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The Writing Life: Mike Royko's softer side

A book of love letters from the famed Chicago columnist to his future wife reveals a man obsessed.

October 31, 2010|Steve Lopez

The one time I met Chicago columnist Mike Royko, at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, he was everything he was supposed to be.

Gruff, tough, unsentimental.

He was 52 and had mastered column writing. I was 29, a greenhorn San Jose Mercury News columnist, and I had no idea what I was doing.

We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance and as I stood before Royko, my knees knocking, he kept calling me "kid," as in, "How many columns a week do you write, kid?"

His only advice was that I not write too many, because although it's a terrific job, it can wear you down. If I were a little braver, I might have tried dragging Royko to a saloon, where I would have refilled his glass until he told me something a little more useful.

The job of writing newspaper columns doesn't come with instructions, just deadlines that fly at you in your sleep. I used to read Royko and Jimmy Breslin and try to break down how they did what they did, but I couldn't crack the code. How could they make a word stand up on the page, or a thought linger? How could they say so much with lines so spare?

They knew the places they wrote about, and that was part of it. But only years later would I learn their real secret: They knew who they were, and they knew why they wrote.

Royko was a man's man, as they say, a guy who loved baseball and bars, believed in his city, backhanded its fools and celebrated its anonymous heroes, always with wit and tough-minded certainty. I can guarantee you, just as surely as I guarantee that the Cubs will never win the World Series, that Royko, even though he died 13 years ago, might be going ballistic over the collection of his work that has just been published.

"Royko in Love: Mike's Letters to Carol" ( University of Chicago Press: 254 pp., $24) destroys the two-fisted Royko mystique. Collected and edited by his son, David, it consists entirely of Royko's fawning letters to his future wife, Carol Duckman, exposing Royko as a daisy-picking softie.

Royko's openers: "Hello my Darling," "Hello Sweetheart," "Hi Honey," "Hi Baby," "My Sweet Baby."

Royko's closers: "Til tomorrow my sweet," "Goodnight wonderful," "Once more I'm 2,000 miles away with love as my only companion," and, "I love you honey. I love you honey. P.S. I love you."

P.S., this is the guy who told me not to write too often, but he wrote — and often over-wrote — almost daily to Carol, having grown up near her in Chicago with a crush he had never expressed. Royko the Air Force man then flew off to Korea with a broken heart because she'd gotten married. But when he returned to the States and was bored to tears on a base in Washington, he got a news bulletin from home.

Carol was getting divorced.

Stop the presses.

Royko reached for his pen and went after Carol with a fever, displaying the same level of pursuit he would later employ in chasing bureaucrats and political hacks. He confessed his feelings in March 1954 — "I've been in love with you so long, I don't know when it started" — and wrote like he was on fire for months.

"Sure it's possible for two people to fall in love that fast," he wrote in May of that year. "Three months? I fell in love with you in three minutes and I couldn't have been more than 12."

Even after he won over Carol, and she accepted his proposal in September 1954, Royko kept pursuing her as if she might have a change of heart. Distance made his heart beat faster, and it's interesting, isn't it, that a guy who would become known for such rugged self-assuredness was so tragically insecure?

The two things aren't mutually exclusive, though, especially among journalists. The best ones are often brimming with both confidence and self-doubt, their edge rooted in that conflict.

Although Royko's letters to Carol tend to run on, each of them pretty much like the others, the Royko cadence was already locked in — simple, unadorned sentences that don't show the sweat behind them and are marked by a near-poetic lack of pretense. Even then, barely old enough to vote, he made it look effortless.

But I still say Royko is cursing the worms over this hijacking of his most private thoughts. Sure, years after penning those love letters he would write the occasional three-hanky column, but those weepers weren't about his personal life. At least not until Carol, who finally married him — perhaps for the sake of getting him to stop writing those letters — became seriously ill and died before her 45th birthday.

It's an interesting thing, the way a famous city columnist — whose very public job was to make readers feel like they knew him — kept his family life private. Maybe Royko understood the better story was out there in the neighborhoods and in the hopes and fears of others. When you fall back on family for material, you sacrifice them to your selfish needs and cut off your own escape from the public glare.

Or maybe there's a darker explanation as to why Royko did not write about the woman who had so consumed him as a young man. David Royko suggests his dad got caught up in the superstardom that came with decades of writing five columns a week in a city he owned, and his marriage to Carol Duckman was not "a rosy extension" of his heartfelt letters to her.

It could be that Royko discovered he adored nothing more than the pressure of filling empty space, on deadline, to the cheers of a city that adored him. Those were love letters, too, all those thousands of columns, the brilliant ones and the forgotten ones too.

The job is a thrill, but a wise man once advised me not to overdo it.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Lopez's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays on A2.

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