Irv Kupcinet, the longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist known as the King of Gossip, died Monday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of what were believed to be complications caused by pneumonia. He was 91.
For six decades, Kupcinet's "Kup's Column" was the gentle voice of glitzy life in a once-gritty town. He networked his way into private meetings with politicians and celebrities alike -- often breaking stories before others in the newsroom had caught wind of the tip.
"He connected sports with entertainment and with city politics," said John Cruickshank, vice president of editorial at the Chicago Sun-Times. "He was someone who saw beyond, and worked beyond, the divisions of this city."
The youngest son of Russian immigrants, Kupcinet grew up in the tight-knit Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale. His entry into journalism came in the late 1920s, when he became editor of the Harrison High School newspaper.
But it was his brawny 6-foot-2 stature and athletic ability that carried him to college. Northwestern University offered him a scholarship to play football, and he was drafted in 1935 by the Philadelphia Eagles.
A shoulder injury during his rookie year, however, sent Kupcinet back to Chicago and a job as a sports reporter at the Chicago Daily Times, which later merged with the Chicago Sun.
By the 1940s, Kupcinet had landed a daily sports column. Each one ended with a gossipy short section on what people were talking about in locker rooms and on the field.
When the paper's editors decided to debut a news column in 1943 that would mix gossip with breaking news, they turned to Kupcinet.
During his reign, the road from Broadway to Hollywood demanded a stop in Chicago, and a meal with Kupcinet. Over time, co-workers ribbed him for the daytime sleepiness caused by his late-night club-hopping, with his wife, Esther "Essee" Kupcinet, often at his side.
Esther died in 2001 of natural causes. She was 84.
"They were the beautiful couple, and he was an incorrigible flirt," said friend Ann Gerber, a gossip columnist with Skyline, a Chicago community weekly newspaper. "He was so handsome and masculine. He was more Clark Gable than Cary Grant."
The couple dined with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall the morning after the famous duo's wedding, lunched with Gable and spent summers at Bob Hope's home. Most often, though, Kupcinet could be found at the Omni Ambassador East's famous restaurant -- the Pump Room -- snuggled into the beige-cloth booth underneath the crystal chandeliers.
"He was always at booth No. 1, which is the best and most prestigious seat in the house," said Jim Marino, general manager of the hotel and director of the restaurant. "It was also the only booth that had a phone sitting at the table. It was so Irv could call the celebrities, and know when to send someone over to the train station to pick them up."
While peers like Mike Royko wrote with a cantankerous touch, and Ann Landers opted for a preachy tone, Kupcinet always took the nice-guy approach. When a celebrity would become outrageous, he'd take a head-shaking, chatty-neighbor tactic with his skewering.
In a column that ran just last week, Kupcinet sighed over Jerry Springer, calling him "the undeniable 'King of Sleaze.' ... The idea that young and old women in the audience are now achieving their 'five seconds of fame' by lifting up their shirts and blouses and flashing their bare breasts just to earn what are called 'Jerry Beads' (like at Mardi Gras) is simply uncouth, and a lot of the women and men are exposing bodies that Jenny Craig would love to get ahold of."
Over the years, his column was carried in more than 100 newspapers worldwide and Kupcinet garnered dozens of awards.
He was elected to Chicago's Journalism Hall of Fame in 1982, and the Wabash Avenue Bridge near his desk at the Sun-Times was renamed in his honor in 1986.
He also was a television pioneer, joining a late-night news show on CBS in 1952. In 1957, he moved to NBC's "America After Dark," which eventually became "The Tonight Show." Kupcinet launched his own newsy interview-based television program in 1959, which ran for 27 years.
The guest list was long, and the things they said on the air were riveting -- and often had nothing to do with entertainment.
Political leader Malcolm X confided that he feared for his life nearly a month before he was murdered. Former President Harry S. Truman explained his reasoning for firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And Kupcinet sat, and blushed, as adult-film actress Linda Lovelace discussed her films with columnist Ann Landers.
While Kupcinet enjoyed a high-flying career, the Kupcinets emerged as leading philanthropists for numerous artistic, educational and religious efforts in Chicago.
Yet success couldn't protect the couple from enormous loss and pain, say friends, when their daughter Karyn was murdered in 1963. She had moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. The case was never solved.
Kupcinet, who had a history of heart problems, had undergone surgery to open a clogged artery in 1995. He was admitted to the intensive care ward at Northwestern Hospital early Sunday morning
Although his health began to fade, co-workers say his focus on journalism remained strong.
With the help of his secretary, Stella Foster, he would routinely work the phones and follow news leads. Less than a week before he died, Kupcinet spent the day in his office and penned his last column, which ran Thursday.
He is survived by his son, Jerry, and two grandchildren.