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Curt Johnson: “It’s my magazine.”
Last year, in her acclaimed biography of the writer Raymond Carver, Carol Sklenicka zeroed in on the little Chicago literary magazine December, which had published Carver during his long, impoverished apprenticeship. Sklenicka also introduced the magazine’s publisher, Curt Johnson, as the great champion of Carver—and of struggling would-be writers everywhere.
I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Chicago’s literary past, but I had never heard of Johnson, who died in Highland Park in 2008. It turns out I had much to learn about this remarkable character, a variation on the archetypal writer/editor who publishes relentlessly but lives in virtual obscurity. Holding down journeyman writing jobs by day, Johnson turned literary at night. Shrouded in tobacco smoke and seated in front of a typewriter or yellow legal pad, he composed novels, essays, and scores of short stories. From 1962 until his death, he also oversaw December: A Magazine of the Arts and Opinion, as well as books released by his December Press.
For the most part, the literary establishment ignored Johnson, and that (to use his own expression) pissed him off. It especially irked him that Chicago turned its back on him, though time and his own quirky humor eventually tempered his anger. Says his friend and collaborator R. Craig Sautter, who teaches at DePaul University: “Curt would find it infinitely amusing that Chicago magazine is writing a story about him after he’s dead.”
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In his 2004 memoir, Little by Little, or How I Won the War, Johnson recalled a boyhood that was both “nothing remarkable” and “idyllic.” He was born in Minneapolis on May 26, 1928, and grew up in a white two-story house on Minnehaha Avenue not far from the Mississippi River. Money was tight—Curt’s father, an employee of the Ralston-Purina Company, took some Depression-era pay cuts—but there were regular visits to the state fair and the Walker Art Center, and, occasionally, movies and big bands at the Orpheum Theatre and chocolate malts at Bridgeman’s. At school, teachers praised the boy’s academic skills, which left him with the impression that he was (as he later wrote) “truly a superior child.”
But the persistent dark circles beneath Curt’s eyes hinted at a less rosy reality, one colored by Lutheran guilt, the Nazi threat in Europe, and the boy’s inability to meet the high expectations of his mother. “In later years he was consistently trying to frame her as being a really good mother,” says Johnson’s daughter, Paula. “But it was clear she had been an extremely frustrated person and so hard on my dad. She was just very unhappy and didn’t hide it.”
After two years in the navy, Johnson earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in American civilization at the University of Iowa. While there, he occasionally stopped by the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and picked up the students’ stories. “I’d take a copy home and read it and almost always say to myself, ‘I can do better than that,’” Johnson recalled in later years. “Eventually I had to put up or shut up.”
Following graduation, Johnson lit out for Chicago with his wife, Jo Ann Lekwa, whom he had met in college. “She wowed him,” says Paula. “She was one of the most beautiful people my dad had ever seen.” A writer and editor, Johnson landed at Popular Mechanics, which in 1954 published his first book, How to Restore Antique and Classic Cars (written with George Uskali).
After their son, Mark, was born, in 1956, the Johnsons moved to Western Springs. “We had this funky house, built in the late 1800s,” recalls Paula, who was born in 1959. “My parents were the great unknowns in the community,” she says. “They didn’t go to church, didn’t go to school functions”—but when their elderly neighbors wanted a patio, Curt Johnson built them one.
Over the years, Johnson worked for Britannica Press, the textbook company Scott Foresman, and the conservative publisher Regnery Gateway. He wrote a couple of chapters for The Chicago Manual of Style, composed ad copy touting tchotchkes for the Bradford Exchange, and spent two years as a staff writer for the lurid Candid Press. Most of the time he worked as a freelancer (as did his wife, doing editing and indexing jobs), and he often rode the Burlington commuter train downtown to meet with employers and clients. Like other writers, journalists, and ad execs, Johnson hung out at Riccardo’s, the Wrigley Building Restaurant, the Billy Goat, and O’Rourke’s. Eventually his drinking got out of hand, and he occasionally got into alcohol-fueled fistfights. “If someone said something idiotic or prejudiced, he’d snark back and it would take off from there,” says Paula.
All this took a toll on Johnson’s marriage, as did his adulterous trysts. (Johnson tracked the similar collapse of a marriage in his 1984 novel, Song for Three Voices.) “Those last years, when [my parents] were trying to decide what to do with one another, were very unpleasant,” says Paula. Curt and Jo Ann finally divorced in 1974, and Paula eventually made peace with her father. Her brother, Mark, told me: “Like everyone, my dad had good times and bad times. I always try to remember the good things.”
Photograph: Courtesy of Paula Johnson