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Angel of Mercy 

Joy Darrow: activist, journalist, giver of shelter. Was she looking for peace or had she already found it?

She wandered off in death as she often had in life, without much consultation, staking out new territory with a theme clear only to her wrapped in a mantle of mystery. There was indeed a kind of mystery about Joy Darrow--as her husband remembered in his tribute at her memorial. (It's quoted above.) Not the mystery of the usual kind--of secrecy and withdrawal. Rather, it was the mystery of her extraordinary openness and hospitality, her almost preternatural availability.

Consider the parties: the 200 or more people filling the 27-room, 130-year-old mansion on Prairie Avenue where she and husband Steve Pratt held forth on Memorial Day, July Fourth, Halloween--whenever an occasion presented itself. The throng looked something like an audience for the Sermon on the Mount--senior citizens and little kids, successful professionals and chronic losers, the elite and the lit up, yuppies, buppies, and druggies, every kind of color, race, and creed--and always a sprinkling of the homeless and the chronically depressed. They ate and drank and conversed while Joy flitted among them and Steve tended the side of buffalo grilling slowly out back (near the rented-out carriage house where horses were stabled).

"It was like this as far back as I can remember, even before we moved into this house," said Joy's younger daughter, Tracy Baim, 33. "There just weren't any social distinctions with my mother. She never looked down on anyone."

Consider daily life in the mansion: the stream of guests and friends of guests, renters and friends of renters, cats and dogs (Great Danes were Joy's passion). "If you needed a place for a few days--and it might stretch into a month or a year--you could stay with us," said Tracy. "Students, political activists passing through, maybe a battered wife or someone my mother met on the street."

Consider her interests: environment, world peace, public housing, race relations, education, photography, journalism, the creative arts. She hurled herself into projects, traveled all over the world (she visited Cuba three times in less than three years in the 70s), and always came home witnew plans and a suitcase full of knickknacks. "She was into a hundred little things all my life," said her oldest child, Marcy Pulford, 35. "I never knew what drove her. Was she looking for peace or was she someone who just was at peace everywhere? I never knew."

Whatever drove her, it wasn't money. She financed most of her travels through fellowships and by the photographs she took and the reports she wrote afterward. The projects usually depended on small grants and sweat equity. It wasn't religious conviction either. Joy was absolutely areligious--not hostile, said Tracy, just not personally involved (even though a few years ago she cofounded something called the Organization for Universal Communal Harmony, intended to bring together Eastern and Western spiritualities).

Nor was she guided by clearly defined ideals. "She never talked to us about ideas like justice or compassion or making the world a better place," said Tracy. "She showed, she didn't tell."

There was no apparent martyr complex, no need to assuage guilt with service, and no need to reform the lives around her. "I think her gift was to give people space," said Steve Pratt. "She was a nonjudgmental person."

If you asked her opinion, she'd give it, said Jay Jackson, "but she respected people's ability to work out their problems. She provided a nurturing kind of environment and left it up to you." Jackson met Joy 20 years ago when he was a struggling young journalist. He moved into the mansion because he needed a place, and he's been there (on the second floor) on and off ever since. "I consider myself a member of the family," he said. Earlier this year, after he'd had bypass heart surgery, Jackson started smoking again. "Joy never threatened me or told me to quit," he said. "She only asked once, 'Are you taking care of yourself?'"

Melissa Anderson, then a hard-pressed art consultant going through a divorce, was living in the Prairie Avenue area in 1987. Seeing lights on in the mansion one night, she rang the bell. Joy welcomed her (and her dog), they became instant friends, and Anderson eventually moved in and lived on the third floor for five years. Anderson, who now manages a nightclub, called Joy "a sister, a mother, and a friend.

I don't know how many people she treated like this--people who needed room and time to get their act to-gether, and I don't know why she did it. She was like a diamond with many facets."

Perhaps the mystery of Joy Darrow lies somewhere in her past. She was born Joy Helen Steinel in 1934, in the affluent Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay. She did not like to reminisce about her early years, said her daughter Marcy, but it was clear she led an extremely sheltered, regimented, church-oriented life under a domineering mother. Joy rebelled, was expelled from a convent school, and eventually enrolled at Marquette University, where she earned a journalism degree. As a young woman she legally changed her last name to Darrow. It was the maiden name of her mother, a niece of the legendary trial attorney Clarence Darrow.

Friends of Joy are inclined to associate her openness to other people, especially outsiders, with her admiration for her great uncle. "We all have to have a star," said Dempsey Travis, mortgage banker, author, and Joy's longtime associate. "I think she may have been driven by that tradition for justice, for the underdog." Tracy Baim suspects this may be so, but she could not recall her mother ever connecting her life to Darrow's ideals.

Joy didn't talk much about the experience of being gang-raped by a group of blacks soon after moving to Chicago in the 1950s. "It wasn't something she ever wanted to discuss," said Steve, "but I think it haunted her." If her concern for racial issues was grounded in a determination not to be vanquished by racial animosity, she never said so.

In 1959, when she was 24, she finagled a trip to Cuba and interviewed Fidel Castro in his mountain hideaway as he planned to overthrow the Batista government. This coup hurled her into a career in journalism, first at a string of suburban newspapers, then as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. With her first husband, photographer Hal Baim, she had three children in rather rapid succession: Marcy, Tracy, and Clark.

In 1967 the marriage was in a stage of terminal disintegration when Steve Pratt, a 21-year-old part-time public school teacher, spotted her at a party. "She was wearing a white lacy dress, and she had this long blond hair, and she was dancing--on one leg, the other one in a cast. I was immediately smitten. She seemed to have this complete command of life, this boundless energy. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life." In the following weeks Steve "positioned" himself at various social affairs, and the two developed a relationship that grew into marriage and matured until the day she died.

Joy left the Tribune in 1970, a victim, said Tracy, of the "very low glass ceiling" that restricted women reporters to the paper's neighborhood sections. Interestingly, Steve was hired by the Tribune before she left and has been there ever since, currently as a food and nutrition writer. "She was a totally committed urban affairs reporter," he said. "She worked nights, weekends. For her it was never a job."

Meanwhile, Joy founded a com-pany called Environmental Inc. and enlisted Buckminster Fuller in plans to redevelop Navy Pier and stage a world's fair on the environment. Before the idea got far her funds ran out, the fate of several of her ventures, including a civic center in Gary and an international industrial exchange to ease the cold war. "Her goal was to help people learn to get along, regardless of their background or differences," said Steve. "She was a catalyst--she didn't go much into the details."

Whenever plans didn't germinate, she moved on to something or somewhere else. In 1970 Joy and Dempsey Travis joined a Harvard University-sponsored tour of subsidized housing in seven countries. "She was an incredibly perceptive person," said Travis. "I could start a sentence and she'd finish it for me."

The trips became more frequent over the years. Were they an escape, a recharging of her batteries, or another way of reaching out to new people? Maybe all that, said her friend Melissa Anderson. "You can get lost on a trip, and I think Joy needed that at times."

In 1971 Joy and Steve and the three children moved into a crumbling old row house on Fremont Street north of Cabrini-Green. They tore down the inside walls, freshened up the interior, and turned a three-flat into one huge home. Tracy and Marcy gathered bricks and wood and flagstones from the ruins of other old buildings in the neighborhood--they considered the work great fun. Joy and Steve began giving their great parties in the new house, and offering spare rooms to whoever drifted in.

"I think living in this family has helped me to be universally comfortable with any group of people," said Tracy. "They [Steve and Joy] never protected us from others' opinions or other ways of life. So I don't feel at risk whether I'm among senior citizens or cross-dressers or whatever." Only once did Tracy see her mother's tolerance slip a notch; it was when Tracy came home from college her freshman year to announce she was a lesbian. "It definitely wasn't easy for her, I could tell. But she didn't say anything, and she was totally supportive ever after." Tracy is now the publisher of the gay and lesbian monthly Outlines, and of five other publications aimed at the same market. Her brother Clark is married and working in convict rehabilitation in England. Marcy, a financial manager, was very recently married.

I first met Joy Darrow in 1976 when she became managing editor of the black-owned Chicago Defender, a position she held for eight years. I was immediately struck by her sense of presence, the total attention she gave even in a casual conversation--as if what I had to say was riveting and what I thought mattered. "That's just the way she was," said Steve. "It wasn't phony, it was genuine--she really did think everyone was worth listening to."

In Chicago, Joy moved in many parallel directions. As a director of the Clarence Darrow Foundation, she helped establish a community-run management system at the LeClaire Courts homes on the southwest side. She did PR for Travis and his national association of black mortgage bankers and coedited his first successful book, An Autobiography of Black Chicago. She served on a governor's commission studying redlining and fair housing in Illinois, sat on a Pulitzer Prize judging committee, taught journalism at Columbia College, and won a string of awards for her photographs and articles. In 1976 she received an award for work in race relations from the University of Missouri's school of journalism. She never made a big thing of these accomplishments.

In 1978 the family was brutalized when a would-be rapist broke into the house on Fremont and attacked Tracy, then 14, in her bedroom. Steve and Joy, responding to her screams, were seriously injured in the battle with Tracy's assailant. Stabbed 27 times, Steve nearly bled to death and was in the hospital for months. Joy suffered numerous cuts and several broken ribs. Tracy, who sustained lesser physical injuries, said Joy came as close then as she ever would to giving her overt advice. Her mother was referring to her own rape, Tracy speculated, and her message was, "Look, I dealt with this. Don't ever allow him to win by letting him creep back into your life!"

Later that year the family moved into the house on Prairie. In 1986 Joy inaugurated what was perhaps her most successful project. With the help of friends she opened the first floor of the mansion as the Prairie Avenue Art Gallery. It wouldn't be an ordinary space. The first exhibit showcased black photographers. Others have featured unknown young painters and Vietnamese and Vietnam-veteran artists, and there have been shows on peace, AIDS, environmental issues, Asians, and American Indians. Inspired by this work, she produced several television documentaries on urban problems and the arts.

In recent years she had traveled even more. Her children kiddingly claimed she was a CIA agent. How else to explain her treks to Cuba just before Castro's takeover, to China just before the Red Guard purge and again just after the Tienanmen Square massacre, to Berlin just as the wall came down? "We claimed she was a spy," said Tracy, "and she'd just laugh."

Joy developed severe arthritis and a herniated disk, but kept up the pace. "We used to say she's either in India or on the couch," said Marcy. Sometimes, said her friend Jay Jackson, she would return from a trip totally exhausted and have to rest in bed for days.

Two years ago she was in Haiti monitoring the elections there, and earlier this year in the Dominican Republic doing the same thing. She looked forward to a trip to Ireland this August.

The July Fourth party on Prairie was another success this year, mixing cultures and lifestyles and lasting into the wee hours. A few days later Joy felt listless and became jaundiced. Her doctor suspected it was hepatitis or perhaps a touch of malaria from the Caribbean. But it was neither, and she grew weaker by the day. On July 24 doctors at Michael Reese Hospital discovered that she was bleeding from stomach ulcers, with complications in her liver. She talked about her daughter's wedding plans and asked for books to read. But she lapsed into a coma and died on July 26.

"It was so fast, so strange," said Steve. "But you know, that's the way she was."

Marcy and Tom Pulford were married on July 28. Her two fathers--Steve and Hal Baim--brought her down the aisle. (Joy, characteristically, had always maintained cordial relations with her ex-husband and his family.) At the reception, said Tracy, everyone had difficulty being festive. But they reminded one another that celebration was what Joy had been about.

"We were all out on the dance floor," said Tracy, "when the deejay, without anyone telling him, put the old 'Jeremiah was a bullfrog' song on--'Joy to the World!' We all just stopped and stared at one another. It was kind of special."

Joy's wake was held two days later. The family plans to scatter her ashes--probably over the waters off Cuba.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joy Darrow photo.

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