The Lost World of Kup

When Irv Kupcinet, the legendary gossip columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times, died last year, it marked the end of a remarkable era of glamour and intrigue.

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In the days immediately following the death last November of Irv Kupcinet, the legendary Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist, his family prepared for a huge funeral. After all, Kup had spent six decades passing on mostly complimentary scoops about the rich and powerful. Kup’s heyday may have passed-the days when he would be summoned to Joan Crawford’s bedroom, or throw a dinner for an all-star cast of comics in his apartment-but like its author, “Kup’s Column” survived as the friendliest of icons.

Publicity agents plugging their clients, restaurateurs hoping to drum up business, fading celebrities looking for a bit of luster could almost always count on a helpful mention from Kup.

The service would be held at Temple Sholom, on North Lake Shore Drive, the same sanctuary where 1,500 people had turned out for the funeral of Kup’s daughter, Karyn, after her tragic death in Hollywood in 1963. For this event, Kup’s grandson, David Kupcinet, emerged as the family spokesman, and he warned people to arrive early because of the anticipated crowd.

He need not have bothered. Mayor Daley attended, and stayed for the whole service. But just one Hollywood star showed up-Hugh O’Brian, a.k.a. TV’s Wyatt Earp, and he happened to be in town anyway. Hundreds of seats were empty. Maybe 600 people came.

Kup’s funeral turned out to be a deflating finale to a remarkable life. Though “Kup’s Column” had long since lost its spark-for at least two years before he died at 91, Stella Foster, his assistant, had written it-the column survived for the last decade and a half as an echo of another time and another city. That city came alive in the dark. It sparkled with glamour and intrigue and featured Hollywood stars, powerful politicians, mobsters who “owned the night,” as one woman put it, and grateful press agents who sent crates of loot to accommodating reporters. Kup’s Chicago existed largely in a handful of smoky venues with evocative names like the Chez Paree, the London House, the Black Orchid, and Club Alabam. And in those places Irv Kupcinet and his lively, foulmouthed wife, Essee, reigned as royalty. When they walked into a room, “the day is made . . . the evening’s a success,” recalls PR man Martin Janis.

Kup had tapped a friendly style and a talent for listening to move from a tough West Side childhood into a role as the city’s premier gossip columnist. Although he spent his entire career at what became the number-two paper in town, he was the columnist with the most clout-"the column you wanted to be in,” says the former publicist Pat Matsumoto. At his peak, Kup was a celebrity news machine-producing six columns a week, moderating a late-night TV talk show, delivering color commentary on radio for the Chicago Bears.

He went out almost every night, using Booth One at the Pump Room, in the Ambassador East Hotel, as his office and salon. In those days before nonstop cross-country flights, Ernest Byfield, the Pump Room’s founder, would send limousines to Union Station to corral the stars stopping in Chicago en route to New York or Los Angeles. Byfield made certain that celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall would land at Booth One, where Kup and Essee awaited them. A strawberry blonde, dressed and groomed with theatrical flair, Essee once gave the young Marilyn Monroe a disapproving once-over and ushered her into the ladies’ room to show her how to apply makeup.

After four or five hours of sleep, Kup would head back to the newspaper, where he worked the telephone, double-checking, following up leads, evaluating the items hand delivered by press agents. Getting Kup’s ear became so valuable that, starting in the 1950s and continuing for decades, he had flacks working for free as his chauffeurs, pitching items as they drove. One, Frank Casey, a press agent for Warner Bros., would pick up Kup in the morning and deliver him to the Sun-Times. PR man Aaron Cushman was one of the people who staked a claim to the other direction.

As a youngster, Kup’s son, Jerry, never knew whom he would find at dinner in their nine-room apartment, at 442 West Wellington Avenue. It might be Joan Crawford-Jerry remembers her “running up and down the hall with me on her shoulders"-or Bette Davis or Danny Thomas or Carol Channing or Sidney Poitier. Bandleader Stanley Paul recalls a dinner at the Kupcinets’ when “every comedian in the world was there-Jack E. Leonard, Jackie Vernon, Don Rickles, Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr., and Henny Youngman. They were giving jokes to each other. They all knew the punch lines.”

But life wasn’t entirely a floor show for the Kupcinets. Their daughter, Karyn, died in her apartment off Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in 1963, possibly murdered. In her short career as an actress, she claimed to have glimpsed vividly the superficiality of the show-business friendships that thrilled her parents. Although both Kup and Essee contemplated suicide in the aftermath of their daughter’s death, they resumed their breakneck schedules, but neither ever recovered the sheer joy they had known in the life they led. Eventually, changes in the journalism business-including a sharper attention to ethics-turned Kup into a slightly embarrassing anachronism. And his Chicago changed, too-most of his old haunts closed, and the stars jetted over the city en route to either coast.

Still, Kup did not pass quietly. His death triggered the sort of media attention usually reserved for revered politicians. But it was a brief eruption of nostalgia. Kup’s world-cruder, simpler, and certainly a lot more fun-had ended long before.

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