It was a room on the third floor of the Harold Washington Library, a room few go into when pdfs and scans are available from the comfort of home. The old microfilm is unused and cracking — the Daily News records for 1921 have split to the point where the black buffer of tape is gone and the roll starts mid-issue.
The Chicago Herald records from 1917 were in better shape.
The choice was between a projector that sticks and one that won’t rewind. Whirring, churning, slugging by under draining yellow lights, the Herald’s takes on World War I, Pancho Villa and long-forgotten murders du jour lurched by my eyes, filling me with a whirring, churning, slugging nausea.
But I had to prove this project was inspired by Ben Hecht’s “1001 Afternoons in Chicago,” and not by the author of a 1950 guide to sleaze.
A Joliet Josie
I recently checked out “Chicago: Confidential!” by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. It’s a tawdry tour book of the sin side of Chicago, telling everything from the price of a good hooker to local euphemisms for Jews and jailbait (“Canadian” and “Joliet Josie,” respectively).
Flipping through this historic novelty, I came upon this line about Jack Lait, one of the authors:
“Jack Lait hit a peak on the Chicago Herald, where he knocked out a daily column called ‘1,001 Chicago Nights.’”
I read it again. Still there. I closed the book and opened it again. Still there. A day later and a pretty pretty please to the skies, it was still there.
The sole confirmation online was a Library of Congress Catalogue of Copyright Entries attributing two “1,001 Chicago nights” stories to Lait (Jack) with the copyright owned by J. Keeley.
It was from 1917, four years before Hecht started his own 1,001 stories.
Is my knockoff… of a knockoff?
Confessions of a Chicago Cutie
Part of the reason I wanted to disprove this was because “Chicago: Confidential!” is a pretty reprehensible book, even correcting for the prejudices of the era.
Hecht’s 1920s project had whole stories written in faux-black “yassuh” voices, but described the speaker as a human being, something Lait and Mortimer couldn’t pull off nearly 30 years later.
Lait and Mortimer listed prices for black prostitutes based on how “high-yaller” they were. The speakers at Bughouse Square were “homos, pinkos, nature lovers and nuts.” Even the “Little Tokyo” chapter, which spent a surprising amount of time highlighting the injustice of wartime internment by the U.S. government, started with “Want a little Geisha girl?”
If Hecht at his worst wrote with a sneer, Lait and Mortimer wrote with a cackle, laying out the sins of the poor for the titillation of the upstanding.
So, yeah. I don’t want this project to be Jack Lait’s heir.
A two-fisted man
In 1914, Chicago Tribune editor and “magnetic, two-fisted” former London newsie James Keeley bought the Chicago Record-Herald and the Chicago Inter-Ocean out of receivership to merge them as the “Chicago Record-Herald and Inter-Ocean.”
One reader contest later, it became the Chicago Herald, a name it kept until Keeley sold it off to William Randolph Hearst in 1918. Hearst wanted to eliminate the competition by merging it with his Chicago Examiner, and get an AP shop to boot.
But for four years, Keeley got to run the paper he wanted, a beautifully illustrated, vibrant affair with war coverage, a true hatred of Pancho Villa and daily fiction stories by his friend, writer Jack Lait.
Although Keeley would heap praises on Lait, calling him “the Human X-Ray” and saying he “has 1001 ideas, and rarely two alike,” his daily stories were fiction the whole time, a series that included such characters as Gus the Bus, Evelyn the Exquisite Checker, Omaha Slim and Charlie the Wolf.
“1,001 Chicago Nights” was a series within the series, devoted to tales the Old Reporter would tell the Pop-eyed Cub about the good ol’ days of news.
Lait and Hecht both just lifted a title off the Arabian Nights.
The Untold Story
In the room on the Harold Washington’s third floor, I traced the series from “1,001 Chicago Nights No. 29—‘Five-Case.’ Old Counterfeiter ‘Out’” in March 1917 all the way back to “A Thousand and One Chicago Nights No. 15—Gus the Square Hatter. Jimmy Quinn’s Sponsor, Who is Dead” in December 1915 before realizing two things:
- No matter how he spent the ’50s, Lait wrote with love and affection for us common sinners when he was a younger man.
- I was seriously going to hurl on the microfilm if I spent any more time in that room.
I am aware Hecht made up stories out of whole cloth, even filling his autobiography with lies. And Hecht’s follow-up “1,001 Afternoons in New York” is stored in libraries’ fiction sections across the nation.
But the goal was truth, even if Hecht lied about it. If I’m deciding the true forebear of this project, I’ll refer to this line from the very first of Hecht’s columns, another gift of the churning microfilm.
The first of the 1001 Afternoons was called “The Untold Story.”
“For a Thousand and One Afternoons is a continued tale that will concern itself not with the puppets of fantasy, but with the more interesting marionettes of reality. The city is a story waiting continually to be told, and this is as true today as it was in the day of Tyre.”
And that’s the story I want to tell, whether or not two men who live on in cracking microfilm told lies in theirs.