My favorite Chicago newspaperman (and also my least favorite, because he's sort of a prick in the way that I am sort of a prick) is Neil Steinberg.
The Chicago Sun-Times columnist last week wrote something on his blog that I'd-a written myself if I could-a laid tongue to it.
It was about two people who died recently: the journalist Lillian Ross, who was criticized in her life for writing honestly about people, and tbe boxer Jake LaMotta, who accepted the cinematic portrayal of his brutal life in "Raging Bull," because, "I realized it was true."
In his post, Steinberg was more interested in defending Ross against her critics, who thought she hurt the subjects she wrote unflatteringly about.
I am more interested in LaMotta's reaction, which is the reaction I have almost invariably received from subjects of profiles I have written. I think often of a Chicago Tribune magazine profile I wrote almost 20 years ago, of a Chicago blacksmith and canoe-builder named Ralph Frese, now dead. He was an ocean of knowledge and charisma, but also a pretty self-loving, not to say narcissistic guy. When the day I spent with him was over, I was glad. And so my profile contained passages like this:
Ralph Frese practices an old-world brand of customer service; the assumption is that the customer is not always right, and more often ignorant.
One afternoon [Frese's employee] sends a customer into the blacksmith shop to ask Frese a few questions. The young man announces that he wants to take three weeks this summer to float down the Mississippi River in a canoe, all the way to New Orleans. Does Frese have any advice?
Frese doesn't look up from his work. "You can make that trip in three weeks if you have a canoe with a rocket attached," he says, adding that the Mississippi is not just far and too long but also terribly wide for enjoyable canoeing. Besides, its banks are almost featureless as one approaches the Gulf of Mexico.
Frese says nothing else for so long that the deflated young man appears to consider leaving; apparently oblivious, Frese goes on heating, pounding, grinding, quenching, tempering and polishing the blunt steel bars into fine tools.
("I come on real strong, and I've probably intimidated a lot of people over the years," Frese says later with a shrug. "Big deal.")
The next time I visited Frese's shop, shortly after the article was published, he took my hand in his—which I had described in the article as a "meat mitt"—and gripped it so hard I dropped to my knees in the gravel parking lot. "Your article made my wife happy," he said as I involuntarily knelt. "So it made me happy, too."
Mine was hardly the first article Frese's wife had read about him. But it might well have been the first one in which she recognized the prickly, brilliant man she went to bed with every night.
That's happened to me over and over and over again in my writing career, with only one exception that I can remember. I wrote a profile of a Napoleonic suburban Chicago mayor and word got back to me that when it came out he ordered his henchmen to buy up and dispose of every copy of Chicago Magazine in Bolingbrook. That was satisfying.
But overwhelmingly, Neil Steinberg is right when he concludes that "truth is itself a kindness, more flattering than a bucket of honeyed lies."
Meet the late Ralph Frese and his wife Rita—and his meat mitts—in this 2006 public TV program.