Mike Royko Critical Essays

Introduction

Mike Royko 1932–1997

American newspaper columnist and biographer.

Royko was a widely-admired Chicago newspaper columnist whose work appeared in newspapers nationwide; several hundred of his columns were collected and published in book form. The winner of many journalism awards and the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, Royko's writings on politics, institutions, and everyday life were often biting, barbed, and full of humor. His biography Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971) is regarded as a classic study of machine politics and political bosses. Royko often attributed his working-class voice and point of view to fictitious characters named Slats Grobnik (a perennial bar-stool occupant) and Dr. I. M. Kookie (who knew everything), but both simply reflected his own background. Royko's father was a Ukrainian immigrant who worked as a milkman before purchasing a saloon in a Polish neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side. As a teenager tending bar, Royko's responsibilities included Saturday-morning payments to the local police, whom he later wrote about as "The Burglars in Blue." He also learned about barroom brawls and toughness. After a brief attempt at college, Royko joined the Air Force and spent three years as a radioman, part of it in Korea. His writing career began in 1955 when he was transferred to the military base at Chicago's O'Hare Field. He claimed to have experience as a newswriter and was assigned to the base newspaper. After a two-year post-service stint with the Chicago News Bureau, Royko was hired as a reporter by the Chicago Daily News. His first weekly columns on county government impressed the editor, who gave him the freedom to write on any subject. He became a full-time columnist in 1964. For the next thirty-three years, for three successive Chicago newspapers, Royko wrote over 8,000 columns, generally at the rate of five per week. It has been said that Royko's columns boosted his paper's circulation by 100,000 copies. Royko was of the finger-in-the-eye school of columnizing. His sarcasm was an equal-opportunity spear; poking holes in people and institutions at will: the mayor, city aldermen, the police, the Chicago Cubs. He wrote on behalf of Bungalow Man, the disappearing working class with its "traditional values of work, family, and male supremacy." Royko once said, "like many Chicagoans, I grew up with a distrust of most things and creatures," but his persona was never in doubt: "As for myself, I haven't had an identity crisis. I have always known who I am, which, while deeply depressing, saved me a lot of running around looking for me." He wrote about such diverse topics as dieting, driving, digital watches, draft evasion, dogs, sexual promiscuity, gun control, xenophobia, sticky ice cube trays, bureaucratic pettiness, and yuppies, but, as a Washington Post writer stated, "the persona looms larger than the writing." At various times he pretended to be a police officer, a social worker, a teacher, or a deputy coroner in efforts to gain material for his columns. He staged events to mock people and practices—a children's dog show for mutts, the winner being the entrant whose dog most resembled Royko's publisher; a penny-pitching contest, after Chicago police had charged penny-pitching elementary school children with gambling. When Tampa, Florida, tried to acquire the Chicago White Sox, he urged readers to send their dirty socks to Tampa officials. Royko showed a serious side in his writing as well: when he wrote about a Vietnam veteran whose face was so shattered he could only take nourishment with a syringe, President Nixon ordered slow-moving bureaucrats to hospitalize the man for treatment. Royko moved readers to anger—one wrote, "You should be arrested for defacing a public newspaper"—and he could move them to tears, as he did with his 1979 column about his first wife, Carol's death, at age 44. "We met when she was 6 and I was 9. Same neighborhood street. Same grammar school. So if you ever have a 9-year-old son who says he is in love, don't laugh at him. It can happen…. If there's someone you love but haven't said so in a while, say it now. Always, always, say it now." In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Royko received the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award, the Heywood Broun Award of the American Newspaper Guild, and the first H. L. Mencken Award ever presented by the Baltimore Sun. Studs Terkel asserted that Royko was "an investigative reporter of the highest rank"; Jimmy Breslin called him "the best journalist of his time"; and Esquire magazine labeled him as "The Man Who Owns Chicago." His biting sarcasm and blunt opinions caused many readers to dislike him. Near the end of his career, several of Royko's targets criticized him for statements made in his columns—blacks, Latinos, feminists, homosexuals, and other groups often found his views racist and offensive. However, millions of readers felt that his voice effectively represented the urban Everyman, and he has been compared to humorists such as James Thurber and Robert Benchley. After Royko's death, his Chicago Tribune editor said, "He was the best journalist, period. There probably will never be another one like him."