What Hedy Weiss did for the Sun-Times, and this city

When Claudia Cassidy, this newspaper’s chief arts critic for the mid-section of the 20th century, and arguably the most powerful female employee of the paper’s Colonel McCormick era, died in 1996, the New York Times ran an obituary: “Claudia Cassidy, 96, Arts Critic,” read the headline, “Did Not Mince Words in Chicago.”

Hedy Weiss, who exited the Chicago Sun-Times on Feb. 2 after one final review of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, still very much walks among us, possibly with a little more freedom in her step now there is not the same nightly pressure to be sitting in some neighborhood auditorium by half-past seven. And one can take comparisons with “Acidy Cassidy” too far. When Cassidy announced her retirement from the Tribune in 1965, Time magazine ran a story with the headline, “Exit the Executioner.” For all the controversy that surrounded Weiss in recent years — and, yes, I will get to that in a moment — she did not have Cassidy’s relish for the withering, exquisitely executed pan. She had too much respect for the quotidian struggles of the people she covered.

Still, those six words atop the Times evocation penned by William Grimes fit Weiss’ Sun-Times career very nicely. Her words were implanted on the page in evocative, experiential chunks; they were not inserted in any blender to make them more palatable, nor were they smoothed for the changing times or to protect feelings. In 1983, Tribune writer Bill Granger said of Cassidy: “She (had) a reputation for integrity that would make Gandhi check his bona fides.” That was true of Weiss. Even her fiercest detractors could not impugn her character or personal behavior, they could protest only the political or aesthetic ideas, the unadulterated language, the thoughts, in her reviews. As was their right, just as it was her right to pen those reviews and her employer’s right to print them.

There were more than 13,000. Written over 33 years. A tenure longer by far than Ben Brantley has been the drama critic of the New York Times.

That’s a remarkable output and, indeed, a similarly impressive (and hopefully ongoing) commitment to independent critical analysis of the Chicago arts from a tabloid newspaper that well understood that its critic was not a populist, nor much inclined to sway to popular opinion. The only theater or dance critics I know with a longer tenure on the daily job than Weiss are Linda Winer, whose career blossomed at this newspaper under Cassidy’s wing in the early 1970s, a wing proffered only to those of exceptional talent, and the now-retired Tribune critic, Richard Christiansen.

Winer, whose later career was at Newsday, retired only last year. She did not mince words, either (I’ve been on the receiving end of a few that were decidedly unminced), but, of course, most of her distinguished career has been in New York. In totem, Christiansen, wrote about the arts in Chicago for even longer than Weiss. But Christiansen was only at Tribune for 24 years (before that the Chicago Daily News); Weiss beat that employment record by nearly a decade.

Weiss’ immediate predecessor at the Sun-Times, Glenna Syse, also had a formidable tenure: She was the lead theater and dance critic from 1958 until 1986, after Weiss had arrived. She didn’t make an immediate exit thereafter — the economics of newspapers were different then — so you could argue that she beat Weiss, I suppose.

Fairer and more useful to acknowledge that these two remarkable women ruled dramatic opinion at the Sun-Times for a stunning 60 consecutive years.

Weiss’ 33 years, of course, encompassed the second half of the great Chicago arts renaissance, the city’s assertion of itself as a place to see fresh, original creative work, especially in the neighborhoods. That could not possibly have happened without people from the Chicago Reader, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, writing about what they saw. And they could not write about what was going on without showing up each night. Weiss has always been an eyewitness to the history.

The Sun-Times stated last Sunday it was parting ways with Weiss. As some of the veterans of the community have noted since the announcement, much of what she witnessed was on the South Side of Chicago, where the Sun-Times long has been a fervently read publication. Neither Cassidy nor the Tribune in general were much present in theaters south of the Loop in the 20th century: Good luck finding coverage of, say, the Pekin Theatre, the first black-owned musical theater in the United States. Weiss, though, showed up early at the Chicago Theater Company, a crucially important Equity house that performed in the basement of the Hull House at 500 E. 67th St. Without Weiss, the surviving founders of that company have acknowledged, the theater would never have found its neighborhood audience, since so much of that audience was reading the Sun-Times. This is just one example of many. Of thousands.

Did Weiss make mistakes in those 13,000 reviews? Of course. So did, and do, her competitors. Did she offend? Of course. So did, and do, her competitors. So did, and do, the artists to whose work she devoted most of her working life. As George W. Bush once said — come to think of it, speaking the most profound lines of his presidency — “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”

The critic’s job changed, of course, with the advent of social media. One of the thoughtful critics of Weiss once said of her that all would be so much better if she were only willing to engage in a dialogue, a conversation. It was an oft-repeated sentiment.

But that was not how she saw her job.

In recent weeks, I saw Weiss buy a ticket to one of the theaters that stopped inviting her to press openings, in protest of comments made in reviews of intentionally provocative plays, including for “Pass Over” at the Steppenwolf last summer. Some members of that theater had been vociferous and very personal in their criticisms.

We both watched the same show. I thought it was fair to middling. Weiss was exceptionally enthusiastic and said so, writing what they used to call a “money” review. I was struck by how excited she was about the work and amazed at her ability to separate the professional from the personal.

“Wow,” I thought. “I could not have done that. I would not be there.”

But Weiss was there. And that review — not that many people noticed — was her way of having that conversation.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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