A couple of years ago I got a call from the deputy editor at Gentleman’s Quarterly, the
His name is Michael Hainey, and he wanted to know what I knew about some of the bygone taverns in which journalists once drank, usually to excess.
So, I did what I could to tell him the difference between the crowds at the Boul Mich and Riccardo's. I sent him a copy of my book about the Billy Goat, "A Chicago Tavern," which touches on many bygone drinking spots within stumbling distance of four daily newspapers — the Sun-Times, the Tribune and the deceased Daily News and Today — and the thirsty folks who worked there.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
I never asked Hainey why he wanted to know such things, assuming he was fact-checking a story. And I forgot all about him until early last year when I got a lengthy email from another GQ employee named Christopher Swetala, filled with questions such as, "Are you familiar with the Tip Top Tap, a bar on top of the Allerton Hotel?" and "Any idea how much a martini or a beer would have cost at the Radio Grill?"
Being an accommodating sort, I answered all of his questions to the best of my memory and asked him what he was working on.
A colleague's book, he answered.
That book arrived a few weeks ago. "After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story" is written by the aforementioned Hainey, and though it does contain the names of many taverns and clubs, they are mere window dressing for a fascinating, honest and deeply touching story about a father and son, the price of family secrets, and the redemptive power of truth.
Michael's father, Robert Hainey, was a Chicago newspaperman, but his name is barely an echo in today's newsrooms.
Much better known and remembered is Robert's brother, Dick Hainey, 12 years older. He had an estimable career as a Tribune reporter, executive editor of Chicago's American and Chicago Today, and teacher for decades at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
When he died in 1994, the Tribune's Bruce Dold, a former student of Hainey's, said in the obituary, "Dick Hainey was a marvelous teacher. He showed me what it was like in the workaday news world."
Might Robert Hainey have had a similar career and influence?
Perhaps. But he died in 1970 at 35, leaving a widow, Barbara, and two sons, Michael, 6, and Chris, 8, so we will never know.
It is that death that turns the surviving trio in a "nuclear family flawed, reduced" and eventually turns Michael into a detective of sorts.
Growing up in Park Ridge, he did not read his father's obituaries until he was a senior in high school. His mother and other relatives never talked about the death, but Michael becomes quietly obsessed by some of the inconsistencies in the paper's obituaries and the questions they raise. Yes, his father died of
He does not get down to the business of answering these questions until after he turns 35. He was not in a good place then: "I cracked. My doctor called it a functioning breakdown."
There are only a handful of people alive who knew Robert Hainey, who worked for both the Tribune and Sun-Times, where he was assistant copy desk chief on the night shift, the "night slot man" in old newspaper lingo.
His son tries to track down all of them, and it becomes kind of a healing process: "(M)y search for the truth and my decision to take on my fears — has confirmed for me that all of us have to choose life, that I'm trying to learn to live each day."
The investigation brings him back home often, and he writes poetically, "Chicago. I am of that place. Spires loom. The sky, a soiled shroud. Even as a kid, I knew it was my Old Country."
His travels take him to the medical examiner's office and into contact and cocktails with former Chicago newsmen (and former pals/colleagues of mine) such as Tom Moffett ("I was your dad's alibi"), Jim Hoge ("Not many men could do your father's job. You had to be almost a machine"); Craig Klugman ("Your dad was probably the best headline writer of the time") and, most colorfully, Jim Strong, a former Tribune reporter familiarly known as "Stormy."
Hainey comes to know his father in ways that make him both admirable and disturbing. He gets to know his mother in ways that are all good and make her, to me, not merely strong but heroic. The mystery is solved, and life goes on for the better for the living.
"In the end, my father's mystery is undone by what he loved most and what he lived for: good reporting."
I am not sure the father would be happy with what the son's reporting finally uncovers. But there is no doubt that he would be proud of his kid's tireless digging and elegant way with words. Readers will be captivated and moved, and it won't make any difference if they know or can remember the price of a stiff drink at the Tip Top Tap or the Bit & Bridle.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"After Visiting Friends"
By Michael Hainey, Scribner, 320 pages, $26