or to the bemused world abroad that a person, here the Dad, who liked to walk at all hours could cover thousands of miles in every part of the City, habitually carrying a wad of $100 or more in his pocket without once being robbed or assaulted. Or that the Babe, in his small way, had almost the same experience. And so the Mom and Bro Bus. Regarding sporadic crimes of violence and robbery, the Chicago of the nineteenth century was worse than the period of gangsterism of the Twenties and Thirties. For instance the thousands of speakeasies were self-policed in a more effective manner than the legal but disorderly thousands of saloons preceding Prohibition.

This may be asserted even though the boys did their bit to raise the Chicago crime rate. One time they went over to the Montgomery Ward Store as the Christmas season captivated them, to see what was new and admirable in the field of toys. They had no money and small prospect in this Depression of obtaining anything beyond top priority items like underwear. Browsing the aisles, they came upon an electric train engine for sale. It was a dirty brown color and obviously not intended for Express service. Since their own locomotives and rolling stock were suffering deterioration, they decided to steal it. The Babe stuck it inside his red woolen jacket, and with Bro Bus guarding his flanks, worked his way off the floor and into the breathable cold air. No one had given them a second look on the way; their exultation was further moderated as they recognized that the engine was neither valuable nor did it work well, and was possibly left exposed for boys to steal. So their onetime successful criminal exploit did not strongly suggest a blooming career. The Babe felt that he had "gotten away with something," a new sensation, but the underlying urge had not been peremptory from the beginning. There remained a slight foreignness, a moral stain, about the sluggish engine.

Sniffing your own crimes, you developed a high tolerance for the stench of malefaction in Chicago, which hung about like the odors of the stockyards and tanneries. The Babe was told by his parents and teachers and the press that "crime does not pay," and for some reason, because it was patently absurd, he did not carefully match the myth with the reality about him. He possessed the sophistication of many children, who can detect an incongruous moral axiom or admonition, and consent to believe it without expecting much to come of it.

In an average year between three and four hundred men would be shot to death. This amounts to half the Chicago rate today, and a third of present rates in Detroit, Washington, New York, and other cities, but many killings went unrecorded; police were quick on the draw and the Federal Bill of Rights had not intruded upon State and local practice. About as many were killed in industrial accidents; only "sissies" wanted safety, to hear people talk. Over a thousand would die of auto accidents; by now you had at least to buy a license to drive. Bombings occurred weekly. About a thousand autos were stolen per month. The City harbored 12,000 illegal speakeasies and brothels that sold alcohol. In 1928, 284 people died of moonshine.

The typical large and small company had a criminal and punitive record of its own, affecting everyone, but few paid attention to business misconduct. There was no year without its hopeless inquiry being conducted into governmental corruption. One report of a Mayoral Commission on vice achieved a perverse ignominy: it was banned from the United States mails as obscene. Elections, the City Council, the Police, the Fire Department, the office of weights and measures, construction, transportation, recreation, tax assessment, zoning, traffic control, and indeed every other function of government, including the borrowing of money to pay for the whole show and the interest on the principal, were riddled with corruption. Gangsters controlled almost a hundred occupations and classes of enterprise, such as laundries, cab companies, produce markets, real estate companies, and insurance firms.

The newspapers denouncing "crime waves" fought for circulation using gun-slinging thugs; scholars have traced the Prohibition Era gangsterism to the pre-War, pre-Prohibition violence organized by the newspaper owners and managers. School construction involved a network of pay-offs; the thousands of school maintenance employees worked as political agents of the politicians to keep their jobs; teachers had to accept textbooks whose cost involved payments at the State and local level to officials concerned, and whose selection was conditioned by bribery; indictments of School Board Members were a serial drama in the press.

The large suburb of Cicero, just next to Oak Park, whence came Chicagoland's most famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, was directly under control of the Mob. (Hemingway's neat crime stories may have begun to gather when he was the Babe there, for he left town after graduating from High School.)

The trade-unions were ensnared in bribes, bombing, bullying, featherbedding, racial and ethnic discrimination, pay-offs, illegal strikes, and blackmailing; the prevalent anti-union and "open shop" activities were the stock in trade of mafiosi who were ultimately the hirelings of the industrial and publishing barons.

Horse-racing and horse-betting were syndicate-controlled. Even the champion White Sox baseball ball team had succumbed to bribes in a famous "Black Sox Scandal" of the time when the Babe was in embryo. Alphonse Capone, reigning gangster, spoke the truth, and everyone agreed, when he said "Nobody's on the legit."

Despite all of this the Babe never felt suffocated by evil, or surrounded by dishonesty, or victimized by corruption, and seldom felt threatened by mugging. Nor did his loyalty to the City diminish under the cataclysm of offensive facts. Oxymoron that he was, Chicago became his good bad woman.

There was this to be said about Chicago: somehow things got done. The million visitors visited; the thousand trains entrained; the millions of pigs gave their last squeal; tractors trundled down off their assembly line; the streets, bridges and parks propagated; electric light companies were merged like Christmas tree bulbs to light up the whole of Chicagoland; four million people were fed, clothed, and schooled not significantly worse than elsewhere in America and better than in most of the country.

All of this happened from nothing within the life span of a centenarian. It took longer to build the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, twice as long that of Strasbourg.

Chicagoans had a tolerance of evil, true, but they had a mania for getting a job done. This pragmatic urge also possessed the Babe: nothing counted unless it were realized. Not even ideas. Not even Goodness. The combined effect of participating in or turning one's eyes from lawlessness and at the same time idolizing the finishing of the job was the fundamental dynamic of Chicago during the century ending with the Babe. It is no accident that his mind and muscle were pitched to it. From this dynamic came the "restless ambitiousness," "ceaseless striving," "bigger and better endeavors," "business is business," "mindless industriousness," "calloused attitudes," "soulless culture," "tough spirit," and such other phrases as writers commonly employed to do justice to the ruling processes of the Windy City.

Chicago's world fame for corruption and productivity was usually regarded as a contradiction. Or, some thought, these were parallel developments, one due to newness and heterogeneity, the other due to some mysterious genius of its leaders and people, to its physical location, etc. Neither is true. The pervasive criminality impinging upon all walks of life acted to liberate energies from bureaucracy, laws, rules, plans, lengthy discussions, the often languid involvement of the upper classes, the defeating tangle of state and local jurisdictions, the competition of neighboring cities, the slowness of justice in the courts, and the veto power of labor unions and opposing interests. The words were "Go ahead," and "You can do anything with money," and "There's got to be something in it for everybody." Criminality did its part to carry forward the City's motto, "I will." Mayor William Hale Thompson, who was not personally a grafter but revelled in corruption and bad company, was called "Big Bill the Builder."

In return, as they came to appreciate hypocritically or otherwise the function that corruption performed for them, Chicagoans were rather proud of being first in the world in yet another field of endeavor. They enjoyed the awful reputation it allowed them when they travelled. They were putting on the Here and Now Wild Midwest Show. They saluted it with ever cheaper bootleg whiskey, and scarcely noticed, after the first day of celebration, when in 1933 the Dry Era gave way to the Wet. The traditions of New England were little known except to such as the Babe and his schoolteachers. The Southern sentimentalists who were present during the early days and during the Civil War (when Chicago was actually expected to become the scene of a Confederate insurrection) had long disappeared. The frontier and the cowboy were claimed by areas far to the West and South. New York was unique in appearance and occupations, multi-dimensional, regarded as clever, ethnically less typical of the country, spiritually also, and was thought to be an international financial trap, all in all foreign. Those citizens who were indignant about the preeminence of Chicago in crime and corruption were paid lip service by the press and politicians on occasions, but swept aside when they tried to breast the current.

The best that could be said for Chicago capitalism and politics is that their unflagging flagitiousness, operating under the myth of equality, allowed a corrupt freedom which may have been better than a corrupt, or even a correct and proper, bureaucratic rule. But there was no chance anyhow of a great bureaucracy running affairs in those days, public opinion being on the side of the free-wheelers.

When the New Deal entered in 1933 it did two things, both of them partly corrupted and incorporated by the prevailing system: it set a limit to human suffering from poverty and it spent money on the organization and support of the creative element of the population: the artists, writers, planners, musicians, teachers and scholars. Still the New Deal was kept well within bounds financially, and its programs helped the rich more than the poor although the rich would be the last to admit it.

The New Deal did not embody a full-scale rationalized bureaucracy for urban planning, resource management, for socially directed central banking, for priorities among the ways of producing and spending wealth, or for education suited to a new world. It is doubtful, however, that such a new American system could have worked, given the misunderstood nature of rule by honest officials, which anyhow, if one can project from the many other socialist, communist, and quasi-capitalist regimes in the world, manages to destroy its own reasons for existence and succumb to red tape, cowardice, inaction, self-serving and backward-looking cultural traditions.

Who needed that? Not Chicago. Nor could Chicagoans have made such a centrally planned and operated system work better than anyone else could. Not unless they themselves had changed in mentality and character, which did not happen because it could not.

Not content with its verifiable primacies, there was brash talk of Chicago's pre-eminence in the arts and sciences. H.L. Mencken, who did much to establish American culture for what it was, sometimes became over-eager to make his points, and at the time that the Babe was toddling, wrote:

Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse- beat, snort and adenoid, an American who had something new and peculiarly American to say and who says it in an unmistakable American way and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with the gargantuan and inordinate abattoir by Lake Michigan -- that he was bred there, or got his start there or passed through there in the days when he was young and tender.

If only Chicago could have boasted of Mencken, instead of fooling him into taking such a pratfall!

The Babe did not read this article, but, proper Chicagoan that he was, accepted and carried its message.

However, Edgar Lee Masters, poet, lawyer, and historian of Chicago, who had spent many a year in the City, was in part a more reliable voice. As the Babe passed into the thirties, Masters was writing of Chicago:

It is a city of large arc lights here and there, such as the University and the Art Institute, and the Symphony Orchestra. But there are vast spaces of darkness. The University has not permeated the city with cultural activities; the Art Institute has not created schools of art, and art centers throughout the city; the orchestra has not greatly raised the level of the musical life in general, the schools of music included. As to the theatre, Chicago depends upon New York... it tries to equal the work of old cities by producing Romeo and Juliet.

All of the arts began slowly in Chicago and none reached national pre-eminence. Artists and writers, and artistic productions were brought in from elsewhere and paid high wages to come, like the hired killers of the Mob.

Let us try to analyze this matter of creativity, for if the Babe was to amount to something, he'd have to get his something from somebody, and the bigger the something, the bigger the somebody must have been. Who was somebody in Chicago? More precisely, who could his models have been? If they existed, did he know of them? Did he follow them?

What was eminence in the world of the twenties and early thirties? What was it in America, what in Chicago? In his colorful style, Mencken has told us. It had to be new inspiration, new belief, method and style. It had to be better than the similar new thing elsewhere, whether in New York, New Orleans, Mexico City, Los Angeles, London, Paris. It had also to be valid Chicago American, and there had to be a considerable amount of it.

The problem is rendered more difficult if we try, as we should, to catch in our net the achievers of great new things in the sciences, civics, industry, finance, and communications, as well as from the pure and applied arts. That is, we should be looking for persons like Marconi and Einstein, Henry Ford, Fiorello La Guardia, Nathan Rothschild and Leland Stanford, as well as John Dewey, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Rodin, Whistler, Toscanini, Caruso, Paderewski, Eiffel and Dvorak. They should have come out of and/or joined in with the four million people of Chicago (who incidentally exceeded the combined populations of Athens, Florence, and London in their century of greatest flowering). I am not considering great athletes, which is just as well, although the Babe loses his Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller.

Still I will be accused of stacking the deck, or at least of setting the stakes too high for Chicago to enter the game. "Stacked deck?" "High stakes?" Isn't that what Chicago was all about? No. I only wished to use familiar names to make a point.

Now we have to decide the limits of inclusion. Who is to be eligible for the list of the great Chicagoans?

There might come first those who were of the outer limits, those who came and stayed awhile in Chicago, and then moved on, leaving some significant effect. This would be the case with Carl Sandburg, who captured the good and bad of Chicago in some of his poems. Perhaps here should be included John P. Altgeld, brought to Missouri from Germany as an infant, who bespoke the conscience of Illinois and Chicago over many years of State politics; I include him because I like him; actually he is too far back in time to have reached up to the Babe. Sidney Hillman, born a Lithuanian Jew, passed under the aegis of another great Chicagoan, Jane Addams, at the Community Center called Hull House, became a union leader and went on to greatness in the union movement and to national political honors. One might include Eugene Debs whose Socialist Party was founded in Chicago. (So was the American Communist Party.)

Masters tells us that "Mark Twain passed it by to locate in Connecticut. It was a city when Bret Harte left California and settled first in the East, then in England. Edwin Markham in 1900 changed his residence from that of California to New York. Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri, far Idaho and other places produced notable writers after 1890. Not one of them located in Chicago."

Still they had to pass through. Thirty-three major inter-state railroad trunk lines entered Chicago. A traveller had to detrain and change stations to move on elsewhere. Perhaps the Babes of Chicago captured a little inspiration, and certainly a national feeling, from the fact that to go North, South, East or West in America, it was most convenient to touch base at Chicago. Anybody who came to lecture in Chicago, like the sociologists Max Weber and Roberto Michels, had to gain some impression of the City; its centers of learning were spread far and wide.

Jazz may be included. Jazz came to Chicago on its way East. The term "jazz band" was invented by a man named Bert Kelly in describing a group he hired for the Hotel Morrison. Jazz was indeed of a band: with cornet, drums, hard reeds, and the percussive piano, banjo and drums. A group booked off the streets of New Orleans and set up in Lamb's Chicago Cafe may have delivered the first formal presentation of jazz. Erskine Tate and Louis Armstrong came. So, too, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Wayne King, Ben Bernie, and Paul Ash were corny favorites of Chicagoland.

Chicago also drew eminence from the people of "Chicagoland."

"The Middle Empire that has Chicago for its capital," as Mencken grandly put it. I would define this as consisting in the day of the Babe as the area of circulation of the Chicago Tribune, extending Downstate, East into Indiana and Michigan, North into Wisconsin, and West into Iowa. That is comparable to the circuitry of Sam Insull's grasping electric power empire. It has also the proportions of Al Capone's gangster domain.

The Babe knew what the boundaries of Chicagoland were without realizing that he knew: they extended around to wherever people stopped talking about Chicago in normal conversation. They might never have lived in Chicago, or only briefly, but were influenced by its life. Willa Cather spent her girlhood in Nebraska; but I doubt that she was ever subject to the Chicago Empire, despite claims to the contrary. Lee de Forest, the radio wizard of Council Bluffs, Iowa, would probably be excluded also. They do not really belong there. But maybe Theodore Dreiser, much of whose best writing deals with Chicago, was touched and inspired and made to write better by the City.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who is usually considered America's greatest architect, was born in Wisconsin, then went to seek his fortune and worked in and out of Chicago for many years. However, he lived in rural Wisconsin and in Europe and Arizona. Chicago holds little of his work and authorities generally were too stupid to appreciate him. He obtained only one government contract in his whole life, this for a marvelous office building in Marin County, California, built after his death in 1959.

Most numerous would be those who came to Chicago from anyplace and here pursued their career and made large achievements, and then stayed on or left. Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham came in as architects from the East. Paul Carus in publishing, Cyrus McCormick in farm machinery, Sherwood Anderson, William Vaughn Moody, Ben Hecht, Robert Herrick, Jane Addams, Mother (St. Frances) Cabrini, Julius Rosenwald, Frederick Stock, and scores of others could be placed here. Politicians of genius were rare; I mentioned Governor Altgeld; Harold Ickes, born in Pennsylvania, was a journalist, lawyer and Progressive Party organizer in Chicago before he went on to the top leadership of the New Deal.

Hamlin Garland, who wrote realistically of Wisconsin farm life and whose autobiographical works interested the Babe at Seward Park Library, lived in Chicago but thought it a city of savages. People of the arts, especially writers, had few means of living decently and communicating with their fellows about their ideas and dreams.

John Lomax found himself cast out of the University of Texas through the antagonism of a populist anti-intellectual Governor, "Pa" Ferguson; this was in 1917 and he was broke and had to accept a job in Chicago selling stocks and bonds, kindly afforded him by the son of his Harvard College professor; he knew nothing of financial management.

He contacted a Harvard classmate who taught at the University of Chicago, Tom Pete Cross, who was a student of Irish songs. Through Cross he met Lloyd Lewis, a top reporter for the News and an expert on folk stories about Lincoln; also Alfred MacArthur who, wrote Lewis, "had knocked around a lot, was a successful businessman and publisher, a hard-fisted Scot," and also Carl Sandburg, poet and newspaperman. All loved ballads and folk songs, and were sick of the new industrial civilization. "It was through the influence of these four men, I feel sure, that I put together in 1918 and sent to the publishers... "Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp," so wrote Lomax. But then he left Chicago in 1919, as soon as Texas could provide him with a job.

Clubs were formed to bring literati and their business friends together but became exclusive and expensive; intellectuals were as ever a motley assortment of characters and usually poor precisely when they most needed circles of acquaintances. A few of the men who could afford it hung around Schogl's Restaurant.

The University of Chicago would be a rich source of creative greatness, but we have already learned from Masters that it was isolated. It was only beginning to make itself felt in Chicago and the world. Its stellar economist, Thorstein Veblen, excoriated its connection with J.D. Rockefeller. It persecuted and fired its great sociologist, W.I. Thomas, for alleged immoral heterosexuality.

This was in 1918; he was dismissed following his indictment on charges that he had violated the Mann Act. The newspaper publicity panicked the President and the Board of Trustees. Although the charges were ultimately dismissed, the damage had been done. The University Press ceased the publication and distribution of his books and the remaining copies and the plates were turned over to the author.

The faculty looked on. Professor Charles E. Merriam, no angel himself, but a powerful professor and civic leader, maintained his friendship but did not come out openly in support of Thomas against the Administration; he was fearful on his own account; too, he would have been disciplined for supporting the immoralist.

Prof. Thomas should have dropped in on Cousin Tom's barber shop for consolation. The demi-mondain relatives of the Babe were certainly transporting girl-friends across state lines, this being the crime of the federal statute. Absurdly the law was turned against unmarried couples after having been enacted to use the federal government's police and courts to help the states fight prostitution. It was thought that persons engaged in procuring women for brothels could be trapped constitutionally under the Interstate Commerce Clause for crossing a state boundary, this being a time when the Supreme Court was still stretching painfully the definition of commerce to cover whatever Congress became aroused and indignant over. Men like Uncle Joe and Second Cousin Tom were quick at evading the unintended yet perilous expansion of the law. What I do, says Joe, laughing, is to let my friend out to take a cab over the border, then I pick her up. On a bus or train she buys her own ticket.

The majesty of the law! Who can admire the majesty of travesty?

The University was removed emotionally, physically and intellectually from the City. It was besieged by the surrounding babbittry, sneered at by the ignorant and anti-intellectual population, which was all too often egged on by the press. Alson Smith, a later historian, wrote that "as far as the city is concerned the university might as well be in Patagonia. As far as most of Chicago's newspapers are concerned, it might better be in Patagonia." Still, Professor Charles E. Merriam ventured forth almost single-handed and came close to winning the Mayor's chair. He also founded what came to be called the Chicago School of Political Science. Indeed, if I were not biasing my list toward persons of the larger Chicagoland, half of it would come from the University.

Perhaps the town-gown relationship would have been distinctly better had not the Chicago Tribune's autocratic publisher, Col. Robert R. McCormick, been so reactionary, isolationist, and vindictive. He would get his wind up whenever creative geniuses seemed to be accommodating, communicating, assembling, or giving voice. He preferred Northwestern University in Evanston to the University of Chicago, for he was connected to it, which was excusable. But the big action was at Chicago, which he treated usually as a nuisance and threat, a feeling reciprocated by the School. The Tribune tried manfully to become what its masthead advertised, "The World's Greatest Newspaper;" it may have been only its obsession against creativity that kept it from its supreme achievement.

Out of a list of eminent creative Chicagoans, whom I number at about fifty, only several were born in Chicago. Frank Norris, who left for California, came back for a while to write his novels attacking agro-businessmen and commodities speculators before leaving once more; he died at thirty-two. I mentioned that Ernest Hemingway left the Chicago area after high school and never came back to live. Harriet Monroe spent her life upon her innovative poetry magazine and wrote books of poems herself. The secretive and exciting novelist known as B. Traven was born Berick Traven Torsvan in Chicago about 1890 and published Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1934. He was a self-educated sailor who was better known in Europe and Latin America than in Chicago.

James Farrell published his first grim novel in 1932, Studs Lonigan, dealing with Irish-American youth of the South Side. He educated himself with courses at the University of Chicago. But the City was ashamed of his characters, disliked his view of itself; Catholics found his attitudes offensive; many Irish felt insulted; and the educational authorities from the top down would not and could not use it. No one mentioned the book or its author to the Babe, who was about the same age as Studs, and who would have responded to a reading of it with disgust, hostility, recognition, and self-appraisal.

In 1931 the expatriate poet Ezra Pound read two stories of Farrell and noted to an editor who had asked his advice, that both pieces should be published; "Effect cumulative, and shows a new writer is here." But in that same year, Farrell escaped to New York and then to Paris for a year. On his return to New York "his friends and acquaintances multiplied at an astonishing rate," according to his biographer, E.M. Branch, who names a score of first class writers. To Farrell, the native son, Chicago would always appear as a vast slum. Interestingly, the Babe, a naive non-believer in Chicago-qua-slum, was patrolling the neighborhood where and when (1931) was set Farrell's dismal Boarding House Blues and where Nelson Algren, to come along later, would set one of his equally dismal novels; one was to the East, another to the West, of the Babe's main path, but both were a small boy's trotting distance. And Studs Terkel, too, wrote later on about Division Street. I can only surmise that, so far as Chicago goes, the Babe hung around and prowled the appropriate quarters.

But let the list of the eminent, here below, speak for itself.

The Most Eminent Full-Time and Part-Time Chicagoans
(from creative fields, almost all active between
the years 1919 to 1935; known criminals excepted)

Jane AddamsJohn LomaxGeorge AdeCyrus Mc Cormick
John P. AltgeldRobert Mc CormickMargaret AndersonArchibald McLeish
Sherwood AndersonEdgar Lee MastersDaniel BurnhamCharles E. Merriam
Frances CabriniHarriet MonroePaul CarusDwight L. Moody
Clarence DarrowW.M. Vaughn MoodyEugene DebsFrank Norris
Finley Peter DunneVictor OlanderJames FarrellGeorge Pullman
Eugene FieldBen ReitmanMarshall FieldRaymond Robins
Henry B. FullerJulius RosenwaldHamlin GarlandCarl Sandburg
Francis HackettLew SarettAlbert HalperFrederick Stock
William Rainey HarperLouis SullivanPaul Percy HarrisLorado Taft
Ben HechtBooth TarkingtonErnest HemingwayErskine Tate
Robert HerrickW.I. ThomasSidney HillmanW. Hale Thompson
Harold IckesMax ThorekHenry Justin-SmithB. Traven
Frank Lloyd Wright

I am sure that Chicago had its great men and women who escaped my net. It spawned generals and admirals and businessmen and high officials, and perhaps some who lived incognito in greatness elsewhere. Margaret Anderson started her Little Review in Chicago, soon carried it to New York, and then to Paris, where she recognized the merits of James Joyce and courageously published his writings. "The record of the experience of literary men who tried to live in Chicago shows that they were inexpressibly lonely there, and could not extract from its spiritual atmosphere enough oxygen upon which to live." This is the author of Spoon River Anthology speaking once again.

I have gone over the heads of the couple of thousand lesser- ranking or unheralded persons, self-sacrificing civic leaders and pastors, mechanical geniuses, unfulfilled business innovators, teachers, bandmasters, painters -- but that there were so many of them is common knowledge, and it may be that Chicago did not have to produce "top" creativity to produce "more" creativity and present a high cultural profile to the world, but here, as in other parts of the world, where the top level is rare or demoralized or un- self-realizing, the second level cannot make up the difference. it is to the top leaders that the larger group of creative persons and the potentially creative address themselves. We have to grant that the number at the top in Chicago was small, perhaps one per hundred thousand, and that practically all who worked in Chicago and might claim eminence were born elsewhere in America or abroad.

Half a dozen of the greatest were born abroad, Max Thorek for example. He was born in Hungary, became a surgeon of eminence, was a superb organizer and a friend of the poor. He co-founded the American Hospital of Chicago in 1908 and founded the International College of Surgeons at Geneva in 1935. At one point he turned up as personal physician to the Mom who had a gynecological (or was it neurological?) condition that was sufficiently perplexing to receive his attention, and the Babe passed momentarily through his shadow.

Even Chicago's two most notorious characters, Alphonse Capone and Samuel Insull were born abroad, the first in Naples, the second in London, both of poor family. It is I who put Robert R. Mc Cormick, Publisher of the Chicago Tribune, on the list; it was not the Babe, who, by the age of fifteen, was beginning to have doubts whether the Colonel, as determined and principled, even maniacal, as he was, were not more notorious than illustrious. It was Alphonse Capone, it was granted, who brought a needed order into liquor distribution and gangsterdom. And Samuel Insull built a grand public utilities grid for Chicagoland faster than could the thousand governments of the area, until financial disasters connected with the Great Depression revealed his illegal manipulations. Nor should William Hale Thompson be forgotten, who incited two million Chicagoans to feel that the City was their exploit.

Two poor boys and two rich boys. Yes, the Colonel, Scarface Al, Sam Insull, and Big Bill: were they among the greatest Chicagoans ever? Compare them with the Renaissance princes, the medieval kings, the juntas of a hundred countries of recent memory. By what criteria would they not stand as their peers? (This again is myself ruminating, not the Babe; I know, I must desist from such interference with his story.)

Architecture flourished in Chicago for a time, under great difficulties and against heavy resistance. Louis Sullivan, born in Boston, was the prime mover in this area. You will recall my comparing him to the Babe as an externalized rage type in infancy, that is, in his words, "at the age of two he had developed temper, strong will, and obstinacy. He became at times a veritable howling dervish." Another cuckoo of Zeus and Hera.

His tall buildings in steel and his interior decoration of these and others were innovative and marvelously conceived. They came in the same period as an Alsatian bridge engineer named Eiffel designed for Paris a tower of wrought iron that was the tallest structure in the world. The French obligingly resisted clothing it with offices of brick and mortar; so the skeleton could be admired for what it was, iron. They could even ride up it in American Otis glass elevators.

Sullivan stuck to Chicago, designed a hundred great buildings there and elsewhere, was burned out creatively by his forties, but worked on for another three decades after separating from his partner Adler; query for a doctoral dissertation: did the Chicago scene bring on the burn-out? (Incidentally, the Babe and his confreres were never told by their teachers, "Here is a list of twenty remarkable structures of Chicago. Go see them and write a two-page essay on each by the end of the semester." Anyhow there was no course on the physical environment, whether man-made or natural.)

The World Columbian Exposition of 1893 brought American architecture out of the Romanesque and plunged it into the Classic style. Its sole building to represent Chicago's contribution to the world, the Transportation Building, was the only work allowed to the partners, Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Sullivan was correct in saying, "The damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century, if not longer."

Daniel Burnham, born in New York, prepared the Chicago City Plan of 1907, one of the best of urban development schemes, though more deified than prosecuted as the years went on. It made up in part for his apostasy when Chief Architect of the Exposition of 1893. I have not stressed civic work, except to mention Charles Merriam and Jane Addams; to be added would be Mother Cabrini, born in Italy and later sainted, Clarence Darrow, Raymond Robins, Frank Loesch, and Victor Olander.

Of eminent scientists, important industrial and administrative inventors, and great social engineers, Chicago could hardly claim a one. From New York came George Pullman who remodelled passenger cars into sleepers, then settled an inventor's claim of priority, and built a new sleeper in Chicago in the 1860's; he also constructed a remarkable company town adjoining Chicago that was conceived to be philanthropic but evolved into a totalitarian trap for his workers; his tomb was built as a micro-fortress to foil desecrators; he disinherited his sons for their disrespect for money.

Cyrus McCormick was a Virginian who fought off claimants for his designs and erected a factory in Chicago for new types of agricultural machinery. Mail order systems began in the East. Steelmaking processes, sewing machines, banking and insurance techniques, refrigeration, telephones, automobiles, radio, and many another subject of invention originated in the East or Europe and found in Chicago the kind of place where they might develop "bigger and better." So went the development of politics, education, the social sciences, and the managerial sciences. The State of Illinois originated a unique voting system, the limited vote, to ensure minority party representation, but the Chicago politicians figured out how to render it harmless.

Enough fortunes were made in Chicago to found art schools in every ward, erect fountains at every intersection; patronize the world's best restaurants; give every child music lessons; underwrite the despatch of rockets to the Moon; finance the nation's best school system; invest in avant-garde publishing, new theatre, modern architecture, and the fanciest bathhouses since Emperor Caracalla. In 1897 the Chicago Tribune listed 200 Chicagoans whose personal fortunes amounted to over a million dollars, led by Marshall Field with $75 millions from dry goods, Philip Armour with $40 millions, and Samuel Allerton with $20 millions, both from slaughterhouses and meatpacking. A million dollars then was worth ten millions today; add a zero to the above figures. All two hundred men had made their fortunes in Chicago.

Far from ceasing, the gaining of wealth increased in speed and participation. One in a hundred Chicago households was wealthy in the Babe's day, before the Depression struck, while one in a thousand was in the class of millionaires. (The million blue-collar and white-collar workers, by contrast, were surviving and breeding, with hopes of a house and car.)

But these Chicago millionaires were hardly cultured, benevolent, or benefactors. A principal hero of Chicago, quite unknown to the Babe and the rest, was Julius Rosenwald, who ran Sears Roebuck and Company, and who made large and intelligent gifts beyond parallel in Chicago history: for Negro education in the South, for new social science research, for the University of Chicago, and for the establishment of Chicago's nationally distinguished Museum of Science and Industry. His protege thereafter founded the Adler Planetarium. Neither man originated in Chicago.

A few Chicagoans, especially Baptist church leaders and Jews of the Standard Club, gave money to start up the University of Chicago when John D. Rockefeller offered its first half-million dollars. He later gave many millions more, "conscience donations," said some. Yerkes, another man with conscience problems, gave the University an astronomical observatory. Marshall Field gave much land. William Rainey Harper, a Professor of Hebrew who had taught at Yale, organized the enterprise of the new school and set it on its ambitious path with a progressive philosophy and a first-rate faculty.

It was a city of astonishing material productivity, arrogance, pretensions, insularity, and self-deception. Of all of these qualities the Babe was happily possessed. For the most part, when it came to promote the City, the politicians and businessmen would seek expression in such gaseous gaffs as the World Fair of 1933, where restaurants of a dozen countries served food that was Americanized in order to be eaten, where Ubangis flapped their exaggerated lips, Swiss yodelled, Sally Rand did her semi-nude fan dance, and General Motors exhibited cars it had little intention to produce.

As for the society ladies of Chicago setting a model for the Babes and the Claras, the less said the better. Not that they lacked their good and generous moments, like Mrs. Potter Palmer, whose great Impressionist collection ended up where French tourists could view it. Still, the ladies and their consorts would be described by the expression: "the very rich have a touching faith in the efficacy of small sums." After all, Al Capone set up a soup kitchen for the unemployed in 1931, and he was not as wealthy as two thousand other Chicagoans. Two thousand free kitchens would have been just enough to feed the poor and would have made Chicago the cynosure of the Whole World, truly umbilicus mundi.

The Rotary Club idea was invented by Paul Percy Harris in 1905 and put into practice by a small group of Chicago businessmen. It enjoyed great success, and spread throughout the world and around America. The Lions and Kiwanis followed suit as service clubs. It was the human consciousness of business owners and managers and professional men, of the crying need for fellowship, mutual communication, and secular public service in a City whose population was heterogeneous and highly mobile, and where potential community leaders were without platforms or support or natural means of organization. The Rotary idea could by-pass or influence informally the political machine, which was essentially unsympathetic and socially strange, not to mention corrupt. It might by-pass also the Catholic Church, the anti-Catholic secretive Masonic Order, and the disunited Protestant sects.

It provided a respectable definition of Americanism, even though, without saying as much, it was in the U.S.A. a regrouping of "old" American elements to take charge of a new situation that had gotten out of hand, and to do so without overt discrimination, which would have ruined its chances of success in the evolving new Urban America. Rotary would bring, too, an understanding, even an accommodation of business to an interventionist government. As might be anticipated, there would be little advocacy of bold social experimentation, or of plans for addressing radically problems on any level of government. Still it is rare that an invention solves even its own problems. Rotary may have been the greatest invention to come out of Chicago before 1935.

The Babe had a typical American view, that other countries spawned genius -- Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Einstein -- but that America had done so, too, more so, given its mere 150 years of history as a nation. He could believe this because everyone in a position to reach his eyes and ears told him so. He fully expected a number of American geniuses to appear any day now, probably in Chicago.

A young boy, like ordinary folk, is hardly in a position to judge the social forces moving about him and changing over time. He hears and repeats the vox publica that comes at him from the family, the streets, the press, the school, and even from Hollywood that felt no care for Chicago or anything else in the world but whose meretricious voice built up the criminal pre-eminence of the City.

The Babe did not know so, but his chances of achieving greatness coming out of Chicago were, whatever all the blat and buncombe, no larger than those of a boy raised just about anywhere in the Europeanized world. And the reasons why this was so resided not only in his own character and abilities, but also in Chicago's over-blown pride, which affected him, and in Chicago's failure at identifying and embracing genius. He graduated from High School knowing something of, or having heard of, only twelve out of my fifty-five eminent names, that is, 22%.

The school system gave him only four of these. Probably the school authorities thought mainly in terms of giving children an education that was national, not local. They were also ignorant and jealous. Too, they were always fearful of controversy, although perennially locked in struggles amongst themselves and with the outside world; "no politics in the schools," they would assert.

Finally, the authorities had no conception of how important to the development of a child is the feeling of participating in a creative community -- and I mean something beyond Spring Clean-Up Week in Chicago. They really did not know much about kids.