Jane Byrne dies at 81; Chicago’s first female mayor

Jane Byrne obituary
Jane Byrne won election in 1979 and served as mayor of Chicago for one term.
(Carl Hugare / MCT)

Jane Byrne, who capitalized on Chicago’s slow reaction to a snowstorm to score one of the biggest election upsets in the city’s history and become its first and only female mayor, died Friday. She was 81.

Byrne, whose four-year term was filled with upheaval at City Hall, died at a hospice in Chicago, said her daughter, Kathy. No cause was given.

Byrne famously beat Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1979 after his administration failed to adequately clear streets fast enough following a blizzard. But during her term, she was branded with nicknames such as “Calamity Jane” as she speedily fired and hired people in such top jobs as police superintendent and press secretary.

“It was chaos,” Byrne herself acknowledged in a 2004 Chicago Tribune story, attributing many of the problems to her wresting power from the old boy Democratic machine that had ruled the city for decades. “Like the spaghetti in a pressure cooker, it was all over the ceiling.”


Byrne was also credited with changing the feel of the city. She started the popular Taste of Chicago festival and initiated open-air farmers markets.

Byrne let John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd film “The Blues Brothers” in Chicago. She even granted Belushi’s request to crash a car through a window at Daley Plaza, figuring loyalists of the late Richard J. Daley didn’t like her anyway.

She also helped draw national attention to the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing complex when she and her husband moved into an apartment there after a gang war killed 11 residents in three months in 1981. They stayed for three weeks.

By the end of her first year in the mayor’s office, Chicago had dealt with transit, fire and school strikes, with the mayor sometimes confronting striking workers on the picket lines.


In 1983, Byrne lost her reelection bid to state Sen. Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. She never held elected office again.



Nov. 20, 1:09 p.m.: An earlier version of this online obituary stated that Harold Washington was a state senator when he was elected Chicago mayor. Washington had been a state senator, but he was a U.S. House member when he defeated Jane Byrne and was elected mayor in 1983.


But with everything that happened during Byrne’s four years in office, it was her election that ended up becoming part of the city’s lore. A political novice, she launched her campaign after Bilandic fired her from her City Hall job. She was considered the longest of long shots as she took on the candidate backed by Daley’s political machine.

It was Bilandic’s handling of a January blizzard that is credited with turning things around for Byrne. The city was covered in 20 inches of snow. Buses and trains couldn’t move. Streets were impassable, both for residents and those charged with providing basic services, such as picking up the garbage.

The next month, voters gave the Democratic nomination for mayor — and for all intents and purposes the job itself — to Byrne. She easily won the general election against Republican Wallace Johnson in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.


Born May 24, 1933, in Chicago, she was a volunteer for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign when she met Daley. Later that decade, he appointed her as city consumer sales commissioner — the only woman ever to be named to his Cabinet.

At the time, Byrne was a widow and single mother. Her first husband, Marine Corps flier William Byrne, died in a plane crash in 1959 when their daughter, Kathy, was 17 months old. Byrne remarried in 1978.

Her second husband, Jay McMullen, a former newspaper reporter who became her press secretary, died in 1992. Besides her daughter Kathy, Byrne is survived by a grandson.