Rick Kogan

Portrait Image

location

Chicago, IL

age

62

occupation

Senior writer and columnist for the Chicago Tribune's Sunday section and creator and host of ``The Sunday Papers with Rick Kogan'' on WGN-AM

interview date

08/08/2014

“I never had much of a master plan.”

INTRO

He began his career at 16, working for the Chicago Sun-Times during the Democratic Convention of 1968. He later worked the night shift, covering crime; served as entertainment editor. His weekly columns on the city’s nightclub scene were collected in a book, “Dr. Night Life’s Chicago.” By the mid-1980s, he was on the staff of the Chicago Tribune where he was TV critic for five years and later the editor of Tempo, the paper’s daily feature section. His is the son of long-time newspaper man, Herman Kogan.

He has written 14 books, including, in collaboration with his father,  “Yesterday’s Chicago,” and  “A Chicago Tavern,” the history of the Billy Goat, and “Sidewalks I” and “Sidewalks II,” collections of his columns embellished by the work of photographer Charles Osgood.

More about Rick, here.

We meet in an office at the Tribune. He talks here about a lifelong ambivalence about money that somehow has worked out ok. So far.

PROLOGUE

My topic is money, Rick.

With which I have always had a very tricky, complicated relationship. My relationship with money has been, I think, carefree to the point of frivolous. I have never taken a job for money. In all the jobs I’ve been offered, I have never asked how much. That odd? I thought that people would treat me fairly.

I remember specifically when I was hired at the Tribune in 1989, I was taken into the office and Jim Squire, the editor, and Jack Fuller, the associate managing editor for features or whatever he was, they said, “Rick, we’d like you to be the television critic for the Tribune.” I said, “Well, I would really like to do that.” I had had three or four nasty, precarious financial years of freelancing after I left the Sun-Times, some freelancing for the Tribune. I said, “I think that would be great. I’m really flattered, I think I’ll do a great job for you.” And Jim said, “You want to know how much it is?”

I said, “Well, you’re asking me to be the TV critic for the Chicago Tribune. I’m sure it is a salary commensurate with the job.” And then he said, “You may have to reconsider, Rick, because you will be the first person we’re hiring after we have stopped what has been called ‘profit-sharing.’” I said, “Okay.” Totally meaningless to me. I since learned that the people who did have profit-sharing, years past, walked out of here with a lot of money. But it was just not a consideration. I’ve never — maybe idiotically– been concerned with the remuneration for doing something that I really love to do.

I

Now I’m about to turn 63 years old. The Tribune has just become a separate company called the Tribune Publishing. Someone came up to me and said, “You know, you’ve been here 20-some years. You can get a pension now.” I said, “What do you mean now?” “Well, there’s a deal you can make…you can get started drawing your pension.” And to my mind, very old-fashioned, I said, “Well I’m not retiring yet; that’s when I think I’ll need a pension.”

Though I must tell you, with a ten-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine ever retiring in the conventional way. I never really saved for that. I never can remember having a savings account in my soon-to-be 63 years. I know this sounds horrifying for a kid of the yuppie generation, but when I got it, I spent it. And when I needed it, something would sort of come around, something would happen that would get me more money. Nothing illegal, mind you, but something would happen.

Do you ever worry about it?

Yeah, I’m starting. I must tell you, I’m starting to worry about it.

But that’s a new reaction for you?

Absolutely. When I would be in debt, which I have been a number of times, I would start to worry about it. And then, literally, something would come around. A book project. And that’s the pattern of freelancing. I freelanced for a number of years early on after dropping out of college, and drove a cab, and that gave me enough money to have a place, and the money that would come in from freelancing was kind of like an interesting bonus. Then, finally, when I got a job, I was able to pay off some of the debts that I had. I’ve always, always lived beyond my means, but it was never an extraordinary or extravagant lifestyle, either.

Did you ever wish for an extravagant lifestyle?

No. Wish is a funny thing. I always felt the lifestyle I was leading, which was one of a big city reporter covering the art, entertainment, and night life was about as extravagant as you could get, on the face of it, and I was being paid to do that. So I never aspired… I mean, what is extravagant? Clothes? Drugs? What would I want? I’ve always felt that I had a nice place to live. I never had that kind of house aspiration; I’ve never lived in a house. I’ve only lived in apartments my entire life.

I remember when I bought my first place; I was in Mike [Royko]’s office talking about it. “What kind of mortgage did you get, kid?” “It was a thirty year mortgage, Mike, it’s thirty years.” He says, “You know how much my mortgage is? One year.” I go, “How can you have a one year mortgage? That’s unbelievable.” Mike liked money. He used to sort of frivolously say that he could tell his wealth by the number of bathrooms that he owned.

And then here’s Studs [Terkel], riding the bus …

Wearing the same fucking clothes all the time, yeah, yeah. He said something along the lines, “I’ve never met a cause I wouldn’t write a check to.” And I think he and Ida [Studs’ wife] really did give a lot of their money to various causes over the years. They had a very nice house on Castlewood Terrace. They didn’t take lavish vacations; they didn’t throw big parties. They didn’t have a car. He couldn’t drive. What would he do with it? Sit in it. I never heard Studs talk much about money. He didn’t write much about it.

When he interviewed me, he gave me a check for $50.00. I always wondered about that.

Studs was a working class guy. He took up some of your time, so you should be compensated for that. I think it fits perfectly in with this. There are portions of Working that are about money, what you make, but it’s mostly about self-respect. Studs did what he loved his whole life. I’m part of that generation, like Herman and Mike and Studs, who doesn’t really care about money.

II

My father was not very good with money, either. Because he was a newspaper man, he did not make a great deal of money. It was a blue collar job kind of, with coats and ties. The first time we [my brother and I] ever realized or thought about money was a couple years after high school, when I was driving a cab after I had dropped out of college. I saw my father filling out a little check. And I said, “What is that?” He said, “I still owe your brother’s tuition to the Latin School” which was a private school in Chicago. The tuition was something like a thousand dollars. It’s now twenty-five, twenty-eight thousand dollars.

But the realization that my parents had made the determination to stay in the city and send us there and not, as many other people did in those days, move to Evanston or Oak Park so the kids could go to public school – that he was still paying off that kind of debt was a real stunner to me. Even at the time, a thousand dollars a year didn’t seem like that big a deal, you know? I remember vividly, vividly. And it made me think of him as a good guy, but a guy who might have been not so good with money. It sort of made me feel sad for him, but it certainly didn’t motivate me to start saving money or anything either. I think he too lived kind of paycheck to paycheck, actually.

I remember also when he died, there was not any kind of substantial life insurance; we were sort of shocked by that. You know, I think Herman, too, as a child – well, who knows? We never really talked about money much at all — but I think as a child of the Depression, he was not one to save. He was not one to live any kind of extraordinary lifestyle.

What do you think he and your mother either implicitly or explicitly taught you about money?

Nothing. Yeah. Nothing. Which is I think the reason I am the way I am. I don’t resent the lack of instruction about money as a kid; I resent my carefree attitude toward it, sometimes. Do I wish I had socked away a ton of dough? I always thought, well, you know, the Tribune will take care of me, that’s the way it worked. And I’m sure people in other businesses have gotten much more screwed than I’m about to get screwed. You know, steel mills and other things where everything they had saved for and hoped for had vanished completely. Does it bother me? I never had any plans of retiring at 65 to play golf or read books or something. I never had much of a — as you can obviously tell — I never had much of a master plan.

Except following your passion.

Yes. No question. How do you put a price on that?

III

I’ll tell you a great corporate book story, about Kogans father and son. I’ve never had to bargain for any corporate kind of job I’ve ever done. Herman and I, late in his life, we went out with Bill Graham, the head of Baxter International, who was eager to have us write a book. And we had a very nice lunch with him, and he said, “Let’s meet again for drinks at the university club and talk money.” Afterward, Mary Lou [my mother] said, “Well, how much are you guys gonna ask for?” I said, “I don’t know. Dad can decide.” And Herman said, “Well, it should take a year.” (None of these things ever takes a year; they take like three years.) He says, “Well, I think 150 would be fair for the two of us.” I go, “Okay, that’s fine.” And Mary Lou goes, “You two! Don’t you understand who you are? Don’t you understand?” I go, “What do you think we should ask them for?” “You should ask them for $250,000.” And we’re like, oh, that’s so much money.

So we go back. Bill says, “What do you think?” Herman used to have a great phrase, a great phrase. He goes, “Well, as for the ‘grubby matter’,” (this is very telling) “the ‘grubby matter’ of compensation –” Isn’t that an interesting phrase?

It says a lot.

Oh, it does say a lot. It does say a lot, Mark. Something I’ve used in every subsequent dealing I’ve ever had. “As for the grubby matter of compensation, Bill, we would need $250,000.” Bill says, [Extends a handshake] Fantastic, that sounds great.” So we leave. Mary Lou, on a whim, made us $100,000, right? What could we have asked for? I mean, we left him, we said, “Jesus Christ. We just made $100,000 on Mom’s advice.” She was not great with money, either. Never in my life, and his too, his career, has there been any negotiation, any bargaining. Whatever we said, they said fine. And I’m sure others have gotten much more for these kinds of things. Herman said, “Well what do you think we could have asked for?” I said, “It’s immaterial; who cares? Who cares? Want to buy a lottery ticket? Who cares?”

But I don’t ever think he thought of money as something grubby. I think he thought of business itself. I just don’t think he liked dealing with money.

I just interviewed a guy named Rick Fizdale [former chairman and CEO of Leo Burnett advertising agency].And he told me a great story. His father, it sounds like, was a complete fuckup. But they would be driving downtown, and that wall of buildings on East Lake Shore Drive would appear. They’d be coming south on the drive and Rick would go, “Who lives there, who lives there?” And [his father] said, “Don’t worry about it; you’re never gonna live there. You’re never gonna be able to live there.” Well, he does live there, now. He has the top apartment in the 999 building, and he’s written a wonderful book about it. God, [the place is] worth 80 million dollars or something in that neighborhood. And I thought the apartment was unbelievably cool.

Do I aspire to have it? No. It’s weird, how that aspirational thing is. Could I live there? Absolutely, absolutely. But many of the people I know who have that money, most of them, they earned that money, and they can do whatever they want with it. And there’s no envy. There’s no envy. I sometimes think to myself, jeez, if I could just have back all the money I’ve spent buying other people drinks over the last 40 years, I would be fine. I could retire tomorrow.But I have great memories, too.

I didn’t go to college, of course, but it’s like I’ve been in some ongoing graduate school where I am meeting authors I would not have met otherwise, become great friends with musicians and religious people who I never would have known otherwise, so there’s an enrichment in that that has nothing to do with money, nothing to do with money. Half the stuff I know about, half the stuff I’ve learned, I wouldn’t know otherwise. How does that translate to money? Who knows? It is; it’s like an ongoing graduate school. It is literally like an ongoing graduate school.

Who could ask for anything more?

Yeah.

EPILOGUE

Thank you for doing this, Rick.

Well, this is great. I don’t do this often, but it has made me think about things. It makes me think about things. I don’t normally sit here thinking about money all the time.

Well, that became the subject of our conversation: how little you think about it.

Yeah, no shit.