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John Callaway

John Callaway

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From the archive: John Callaway, storytellerComments June 24, 2009 In April 2004, John Callaway was performing a one-man show, "Life is .

.

.

Maintenance," four times a week at Pegasus Players.

His interview with the Sun-Times was supposed to plug the show, but Callaway was in more of a storytelling mode that day.You cannot, if you are a young Chicago reporter, really hope to interview John Callaway.

Callaway, the legendary journalist best known for his 15-year run hosting WTTW's "Chicago Tonight," is pretty much the best interviewer around.

And he is not inclined to just lean back and let someone else ask all the questions."This is going to be a collaboration," he tells the photographer conspiratorially as we sit down for a late-afternoon meal at North Coast Cafe, a casual neighborhood place near Callaway's Lake View home.

"When we finish, you're going to know a lot more about her."Within moments of his arrival, Callaway manages to make it clear that he has read every word I've ever written.

I half-expect him to pull out a copy of my fifth-grade class newsletter."I was always regarded as well-prepared," he says, "but, you know, I could tell you stories...."Excellent, I think, stories are excellent.

If I get him to tell enough stories, maybe he won't notice that I have not gone to WTTW's archives and watched every single one of his broadcasts."I interviewed Armand Hammer in Los Angeles at Occidental Petroleum in 1981 .

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.

and it got the most positive response of any interview I ever did with PBS," he says, "An investigative reporter Edward J.

Epstein later did a book on Armand Hammer Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer (Carroll & Graf, $15.95), and that book revealed that about three-quarters of Armand Hammer's stories were absolutely false."Then," he continues, with a grin that plumps his already-round cheeks, "in that same year, I did John Cheever.

And, oh, what a glorious interview.

And Callaway had read all of Cheever's books, and isn't he beautifully prepared? Uh-uh.

I only missed the whole story.

And the whole story was about his homosexuality."Cheever, a married father of three who famously wrote about life in the seemingly idyllic suburbs of Westchester County, outside New York City, revealed himself, later in life, to be a bisexual who'd struggled to come to terms with his identity, masking his pain with legendary drinking habits."Everything that was deep and profound about him," Callaway says.

"Everything that was written later, both by him and others, really dealt with that issue and the torturous life that he led.

You won't find a word on that in my lovely little well-researched interview with John Cheever."Callaway is in storytelling mode these days, performing four times a week in an autobiographical one-man show he's written in collaboration with his theater-director son-in-law, Dan Foster.

This is supposed to be the reason we're talking -- part of a public-relations blitz that's had him all over the local TV stations in the last couple of weeks.

But it's clear, as Callaway drinks his hot tea and eats his rice pudding, that he's mainly here to enjoy himself."I don't want to plug anything.

The hell with them," he jokes, slightly appalling the young publicist who has accompanied him.Turn down the lights, change the friendly waiter -- who, of course, knows Callaway by name -- into a world-weary bartender with a mysterious past, add some smoke, jazz and a couple more journalists (in fedoras), and this could be a scene from Callaway's memory.

Him, holding court.

The rest of us, an audience -- not quite friends or equals, but Callaway aficionados who love his stories mainly because we know how most of them end.

Yeah, this could be just like it was in the good old days.Except there are too many women to fit that scenario.

And no one within five miles should be drinking hot tea."I am just incredibly lucky to be alive," he says, when our conversation finds its way back to the youthful pleasures that are at the center of his one-man show.There was the staying out late, the drinking, the eating ...

"I don't know how we got away with it," he says, with the tone of a man who knows his luck and doesn't mind pushing it every now and then.Like the time he was so hung over -- and full of oyster stew -- he narrowly avoided throwing up on Lyndon Johnson.When Callaway talks about the years when he was a radio and TV reporter -- "the glory days," a less-enlightened observer would call them, but Callaway is too smart for that -- there is plenty of nostalgia in his tone.

But there's something else, too, something that would be easy to miss when his big laugh shakes his bigger belly.

It's a very quiet note of regret."In a great many ways, I cherish those memories," says the thrice-married Callaway of his days as a journalist-about-town.

"But the thought of living that way and drinking that way and staying out and all of that -- it's really narcissistic, really selfish."Which launches him into a story."The New Yorker did a piece a couple or three years ago -- or maybe it was four or five.

I think it was a book review.

About the Algonquin round table," Callaway says, puffing himself up to deliver, in his best New Yorker voice, the rest of the story about the writers who made up the legendary discussion group.

"And it was all, 'Those were the days.

They drank, and they told stories, and they caroused.

Those were the the days.' "About a month later, the magazine published a letter from Susan Cheever, John Cheever's daughter."She said, 'I understand what the author was trying to say about those glory days, but I just want to tell you, if you're the daughter of somebody who was one of those drinkers, one of those carousers.

.

.

.' I never forgot that," Callaway says.

"It's true."In his stage performance, Callaway apologizes to his family for his absences and for the times when, even though he was physically there, his mind was elsewhere.

He tells me that, now that he's "retired" from journalism -- not quite the right word, since he is busier than ever and still producing great stuff, like his "Chicago Stories" documentaries -- he hopes to "inflict myself on them even more."He knows the cliche about men retiring to spend more time with their families.

And he avoids it.

Because, although he loves stories, he hates cliches.

And he knows his audience hates them, too.-Debra Pickett

http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/1636803,0624callaway-archive.article
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