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Out There

When the brilliant and erratic Jeff McCourt founded the Windy City Times in 1985, he began a 15-year run that changed the way gays were regarded. But his volcanic personality caused countless rifts, and he died this year at 51, largely alone.

(page 3 of 8)

A 1986 Windy City Times staff photo, above: (front row, from left) Tracy Baim, Jeff McCourt, Larry Shell, Benjamin Dreyer, William Burks, (back row) M. J. Murphy, Chris Stryker, Hugh Johnson, Steve Alter, Shani, Jorjet Harper, Lawrence Bommer, Yvonne Zipter, Albert Williams, Chris Cothran, Jill Burgin, Jon-Henri Damski, and Mel Wilson.

 

Enter McCourt, who arrived on the scene in late 1982 when he attended a GayLife holiday party. At that time, McCourt—who had moved to Chicago from his native New York in the mid-1970s to attend Loyola University—was a trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. “He was precocious in regard to how successful he was by that age,” says Williams.


Robert Bearden, McCourt’s only long-term romantic partner, died in 1987.

The party changed his life in two important ways. The first is that he met Robert Bearden, GayLife’s handsome blond ad-sales manager, who became the only long-term romantic partner he would ever have. The second is that he asked Williams if he could start contributing theatre reviews to GayLife. “He said he went to the theatre and knew a lot, and it turned out he did know a lot,” says Williams. “He came from New York and had seen a lot of Broadway shows.”

Pseudonyms were common in gay publications in those days, and McCourt was no exception. The name he chose was Mimi O’Shea, a combination of Mimi Sheraton and Tessie O’Shea, figures that today are fairly obscure. Sheraton was the acerbic restaurant critic of The New York Times in the 1980s, while O’Shea was a raucous British comedienne and character actress from the period of McCourt’s childhood, the kind of performer who often turned up on The Ed Sullivan Show to balance out the classical music acts. The two together implied a mix of high and low—Dorothy Parker–style bitchery combined with low-comedy camping that was highly characteristic of McCourt’s excitable personality.

By most accounts, McCourt was a so-so writer. He made up for his occasional grammatical difficulties, however, with the strength of his no-uncertain-terms opinions. His review of an evidently less than stellar dinner-theatre production of Evita is vintage McCourt. The show, he wrote, was “the most overrated musical of the past decade, a pompous piece of propaganda for People magazine readers of the ’80s, a vulgar, pointless show that plays like a disjointed series of Reuters news flashes, with a witless score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and a thematic point of view that runs the gamut (as Dorothy Parker once said) from A to B.”

Theatre remained a touchstone for McCourt—he would go on to produce several shows in the early 1990s and also try his hand at writing plays—but gradually his interest started shifting to the business side of the equation. “Jeff was getting very turned on by the community and by politics,” says Williams. “He wanted to do more with his life. He started saying, ‘I know Chuck thinks the paper can never make money, but I think he’s wrong. I think this kind of a paper could make money if it was marketed right.’”

McCourt was also looking for a way to incorporate Bearden—whom he began living with shortly after they met—into his professional life. The laid-back Bearden, who was six years older than McCourt, acted as something of a foil for his by all accounts hyperactive partner. “Bob could keep Jeff in line,” says Williams. “Jeff would go over the top, and Bob would snap him back to reality.”

“They fought a lot,” says Tracy Baim, one of the founding editors of Windy City. “They had a very contentious relationship that was really hard to define. It was like watching a movie sometimes in terms of the dramatic things that were going on between them.”         

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