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Uncovering A Dead Father's Secrets In 'After Visiting Friends'

Feb 16, 2013
Originally published on February 21, 2013 3:22 pm

Michael Hainey was 6 years old when his uncle came to his house and told him and his brother that their father was dead. Bob Hainey was just 35. He was the slot man — a high-pressure, high-profile position overnight on the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that in 1970 was the quintessence of roustabout Chicago journalism. Bob Hainey had died of a heart attack on a North Side street, as one of the obits put it, "while visiting friends."

Michael Hainey became a journalist himself and is now the deputy editor of GQ. He began to wonder about some of the small differences in the obituaries between newspapers and about some of the obliqueness in the accounts of his father's death that he grew up hearing from his uncle and mother.

So he set out to find out the story himself. He recounts his discoveries in his book, After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story. Hainey joins Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon to talk about coming to terms with the truth about his father.


Interview Highlights

On wrestling with the unknown

"I think when I first discovered those obituaries I was in high school, you know, 17 years old, working on a term paper. And I was in the public library in town and I thought, 'I've never seen these obits,' and I went looking for them. And there those phrases were, but at the time I was too afraid to discuss anything with my mother. But they were like that thing that's way down in the basement that you hear rattling, and you hear it at night when you're in bed, and you just keep trying to push it down and not think about it, but it just keeps rattling around and you've got to go down and look at it."

On beginning to question the phrase "after visiting friends"

"The question to me was, 'How come, at the funeral, I never met any of these friends?' None of these friends ever came forward and said, 'I was with your father that night he died, and it was a terrible thing. But I want you to know he didn't suffer,' or 'He thought of you.' No one ever came forward, and I thought, 'Things just don't add up,' and you start to wonder, why don't they add up?"

On depicting the golden age of Chicago journalism

"I really wanted to sort of pay homage to that period. And as I say in the book, it was this wonderful moment between the front page era and the information age. One of the epigraphs in the book is from this guy named [Edward] Eulenberg, who coins the great Chicago phrase for all Chicago newspaper men, which is, 'If your mother says she loves you, check it out.'

"My father worked what was called the lobster shift. It was 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. He slept during the day, we'd have breakfast with him in the morning. ... One of [his colleagues] would take their lunch at 10 p.m. to go to a bar across the street and drink. Every newspaper had its own bar, whether it was the [Chicago] Tribune, the Sun-Times, the [Chicago] Daily News. ... They all had their dedicated bars and these guys just circulated among them."

On sharing the discovery that "visiting friends" was a euphemism for "visiting a woman"

"Once I found out what happened, I sat on that for a good one or two years. I had this great fear that if I find something out, and I tell my mother, I could lose her love, and lose my brother's love, and be cast out. And yet inside this thing I feared was a truth. And that truth, once I put it out for my mother and brother, it actually answered questions for her that were 40 years old. It brought all of us closer, and I think it brought a new life to our family."

On exposing a dead father's secret

"You know, he's been dead for more than 40 years now. ... It makes me think of a line that I wrote in my book, which is, 'Our absence is greater than our presence.' Whether you've lost a father or mother or sibling, through death or just someone's drifted out of your life, we all wonder, 'What happened to them? Why did you leave me? What became of this?' We all have our creation tale and we all have our un-creation tale, those things that undo us, that make us fall apart.

"And in some ways, my father's death was my un-creation tale. I needed to know that whole story. And it is his story. ... But as fathers and sons, and daughters and fathers, and daughters and mothers, we're all inextricably entwined. And I think this is my story as well as his story. Someone asked me, after I learned the truth about my father that night, what had happened, they said, 'How do you feel about him now?' And I said, 'You know ... here I am a man almost 50 [years old], and I see him now no longer as son to father, little boy to man. But I finally, in that moment, I saw him as man to man. Someone I could sit side by side with at the bar and have those conversations with that I never was able to."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Michael Hainey was 6 years old when his Uncle Dick came to their home one morning, to tell Michael and his brother that their father was dead. Bob Hainey was just 35. He was the slot man - a high-pressure, high-profile position overnight on the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that in 1970 was the quintessence of roustabout Chicago journalism. Bob Hainey had died of a heart attack on a North Side street - as one of the obits put it - while visiting friends.

Over the years, Michael Hainey grew up to be a journalist himself - he's now the deputy editor of GQ - and began to wonder about some of the small differences in the obits between newspapers, and about some of the obliqueness in the accounts of his father's death that he grew up hearing from his uncle and mother. So, he set out to find the story himself. His new book, "After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story." And Michael Hainey joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL HAINEY: Nice to be here, Scott.

SIMON: You were 6. When did you begin to wonder about that phrase "after visiting friends"?

HAINEY: I think when I first discovered those obituaries, I was in high school; you know, 17 years old, working on a term paper. And I was in the public library in town. And I just - on a whim - thought, I've never seen these obits, and went looking for them. And there those phrases were but at the time, I was too afraid to discuss anything with my mother. But they were like that thing that's way down in the basement that you hear rattling; and you hear it at night, when you're in bed. And you just keep trying to push it down and not think about it; but it just keeps rattling around, and you've got to go down and look at it.

SIMON: When did you begin to suspect it was some kind of euphemism - "after visiting friends"?

HAINEY: Probably about 10, 12 years ago. And the question, to me, was: How come, at the funeral, I never met any of these friends? And none of these friends ever came forward and said, I was with your father the night he died and it was a terrible thing; but I want you to know he didn't suffer - or, you know, he thought of you. I mean, no one ever came forward. And I thought, things just don't add up. And you start to wonder about, why don't they add up?

SIMON: You depict what's often considered a kind of modern golden age of Chicago journalism with great, vivid writers and personalities and...

HAINEY: Right.

SIMON: I'll rattle off the names Mike Royko, Tom Fitzpatrick, Roger Ebert, the early Bob Greene, Jim Hoge - the golden boy editor; and, if I may, great watering holes, like...

HAINEY: Right.

SIMON: ...the Billy Goat and Riccardo's. In the end, was it so golden?

HAINEY: I think for them, it was a golden time. And it was, you know, a time - I really wanted to sort of pay homage to that period. You know, as I say in the book, it was this wonderful moment between the front page era and the information age. You know, one of the epigraphs in the book is from this guy named "Eulie" Eulenberg, who coins the great Chicago phrase - for all Chicago newspapermen, which is: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

SIMON: At the same time, a lot of those memories are kind of in a - if I may - an alcoholic fog, too.

HAINEY: Little amber or...

SIMON: Yeah.

HAINEY: I think - you know, my father worked what was called the lobster shift. It was 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. You know, he slept during the day. We'd have breakfast with him in the morning. And these guys were sort of like, you know, it's 6 o'clock and there's one - some days would take their lunch at 10 p.m., go to a bar across the street and drink. Every newspaper had its own bar - whether it's the Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Daily News, the Chicago Today. They all had their own...

SIMON: And there were five dailies in Chicago, in those times.

HAINEY: Right, including the Defender. So they all had their dedicated bars. I mean, these guys all just circulated amongst them.

SIMON: Spoiler alert: "Visiting friends" turned out to be a euphemism for visiting a woman.

HAINEY: Yes.

SIMON: The person's apartment persuaded them to call his brother...

HAINEY: Yes, who...

SIMON: ...not your mother.

HAINEY: Right.

SIMON: Why tell your mother?

HAINEY: You know, once I found out what happened, I sat on that for a good one or two years. I had this great fear that if I find something out and I tell my mother, I could lose her love and lose my brother's love, and be cast out. And yet inside this thing I feared was a truth. And that truth, once I put it out for my mother and brother, it actually answered questions for her that were 40 years old. It brought all of us closer and I think it brought a new life to our family.

SIMON: Another tough question: For those of us who lose a father when we're kids - I recommend a play by Robert Anderson, called "I Never Sang for My Father." There's a line in there that goes, "Death ends a life, but it doesn't end a relationship." Your father has been gone for some time now, but I know the relationship goes on. So your father had a secret.

HAINEY: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: He had a secret relationship, if not a secret love...

HAINEY: Uh-huh.

SIMON: ...and maybe both. Why not keep his secret? I mean, just because he's dead, does he lose the right to keep a few secrets?

HAINEY: That is a - boy, that's a good question. You know, he's been dead 40 years - more than 40 years now. And you cite that line, which makes me think of a line that I wrote in my book; which is, you know, our absence is greater than our presence. Whether you've lost a father or a mother or a sibling through death, or just someone's drifted out of your life, or a light you've lost, we all wonder what happened to them. Why did you leave me? What became of this? It is his story; you're right. But it - as fathers and sons, and daughters and fathers, and daughters and mothers, we're all inextricably entwined. And I think this is my story as well as his story, though.

I mean, you know, someone asked me, after I learned the truth about my father that night - what had happened - they said, well, how do you feel about him now? And I said, you know, I had finally, you know, 40 years later - here I am, a man almost 50, and I see him now no longer as son to father, little boy to man. But I finally, in that moment, I saw him as man to man, someone I could sit side-by-side with at the bar, and have those conversations with - that I never was able to.

SIMON: Michael Hainey, deputy editor of GQ and author of the new book "After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story." Thanks so much.

HAINEY: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.