No one in Chicago better embodies grace at twilight than Roger Ebert, who has written openly and frankly about the physical disasters that cost him his lower face, his voice, and his ability to swallow food. That they spared his writing gifts, sharpened his memories, and deepened his character is reason for rejoicing. Ebert's new memoir, Life Itself, rollicks where you want it to rollick, but its most compelling quality is its comfort with the nearness of death.
We were at the Sun-Times together for several years in the 70s, but I was at the front of the large newsroom and he was in the back and we had nothing to do with each other. My friend Gary Houston knew him better. Houston was a feature writer who moonlighted in local theater, and his desk and Ebert's were a few feet apart.
"As a social animal in the newsroom," Houston reflected, in an e-mail he sent me, "he could be loud, ridiculing, obnoxious. He let his voice carry, not feeling constraints of desk-to-desk discretion but more or less obliging what he may have assumed to be a general desire in the room to hear whatever he was going to say. He could throw his weight around because the paper valued him so highly. He laughed at his own jokes, sometimes ones of derision, and I think expected others . . . to laugh along too. He enjoyed holding court."
Houston recalled that on his last day at the Sun-Times in the mid-70s, Ebert invited him for a drink at Riccardo's. "I thought I'd have the pleasure of his company all to myself, but it turned out to be something like a weekly Friday round table with him, [Bob] Greene and about five others. I hadn't known of this recurring event. He and Greene seemed to compete with each other for laughs at their witticisms. I left early and Roger said, 'Gary, God love ya.'"
That's on the one hand. Houston had as much to say about the other hand.
"Contrast this with his writing," his e-mail continued. "Agree or not with his judgments, he was comfortable in his writing skin. . . . His ease and unhurriedness were deceptive. You often couldn't know he was leading to powerful observations. You might demur that they were really not observations of the movie in questions but more likely ones stimulated in his mind while watching it; yet even so this put you in the presence of an acute, sometimes warm and compassionate human and wise essayist who happened to write film criticism. . . . He was generous in spirit in writing about movies, and you felt this generosity extended to humanity. There was something petty about Roger in person, something the very opposite of petty in Roger's writing."
I ran these thoughts past Ebert. "Fair enough," he replied, and asked me to remember one thing: "Many of his memories, if not most, date from my drinking days, and that makes a big difference."
Life Itself owns up to Ebert's alcoholism, but when he tells us he stopped drinking in 1979 because he was tired of the hangovers, it sounds about as hard as swearing off sharp cheeses to avoid migraines. For a better description of a drunk's life, read Drunkard by Ebert's Sun-Times colleague Neil Steinberg. Drink drove Ebert "into a personal life of evasion, denial, and concealment," Ebert maintains, and if he hadn't quit, today he'd be "unemployed, unmarried, and probably dead." The reader supposes so, but we never see even Ebert's job at risk. Steinberg tells us what it's like when you hit your wife in a drunken rage and she calls the cops and you go to jail, and the next day it's in the papers. He tells us what it's like to find yourself sucking down the kitchen's vanilla extract for the traces of alcohol in it. Steinberg is fighting his thirst as he writes. Ebert devotes a brief chapter to O'Rourke's, the Old Town writers' pub, and casts it in a romantic light, barely acknowledging that while AA would save some of these colorful characters, nothing would save others. Ebert writes neither to mourn nor regret, but sometimes without pain there is too little reality. In his reticence, are we seeing the effects of a life spent reviewing movies, where the critic's task is never to say too much, to suggest the film without revealing it?
As Ebert sketched O'Rourke's for us, so does he sketch his favorite city, London, and people like his TV partner Gene Siskel; his O'Rourke's pal John McHugh, a man who's lived his life as a succession of anecdotes; his Beyond the Valley of the Dolls collaborator Russ Meyer. He meditates on time, memory, and repetition. He describes time "slipping through our fingers like a long silk scarf until it runs out and flutters away in the wind."