Archive for the 'CHICAGO PEOPLE' Category

Sic Transit Gloria Hinky Dink

Michael Kenna was known as Hinky Dink because he was a little man. Yet during the first half of the Twentieth Century, he cast a giant shadow in Chicago politics—if not actually in power, then certainly in image.

Kenna was the model of the saloonkeeper politician. His bailiwick was the First Ward, which took in the Loop and stretched down to 22nd Street and the vice district known as the Levee.  Besides serving inexpensive beverage and free lunch, Kenna’s establishments also provide cheap lodging for down-and-outers who could be counted on to vote as he directed.  The most famous of his places was the Workingmen’s Exchange, at 426 South Clark Street.

Aldermen Kenna and Coughlin

In 1897 Kenna joined Bathhouse John Coughlin in the City Council as one of the First Ward’s two aldermen. The two men complemented each other—Coughlin was big and loud, while Kenna preferred to work behind the scenes.  For the next four decades they conducted a virtual master class on Urban Politics for Fun and Profit.

After Coughlin died in 1938, Kenna continued on alone. He ran for his old friend’s vacated council seat and easily won. Past eighty now, he seldom emerged from his hotel suite.  His mind wandered, though some days he was as sharp as ever.

Coughlin blew through cash as fast as he collected it, and often faster. Kenna held onto his money.  He was reckoned to be a millionaire several times over when he died on October 9, 1946.

Kenna had once been married to Catherine Devro, a devout Irish woman who shunned the spotlight. While her husband ran his saloon, she had become a temperance worker.  Mrs. Kenna had died several years earlier.  The marriage had been childless, so now Hinky Dink’s estate became a matter of contention.

“Rush To Claim Hinky Dink’s Millions Is On” read the headline in the Tribune a week after Kenna’s death.  Bank officials had estimated the late alderman’s fortune might run as high as $9 million—over $100 million in today’s money.  Already, dozens of prospective heirs were coming out of the woodwork and lawyering up.

Kenna (white trousers) at his Workingmen’s Exchange

The list was long and confusing. John Kenna, Hinky Dink’s father, had been married twice, producing a total of six children.  This fact was disputed by a man claiming to be the descendant of a third John Kenna marriage.  Thus Hinky Dink had three full siblings, and at least two—or maybe more—half-siblings.  And unlike the alderman, these Kennas had been fruitful and multiplied.  Meanwhile, relatives of Hinky Dink’s late wife were also after a share of the wealth.

When Hinky Dink’s six safe deposit boxes were finally opened, the contents were disappointing, with a mere $872,000 in cash and securities on hand. The size of the estate was revised downward to a paltry $1.3 million.  The alderman’s will, dated 1935, detailed bequests to more than 70 individuals, including relatives, politicians, and friends.  The largest single bequest was $30,000 for the construction of his mausoleum.

Months passed. Now it was 1947.  A woman came forward saying she was Hinky Dink’s love child.  Another woman claimed to be a long-lost half-sister.  An auction of the alderman’s personal effects brought in $5,129.   In August Kenna’s gross estate was officially pegged at $1,014,000.  After deducting $368,000 for taxes and various legal fees, $646,000 remained.  The 72 detailed bequests took $209,000.  That left $437,000 to be split among 17 heirs.

Two more years went by. The final accounting of the Kenna estate took place in July 1949.  An additional $66,000 was distributed to the heirs.  Of that amount, $36,000 came from an unneeded tax reserve.  The remaining $30,000 was the money set aside for the alderman’s mausoleum.

Years before, Hinky Dink’s wife Catherine had been buried in a simple grave at Calvary Cemetery. The alderman had planned to have her rest next to him in his mausoleum.  But Catherine Devro Kenna’s relatives were miffed at being cut out of her husband’s estate.  They refused permission for her to be moved, so the mausoleum was never built.


Still, Hinky Dink’s heirs did not forget him.  After splitting the $30,000 mausoleum fund, they purchased an $85 slab to mark his final resting place.  If you root around in the grass at Calvary, you might be able to find it.



Chicago’s Little Green Book

In 1966, as the so-called Cultural Revolution spread through China, Americans became aware of a little red book called Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.  The title said it all—here were 304 pages of observations on life, the universe, and everything, drawn from the works of Communist China’s dictator.  Millions of Chinese youth were seen carrying copies of this secular Bible as they ran amuck through their country.

Mao Book

Such a book was a natural for parody.  In 1968 U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson’s wisdom was collected in Quotations From Chairman LBJ.  Conservative pundit William F. Buckley was the subject of Quotations From Chairman Bill.

Meanwhile, back home in Chicago, longtime mayor Richard J. Daley had become a polarizing figure.  In June 1969, University of Wisconsin grad student Peter Yessne compiled a little green book titled Quotations From Mayor Daley.Daley Quotations

The book is 125 pages long, divided into 24 chapters.  Some of the chapter titles include How to Get Elected, The Correct Handling of Riots and Demonstrators, On the Power of Patronage, Graceful Concessions, and The Limits of Conviction.  There’s even a chapter called Bipartisanship—which consists of a single quotation from Daley telling how the Democrats will spread the word about their candidates in the upcoming election.

There are plenty of the famous Daley malaprops here.  Reading the book, it’s best to keep in mind the advice of the mayor’s press secretary, who told reporters to print what Daley meant, not what he said.  (Come to think of it, today we still hear political lackeys covering for their boss the same way.)

Quotations From Mayor Daley is an entertaining book for anyone interested in the golden age of the Chicago Democrat Machine.  Inexpensive copies are easy to find.


Renaissance Woman

Kellogg Fairbank was an honest, upright, somewhat dull lawyer who spent much of his time managing the estate of his late father, Chicago’s lard and soap king.  We’re not interested in him.  His wife is the one worth remembering.

In 1900, at the age of 21, Janet Ayer became Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank.  That was the name she preferred to use, and that’s what we will call her here.  Like her husband, she came from an old WASP family.  While raising three children Mrs. Fairbank took time to do some writing.

Writing was one of the few acceptable careers for a woman of her station.  She started with a few political articles and some drama criticism for local magazines.  In 1910 she published her first novel.

Seven novels, a play, and numerous short stories eventually flowed from her pen.  Mrs. Fairbank was a rich blue-blood, so her plots usually revolved around other rich blue-bloods.  Probably she’d had an English teacher who told her “Write about what you know!”

The lady did have talent.  Her 1925 novel The Smiths was about a couple growing up along with the city of Chicago.  It was runner-up that year for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Mrs. Fairbank performed all the Social Register duties.  She gave money to the arts, she organized benefits, she served as Board President of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital for over twenty years.  Her picture was always in the paper for some charitable cause.

Somewhere along the line, she became something more than a wealthy airhead.  Mrs. Fairbank became a political player.

In most states, voting was still limited to men.  Mrs. Fairbank never accepted that.  She was a champion of women’s rights, an ardent campaigner for the suffrage movement.  And she knew how to get publicity without being “unladylike.”  Once she advertised the cause by riding a white charger down Michigan Avenue.

Her social connections gave her entree to politics at the highest level.  Mrs. Fairbank didn’t stick with one party.  Over the years she jumped all over the political map.

In 1912 she was active in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party campaign for president.  Later she became a Democrat and served a term as National Committeewoman from Illinois.  By 1940 she was a Republican, national vice-chair of the isolationist America First Committee.

She knew her way around Chicago politics, too.  In 1923 Mrs. Fairbank put together a non-partisan committee of reformers for the coming mayoral election.  When the Democrats nominated Judge William E. Dever, the reformers threw their support behind him, and he was elected.  That gave Mrs. Fairbank the reputation of a political kingmaker.

Fairbank Row Houses

Throughout it all, Mrs. Fairbank and her husband remained pillars of Chicago society.  Each New Year’s Day they gave a reception at their home at 1244 North State Street.  An invitation to the Fairbank gala was highly-treasured.

From noon to midnight, hundreds of people passed through the doors.  The cloistered denizens of the Gold Coast were always there, mingling with writers, opera singers, social activists, and cigar-chewing politicians.  At most other places it would have been an unlikely gathering.  Here it was just a reflection of the many interests of the hostess.

Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank died on December 28, 1951.  A few days later, the final reception at 1244 North State Street became her memorial service.


Dr. Frank the Body-Snatcher

Frank Billings (1854-1932) was one of the giants of American medicine.  After receiving his M.D. from Northwestern in 1881 he studied in Europe, before returning to set up a practice in Chicago.  He was the longtime dean of Rush Medical College during its affiliation with the University of Chicago. (Contrary to common belief, the university’s Billings Hospital is named for A.M. Billings, no relation.)  Frank Billings also served a term as president of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Frank Billings

Billings knew all of Chicago’s prominent families.  Once of his acquaintances was young Ernest Poole, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.   Poole delighted in re-telling a story of Dr. Frank’s medical school days.

The laws of the time made it difficult to get cadavers for classroom instruction.  Medical students sometimes solved the problem by digging up fresh corpses from the county Potter’s Field.  One night Billings and two Northwestern classmates set out in a wagon to retrieve the mortal remains of a murderer who’d recently been hanged.  On the way they came upon a brightly-lit tavern.

Parked outside the tavern was a wagon belonging to Rush Medical College.  A figure wrapped in blankets was propped up in the driver’s seat.  The Rush students had gotten to the prize first.  Now they were inside the tavern celebrating.

Billings and his two friends transferred the body to their own wagon.  Just then the tavern door opened.  Telling his colleagues to get away, Billings quickly wrapped himself in the blankets.  He climbed into the Rush wagon and assumed the dead man’s place.

One by one, the Rush students staggered out of the tavern.  The first man got into the wagon and checked the corpse.  “Hey fellas,” he shouted, “this stiff don’t feel as cold as he ought to be!”

“And neither would you be, if you were burning in hell like I am!” Billings announced in a spooky voice.

The terrified Rush student tumbled out of the wagon.  With that, Billings grabbed the reigns and drove off in the Rush wagon, laughing all the way.

No, medical school ain’t what it used to be.


Bowler of the Half-Century

When bowling was big and when Chicago was the bowling capital of the world, the greatest bowler in Chicago was Paul Krumske.  And there’s one story about Paul Krumske they always tell.

During one close match, Krumske suddenly keels over on the lane, grabbing his chest and gasping for breath.  The match stops.  Medical help is summoned, and Krumske is revived.  He gamely declares that he will go on.

By now the opposition is totally unnerved—especially when Krumske rolls the next half-dozen strikes.


This incident happened during the famous match Krumske bowled against Ned Day . . . or in a team match in the Chicago Classic League . . . or in a tournament in Detroit . . . or was it in a late-night pot game at Marigold?  Maybe he faked heart attacks on all those occasions.

After the first few times, though, you’d think the other bowlers would get wise, and just step over Paul as they bowled.

Born on the South Side in 1912, Krumske dropped out of high school to go to work as a clerk at a meat-packing plant.  One evening, when he was 17, the boss needed a sub on his bowling team.  Krumske volunteered.

He learned fast.  Within five years Krumske had rolled his first 300 game and was carrying one of the highest averages in the city.  The papers started running stories about the new boy wonder of bowling.

There wasn’t any pro bowling then.  The better bowlers all had day jobs.  They made money by getting on a top-flight team, then competing in leagues and tournaments, or by rolling matches against other hotshots.

Krumske Ball Cleaner (1946).jpg

Krumske followed this route.  He bowled in the city’s best league, the Chicago Classic, for nearly forty years.  For twenty years he was league secretary.  Recognized as one of the country’s top players, he was named to the annual All-American team seven times.

His finest moment came in 1944.  Ned Day was bowling’s match-game champion—the equivalent of boxing’s heavyweight champ.  He’d never been beaten in a head-to-head match.  But Krumske challenged him, and won the title in an 80-game showdown.

In 1951 a newspaper poll named Krumske Chicago’s “Bowler of the Half-Century.”  Bowling was starting to enjoy boom times.  By now Krumske was endorsing bowling products and giving exhibitions for an equipment manufacturer.  He also had a full-time job at the Peter Hand Brewery.

His title was Sports Director.  That meant Krumske was captain of the brewery’s famed Meister Brau Beer bowling team.  By staying in the news, the team helped sell beer.  And as secretary of the Chicago Classic, Krumske could convince bowling proprietors to stock Meister Brau in their bars.


Krumske appeared on the many bowling shows that were popular in the early days of TV.  For awhile he had his own local program called “Bowl the Professor.”  In 1957 comedian Jerry Lewis made a surprise visit, bowling a hilarious one-game match against Krumske.  The tape of that show was later used for charity fund-raising.

Like most athletes, Krumske’s skills declined as he grew older.  His bowling winnings shrank.  His exhibition contract was not renewed.  Then, in 1972, the brewery closed.

Krumske did some instructing and ran a few tournaments.  Early in 1979 he decided to make a fresh start and moved to Florida.  That same summer, Paul Krumske died in his new Boca Raton home.

The cause of death was a heart attack.


Chicago’s April Fools

What do Rod Blagojevich, Paul Harvey, and Jack Dempsey have in common?  They’re all on my list of Chicago’s April Fools—people who made foolish decisions, and should have known better.  Last night I was on Justin Kaufmann’s “The Download” on WGN-Radio, and talked about all of my April Fools.  Here’s the link—

Judy’s Jolly Jaunt

QUESTION—How does an elephant travel?

ANSWER—Any way he wants to.

In this case, the elephant was a she. In 1943 Lincoln Park Zoo bought a 35-year-old Asian female named Judy from Brookfield Zoo for $2,500. The purchase price did not include shipping. So on the afternoon of July 2, two Lincoln Park elephant handlers went out to Brookfield to collect their new elephant.

The plan was to transport Judy by truck. But Judy didn’t want to leave Brookfield. Twenty zoo workers tried to load her. In the process, the 7200-pound elephant wrecked the truck.

"Any way he wants to"

“Any way he wants to”

A phone call to Lincoln Park advised the director of “the little difficulty” the crew was having with Judy. The director decided the reluctant elephant would have to be moved the old-fashioned way. “Let her walk,” he ordered.

In 1943 the most direct way to get from Brookfield to Lincoln Park was straight up Ogden Avenue. That idea was discarded because of the heavy traffic on Ogden. A more circuitous—but more sedate—route was chosen instead.

At 7 p.m. Judy left Brookfield Zoo and began walking north on First Avenue. Her party included the four handlers from the two zoos, a motorcycle police escort, three support trucks, and twenty armed attendants. Ahead of them was eighteen miles of suburb and city.

The caravan traveled up First Avenue to Maywood. At Washington Boulevard they turned right and moved east into River Forest. At Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park they stopped at a gas station so Judy could get some water. Then they were moving again, through Oak Park and into Chicago.

There had been no public announcement of Judy’s trek. Seven decades ago, there was no social media. Yet somehow, the news got out. Think of a guy in Maywood phoning a friend on the West Side of Chicago, saying “Hey, there’s an elephant walking down the middle of Washington Boulevard!” In any event, thousands of people turned up to watch the unplanned parade. The Tribune reported that the fans gathered along Judy’s route made it “a veritable victory march.”

Judy at home and at peace

Judy at home and at peace

By 10 p.m. Judy and her party had reached Garfield Park. They rested there for two hours while Judy snacked on some hay. Now at midnight, as they set off again, they were into the home stretch. Traffic was thinning when they swung onto Ogden for the final few miles. At 2:15 a.m. on July 3, Judy arrived at her new home. Once settled into her quarters, she promptly went to sleep.

Judy’s road trip had taken a little over seven hours. In the course of her 18-mile journey she’d lost 250 pounds. One of the attendants who’d walked along with her had his feet swell so badly he couldn’t get back into his shoes for two days.

Chicago’s Great Elephant Walk took place in the middle of World War II, and gave people a few chuckles in the middle of a grim time. Judy herself remained one of the star attractions at Lincoln Park Zoo until her death in 1971.