My friend Don Evans, the founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, is a master of producing great celebratory events honoring Chicago writers, past and present. Don runs his organization on a shoestring budget, yet his productions are always at beautiful venues, free to the public, and features some of the best of Chicago’s creative community as participants.
Last evening’s induction of Roger Ebert into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, held at the new American Writers Museum on Michigan Avenue, was one such event. The emcee was Rick Kogan, the fabled Tribune features writer and radio interviewer. Rick told the story about how impressed his father, Herman Kogan, the editor of Panorama, the literary supplement of the Daily News, was when Ebert submitted a short piece to him on Brendan Behan, shortly after the Irish writer’s death in 1964. Panorama published the piece, introducing Ebert to Chicago’s newspaper audience.
A few years later, in 1967, at the age of 25, Ebert was hired by the Sun-Times, as its film critic. His career with the newspaper was enduring and prolific, lasting to his death in 2013. No American newspaper film critic was better than Ebert, who became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
However it was the medium of television that catapulted Ebert to fame, partnering in movie review shows first with Gene Siskel, and later with Richard Roeper. Last evening Roeper shared some wonderful personal memories about his late friend and colleague. Ebert’s editor for nearly twenty years at the Sun-Tmes, Laura Emerick, reminisced about the brilliance of his writing.
Ebert’s wife, Chaz, was the last and most powerful speaker at the ceremony. Like others she spoke of his writing genius, but she emphasized the greatness of his humanity and his passion for social justice, i.e. Ebert, the man, as a model for all of us to emulate.
Today I made my first visit to the American Writers Museum, which opened at 180 N. Michigan last month. It certainly is an honor to have the only national museum of its kind located in Chicago. My friend Roberta Rubin, the former owner of The Book Stall bookstore in Winnetka and truly one of the great literary advocates in the Chicago area, is one of the key individuals in making this museum a reality. It was extremely gratifying to see “The Roberta Rubin Writer’s Room” which is currently exhibiting Jack Kerouac’s original scroll for On the Road.
Since the museum space is only 11,000 square feet, there are physical limitations as to display options. Digitally the museum is state-of-the-art. There are very nice rooms dedicated to children’s literature and Chicago authors. In the Writers Hall, one wall features 100 American deceased writers; the other wall displays 100 American literary works. However I felt that both these walls, at times, seemed to use historical and political considerations, over literary significance, as criteria in the selection of these writers and books. I would have also liked to see a little more of the personal touch in the museum’s permanent collection. For instance, perhaps something on the order of a desk on which Emily Dickinson composed some of her poetry, or maybe the walking boots that John Muir wore on the nature walks that inspired his books. Also, permanent exhibits of universally acknowledged great American living writers such as Philip Roth and Toni Morrison might be a nice added touch. Nevertheless, the American Writers Museum is a work in progress and worthy of our support. The Chicago literary community should rally on its behalf by promoting it among friends and family, as well as providing positive input on future programming to its staff.