Chicago's Other Mike


The World of Mike Royko, by Doug Moe, University of Wisconsin Press, 128 pages, $29.95

Mike Royko's immigrant father held a number of jobs before opening a tavern. After his parents divorced, his mother opened a watering hole, too. Young Mike would work as a bartender at both parents' bars.

The Roykos lived in a little Polish neighborhood-state, part of the larger ethnic confederation that was Chicago in the first half of the century. In those days, Mike later wrote, "You could always tell, even with your eyes closed, which state you were in by the odors of the food stores and the open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock." To judge from Doug Moe's coffee-table biography, The World of Mike Royko, the young Royko was both smart and easily bored: He excelled in school early on but then started playing hooky, finally dropping out at age 16. (He eventually earned his diploma at the downtown YMCA. "This," Moe writes, "was Royko's kind of school–you could smoke in the halls.")

After serving in Korea, Mike lied his way into a job editing a weekly newspaper on his Air Force base. He took to journalism, worked in a series of newsrooms, and in 1963 launched a local column for the Chicago Daily News. It quickly became popular, and Royko was soon writing it every weekday.

Through his columns, Royko constructed a lively persona. The public Royko was a hard-drinking, streetwise, populist wiseguy–the newsman who knew his way around his city, stuck up for the little guy, and poked fun at the powerful. Anyone who reads a city newspaper knows the type, thanks to the imitators Royko spawned.

What separated Royko from the rest–and made him, at his peak, the country's best newspaper columnist–was knowledge (he really did know his way around his city) and craftsmanship. The staccato rhythm of a newspaper story, where few paragraphs last longer than a sentence or two, doesn't leave much room for complex, delicate prose. Usually, when a columnist tries to overcome this and sound "writerly," he instead sounds overwrought, pretentious, or maudlin. But Royko wrote with a tough grace that fit a newspaper page, showing cleverness without writing overly clever sentences. That's a lot harder than it sounds, especially if you have to do it five times a week.

What's more, Royko had range. He could be angry, whimsical, or wistful, as his stories demanded. He could step outside the news columns altogether: His 1971 book Boss, a study of Chicago's notorious Mayor Richard J. Daley, is a minor classic. He could even be funny, a condition many columnists aspire to and few attain. He was the first columnist I read regularly, starting somewhere around age 10. Not everything he wrote about made sense to me, given that he lived in a big Midwestern city and I lived in North Carolina. (For a long time, with nothing but Royko columns to guide me, I assumed the term "alderman" described some sort of petty crook.) But he had a strong point of view that I liked, and he had a distinctive voice.

The trouble with Moe's biography is that it sometimes feels more like the story of that voice than the story of the man behind it. We get the simple details of Royko's life: his childhood, his two marriages, his three-decade reign as Chicago's leading columnist. (After the Daily News folded in 1978, Royko moved to the Sun-Times, and still later to the Tribune.) We read funny anecdotes and we read quotes from Royko's writing. But the book is one long encomium–not a study of Royko, but a tribute to him.

That's fine as far as it goes, and it may be too soon after Royko's 1997 death to get any real perspective on the man. But sometimes it's a little too easy to see where Moe decided to walk lightly. He mentions, for example, the attacks Royko received in the '90s, some (mostly undeserved) for alleged bigotry, and some (more justified) for simply running low on steam. But Moe passes over this quickly, sometimes failing even to explain the charges. Royko deserves a vigorous defense against his latter-day detractors, but he also deserves a defender willing to give those detractors a hearing.

The best tribute to Royko is the man's own work. Start with Boss, or with One More Time, the most wide-ranging collection of his columns. Then progress, if the spirit moves you, to Moe's book. Royko's fans should like it, at least until a full-fledged biography comes along.

This review was published in The American Enterprise, July/August 2000