Columnist visits Hyde Park

By Jeffrey Bishku-Aykul
Assistant to the Editor

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, author of the 2012 book, “You Were Never in Chicago” gave a talk to a small audience in the basement of Blackstone Library, 4949 S. Lake Park Ave., last Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 6 p.m., as part of the Friends of Blackstone Branch Library’s Despres Family Memorial Lecture Series.

Organization chair Brenda Sawyer introduced Steinberg, a past contributor to the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone magazine and the author of several books, including a memoir, “Drunkard,” detailing his experience as an alcoholic and a notorious 2005 incident in which he “slapped” his wife and was sent to jail.

“I always just sort of wing these,” the writer announced during the beginning of his talk, a fast-paced and sometimes humorous, meandering series of musings and anecdotes about his life and work.

The author discussed his latest book, on sale at the talk that evening. Asked by the University of Chicago Press to write a book on the city, the Northbrook resident said he published “a book about outsiders.”

Its title, he noted, hails from a postcard by a reader of writer A.J. Liebling. Liebling’s 1952 New Yorker essays chronicling his time in the city, “Chicago: The Second City,” were met with backlash.

“You Were Never in Chicago,” Steinberg said, argues that “by not being here you’re not part of the structure of compromise.”

In an approximately hour-long presentation and question-and-answer session, the columnist also touched upon a slew of topics, including: the volatile state of contemporary journalism, Carol Mosely-Braun’s criticism of him, his book on President John F. Kennedy and the end of hats as fashionable menswear (“Hatless Jack”), and what Englewood rapper Chief Keef represents.

Steinberg told his audience that he assumes that corruption exists — “It’s not that interesting to me” — and that he doesn’t think Mayor Daley will write a book: “It’s not that Mayor Daley doesn’t know anything.” Insiders, he argued, “don’t rock the boat.”

At one point an African American audience member lauded Steinberg’s “dead on” writing on race, and asked about the columnist’s “fearlessness” in approaching the issue.

“It’s not fearlessness on my part, it’s interest,” he said, adding that he felt he could still weigh in on the matter as a white man.

Famous names dotted Steinberg’s presentation, in which he spoke of meeting lecture series namesake Ald. Leon Despres (5th), Michael Jordan, Oprah and Ann Landers, as well as provoking an angry phone call from Barack Obama for a column challenging the then-Senator’s personal ethnic identity in the context of his visit to Kenya.

The exchange was the columnist’s last with Obama, and though he noted he was not invited to the White House he said he did not regret writing the piece.