Thursday, May 14, 2020

Chicago Icons #4: Art Petacque, Part Two


    There is the story. Then there is the story behind the story. I felt guilty after Art Petacque's death because I believed I had a hand in getting him fired. Three days after his obituary was published, I ran this column. If later you want to know what he did that so irked me—the story behind the story behind the story—The Reader's Michael Miner lays it out in his column about this column, written in his trademark condescending, tutting style. (Heck, if you want to avoid Miner, and who could blame you, the crux is this: Art dictated a two-line top of a column then flung a heavily-highlighted Tribune story—on pot busts downstate, I believe—at me and said, "Take the rest from that." When I got to 30 lines, the length of a brief column, I said I was done. "No, do 60," he said. "I want it on the front page."

     One of the many advantages of writing obituaries is that it gives you something to do, immediately, when somebody you know dies. Keeps your mind occupied with a diverting task.
     When word of legendary mob reporter Art Petacque's passing reached the Sun-Times newsroom about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, it also meant I had to get busy if I wanted to send him off properly and still make the 6:25 train.
      It wasn't until the next day that what I had written sunk in: he was gone. He wasn't going to call, as he sometimes did, to pass along a tidbit or ask for a phone number or a favor. No more of that dolorous sing-song baritone voice.
     Art was my Dutch uncle. I'm not being proprietary. Maybe he was your Dutch uncle too. He was indiscriminate in his kindness. Thinking now, I realize I'm not even sure what "Dutch uncle" means. To me, a Dutch uncle meant Art Petacque. Somebody old who takes an interest in you, despite your being young, despite your lack of experience or merit.
     Art taught me to smoke cigars. I had started writing his mob column. The choice was easy: either smoke with him or sit there breathing his cigar breath. Art was old school. I never saw him touch a typewriter. I was dispatched to his office to organize his wisdom on paper. Sometimes, to be honest, it was excruciating wisdom. Art . . . could speak . . . more slowly . . . than any . . . man I've . . . ever met. It could be an ordeal to sit there, fingers poised above the keyboard, watching him pat his pockets, hunting for scraps of paper.
     Art was a storyteller. He'd unspool the most intricate tales of gangsters and gunmoles ("She was a HOOR!" he'd say. ". . . who worked . . . at an old joint . . . called . . . the Four Deuces. . . .") I'd listen, wishing I had a tape recorder or wishing I could go. Because the damn thing about a man like Art Petacque, what catches you so short when they go and die on you, is that you never think it'll happen. Why would you?
     You are rich in Art Petacque, sated. There's plenty. He's like Lake Michigan. You may hardly glance at the water, but you know it's there, and if somebody told you the lake had suddenly dried up, you'd rush to the shoreline and gaze horror-stricken and bereft at the muddy void.
     Art forced Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz to come to my house to perform the marriage of my brother, in my living room. It's a story I've told over and over again, sometimes to the same person. My brother was going to get married in the basement of City Hall, and I told him it was a mistake to get married with strangers all around. I had a big place on Logan. He'd get married there.
     "Artie," I said. "I need a judge to marry my brother."
     "I'll get you a judge," he said, taking the stump of a cigar out of his mouth. "I'll get you the most famous judge in Chicago. I'll get you Abraham Lincoln Marovitz." And he did. Art showed up with the judge and a box of fine cigars. Who at your office would do that for you?
     Yet despite my good feeling, my love for Art, there is something more, something I hesitate to say. A puzzle about Art Petacque I've been struggling to get hold of these past few days.
     Art went by a different code. Maybe because he was one of those tough Jews who grew up in the 1930s—his father was a cop. Once, somebody tried to carjack Art. A thug stuck his arm, holding a pistol, into the driver's window. Art grabbed the guy's arm and broke it.
     So perhaps his driven, no-matter-what approach to the news is something I and my namby-pamby college boy pals will never understand. I don't want to judge. Yet how Art went about reporting seemed, at times, like a kind of mania, primal, like a salmon struggling up river to spawn. He, in a way, represented something outmoded and embarrassing about journalism. He was like those prehistoric fish occasionally discovered in the depths of the ocean, armored and beaked. Art would lie and cheat and steal to get a story, and while that might sound romantic and dashing, in the abstract, it could be shocking to be a young reporter and watch him do it, close up.
     The last time I wrote one of his columns was such a time. I sat at the keyboard and gaped with drop-mouthed shock—let's just say that he was generating the content of his column in a manner not taught in journalism school, and leave it at that. When I finished copying what he wanted me to put down, I went into the city room and told the night editor a single, entirely true sentence about Art's column. Then I went to the Goat to get drunk. The whole thing turned into a crisis. I never wrote Art's column again. He retired shortly thereafter.
     I always felt bad and good about this incident. Bad because Art was my Dutch uncle and I betrayed him. And good because I stuck up for an ideal that I thought, then and now, was important. We spoke again, eventually, though never about that last column—I like to think he would have waved the matter away with a chuckle. He was an open, generous man, and now that I am growing older myself, and see the grinning new crop of youngsters arriving daily, it scares me how much less I have to offer them than Art Petacque, flaws and all, had to offer me.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 10, 2001

4 comments:

  1. The truth is always an absolute defense.

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  2. Love that paddy wagon image, Mr. S. It's not Chicago, but it's classic Weegee, from "The Naked City" (NYC)...and how did he get that name, you ask? "He gets to crime scenes so fast that he must have a Ouija (pronounced "weegee") board!" somebody once said (don't know the source)...and the name stuck. Actually, New York's most famous photographer had a police radio in his car, and it had a portable darkroom in its trunk. True story.

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  3. Well, this is pretty interesting. I can't decide whether I think you should have gone ahead with this column, or not. I do give you a lot of credit for linking to the Michael Miner column going into much more detail about it, though.

    In that, you're quoted as saying: "It was a painful memory for me, and I saw this as an opportunity to expunge it--perhaps." I guess I'm not wild about that rationale, not that anybody's asking.

    As for "I was a nothing night-shift reporter who didn't realize I shouldn't do it until I'd done it for a while," that seems a little hard to believe, which I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear. You were a whip-smart Medill graduate, acting as "a de facto plagiarist," and it took you a while to figure that out? But, I'd have hated being put in the position you were put in, and blame whoever assigned it to you much more than you.

    Miner wrote: "Between 1973 and 1989 Petacque may have changed. Or maybe he didn't change but journalism changed around him. At any rate, Greene remembered a colorful old pro in his prime, Steinberg a colorful old fart who'd outlived his time." That seems to be the crux of the matter -- the guy was allowed by the higher-ups to get away with stuff that he might not have in his earlier years. "When you're a star, they let you do it," after all...

    As for "Bobwatch," I don't see what Miner's big deal is about that being pseudonymous, given your situation.

    Sorry for this take, which I'm not very comfortable posting, myself. Obviously, I'm looking at this in the abstract, and it was very personal for you.

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