BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
In Algren, reporter Mary Wisniewski of the Tribune captures the author of The Man with the Golden Arm and the “outsider Chicago” that was Nelson Algren’s backdrop. One of the most important post World War II authors, who was championed by Hemingway and many critics, Algren’s works should once again attract readers fascinated by all that is Chicago, thanks to this new biography.
As Wisniewski introduces Simone de Beauvoir, the existentialist writer who divided her time between love affairs with Jean Paul Sartre in Paris and Algren in Wicker Park, midcentury Chicago comes alive.
“Simone and Nelson were both adventurers. Their relationship was very physical, but she also adored visiting unknown places with him. She loved seeing the mission women with their hymnals and the bums on the street.”
In researching her book, which was recently praised in the New York Times Book Review, Mary turned to Chicagoans who knew Algren and researched his friendships, including with his “stalwart commercial champion” Stuart Brent.
Some of the best stories in it come from Andy Austin, the former ABC Channel 7 court illustrator who knew Wisniewski as a young City News Bureau reporter at the 26th and California courthouse.
Andy Austin spoke to us recently about her memories of Algren:
“Nelson was about 65 at the time, and we were a group of young co-called socialites, mainly Monika and Henry Betts, Anstiss and Bill Drake, and myself and my husband Johnny Austin. He liked to come to our parties, do funny things, and insisted on my having a chilled martini glass waiting for him. He would always respond when he buzzed the doorbell that he was ‘the Cookie Monster,’ maybe acting as a caricature of his former self. He wore his hair in a brush cut which made it stand straight up.
“He was a once-famous, slightly washed-up author; we were fascinated by him. I treasured the copy of Chicago: City on the Make that he gave me, which he autographed with his wonderful drawings of cats.”
Glamorous Anstiss Drake Krueck shared these fond memories of Algren at one of the group’s parties.
“It was the early ‘70s, and I considered him a good pal. He enjoyed us all, though he clearly saw us as Gold Coast bourgeoisie, while he was the bohemian writer living next to the ‘L’ tracks. But none of us was dumb, so the talk was lively.
“I thought of him as old since I was in my early thirties and he was in his sixties. Then I saw a book jacket photo of him from two decades before and realized how handsome he was—he still carried himself as a lady-killer.
“Nelson had an edge to him, a kind of black humor. There was a party for my 33rd birthday, and he brought a long slender object, all wrapped up. When I unwrapped it, inside was a lady’s leg—a shapely prosthesis he had found in a garbage can, tossed out. I was a bit appalled, but he thought it was very funny.
“He was capable of great thoughtfulness, rather amazing for a man with no kids. He took my two little daughters off to see ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Goodman. And when we moved to Paris for a few years, and I was at first horribly homesick and at sea, he not only wrote me long letters but occasionally sent a box full of books he’d been give to review, each one with his signature cat drawn inside the front cover.”
An important character in Wisniewski’s biography is Chicago’s most famous bookseller, Stuart Brent. When The Man With the Golden Arm was released in 1950—and reviewers compared Algren to Dostoyevsky, Hugo, and Dickens—the writer became the toast of literary Chicago. He was particularly pleased that Ernest Hemingway, whom he regarded with gusto, recommended his book (they would later start a correspondence).
“Brent hosted a book-signing event, and people lined up outside of his Seven Steps bookstore, a little storefront on a rundown stretch of Clark Street in the days before his Michigan Avenue location.
“Nelson started by signing long notes in each copy, driving Stuart crazy by asking for a new copy when he felt that he hadn’t said something right—a nicety that cost Stuart three bucks a copy.”
The book stayed on the city’s bestseller list for months, and Hollywood requested movie rights for what would become the gritty film by the same name starring Frank Sinatra.
Wisniewski spoke with us recently about the author.
What drew you to Algren?
Although I was an English major, I was never assigned to read Algren. He wasn’t part of the canon of Hawthorne and Twain. He wrote about the edges of society. When I first read his works, I saw that he got the Polish dialogue of my parents’ community around Ashland, Milwaukee, and Division right. As a reporter at the City News Bureau, I started a book club and we read Algren. I began giving copies of his book to everyone.
Tell me about Polonia, as Chicago’s largest Polish neighborhood was often called.
When I was a little girl, my mother worked at the Fairfield Savings and Loan, and we lived in Wicker Park. I remember clearly Mary and the Angels Church, getting pickles out of barrels, and sausages strung together at storefronts. Although much of Man with the Golden Arm is set on skid row, Algren’s beautiful writing defines in the way that Dickens did, portraying a historic part of a city.
In Neon Wilderness, a book of short stories, he told lots of neighborhood stories including the best: ‘How the Devil Came Down Division Street.’ A man became the biggest drunk on Division because of a ghost that haunted his parents’ house and drove the character out on the street.
When the Kennedy Expressway (which opened November 5, 1960) was constructed, many homes in Polonia, including one of Algren’s, were razed to make way for the expressway. St. Mary of the Angels lost much of its congregation.
What was Nelson like as a person?
He was very sweet and generous; always giving gifts. His boyish charm definitely seduced many women. But he was mercurial and would drop you like a hot potato.
In your book, Chicago seemed almost necessary to his writing.
He told Simone that Chicago was a part of his life, and he couldn’t leave his work. He knew so many people here; so many bar owners and bums. He wasn’t recognized on the street, though. My brother was a teller at a Wicker Park bank where Nelson had an account. He did recognize Nelson and asked for an autograph, which he later sent him.
This relationship with Simone tells a lot about his relationship with Chicago. In Algren, Wisniewski relates Simone’s view on the Windy City: “Simone was entranced with the city: the music, its rebellious dancers, and the dim tavern lights shining into her amber bourbon—a new drink for her.”
Wisniewski quotes Simone and her thoughts on not just the city but its mercurial son, Algren:
“Here was someone who could see how things could be tragic and wonderful at the same time. That here, where the bankers and chamber of commerce types didn’t go, was where real things happened. With us, beautiful and ugly, grotesque and tragic, and also good and evil had its place.”
Algren bought a house on the beach close to Gary, Indiana, and often did his writing there. In Algren, Wisniewski captures his relationship with a stray cat which came to fascinate the author: “Nelson was a scruffy guy and a lonely figure. I think he was sort of like a cat on his own.”
He spent his last days at an artist’s colony in Sag Harbor until his death in 1981. He left Chicago for Paterson, New Jersey.
“In an interview, he compared Chicago to a woman who looked good when you married her but after 25 years looked like hell. The city had changed. His old neighborhood had changed, and the Poles were moving out further northwest along Milwaukee Avenue or to the suburbs.”
Andy Austin recalled a going away party that her merry group had for Algren—one that turned decidedly bitter.
“He was going to Paterson to write about ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a fighter who was accused of murder, but whom Nelson believed was innocent. My husband had done a cartoon in the cake frosting that showed a signpost saying Paterson. By mistake, it was written with an extra letter t. Nelson took one look at the cake and swept his whole arm across it, smooshing it and sending icing flying everywhere.”
Wisniewski reports that, even though the relationship with Simone had ended stormily, “she always wore his ring, and he spent the last days of his life yearning for her.”
Andy credits Wisniewski not only for capturing Algren but for all her myriad accomplishments.
“Mary is a full-time reporter; she has written this book; she has three perfect children, who are highly talented musicians; and she is an exceptional wife and daughter. You might see her biking around the city in the glorious hats she collects.”
Mary Wisniewski, Transportation Editor for the Chicago Tribune, is currently working on a novel.