Mike Royko’s (1932-1997) birthday is today. For those of you outside of the Chicago area, Royko was a gritty, blue collar, sarcastic, humorous newspaper columnist who wrote for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Tribune, always poking at the autocracy of the democratic machine (Mayor Daley senior in particular) and the corruption it created and supported. Royko was the voice of Everyman, much in the tradition of Chicago columnist, Peter Finley Dunne (1867-1936), (who coined “all politics is local” and journalism was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”). Royko often adopted the personna of Slats Grobnik, a Polish-American, who would have conversations about the issues of the day in a bar with a friend.
When Royko was working at the Sun Times, Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. Royko left to go to the Tribune saying, “No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.”
In honor of Royko’s birthday, here is a column he wrote on the unveiling of the Picasso statue on August 16, 1967.
Picasso and the Cultural Rebirth of Chicago
Mayor Daley walked to the white piece of ribbon and put his hand on it. He was about to give it a pull when the photographers yelled for him to wait. He stood there for a minute and gave them that familiar blend of scowl and smile.
It was good that he waited. This was a moment to think about, to savor what was about to happen. In just a moment, with a snap of the mayor’s wrist, Chicago history would be changed. That’s no small occurrence·the cultural rebirth of a big city.
Out there in the neighborhoods and the suburbs, things probably seemed just the same. People worried about the old things·would they move in and would we move out? Or would we move in and would they move out?
But downtown, the leaders of culture and influence were gathered for a historical event and it was reaching a climax with Mayor Daley standing there ready to pull a ribbon.
Thousands waited in and around the Civic Center plaza. They had listened to the speeches about the Picasso thing. They had heard how it was going to change Chicago’s image.
They had heard three clergymen·a priest, a rabbi, and a Protestant minister·offer eloquent prayers. That’s probably a record for a work by Picasso, a dedicated atheist.
And now the mayor was standing there, ready to pull the ribbon.
You could tell it was a big event by the seating. In the first row on the speakers platform was a lady poet. In the second row was Alderman Tom Keane. And in the third row was P. J. Cullerton, the assessor. When Keane and Cullerton sit behind a lady poet, things are changing.
The only alderman in the front row was Tom Rosenberg. And he was there only because it was a cultural event and he is chairman of the City Council’s Culture Committee, which is in charge of preventing aldermen from spitting, swearing, and snoring during meetings.
The whole thing had been somber and serious. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had played classical music. It hadn’t played even one chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Chief Judge John Boyle had said the Picasso would become more famous than the Art Institute’s lions. Boyle has vision.
Someone from the National Council of Arts said it was paying tribute to Mayor Daley. This brought an interested gleam in the eyes of a few ward committeemen.
William Hartmann, the man who thought of the whole thing, told of Picasso’s respect for Mayor Daley. Whenever Hartmann went to see Picasso, the artist asked:
“Is Mayor Daley still mayor of Chicago?”
When Hartmann said this, Mayor Daley bounced up and down in his chair, he laughed so hard. So did a few Republicans in the cheap seats, but they didn’t laugh the same way.
After the ceremony, it came to that final moment the mayor standing there holding the white ribbon.
Then he pulled.
There was a gasp as the light blue covering fell away in several pieces. But it was caused by the basic American fascination for any mechanical feat that goes off as planned.
In an instant the Picasso stood there unveiled for all to see.
Photograph by Sidney J. Kaplan, M.D.
A few people applauded. But at best, it was a smattering of applause. Most of the throng was silent.
They had hoped, you see, that it would be what they had heard it would be.
A woman, maybe. A beautiful soaring woman. That is what many art experts and enthusiasts had promised. They had said that we should wait that we should not believe what we saw in the pictures.
If it was a woman, then art experts should put away their books and spend more time in girlie joints.
The silence grew. Then people turned and looked at each other. Some shrugged. Some smiled. Some just stood there, frowning or blank-faced.
Most just turned and walked away. The weakest pinch-hitter on the Cubs receives more cheers.
They had wanted to be moved by it. They wouldn’t have stood there if they didn’t want to believe what they had been told that it would be a fine thing.
But anyone who didn’t have a closed mind·which means thinking that anything with the name Picasso connected must be wonderful could see that it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing.
That is all there is to it. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago. And from thousands of miles away, accidentally or on purpose, Picasso captured it.
Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the Summerdale scandal cops, the settlers who took the Indians but good.
Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.
It has the look of the dope pusher and of the syndicate technician as he looks for just the right wire to splice the bomb to.
Any bigtime real estate operator will be able to look into the face of the Picasso and see the spirit that makes the city’s rebuilding possible and profitable.
It has the look of the big corporate executive who comes face to face with the reality of how much water pollution his company is responsible for and then thinks of the profit and loss and of his salary.
It is all there in that Picasso thing the I Will spirit. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.
Picasso has never been here, they say. You’d think he’s been riding the L all his life.