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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.

(page 10 of 11)

Kup grew hard of hearing as he got older, and he would sometimes pretend not to hear Essee, whose tart tongue did not sweeten with age. Essee “could be very mean when talking to Kup,” says Johnnie Clark, “but he never talked back to her.” At the 1986 ceremony to change the name of the Wabash Avenue bridge over the Chicago River to the Irv Kupcinet Bridge, Essee-surrounded by dignitaries including Mayor Harold Washington-remarked loudly as it rose, “That’s the first time I’ve seen Kup go up in 20 years.”

On a New Year’s Eve in Booth One, Kup with Essee and several prominent Chicagoans awaited a call from a network correspondent who would check in with “Mr. Chicago,” as Essee insisted he be called. When the call came, Essee had to nudge him awake. Kup fumbled the introduction of his table companions. “Well, you really fucked that up,” Essee said loudly-on the air.

By the late 1990s, Essee had begun to tell friends and family that she wanted to die. “I want to join Cookie. I’ve had it with this world,” she told her daughter-in-law, Sue Kupcinet. Suffering from emphysema, she still chain-smoked Pall Malls and did not care who objected. In 1998, Essee and Kup attended a fundraiser in Highland Park for Bill Clinton. “My grandfather was talking to the President,” says David Kupcinet. “She was sitting in a chair in the back of the room, and she lit up a cigarette. . . . The Secret Service guy came up and said, ‘Mrs. Kupcinet, I’m sorry, you can’t smoke inside,’ and she said, ‘I’ll put it out.’” She didn’t, though, and the scene was repeated several times, until the agent finally said, “The President has requested that you don’t smoke in the house.” Essee replied: “Fuck the President.” The agent was speechless, and she finished her cigarette.

In 2000, Jerry Kupcinet received a phone call in Los Angeles from Essee’s doctor. By the time Jerry arrived at the hospital in Chicago, she had rebounded. “There she was,” he recalls, “sitting on the side of the bed with oxygen streaming up through her nose, and she was smoking. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’” she said. They went to Gibson’s for dinner.

In April 2001, when Patrick Smith arrived as the “male assistant” for Kup, Smith found both Kup and Essee “suffering in the master bedroom.” Essee’s smoke was so thick that “you could hardly see the other side of the room,” Smith recalls. Kup, who had reluctantly given up cigars some years before, was often short of breath and required oxygen. Though the Kupcinets had a large staff, the apartment was filthy. Sue Kupcinet, visiting from Los Angeles, would later fire most of the help. She also discovered that, over the course of several years, Essee’s minks, jewelry, and silver serving pieces had disappeared.

Essee died in June 2001, at the age of 86. About 300 people, including then governor George Ryan, attended her funeral at Temple Sholom. Kup was in a wheelchair and on oxygen. Stanley Paul played “More.” Reporters wrote that he had played it for the Kupcinet marriage of 62 years, but, as Paul knew, it was Essee’s song to Karyn. Before closing the casket, the family put in-at Essee’s request-a pack of Pall Malls and a lighter. She was buried next to her daughter.

In his farewell column to Essee, published the day after the funeral, Kup wrote of “the pain, heartache, emptiness and pure devastation that I am feeling.”

Kup’s health continued to deteriorate. He had stenosis of the spine, among other ailments, and went from using a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. He had a pacemaker on one side of his chest and a defibrillator on the other. The pain in his legs was constant.

The column’s frequency dropped from six times a week to three and then two. The columns had lost what little punch remained. “What do you got?” he would ask his old friend Henry Hyde. And mostly Hyde offered puffery about himself, even during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, when Hyde chaired the House Judiciary Committee.

Kup came to rely more on Stella Foster, who had been his assistant since 1969. Changes in the column were obvious. Foster, who is African American, “has brought the column into the African American community,” says Britton, who adds that she has never been given “proper respect from various managements, including my own. Can you imagine Kup in the hip-hop community?”

For the last two years of his life, Kup had little to do with the column. Patrick Smith would wheel him into the office once a week or so. Steve Neal would take him to lunch, and they would talk about “old times and old people,” says Ray Coffey. In the office, Kup would sit across the desk from Foster, and they would make it seem as if he were in charge. David Kupcinet says that tipsters “still called Kup. He always until the end wanted to be a part of it.”

In the last months of Kup’s life, there was what Kari Kupcinet-Kriser calls “a little bit of weirdness between Stella and my dad and brother.” David, now 25, had moved to Chicago from Los Angeles, with plans to become a writer and standup comic. Foster saw herself as Kup’s successor and feared that she would be shoved aside so his grandson could take over.

With memories that include “hanging out” with his grandfather and stars such as Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Bob Hope, David Kupcinet did not have an average childhood, and, not surprisingly, he does not have average aspirations. Michael Cooke, the editor in chief of the Sun-Times, says that David’s father, Jerry, pushed hard to maneuver his son into what had become, by default, Stella Foster’s job. “I had nothing to do with any of that,” Jerry insists. John Cruickshank, the publisher of the Sun-Times, also says that Jerry lobbied on his son’s behalf and wanted David to take over “to keep the column in the family.”

About a week after Kup’s death, Fox TV newsman Walter Jacobson reported that a battle was brewing between Stella and David, and he suggested that the paper “could avoid the possibility of a hassle with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Willie Barrow of Operation PUSH” by giving the column to Foster. Jackson calls Jacobson’s speculation “violently unfair, ridiculous,” and insists that he never issued anything resembling a threat to Cruickshank or Cooke.

Cruickshank claims that two years before Kup’s death, he and Cooke took Foster to lunch and “urged her to think in terms of what kind of column she wanted.” Cruickshank recalls that she was “terrified by the idea,” but eventually she grew accustomed to the challenge. Today, her twice weekly report is called, appropriately, “Stella’s Column.” David Kupcinet has continued to write a weekly column for Red Streak, the Sun-Times youth edition.

Stella Foster is apparently still feeling slightly bruised. In the months since her column made its début, she has taken a couple of swipes at the family, recently in plugging the first annual Irv and Essee Kupcinet Leaders Award Luncheon in May. She reported that Bill Zwecker would be the emcee and that Kari and David would be cochairs. “And no, I was not asked to be involved in this wonderful tribute,” she wrote.

“Stella owes her career to Kup,” says Jerry Kupcinet. “She shouldn’t be disgruntled.” Cooke seems to leave the door open to David’s writing a nightlife column, calling him “very smart, well spoken,” but “not ready for the Sun-Times yet.”

While his grandson and his longtime assistant were jockeying for position, Kup did not let his feelings on the succession be known, perhaps because he did not have any. He was simply too tired, too dispirited, too out of it. “Kup didn’t care after he died who took over the column,” says Britton.

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