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Sun-Times Sports Handoff / Mysteries of History

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By Michael Miner

Sun-Times Sports Handoff

The Soviets used to touch up photographs of the Kremlin high command after every purge. No explanations for the missing faces, and it was suicide to ask. Monday morning I cracked open the Sun-Times's Bulls special expecting everyone and everything in its place: Telander's cool wit, Mariotti's perfervid psychoanalysis, Rosenbloom's rim shots.

But Steve Rosenbloom's leonine visage had vanished. Without introduction or explanation, a round-faced somebody named Phil Rosenthal now stared out from Between the Lines.

We live in a free country. Who is he? I asked Bill Adee, the paper's sports editor. "My new star," Adee said. "Phil's taking over from Steve, at least on a temporary kind of tryout basis. He was the entertainment editor of the Los Angeles Daily News. He actually joined the paper a couple of weeks ago. He was going to be my assistant sports editor. Then Steve decided he was going to leave the Sun-Times. Phil is a person I've known a long time-- "

What happened to Rosenbloom?

"Steve's going to the Tribune. I hate to lose Steve, because I'm responsible for getting him in at the Sun-Times. Actually, Phil, Steve, and I all worked at the Los Angeles Daily News together. That's the incestuous relationship the newspaper business is. Then I finally got a chance to get Phil in the door."

The same door Rosenbloom was on his way out of?

"He gave notice Friday. As soon as he walked in my office I knew what he was going to tell me. I knew something was up. I could tell. I know that look on somebody's face. I've seen it before."

"Actually," says Rosenbloom, "the Sun-Times came to me three months ago and said they'd like to do right by me. You know, if the vault were open what would you like? I submitted a wish list, as I was encouraged to do by the editor, Nigel Wade, and in the course of discussing it he sort of blanched at some of the things I requested. And in the interim I did nothing but seemingly work every stinking playoff game there was. It's a time when everyone's looking, and I wanted to be in the paper a lot. And while I was doing that, the Tribune came to me and began discussing things. They said, we really like what you're doing and want you doing it for us. I said, if there's a market for being a smart aleck, fine. It's the only act I have. I gave them the same wish list. They met it in some respects, exceeded it in others, and it all came down in ten days--which, given the reputation of the Tribune, is a nanosecond."

Thus that look on Rosenbloom's face, a look minted of regret, adventure, and anticipation of page-one display every day of the week. "The Tribune is putting a lot of support and emphasis on changes in the sports section," he told me. "And I'm one of them."

Rosenbloom gave two weeks' notice but disappeared from the Sun-Times immediately. "I felt funny having him still be part of team Sun-Times when he's not going to be part of team Sun-Times for very long," Adee said. "I figured, why wait to get started on the next version of everything?

He went on, "I love Steve. He's a good friend of mine. We hugged when he left. But Phil's also a great writer. I've been dying to get him in the Sun-Times in some way. It's a different way, but people will be happy with him too. It'll be a little different. I don't know yet whether Phil is as mean as Steve is, but we'll find out."

Are those his marching orders? I asked.

"No, I gave him no marching orders as far as meanness goes. I told him to be himself but tell me something I don't know. Don't rely too much on one-liners and jokes."

Though no one's but Rosenbloom has ever written Between the Lines, Rosenthal was actually present at the creation two and a half years ago. "I named the column," he says. "I forget what they were kicking around at the time. Steve called me, and we brainstormed a little bit. It's kind of weird." Rosenbloom remembers, "We were out in California together. He came up with it on the basis of, if they wanted to start a bus campaign they could simply say 'Read Between the Lines.' He finally gets to write the column he named."

How mean are you? I asked Rosenthal.

"I don't know," he said. "It's an evolving thing. I have no idea what it's going to be. I think the strength of these columns is you tell people things they don't know. You have to be careful you don't just talk to yourself. There has to be one place in every column where people say, I didn't know that."

Rosenthal, who grew up in Chicago and its northern suburbs, wrote sports in LA for the Daily News, became a TV critic for three years, then wrote a more general column planted in entertainment. "A big part of that was the desire to write about and be a part of what matters most to a community," he told me. "I think sports is that here."

Sports sections are the most ruthless competitors in Chicago journalism. The Tribune's has just gone one up. (Rosenbloom debuts there in July.) But the Sun-Times can roll out "Read Between the Lines" whenever it wants to and let that big gun roar. "I think," said Adee, "we'll give Phil a little time to breathe before we start putting him on billboards."

Mysteries of History

Nathan Heller's a private eye who knows truth is stranger than fiction. If a crime didn't actually happen, he turns down the job. Heller's the creation of a writer named Max Allan Collins, but Collins doesn't make the messes Heller tidies up. Whether it's the Lindbergh kidnapping or the assassination of Huey Long, Heller works the side of the street called history.

"What I do," says Collins, explaining his MO, "is pick a real crime, and I prefer there be some mystery about it. I research it as if I'm going to do a nonfiction book, and then mount it in the form of a hard-boiled detective novel and provide my solution, my take on the case."

It's a living. Collins's books sell. He's picked up a couple of Shamus awards from the Private Eye Writers of America, he's had a hand in a few movies, and he even wrote Dick Tracy for 16 years. (A leave-taking from Tribune Media Services, not by mutual consent, gave me reason to write about Collins back in 1993.)

I just read Collins's latest piece of work. Irv Kupcinet's mentioned. Ric Riccardo has a walk-on role. Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters are names dropped. Ben Hecht looms large. Heller's latest caper plunges him into the recesses of Chicago literary history. "I'm real happy with it," said Collins. "It's one of the best Nate Heller stories I've done."

This one was commissioned--and to be listened to. Collins spent last weekend at home in Muscatine, Iowa, reading Kisses of Death, the sort-of-true story of the brutal 1954 murder of Maxwell Bodenheim, into a tape recorder. Collins's wife, Barbara, also a writer, contributed the voices of both Bodenheim's nutty third wife, Ruth Fagin, and Marilyn Monroe. (Heller needed someone around to lust after, and why not the best?)

Bodenheim was a grotesque, a reprobate who earned his oblivion, for a culture sentimentalizes such a misanthrope at its peril. Singular, he was also an archetype, the flamboyant young writer who becomes a drunken monstrosity in middle age, the boon companion who's outgrown, outstripped, and humiliated by a vanishing friend--in his case, Hecht--and sinks into malign envy. Bodenheim once fascinated me, and I wrote a feature on him years ago for the Reader.

"As mysteries go, it's very oddly structured," said Collins, speaking of Kisses of Death, "because it's a 70-page story and the murder doesn't take place until page 58. The vast majority of the story is character studies of Hecht, Bodenheim, Bodenheim's wife, and Marilyn Monroe. There's a certain logic to it, because Heller's father ran a radical bookshop. So Heller grew up around people like Sandburg, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Ben Hecht. The title is a line from a Bodenheim poem. It makes death sound a lot more pleasant than Bodenheim's turned out to be."

Nate Heller enters this 1953 tale when his pal Hecht asks him to babysit Monroe, who's in town to promote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Hecht's working the convention of the American Booksellers Association at the Palmer House (it happened) trying to cook up a deal to ghostwrite Monroe's autobiography (he'd eventually write it). And Hecht takes her to Riccardo's, where he's trying to raise money for Bodenheim, who's been living on the bum in New York with Ruth (true).

Monroe delights Bodenheim by reciting a couple of lines of his poetry: "For Death is a black slave with little silver birds, perched in a sleeping wreath upon his head." In return, Bodenheim ridicules a poem ventured by the actress, reducing her to tears, and he's shortly thrown out of his own fund-raiser. Which raises $12. (Here Collins is conflating a 1952 reunion of surviving Chicago literary renaissance types that Bodenheim was booted from and a Greenwich Village benefit that raised the $12.)

Bodenheim goes back east. Heller follows, with an advance Hecht acquired by negotiating cheap paperback reprints of some of Bodenheim's old novels. But when he breaks into Maxwell and Ruth's furnished room, she's been stabbed and beaten to death, and he's dead with a bullet in his chest (true). Heller leads the cops to the killer.

"It was an idea I had had for about two years," says Beth Baxter, president of B & B Audio. "My original idea was to have someone--not necessarily Max, but a writer of the highest caliber--write a story of a murder or a horror that takes place at the ABA, and have detectives running around the ABA trying to solve the murder. No one would bite. In the meantime I had done some of Max's books. So I mentioned it a year ago to Max. He said, that's possible. Then I mentioned it every two months. Finally he said, that's a great idea."

Next month the ABA meets in Chicago again, and B & B is going to give away Kisses of Death cassettes at its booth. "The ABA is really about book publishing," Baxter explains. "We're a sideline. And B & B Audio is not the biggest audio publishing house. We're a small house within a niche market basically, so it's hard to get attention within the ABA. You really have to be creative, and that's why I did this. It draws attention not only to our company, but to audio books and to Max as well. That's why he was interested in doing it."

Few who listen to Kisses of Death will recognize Collins's one great dramatic compromise. Bodenheim lisped terribly, an affliction no doubt related to a youthful misadventure when he deserted the army, was arrested, and swallowed lye. Collins said he worked on that lisp for a week but then dropped it.

News Bites

A piece in the Chicago Journalist, the newsletter of the Chicago Headline Club, argues that the local media are making too much of Dennis Rodman. To bolster his case, writer Bob Knight cites the Spanish-American War and the Great Depression, and surveys American press history back to 1833.

Last week's edition of KidNews in the Tribune ran a display ad for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which is coming in June to Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre. The idea may be that young readers who ask mom and dad what a whorehouse is will guess there's lots more good stuff in the rest of the paper.

Most unpromising beginning to an editorial in several days. From last Sunday's Sun-Times:

"The quest for honor, especially on the battlefield, is a compelling part of human nature. When that quest extends beyond the war zone, the results can be less than honorable." Meaning what? If you try to be honorable in peacetime you're looking for trouble?

Here's another time-and-place-for-everything pronouncement from the same editorial page:

"Dole and his advisers also should realize that a drastic change in appearance seems condescending to a public that is wise to such overt manipulations."

Or as Morningline might have asked: "Should Bob Dole have waited a few days before taking off his tie?"

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