If you believe in ghosts — and you would not be alone: a Harris poll late in 2013 reported some 42 percent of Americans do believe in ghosts — it would have been a good idea a couple of weeks ago for the ghost of Nelson Algren to have dropped into Stefani's 437, a restaurant/bar on the corner of Rush and Hubbard streets, in the shadow of buildings old (Wrigley) and new (Trump Tower).
Algren's ghost would have felt comfortable, because this is familiar ground. When Algren was alive and the place was known as Riccardo's, he spent many days and long nights there eating, drinking, flirting and talking. He would not have recognized any of the faces that recent night, the living people who were in Stefani's. Oh, he might have found something familiar about me, though I certainly don't look anything like I did when he left Chicago in 1975, and I look nothing at all like I did when he first met me, when I was a child. He was great friends with my parents, dedicating an edition of one of his books to them. He has been dead since May 9, 1981, his body discovered after suffering a heart attack in his house in Sag Harbor on Long Island, N.Y.
Another reason it would have been good for the ghost to have visited Stefani's was that his heart might have been warmed (do ghosts have hearts?) by eavesdropping on the conversation I was having with a young writer. Colin Asher had arrived a few days before by car from his home in Brooklyn and was burying himself during the day in the files and archives of the Newberry Library, doing research on an Algren biography that he hopes to see published in 2016.
"I am very excited to be doing this," Asher said. "I want to do him some justice."
Algren is one of the writers whose work has helped shaped the image of the city, in such novels as those I consider his best, "Never Come Morning" (1942) and "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1949) and that oft-quoted love-hate prose poem "Chicago: City on the Make" (1951): "Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real."
For those works and others — "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own" ("A Walk on the Wild Side," 1956) — he is remembered and revered by many. Since 1986 the Tribune has presented its annual Nelson Algren Awards for short stories; there are frequent gatherings of Algren fans (the Nelson Committee is holding a bash March 29 — call 773-960-8895 for more information) and a documentary film long in the works about his life.
It has ever been interesting to me why and how some writers "live on" after death and others fade away. You don't hear much about such bygone onetime local literary giants as Willard Motley or John Bartlow Martin, do you? Of course, Carl Sandburg, being loudly celebrated now on the 100th anniversary of his "Chicago" poem, is powerfully with us still: "Hog Butcher for the World … City of the Big Shoulders."
In addition to digging through old papers and letters, Asher has spoken and will be speaking with people who knew Algren in his later years, to devoted admirers and keepers of the flame, most prominently Art Shay, the ageless photographer/writer who was among Algren's closest pals.
Asher, who is 32 and was born and raised in Brooklyn, dropped out of high school at 16 and discovered Algren's work after later going to college and starting a career as a freelance writer in 2007. "Writers like (Philip) Roth and (Don) DeLillo just didn't mean anything to me, but I couldn't get Algren out of my head. I read everything of his at a gallop," he says.
He is married to a public defender named Nora and teaches composition at a community college. The couple has a 2-year-old son named Dante.
In January 2013, Asher wrote a lengthy, detailed and loving piece about Algren for The Believer magazine. This attracted the attention of Tom Mayer, an editor at W.W. Norton & Co., the respected New York publishing house. A formal deal for an Algren book was struck in September.
There has been one Algren biography, 1989's "Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side," by Bettina Drew, a fairly well-received but relatively academic book.
"(Drew) did some remarkable research," Asher says. "She nails down all the key facts of his life, but I am going beyond those to get at the man. Algren was a very complicated man."
Indeed, and it will be fascinating to see how Asher draws his portrait.
Asher said his work at the Newberry had been "very fruitful. It's an amazing place."
It is. If you have never visited, you should, maybe on March 12 for its free celebration of Sandburg (newberry.org).
One particular item in its collection is of special note, since the Academy Awards will be handed out tonight.
Chicago newspaperman, novelist and playwright ("The Front Page") Ben Hecht long ago left town and eventually wound up in Hollywood. At the first Academy Awards presentation in 1929, he won the first Oscar for screenwriting (at the time the category was called "best original story"). The film was 1927's "Underworld," generally regarded as the first gangster movie.
That Oscar is housed at the Newberry. Anybody remember Hecht?
"After Hours with Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.