Editor Kurt Chandler’s monthly letter to our readers.
I love a good murder mystery. Crime stories are the bread and butter of a magazine, and a longtime tradition at this one.
The unsolved murder of Karl Lotharius (“Murder of a Tyrant”) found its way into this magazine through a very roundabout way. Around three years ago, I taught a crime-writing class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I gave journalism students tips on how to track down court documents, autopsy reports, crime-scene videos, eyewitnesses – all the ingredients of a compelling crime narrative.
Last fall, I received a phone call from Zach Brooke, a former student who had taken my UWM class. “I don’t know if you remember me,” he said, “but I’ve been working on a crime story that I’d like to talk to you about.”
Brooke came to the magazine office with a trove of juicy details about a Milwaukee murder from 1981. The victim was the owner of two clubs in town – Oliver’s, a now-defunct Downtown disco, and Von Trier, a popular East Side watering hole on North and Farwell avenues.
As Brooke talked about the case, three elements appealed instantly to my storytelling instincts – the connection to Von Trier (one of my favorite Milwaukee institutions), the connection to the Milwaukee Mafia, and the fact that the deadly deed was done by a bow and arrow.
I was sold. All the components of a fascinating piece of crime reporting, and it virtually fell into my lap. I won’t spoil the story, but only say it includes a few twists and turns that will keep you glued to the page, especially the part about … well, you’ll just have to read it.
Whether the story is murder or meatball sandwiches, writing a magazine piece takes a lot of time and intestinal fortitude. Sometimes literally. Take the case of the elusive Reuben sandwich. In her assignment for our cover story, Associate Editor Claire Hanan was tasked to find the best Reubens in metro Milwaukee.
Her diligence progressed to downright obsession. “Routinely wearing meat juices on my fingers, salad dressing on my cheeks and runaway kraut on my shirt, I realized there is no way to enjoy this sloppy monster in a manner befitting the Duchess of Cambridge,” says Hanan. “Once I let go of this notion, I enjoyed them so much more.”
By the time she put down 13 Reubens, Hanan had become one with the sandwiches. “I compared my blood pressure results pre- and post-Reuben diet,” she says. “They improved! I took this as wholly unscientific proof that I was built for this kind of labor.”
Supervising the sandwich project was our dining critic, Ann Christenson. For every food-writing assignment she approaches, Christenson researches the heck out of the subject before taking a bite. She reads, she Googles, she talks to people. And she eats.
Occasionally, through forced gluttony, she puts her health at risk to get the story. “The problem was, tonsillitis plagued one crucial week of my sandwich diet,” Christenson says. “Swallowing felt like stabbing my throat with pieces of broken glass. But this meant when I was back from my illness, I was back with a vengeance.”
Now that’s dedication. For those of you who think the life of a food writer is, well, a piece of cake, think again. The simple act of eating can be an occupational hazard.