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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 3 of 11)

The son of Russian immigrants, Kup never lost sight of how far he had come. His father had walked into plenty of restaurants, but only to deliver baked goods. The family-Irv was the youngest of four children-lived in a small apartment at 16th and Kedzie over a grocery store. Bloody clashes among the Poles, the Irish, and the Jews were common, and Kup witnessed his first gunfight when he was 12. After graduating from Harrison High School in 1930, Kup went to Northwestern University on a football scholarship, but he soon got a better deal from the University of North Dakota. An all-star college quarterback, he was good enough to be drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but a shoulder injury ended his career before the first season was out.

Essee grew up with money on the Gold Coast. “You see pictures of her as a little girl,” says her grandson, David Kupcinet. “She was like Paris Hilton. She was totally about being pretty, spoiled.” Her father, Joseph Solomon, owned Solomon Cooper Drugs, then at Rush and Cedar, half drugstore and half liquor store. Friends say that he had made his money during Prohibition as a small-time rumrunner. Kup met Essee in 1935, when she was a student at Northwestern. Four years later, the Solomons hosted a white-tie wedding for 300 at the Belmont Hotel. Kup later joked that six people from his family were invited and 294 from Essee’s.

Essee, who chained-smoked and ate only when necessary, had the legs of the dancer she longed to be-her father had nixed that-and the mouth of a stevedore. She never stopped fighting for her husband’s position and, through it, her own. “She was always hollering that Kup isn’t getting enough publicity on the trucks,” recalls Louis Spear, formerly the circulation director of the Sun-Times.

She loved celebrities, but didn’t care much for many of the press agents who promoted them to her husband. “If I’m standing there with Jack [Benny], who was a client,” says Howard Mendelsohn, one of Kup’s oldest friends, “she’d walk right by me, give Jack a big hug and kiss.” Johnetta “Johnnie” Clark, who went to work for the Kupcinets as a cook in 1944 and stayed until she retired decades later, says, “Essee wasn’t really close to anyone unless they were somebody.”

Kup, on the other hand, was everybody’s friend. “I don’t recall Kup ever saying an unkind thing about a person,” Steve Neal said. “He would just say nothing; it takes incredible strength and discipline to do that.” When Kup saw prominent men out with women not their wives, he didn’t write about it. When he talked to a doorman or a busboy, his demeanor was the same as if he were talking to Princess Grace. Johnnie Clark recalls her employer as such a lovely man that “I used to say that I wanted to be like him. I tried to be.”

Karyn was born in 1941, and while Cookie, as they called her, was still in diapers, Essee began to groom her to be a star. “This is the child who was supposed to live out her dream,” says Peggy Schatz, whose late husband, Jay, was an owner of the Chez Paree. Essee thought Cookie had the looks. When she was a little girl, Johnnie Clark recalls, “you’d walk down the street with her and people would stop and say, ‘What a beautiful child!’”

A son, Jerry, born in 1944, seems to have been the forgotten child. “[Essee and Kup] were more involved with Cookie,” says June Yamaguchi, a governess who cared for Jerry until he was 12. “Johnnie and June raised my dad,” says Jerry’s daughter, Kari. In his second memoir, Kup: A Man, An Era, A City, Kup writes with disarming honesty, “I was so busy columning . . . that I missed the birth of Jerry. I was at Toots Shor’s in New York on Nov. 1, 1944.”

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