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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 9 of 11)

By the late 1980s, Kup’s heart was failing. He claimed the illness as the reason he ended his weekly hourlong talk show, which appeared on Channel 11 and a handful of other public television stations. The record books would give him one of the longest-running TV talk shows in history, but the ratings books were not so kind, and the show’s days were probably numbered anyway.

Kup kept his chin up over the loss of his broadcast jobs, but when it appeared that the Sun-Times might be angling to put his successor in place before he had even retired, he told people that he had no intention of ever stepping aside, that he planned to be “terminal at my terminal.”

Robert Page, then running the Sun-Times and concerned both that Kup might not survive his heart condition and that the paper had to do something to attract younger readers, hired Michael Sneed from the Tribune as a second gossip columnist late in 1986. “I was hired to replace Kup,” Sneed says. Page and others thought Sneed brought a toughness to the job that Kup did not have. Kup didn’t learn Sneed was coming until after she had signed the contract.

Shortly after Sneed was hired, Kup collapsed in the lobby of The Carlyle. But he hardly let that deter him. “He had his heart surgery and went back to work six days later, chuckling about it the whole time,” says David Kupcinet.

Sneed had worried that she and Kup might come up with the same items. The deal that Sneed claims to have struck with Page was that under those circumstances, Kup “was to give up his item and I was to keep it. . . . One of the editors said to me, ‘Please don’t do this. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.’” Sneed says she agreed there was no need to codify the arrangement. The division of labor turned out not to be so difficult. “I was only interested in hard news,” Sneed says, no “pimp journalism,” referring to the press agents who lined up at Kup’s door.

For his part, Kup did not consider Sneed to be “in his league,” Dennis Britton says. It annoyed Kup that Sneed’s column ran near the front of the paper while he was in the back. Their relationship remained cool, although Sneed says that Kup was never “anything but a gentleman” to her. Essee was another story. “Essee hated me,” Sneed says.

By 1992, Kup’s portfolio was further diminished when Britton hired Bill Zwecker to cover celebrities and, again, to bring in those elusive younger readers. One editor says that Kup was “initially upset but came to respect Bill.”

In 1996, Kup suffered through the revocation of the best of his freebies-his annual deep-sea fishing trip aboard the 123-foot Blackhawk. That Kup saw nothing wrong with taking the gift from Arthur Wirtz, and then his son William Wirtz-major players in the real estate business here and the owners of the Chicago Blackhawks; the epitome of the bold-face names that Kup and his newspaper covered-is obvious because every year he reported on the escape to the Bahamas. “One of the great yachts of the world,” he wrote, and, in 1993, named the six members of the crew serving Kup and five friends and relatives. Dennis Britton told Kup that the gig was up, but allowed the columnist one last trip because he had already extended invitations, and it would have been a “huge embarrassment” to cancel it.

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