Thursday, December 27, 2018

"As imposing as an alp"—RIP Mary Cameron Frey

Mary Cameron Frey, left, with former Sun-Times
managing editor Joycelyn Winnecke
     I was sad to hear that my former Sun-Times colleague Mary Cameron Frey died Wednesday. She was a doyen from another era, the intersection of upper crust society and daily newspaper journalism. I once proposed a story to Chicago Magazine to be called "Great Dames" that would feature Mary and Eppie Lederer and Margie Korshak and other assorted majestic women, all gowned and collected for a group photo. I can't imagine who'd be in that photo today.
     You can read her obituary in the Sun-Times here.
     Mary had a memorable cameo in my recovery memoir, "Drunkard," which I will reprint here to give those who didn't have the pleasure of knowing her a sense of what she was like.

     "Neil!" calls Mary Cameron Frey, the society columnist in the office next door. She is a grande dame, wealthy, in her sixties.
     "Yes, Mary?" I answer, stripping off my coat and tossing it on a chair.
     "I need to have a serious talk with you."
     "I'll come over seriously," I say, bustling around the corner. 
     "Sit down," she orders. I quickly sit, regarding the colorful stack of large gardening books on her desk.
     "Peter Baker is coming back."
     "I know. I'm excited."
     "He's a drunk."
     "I'm a drunk." 
     "He is what they call in the Catholic Church 'an occasion for sin' and he is going to lead you astray."
     Mary is wearing her standard office uniform, which I think of as "Hyannis Port Casual"—khaki pants and a light blue Polo man's shirt, her steel-gray hair made up as if for a cotillion, every strand sprayed into place, so she can slip away after work, throw on a dragonfly green ball gown, and be all set for the Women's Auxiliary Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Annual Glitter Gala and Silent Auction.
     "I can sin on my own," I say, thinking about my recent relapse. "Look, Peter is the only boss I've ever worked for in my whole career who cared for me and helped me."
     She makes a sour face.
     "I've cared for you," she says, which is true. For years, I thought of Mary as the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, for her habit of ordering about photographers at charity events and brusquely banishing nonentities from pictures as if not being famous and rich were embarrassing personal flaws. But Mary showered me with e-mails while I was at rehab. At first I suspected she was fishing for dirt. But after a while—reading the genuine concern, the way she signed them "love"—it dawned on me that she might actually be sincere, and that while Mary may have imperiously treated me as the help before, my fall has touched some chord within her and she truly cares.
     "You're not my boss."
     "That's true, but I'm watching out for you, and Baker is no good. I don't know why we're bringing him in here. I've been at black tie dinners where he shows up in an open-necked orange shirt."
     I should have laughed at that, but one doesn't laugh at Mary Cameron Frey. She's as imposing as an alp.
     "His father was a coal miner," I say.
     "My father was a simple man and I'm sure yours was too," she says. "That's no excuse."
     "My father was a nuclear physicist," I mutter.
     She says she has a dear friend who never stopped thinking of alcohol, never. He goes to two meetings a day.
    "That'll pass," I say.
     "It's been thirty years."
     "I'm lucky then, because it's not an issue for me," I say, mustering bravado. "We'll play racquetball."
     "He's coming here to play racquetball?"
     "He brings a vibrancy to the paper. Ten marines get killed and we put it back on page 42. The Tribune had it as their line. Baker won't make that kind of mistake."
    "Well, we'll see what he does here. But you"—and she aims a lacquered fingernail at me—"watch yourself."
    "I will," I promise, backing out.
     "You know I love you and I don't want anything to go wrong," she calls after me. 


  1. Great post, Neil. I was sorry earlier today to learn of Mary's passing. 'An Alp'-- what a great description!

  2. Rereading this after more than a year has passed. Mary Frey was my aunt, and I think you captured her perfectly. Thankful for this post.


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