I met John McHugh in the autumn of 1966, when I was a cub reporter on the Sun-Times and he was a rewrite man, two years my senior, on the Chicago Daily News. We are still best friends. He worked the overnight shift, and among his duties was taking calls from readers.
After midnight, they wanted to settle bets. "And what do you say?" McHugh would ask. He would listen, and then reply,
"You're 100% correct. Put the other guy on." Pause. "And what do you say?" Pause. "You're 100% correct." If he was asked for his name, he said, "John T. Greatest, spelled with three Ts." He explained, "They can never figure out that that means."
One night in autumn 1969 we found ourselves in the Old Town Gate, three blocks from our customary posts at O'Rourke's Pub.
"I had my first job in Chicago here," he reminisced. "I invented the Roquefort Burger. Somebody ordered a cheeseburger and I, being a dumb Mick, didn't know any better." I told him Roquefort Burgers had long been widely known. "You've got to be shittin' me."
John is one of 10 brothers from Sligo, Yeats Country, on the west coast of Ireland. His father had been a member of the IRA gang that held up the Ulster Bank of Sligo. "They were raising funds for the cause," he explained. "All of the money was never accounted for. Trooper is the only man in Sligo who has a son who graduated from Indiana University." He was entrusted to Indiana under the protection of a cousin in Indianapolis who was a nun. John himself had studied briefly for the priesthood under the Christian Brothers, but was expelled at 15, charged with smoking. There was also some discussion that during his service as the supervising altar boy, certain wedding and funeral tips may have been mislaid.
Late that night at the Gate, we determined to pay a visit to his homeland. David Lean was filming "Ryan's Daughter" on the Dingle Peninsula, and MGM was flying in film critics to visit the location. We traded one first class ticket for a couple of cheap ones. McHugh insisted in sitting in the last row on the Aer Lingus flight, because he had read about a recent crash in which the tail had broken free, and the passengers in back had survived.
John McHugh: "Oh, we're off to Dublin in the green, in the green..." [Photo by Jack Lane]
"Okay, McHugh," I said, "we're thrown free and survive. Now we're in the middle of the ocean. Now what do we do?"
"We swim for shore. Do I have to explain these things to you?" Robert Mitchum, the star of the film, was living in a rented cottage on the edge of town, and drinking Scotch one night while feeding peat to the fire and listening to Jim Reeves records with his man Harold, who had been a paramedic with the Coldstream Guards. They sang along: My heart goes where the wild goose goes... We had accumulated Eugene, John's younger brother, who had fled to London and the brickmason's trade after some trouble at home, but now had returned, the prodigal son.
"Mitch!" Eugene said. "Remember 'Thunder Road,' when you flew into that transformer? What a way to go!"
"I wrote that show," Mitchum said. "Mitch, your blood's worth bottling'."
Trevor Howard was co-starring in the film. "I like to have Trevor with me on a picture," Mitchum said, "because all I have to do is glom him, and I know I'm okay. One night Trevor is in the kitchen making love to a bottle of Chivas Regal and Harold steps out to take a breath of fresh air. He bolts back in. Mitch! Helen Howard has measured her length in the garden, and is passed out cold! We carry her in, put her on the sofa, and fan her back to witness. Harold examines her. I think she's broken her coccyx! We'll have to put her in the Land Rover and drive her 26 miles across that rocky mountain road to Tralee. That's going be bloody difficult on a broken coccyx.
"I thought I had best tell Trevor. Mitch, don't pay a moment's notice, he tells me. She's always pulling these stunts. Helen! Come in here and have a drink! There's a good girl.
"But, Trevor, we have to drive her 26 miles across that rocky mountain road to Tralee. That's going be bloody difficult on a broken coccyx. Right you are, Mitch! Bloody difficult! Most painful! No sense in my going."
MGM paid for a hired car and driver to take us up to Sligo. There, at 77 Tracy Avenue, I met Trooper and several of the brothers, and some of the 10 sisters who lived next door. It was decided to stroll down to John Holland's Pub at the corner of Wolfe Tone Road. "Watch yourself," McHugh cautioned me. "When the Irish aren't watching you, they see every move. And when they're not listening, they hear every word."
In Drumcliffe churchyard: "An ancestor was rector here"
Halfway into the first pint of Guinness in my life, I asked Trooper, "Mr. McHugh, is there a men's room here?" Total silence fell. All were waiting for Trooper's reply: "Well, Rogers, some of the lads, what they do, they step through that door right there." I stepped through, and found myself under the stars, with a concrete drain running alongside the building. When I returned, all eyes were on me. "Did you find it, Rogers?" I had. Trooper nodded with satisfaction. "You've not been to Sligo till you've seen the steam risin' off your piss."
The next day we jammed into a tiny car for a drive up the coast. "I used to patrol this road as an agent of the customs and excise," Trooper explained.
"Tell Ebert what they issued you for the performance of your rounds," McHugh said.
"A bloody bicycle."
John McHugh stands something over six feet tall. I would not call him athletic, although in recent years he has taken up golf. He was clean-shaven in those years, but later started, as he puts it, "cultivating under my nose what grows wild on my ass." He became the great friend of a lifetime. As young men we sowed wild oats. As middle-aged men we harvested. As old men we ripen. Always we laugh.
We flew on to Venice, where McHugh bonded with Lino, the trattoria owner I have written about elsewhere. Although they did not speak a word of each other's languages, McHugh was so successful at communicating that Lino gave him his apron and installed him behind the counter. McHugh has the ability of convincing others they are already his friend.
Sophia Loren was on the mainland, in Padua, filming "The Priest's Wife" with Marcello Mastroianni. Warner Bros. laid on a car to take me over for an interview, and I took along my friend from the Chicago Daily News. We had to rise early on the morning, and I had unfortunately been overserved the night before. On the road, I gave McHugh his instructions: "I've interviewed a lot of these stars and I know the drill. Just keep quiet and they won't know any the better." But when the great beauty swept into the room, I was paralyzed by hangover, drenched with sweat, and speechless. McHugh whipped out his Reporter's Notebook and came to the rescue.
"Miss Loren, is that a tiara you're sportin'?"
"This? It is a hair clip."
"I see." McHugh took notes. "Miss Loren, I understand you recently gave birth. Can you confirm that?"
"Yes, it is true. I had my little Cheepee. When I was pregnant, I had to stay for weeks in a clinic in Switzerland. Now I feel like a true woman. Carlo visits from Rome on weekends. If I never make another film, it is all right with me. Now I am a mother!"
A rest on Hampstead Heath during the Perfect London Walk: With McHugh and Bob Zonka. [Jack Lane]
McHugh nodded and took more notes.
"And in addition to little Cheepee, have you any other hobbies?"
"You call my baby a hobby?"
"I meant...like poker, or something?"
Later on that trip, we found ourselves in Rome, at the famous Hotel Excelsior on the Via Veneto. The bartender, Luigi, displayed a framed certificate attesting that he had placed second in the world cocktail-mixing competition at San Diego.
"If you don't mind my asking, what do you do?" he inquired.
"I'm in the movie business," John said.
"Are you an actor?"
"Luigi, I buy 'em and I sell 'em."
"Oh, my. Do you see that gentleman in the corner?"
McHugh turned to look. "Luigi, I know everybody in Hollywood, but I've never seen him before."
"That is Omar Sharif!"
"McHugh look a longer look. "Luigi," he confided, "he looks bad."
"And coming in just now, it is King Constantine of Greece. He stays here in the hotel. His wife, she has just had a baby!"
The King presented a cigar to Omar Sharif. McHugh observed this closely. The King, smiling happily, walked over and presented him with a cigar. McHugh accepted it, ran it under his nose, placed it in his vest pocket, and slapped him heartily on the back:
"King, you're one of the best!"
As the son of an IRA man, McHugh has a certain disdain for royalty and aristocracy. "The McHughs were the kings of Sligo until the British invaded," he explained. We went one day to visit Yeats' grave. Yeats was a Protestant, but a great poet, and McHugh knew yards of his work. At some point during every evening he would intone:
Too long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart. O when may it suffice? That is Heaven's part, our part To murmur name upon name, As a mother names her child When sleep at last has come On limbs that had run wild.
On limestone quarried near the spot By his command these words are cut: Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by!
The light of evening, Lissadell, Great windows open to the south, Two girls in silk kimonos, both Beautiful, one a gazelle.
O'Rourke's Pub at 319 W. North Avenue, in the 1970s [Jack Lane]
One owner was Jay Kovar, who smoked Pall Malls, drank half shots all evening without getting drunk, and was the study of countless alcoholics who tried to figure out how he did it. The other owner was Jeanette Sullivan, who was Japanese. Nelson had a crush on her. One night he and Tom Fitzpatrick, the Pulitzer winner, threw shot glasses at each other. At a certain point during many evenings, John would call out, "Jay! Clear the bar! I want to drink by myself!"
We had our own Sun-Times delivery truck. Red Connolly would make O'Rourke's his last stop of the night. One night Cliff Robertson was in the bar, and had fallen under its spell. Red offered to give us all a lift to Oxford's Pub on Lincoln Avenue, which was a late-night joint. We piled into the back of his big red Sun-Times truck: Robertson, McHugh, a bagpipe player, assorted other regulars, and Good Sydney Harris. Good Sydney Harris was a Spanish Civil War veteran, not to be confused with the Other Sydney Harris, the Daily News columnist. Good Sydney had fallen into conversation with a dominatrix named Jake, who joined us.
We tied the canvas flaps closed on the back of the truck, because of Red's theory that what we were doing was not technically legal. Jake took off her belt and began to flog Good Sydney. We passed around the Dew. The bagpipe player began "My Bonnie Lassie." We heard the whoop! whoop! of a police prowler, and Red pulled over to the curb.
"Top 'o the mornin', Sergeant!" he said, and handed down copies of the Sun-Times and the Wall Street Journal. The prowler pulled away.
"My last delivery," Red said.
"Chicago," said Cliff Robertson.
John was popular with the ladies, although his girl friend in the 1970s,, Mary Ulrich, who was a banker, once told me: "John's idea of being charming on a date is to look up from the bar, notice me sitting next to him, and say, Mary, me old flower! How long have you been sittin' there?"
John and Miss Mary at Billy Goat's Tavern in the 1970s, with Sam Sianis and the symbol of the famous Chicago Cubs curse.
Miss Mary, for so she was known, was a perfect lady. Skirts instead of pants. Nylons. Heels. Business suits. Every hair in place. She loved the guy. Nobody could figure it out. She cooked for him, mended his shirts, took naughty Polaroids which no one was allowed to see. She hardly drank. She reminded me of Kathleen Carroll, the longtime friend of Billy (Silver Dollar) Baxter. My theory is, after the fun of being with a McHugh or a Baxter, they couldn't easily return to the mainstream.
Mary eventually fell in love with a lawyer, but thanks to John's influence, he was a colorful one. John, in the meantime, had left the Daily News to become a feature writer for Chicago Today, the former Chicago's American. When Mayor Daley the First promised someday that, God willing, the working men of Chicagah will be able to go fishin' in the Chicago River, and catch their lunch, McHugh, sensing a story, went to a sporting goods store and asked what he needed to catch fish in the river. "You should be asking what you can catch from the fish," the salesman said. McHugh went fishing one noontime on the river banks near the Michigan Avenue bridge, and drew quite a crowd.
"The best job in town," he told me. "It's what I dreamed of when I was down in Bloomington that last summer. I had just graduated and had my degree in my pocket. I got a job with the Arab Pest Control, crawling under houses and spraying around bug poison. One day it was about 98 degrees, and a trap door opened above my head. It was the lady of the house.
"It must be hot down there," she says. "Wouldn't you like some nice cold lemonade?"
"I say I would. I stand up through the trap door but don't climb into the kitchen because I'm all covered with sweat, dust and cobwebs. She pours me out a nice big glass from a pitcher from the icebox. Then she calls her little boy into the room.
"Junior," she says, "you take a good look at that man. If you don't study hard and go to college, that's what will happen to you."
John met a woman always referred to as The Old Lady through the newspaper's contest to fulfill its readers' dreams. The Old Lady had never been to the opera. Neither had John. The paper supplied them with two tickets to a Lyric Opera matinee, and before the curtain John took her to lunch in the opera's private Graham Room.
The Old Lady, who took to calling him Johnnie, said she would order the whitefish. After being fed little but seafood, potatoes and corn flakes during the years of wartime rationing, John never ate seafood again. He ordered the roast. Their meals came.
"Johnnie, what's that on my plate?" The Old Lady's eyesight was not good.
"That's a tater. Salt it and eat it,."
She did. Then she reproachfully spit it out on her spoon. "Johnnie," she said, "that was a lemon, wrapped in gauze. By all rights, young man, you deserve a reprimand."
"You silvery-tongued devil."
John continued to visit The Old Lady for as long as she lived, bringing her chocolate ice cream, her favorite.
My attic flat at the Dudak's
"Ebert, I pay you too much to live here," Jim Hoge, the editor of the Sun-Times, told me when he saw the Dudak's house for the first time. For me, the apartment was ideal. It even came furnished. I had lured Hoge and a dozen others upstairs to continue an evening that had started at O'Rourke's. McHugh had just been made jobless when Chicago Today folded. My theory was that Hoge would offer him a job. I was gratified to see them deep in conversation on the sofa.
"How did it go?" I asked.
"Not too well, me old amigo," McHugh said. "He spent an hour and a half telling me all about his problems."
John went to work for NBC News Chicago, as the assignment manager. At one time his two principal anchors were Maury Povich and the legendary Ron Hunter, who was possibly the model for every character in the movie "Anchorman." John liked Maury but found Ron unendurable: "He's so vain that instead of wearing glasses, he has a prescription windshield on his Jaguar."
Anchormen value stories when they can go on the street and be seen in the midst of the action. One day McHugh came up with a juicy assignment for Povich. "The next day, " he said, "Ron Hunter comes into my office, puts his feet up on my desk, and says, John, that was a good story you had for Maury yesterday. What do you have for me today? I tell him, Utter contempt."
At NBC, John met the perpetually sunny Mary Jo Broderick, with whom he has lived happily now for many years. When our great friend Bob Zonka died, John took over editing and publishing his New Buffalo Times for a year. By then, he had come to like southwest Michigan, and he and Mary Jo purchased a comfy little white frame two-story in Three Oaks, the home of a dandy Fourth of July Parade where Shriners circled in formation on their power lawnmowers. John works as as a computer consultant, and Mary Jo is an online commuter who works from home designing the catalog for a company that sells the cheapest possible toys. Think along the lines of Cracker Jack prizes. John and Mary Jo have a dog named Mick Q, not named after the movie director.
Three Oaks, with barely 3,000 souls, has an excellent downtown art theater, the Vickers, which Mary Jo faithfully attends every week. McHugh never goes. When he was a child, once a year he was delegated to take all of his brothers to the movies. "It was always the same show: 'How Green Was My Valley.' Every time I saw it, nine months later I'd have another brother." Why do I like this guy? We get along. We are amused by one another. We were eyewitnesses to all the stories, and never get tired of hearing them, although normal people do. He is a conservative, I am a liberal, but we have given up on each other. We drank together, and we stopped drinking together. That will make a bond. He introduced me to Mary Jo. He never gets in fights. In O'Rourke's, he was always the peacemaker. He pulled me away from those neo-Nazi skinheads in Amsterdam that time. He dragged me free from the gendarmes who were pounding me with rubber batons during the 1968 student riots in Paris. As the second oldest of ten, he knows how to make any baby stop crying. He defeats me at chess. He loves poetry and never goes for long without quoting some. We are both astonished at human nature. We are very well-informed. He buys his golf shoes from his poker earnings. I refuse to learn golf. Our friend Ivan Bloom says John's insistence on the rules of the game "borders upon the homicidal." When Chaz and I visit, we feel just like we're at home.
Mary Jo and John, at home in Three Oaks. [Ebert]
I lived at 2437 N. Burling for most of the years between 1967 and 1977. Then I bought a coach house behind the Four Farthings Pub on Lincoln Avenue. I held a house warming, at which one of the guests was our friend Sherman Wolf, a nice guy, a really nice guy, which helps explain this story.
Sherman found me in the kitchen, and said, "Congratulations on your new house! You've worked hard and you deserve it. It's a real step up from that pig-pen you used to live in."
"Sherman," I said, "I don't believe you've met my landlady from Burling Street, Mrs. Dudak."
Sherman turned red as a fire plug. "Oh my God!" he said. "Oh, Mrs. Dudak, actually it was a very nice place, the rent was low, Roger was happy there, I was just trying to think of something nice to say to Roger."
"Now Sherman, don't you apologize for a thing. It was time Roger found something better, and we're happy for him."
Sherman fled to the deck outside the kitchen door. McHugh was sitting out there.
"How are you, Sherman?"
"Oh God, John, I'm so embarrassed I could crawl into a hole. I just told Roger this place was a lot better than that pig-pen he used to live in, and who was standing right there but Mrs. Dudak!"
"I'll bet that made you feel awful," John said.
"It's one of those things you can never take back," Sherman said.
"Sherman," John said, "I don't believe you've ever met Mister Dudak, who is sitting right here next to me."
"And...Sherman? When Roger moved out of the pig-pen, I moved in."
John McHugh's book The New Buffalo Chronicles.
Tom O'Bedlam reads "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," by W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats reads the last lines of "Under Ben Bulben"
Two of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, joined by Pete Seeger, singing: "I Never Will Play the Wild Rover No More"
On the Lake Michigan beach in the early 1990s: Monica Eng, now a Chicago Tribune reporter, McHugh, the poet and writer Patricia Smith, and Milo Zonka, now a city councilman of Palm Bay, Florida, and director of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast.
Popular Blog Posts
A Great Movie is hidden somewhere within "Blade Runner" and "Blade Runner 2049."
A special edition of Thumbnails detailing the recent sexual harassment cases in the entertainment and tech industries...
A column on the lack of diversity in this year's potential Oscar nominees.
No character in “Blade Runner 2049” is more relatably human than Luv.