Monday, April 23, 2012

Bill Granger, RIP

Posted By on 04.23.12 at 08:16 PM

In 1978 the Chicago Daily News went out of business and its staff was merged with the staff of the paper down the hall, the Sun-Times. A number of journalists at both papers lost their jobs in the process; I was one and Bill Granger was another. My response was anguish, his was contempt. I went off to Europe for a while, he pulled up his socks and started writing books. He had a family to support. In the next 17 years he wrote and published 28 books, most of them thrillers. He wrote under three names, his own, “Bill Griffith,” and “Joe Gash.” He collaborated on two books with his wife Lori, a lawyer. Most critics would probably say his best book was Public Murders, a 1980 procedural set in Chicago that won an Edgar Award. My favorite was Sweeps, a send-up of network television, a world he’d encountered while TV critic of the Sun-Times. The killer reminded me a lot of Charles Kuralt.

“I’ve written eight books in three years,” he told the Milwaukee Journal’s book editor in 1983. “Fear is a great motivator—I have to pay the mortgage.” There was talk of movie adaptations, but they weren't made. At different times he contributed columns to the Tribune and to the Daily Herald—to keep his hand in and, I guess, because the movies weren't made.

The last time I saw Bill we met in a smoke shed at the Manteno Veterans Home. He’d gone back to smoking because—why not? He was waiting to die. The stroke that put him in Manteno in 2002 had cost him much more than his ability to write. He didn’t want to see the newspapers I’d brought because he couldn’t read them. If you took me into town, he offered without affect, I won’t know how to get back. When I told Lori about my visit she said he’d already forgotten I was there.

Bill died over the weekend at Manteno at the age of 70. I got to know him in 1970 on the night shift of the Sun-Times, a few months after he’d enjoyed what might have been his finest moment as a reporter—he’d stashed a veteran of the Mai Lai massacre in a nearby hotel and milked him for an exclusive story every day for a week. Bill was a loud, sarcastic guy with a braying laugh, a blue-collar reporter with a chip on his shoulder at a paper hiring reporters from fancy Eastern schools as fast as its Yale-educated young editor could find them. Back then it was the easiest thing in the world to wander into the Sun-Times’s city room at night, and one night soon after I arrived I saw Bill squinting across a few rows of desks at a young woman visiting someone back in the feature section. She was homely, and the clothes she wore made no attempt at pretending otherwise. I don’t remember, but I’ll guess jeans, a T-shirt telling off the world, and granny glasses. Everything you put on your body back then was a political statement, and the one she was making was clear.

Did you ever notice, said Bill, how it’s the really plain girls who become the women’s libbers? I didn’t say anything; he could sound like a jerk without me. You know why? He went on. Because when you’re plain it doesn’t matter how smart you are—all the doors men hold open slam shut. And you find out how unfair the world is.

After that I felt lucky to be his friend.

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