Roger Ebert: A Life in the Movies

FROM DECEMBER 2005: He was an eager young man fresh from Urbana when he started reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times more than three decades ago. His intervening years have featured unimagined success, abiding friendships, too much booze (for a time), the death of a colleague, bouts with cancer, and (rather late) lasting love. His passion for film has made Ebert a bigger star than many of the people he writes about.

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Primary Colors

In the early 1980s, Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post and a movie buff, summoned Ebert to her office. “Now, I just want to know one thing,” she asked him. “Do you like the movies? Because the critic we have now, he doesn’t seem to like them very much.” She told Ebert that she didn’t care if he continued to live in Chicago as long as he was a presence at Washington cocktail parties and openings. He said no, just as he did to several other papers, including the Tribune. Mary Knoblauch, by then an editor there, says that she was asked more than once to approach him.

Ebert cherishes the Sun-Times. “No matter who owned it, no matter who dragged it in the gutter, savaged it, ravaged it,” says John McHugh, “Roger always believed that the Sun-Times was the best paper in Chicago.” Friends say he loves it for its underdog status, its gritty, urban, workingman feel. When Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in late 1983, Ebert calmed colleagues who said they could not work for the media mogul: “It’s my paper,” he told them. “He only owns it.” The current Sun-Times editor, John Barron, calls Ebert “our best-known asset, the guy who really helps us to sell newspapers.”

The bar at the top of the paper’s Web site has the usual tabs for news, sports, and business, but it also has a tab marked “Ebert,” which, since October 2004, has taken the browser to Ebert’s own Web site, rogerebert.com. It carries all his reviews and other writing dating back to 1967. “It’s my archive, my life’s work,” he says.

John McHugh liked to argue that Ebert had wasted himself on the movies and that he was born to be a serious political writer in the mold of a Walter Lippmann. But the Sun-Times has also served as a soapbox for Ebert’s liberal opinions—against his paper’s endorsement of George W. Bush in 2000, for example. At what other paper does the film critic get to offer political or social commentary whenever he feels like it? “Everything gets in,” says Barron. “He has never been turned down on anything.”

Ebert’s unwavering liberalism defines him as much as his opinions on film. He comes by his politics naturally. Both of his parents were Democrats—his father was a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. At the University of Illinois, Ebert was almost passed over for the top job on The Daily Illini because some members of the board feared he was a radical. (He was a member of SDS—Students for a Democratic Society—but “before they started making bombs,” he says.)

Ebert’s sympathies are so strong, and his position at the paper so secure, that in the fall of 2004, when the Chicago Newspaper Guild reached an impasse with management, he wrote an open e-mail to the publisher, John Cruickshank, pledging to walk out with his colleagues if a new agreement was not struck. Ebert explained to a reporter that his father would haunt him if he ever crossed a picket line.

In an e-mail back, the paper’s former chief executive, Conrad Black—who by then had been removed from his position because of alleged financial shenanigans—chided Ebert for his “proletarian posturing” while hauling in more than $500,000 a year in salary. Black made sure that the Tribune saw a copy of the e-mail. Ebert countered, “For years my reviews and other writings have represented more than half the total hits on the Sun-Times Web site.”

Today, Ebert does not have much bad to say about Black (“more of a Tory than he was an American right winger”) or about the former publisher David Radler (“a charming guy, a good conversationalist”), also removed, in his case for fraudulent dealings. Nigel Wade, a former editor of the Sun-Times, says the two Canadian businessmen did not return Ebert’s affections. “Conrad and David had no taste at all for his Guild sympathies—especially since they were paying him so well,” says Wade. “Neither trusted him and would have replaced him with someone cheaper if they had thought they could.”
 

Moonstruck

In 1985, Ebert hired a friend, Sally Sinden, the unmarried mother of a baby son, to watch over the renovation of his recently purchased three-story Victorian house at 2114 North Cleveland Avenue. Although she was younger than Ebert, she describes herself as “always like the big sister.” The house itself wasn’t the only thing that needed renovating. When Ebert returned from trips, he would dump the contents of his suitcases on a long Victorian fainting couch in his bedroom. The pile crept higher as he bought new underwear, socks, and other staples, wore them, and tossed them on top.

Sinden took it upon herself to unpack his suitcases and wash and put away his clothes. She organized another mountain, this one composed of papers, books, records, and magazines. “He was like this brilliant absent-minded professor,” she says. Then she tackled his refrigerator. “There were things in [there] that were just scary.” She started doing his grocery shopping, paying his bills, feeding his cats, taking phone calls, making travel arrangements, and transcribing tapes.

Sinden transformed the job into that of a full-time personal assistant to a man who appeared to be a confirmed bachelor. Still, friends knew he was aching to find someone; that as busy as he was, he was lonely, especially when he was traveling. He said often that what he admired most about Gene Siskel was his devoted marriage and his obvious love for his wife and children.

Ebert’s mother, Annabel, presented something of an obstacle. “She didn’t want me to marry a divorced woman with three kids,” Ebert says. Friends believe the thought of her son taking responsibility for another man’s children bothered her most—more even than defying the teachings of the Catholic Church. For a short time, Ebert dated an Israeli woman, whom Annabel liked. “The girl was Jewish,” Ebert says, “but that wasn’t a problem because she was single” and childless.

At parties in Chicago, recalls Ebert’s friend Regan Burke, “Annabel was always pulling us aside and whispering, ‘Do you think Roger will ever get married? Do you think he’s ever going to lose weight?’”

“After the funeral, he better get his tuxedo ready,” one friend used to joke, meaning that Ebert would not get married until his mother died.

She died in 1987 and, a year later, Ebert met an attorney, a strikingly attractive African American, Charlie “Chaz” Hammel-Smith, a divorced mother of two. The marriage proposal, Chaz recalls, came during the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo while they were sitting outside eating ice cream. She does not remember if she said yes immediately. They were married in July 1992 at the Fourth Presbyterian Church; the reception was held at the Drake hotel, across Michigan Avenue. Regan Burke describes it as “something out of a Merchant/Ivory film”—the room was filled with white lilies; the chairs were covered in white. Among the guests were Eppie Lederer (a.k.a. Ann Landers), Mike Royko, and Russ Meyer. Roger was 50; Chaz, in her early 40s (she will not specify her age).

“I’ll never be lonely again,” Roger said, toasting Chaz at the reception. When he was sick with cancer, she was at his side. Last summer at the Chicago Cultural Center during Roger Ebert Day in Chicago, when Chaz paid tribute to her husband from the stage, he rose from his front-row seat, with his arms extended, as if to hug his wife of 13 years.

The second youngest of nine children, Chaz Hammel grew up on the Near West Side of Chicago and graduated from Crane High School. Her late father worked in the stockyards and, after they closed, drove a taxi. Her late mother, nicknamed “Big Mama,” was a spiritualist minister and a Democratic precinct captain. Chaz eloped “very early,” she says. She graduated from the University of Dubuque in 1973 and earned a law degree from DePaul. Admitted to the bar in 1977, she describes her career as having been a mix of private and public practice, including environmental and civil rights litigation and work as a trial lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After her marriage to Ebert she stopped practicing law and gave up her license. Today she holds the title of vice president of The Ebert Company.

Chaz likes to write and would like to write for publication. But she recalls once going to their Michigan house with Roger and putting their computers back to back in the upstairs study. Roger’s fingers “flying across” the keyboard distracted her. “I got so frustrated,” she says, “I wanted to take his computer and throw it out the window.”

An enthusiastic Democrat, she supported Bill Clinton, volunteered in both the Gore and Kerry campaigns, and has organized two fundraisers for Hillary Clinton.

Friends say that Chaz takes care of Ebert and has made him, McHugh says, “less boisterous, not as big a party animal.” Joe Antelo credits her with “saving Roger’s life because she got him off the junk food; he was the world’s worst eater.” (Pre-Chaz he would diet all day, then eat a Tombstone pizza and ice cream just before going to bed.) Chaz admits that she has gained significant weight since their marriage. “I was small when Roger and I got together,” she says.

She has also given this only child whose close relatives, including his beloved Aunt Martha, are all dead a ready-made family—Chaz’s son and daughter and four grandchildren. “He is so grateful to have a family,” says Marsha Jordan, his producer at WLS-TV (for which he reviews and reports regularly). “This woman came along at a time when she brought exactly what he needed.” He and Chaz often take the children and grandchildren on long European vacations; recently they sailed on a barge in France.

Some old friends, including many of Ebert’s former drinking buddies, do not see much of him these days and, when they do, it is usually when Chaz is away. The Fourth of July parties at the house in Michigan have stopped. Regan Burke reminisces about how Roger would “invite all kinds of misfits to parties on the weekends in the summer, so they could enjoy something they’d never otherwise be able to enjoy, and then Chaz takes him out of that.” Ebert counters that the Fourth of July parties, run by Chaz, became such a “hot ticket” that they grew out of control and it was time to move on.

An Anglophile since traveling to London to visit Dan Curley in the mid-1960s, Ebert once favored ratty corduroy jackets with elbow patches; now he has a tailor from Hong Kong who comes every year on a U.S. tour and custom makes his suits. During a meeting with this reporter at the University Club, Ebert sported a straw hat and English wingtips and later volunteered that he was interested in British toiletries.

His beachfront stone mansion in Berrien County, Michigan, resembles an English country house. “When we get there, the look on Roger’s face changes,” says Chaz. “He absolutely and totally relaxes there in a way that he doesn’t anywhere else.” Ebert and Ingrid found the property shortly before he met Chaz. He paid $600,000 for it in 1989. “You’ve probably heard that he likes it better than I do,” Chaz says. But she made countless suggestions, her husband recalls, during the almost yearlong renovation. There is no mistaking Chaz’s pleasure in their house in Lincoln Park, for which they paid $1.85 million in 1992. “We found it together; we decorated it together,” she says. The five-story place is dramatic, with a stunning atrium that shows off three large paintings by the British abstract expressionist Gillian Ayres; there is an elevator, a 14-seat screening room, and an exercise room at the top.

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