Mike Drew in his home office, where he's stored a few notes.
On a sunny mid-June morning in 1941, all seemed right in my 8-year-old world, centered as it was around a comfortable house in a Chicago Gold Coast suburb. The per capita income in Winnetka was (and is) among the nation’s highest.
Photo by Sara Stathas.
But my striking brunette mother, 35, was teary-eyed and frighteningly solemn as she stared at brother Wally, 6, and me. (Infant sister Lisa was asleep in her crib.)
“There’s been a terrible accident, and I’m so sorry, your daddy was killed. We’re moving to Neenah, Wis., a lovely town where many of my Wausau friends live. Uncle Ben has found us a wonderful house, and you’re going to love it there.”
Wally didn’t get it, and his bossy big brother wanted to make sure he did. Through my tears, I sputtered, “Daddy’s dead and you’re not even crying!”
Soon, everyone was sobbing.
Our destination was a house, all right, but far from wonderful. The tired clapboard structure at 112 Third St. had rats in the coal bin, mice on the first floor and squirrels in the attic adjoining my bedroom. My mother dubbed it “The Snake Pit.”
It was all that the widow Drew and her brother, Ben Heineman, a struggling young Chicago lawyer starting a family of his own, could afford. But thanks to Heineman, his wife Natalie and Social Security, the four Drews could stay together.
It was another huge comedown for a Wausau heiress whose father – a lumber baron, bank director and Republican National Committee member – had lost the family fortune in the stock market crash. Broke and shamed in the early 1930s, he opened a desk drawer, took out a pistol and blew a large hole in his head.
My mother Marion’s privileged life – servants in Wausau, and boarding school and “finishing” school in New York – changed dramatically. But, she’d inherited a small trust that, combined with my dad’s salary as a Chicago coal salesman, handled the lower end of a Winnetka lifestyle.
But then, Ben Drew’s life ended. After spending too much time at the 19th hole after golf with a coal buyer, he was hit and killed by a train.
My father left precious little to his brood, the trust had run out, and my mother suffered her second, and much deeper, plunge in income. Almost overnight, the unemployed “North Shore Nancy” with live-in help became a broke single parent to her ragtag Neenah offspring.
A series of low-paying jobs included a stretch as a feature reporter and columnist for the Appleton Post-Crescent. We wore hand-me-down clothes and dreaded any calls from the grocer or milkman, who swore that they were cutting off our food for nonpayment of bills.
But Ben pitched in, and with his help and my mother’s prickly determination, all three of us graduated from Neenah High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Both siblings turned out very well indeed; sister Lisa and brother Wally achieved big corporate success. Wally became executive vice president of Kimberly-Clark Corp. and president of Menasha Corp., two of Wisconsin’s biggest companies. After top editorial positions at book publishers Doubleday, William Morrow and MacMillan, Lisa wound up as editor and publisher of Lisa Drew books, a prestige imprint of Scribner/Simon & Schuster.
And uncle Ben Heineman? That Wausau native and once-struggling Chicago lawyer became chairman of the Chicago & North Western Railway and later founder and CEO of its spinoff, a mighty 10-company conglomerate called Northwest Industries. He chaired commissions for U.S. presidents, was six-year chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, life trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera and University of Chicago and, at a black tie-optional banquet, was named Chicagoan of the Year.
And I became a journalist.
It was one of those monochromatic, wintry days with which chambers of commerce fill brochures, trying to convince people who love Wisconsin most of the year to hang around for February.
A fresh 6-inch snowfall sugared even branches’ thinnest twigs, and rounded Genessee Depot’s kettles and moraines into giant Henry Mooreish sculptures. I’d just survived my car’s slide into an unartistic roadside kettle en route from my desk at the Milwaukee Journal.
Pulled out of the ditch and back on my way, I found what I hoped was the sequestered estate of two internationally celebrated Wisconsinites. Eight, nine, 10 … yep! The snow-frosted rooftop verified that this was, indeed, the Ten Chimneys residence of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Half of the most honored couple in the English-speaking theater, Fontanne had just recorded Anastasia for NBC-TV’s “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” That March 1967 performance was her first in decades without her spouse, who was directing at the Metropolitan Opera. As it happened, it was the last acting Lynn Fontanne ever did. At least professionally.
Fontanne, who was about 80 – she was always secretive about her birth date – had agreed to promote the show in Wisconsin’s largest newspaper. It was then (and remained) one of the few interviews the Lunts gave at Ten Chimneys to Wisconsin media.
After making a classic theatrical entrance, sweeping down a staircase, Fontanne greeted her visitor and inquired, in her theatrical British accent, “Would you like to see the property?” Was she kidding? For four decades in quaint cottages on these lush, sprawling acres, the era’s finest playwrights crafted the vehicles in which the Lunts toured and played Broadway.
With my nervous help, she pulled on a long mink coat and hat. And off we teetered, past snowdrifts, down slick tire tracks. Fontanne clutched my arm, her mink brushing the snow. Deciding fast that I preferred guiding her to safety more than an eyewitness account of a legend breaking her neck, I clutched right back.
Soon, we arrived at a cabin straight out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. There, we found Lunt, stretched on his back on a plank between two ladders. The latter-day Michelangelo was rosemaling the ceiling (painting in the colorful Norwegian style). He, too, survived, eventually climbed down and helped provide what was probably my most memorable interview in a long, lucky career.
In a performing style they helped develop and then refine, the couple “overlapped” their answers. As an acting technique, that proved far more natural than what had been, pre-Lunt, traditional. If not quite up to the arch drawing room ripostes their pal Nöel Coward wrote for them, their dazzling repartee sounded hip, indeed, to this Milwaukee rube.
Last September, my memories of that magical February day competed successfully with the faux reality of a Milwaukee Repertory Theater imagining of life at Ten Chimneys. I much preferred my “original cast” visit to the Rep’s version of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s fictional Ten Chimneys. Mildly amusing, it was stock exploitative “docudrama,” a made-up story about very real Wisconsin people.
After the play closed, the theater staged another docudrama about a celebrated – but this time temporary – Badger, iconic Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. I know and admire David Maraniss, who wrote the book on which Lombardi was based, but I didn’t join the throngs of Packers fans who made it a major Rep hit.
As it happened, I also knew Lombardi. While assistant sports editor of the Appleton Post-Crescent, I assigned myself to cover the brand-new Green Bay coach’s talk to the Neenah Rotary Club in early 1959.
I knew very little about Lombardi then, but I learned plenty that day. Noting the Packers’ 1-10-1 record the previous year, I cockily confronted him with my belief that he had inherited a rotten offense. “Obviously,” I pontificated to this gnarly and unsmiling onetime member of Fordham University’s famed Seven Blocks of Granite line, “your first job will be to fix that.”
There was silence from the coach and a furious glare that could bring brutal football Hessians to tears. After an uncomfortable pause, Lombardi emitted a roar that seemed to rattle the Valley Inn windows: “Get this, sonny! The first thing I’m building is a DE-fense.”
I simultaneously gulped and controlled my bladder. Things didn’t improve much from that rough start. But the Packers’ new coach had made it clear that he was to be treated with godlike respect.
Later, as his teams were piling Super Bowl trophies on top of NFL championships, I found myself seated next to Vince and Marie Lombardi at a St. Norbert College production of the classic musical Guys and Dolls. I noted that the transplanted New Yorkers weren’t much amused with a production that couldn’t possibly meet their Broadway standards.
My Lunt and Lombardi interviews were among hundreds of fascinating experiences in a charmed career that included one-on-one home visits with Woody Allen, Julie Andrews, Mae West, Robert Wagner, Walter Matthau and Larry (J.R.) Hagman. And three memorable meals at Bob Hope’s Toluca Lake mansion.
There were also dozens of other private interviews – Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, Barbara Walters, Caroline Kennedy and the leading TV journalists of the time: Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, among many others.
I know this name-dropping suggests I am pretty full of myself. Perhaps that was true when the Journal was running my nerdy picture atop my column four or five days a week. But reflecting now on a challenging career doing what might have been the only thing I’m qualified to do, I realize how lucky I was.
I made a living venting my opinions, some half-baked, and firing questions, many dumb, at hundreds of people, many smarter and more interesting than I. I was blessed to have been a white male in the 20th (American) century, working while print still had a mass following.
And lucky indeed to have worked on one of the nation’s most prosperous and honored newspapers, the Milwaukee Journal, in its golden age. A paper that sent its television and theater critics – jobs I held at various times – to Hollywood and New York for six weeks a year. And, periodically, to London and Las Vegas.
In those heady days for print, the Journal and other papers in the nation’s 50 or 60 biggest markets believed staff members had a better sense of their readers’ tastes and interests than the artsy-smartsy print press from the coasts. In response, the TV networks and movie studios staged regular “press tours,” bringing critics and columnists from “flyover America” to Hollywood and New York to mingle with and interview stars, producers, directors and executives.
The papers paid for transportation and hotel rooms; the networks – eager for wide coverage of expensive shows – tied press conferences to meals, often in fancy locations. I learned fast that if you skipped network meals for ethical reasons, you missed good stories. Reluctantly, the Journal went along.
One memorable night on the old Queen Mary luxury liner, anchored off Long Beach, Calif., I found myself seated for cocktails and dinner next to the aging but still feisty actor Robert Mitchum. Why on the Queen Mary? Mitchum was playing a ship’s captain in the World War II miniseries “The Winds of War,” and ABC said some of the series was shot there.
Always disdainful of the press, Mitchum had given himself an afternoon’s head start on cocktail hour, breaking a rule that shipboard drinking begins after “the sun sinks under the yardarm.” When I asked him a question he characterized as “stupid,” Mitchum added, “And where did that come from, your (bleep)?”
Immediately, two ABC flacks lifted him out of his chair and the room, and eventually off the ship, missing dinner and the general press conference. My colleagues were not amused.
Interview meals weren’t always glamorous. Catching acerbic actor Walter Matthau in his Pacific Palisades mansion before one of his trips to the Santa Anita racetrack, I was asked to join him in the kitchen. There, Matthau dined on a steak; I got cheese and crackers.