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McCourt embracing his friend Chris Cox
Eight months later, the staff of Windy City, fed up after years of drug-fueled erratic behavior, departed en masse to found the Chicago Free Press. McCourt rallied briefly—long enough to launch an expensive lawsuit against his former staffers—but “the déjà vu was painful,” says Williams, referring to the circumstances of Windy City’s founding 15 years earlier. So many of his old friends had fallen away by that point. “It was like watching a train wreck,” says Garcia. “You had someone with enormous gifts and talents who contributed to his profession and community in ways that were unparalleled but who was spinning out of control.”
In the summer of 2000, McCourt called it a day, ultimately selling the paper for the fire-sale price of about $250,000 to his former employee and longtime rival Tracy Baim.
Around then, the HIV he had refused to acknowledge for so many years came roaring back, and he wound up in the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where, according to his brother, he was in and out of a coma for several weeks. Again, he rallied. But by now, dementia had set in. His final years were spent mainly at the Warren Barr Pavilion, a nursing home on the Gold Coast where he was looked after by a companion hired by his family.
Last year, one of his old staffers nominated him for the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, an honorary society administered by the city of Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations. Nothing came of it, however. “Jeff was just too controversial,” says one observer. “Nobody wanted to deal with him.” Six months later, McCourt was dead.
“There’s a part of me that thinks maybe he died in peace,” says Garcia. “Maybe always being surrounded by folks was overwhelming to him. Maybe when you lose everything, including your friends, it’s easier.”
Kit Duffy remembers a conversation she had with McCourt toward the end. “He told me, ‘I have one friend’—meaning the hired companion—‘and I really think that’s all I need now.’”
Photography: Courtesy of Jasonsmith.com