From his stove, Nelson Algren saw a dark shape stumble out of the bar across Wabansia Avenue. It teetered once, then slumped under the Nectar Beer sign, sizzling neon in the bitter February cold. Eight degrees, an army fatigue jacket, and too many shots of Old Taylor; he'd be face-down dead in a snowbank before the end of the night. Algren felt a pang. Did the guy's cat die? Was his wife screwing the precinct's captain? It was only a pork chop frying in the pan, but he had an urge to drag the rummy up here and give it to him with a cup of coffee. There were only the two rooms — kitchen and bedroom, plus a shared head for 10 bucks a month — but they were warm, full of books, and Algren had another pork chop ...
The phone rang.
A woman with a foreign accent shouted on the other end — shrill, like he'd just bought the last plum pierogi; nothing new when you lived in the middle of half a million Polacks. Algren shouted "Wrong number!" and got back to his dinner, but twice again the phone rang with the same gibberish, until finally the fourth time a voice said, "Would you mind holding the phone for a minute? Don't hang up. There's a party here would like to speak to you."
Then the same foreign accent, a woman's. French, he could tell, now that she'd slowed down a bit, though he still couldn't make sense of her name. Their mutual friend Mary Guggenheim had given her his number, she said. Algren looked over at the unmade double bed, the iron frame, with some fond memories of Mary, remembered that she'd sent a note warning him this broad might be stopping by on her way across America. Cold as it was outside, he offered to meet her; she suggested the "leetle café" at the Palmer House, her hotel. The good news was that he'd been at the Y today working the heavy bag, so he'd had a shower. Across dark Wabansia, another drunk stumbled out the door. Algren poured some milk into a bowl for the cat, grabbed his own army fatigue jacket, and switched off the light. There'd always be another drunk, stumbling out of some door, somewhere. That was the problem.
Every year New York had a new crop of literary stars, but being Chicago's Famous Writer was like winning the heavyweight title — there was only one at a time, and you kept the belt for as long as you could beat all comers. In 1947, with Carl Sandburg retired, James T. Farrell out of fashion, Richard Wright gone for good, and Gwendolyn Brooks not allowed in the ring, the title remained vacant. Nelson Algren was about to get his shot.
He'd been born in Detroit, out of a family notable for its weak, wandering men. His grandfather Nels Ahlgren converted to Judaism in the 1850s, changed his name to Isaac Ben Abraham, and emigrated from Sweden to America, where he bounced west to San Francisco and then, wife and children in tow, went to Palestine, where he seems to have made no attempt to earn a living, forcing his wife to beg money from the U.S. consulate for boat tickets back home. As they pulled out of the harbor, Abraham threw what was left over the railing, and once back in the States gave his family the gift of abandoning them for a career as a paid prophet for esoteric religions. Rather than follow his father's erratic trail, Abraham's son Gerson hunkered down to a lifetime of abuse from his wife, Goldie, described by those who knew her as "cold, domineering and cruel," and did nothing to protect or inspire his three children, especially the youngest, Nelson Algren Abraham, born in Detroit in 1909.
The family moved to Chicago in 1913, and after a barren youth at 71st and Cottage Grove, a few blocks east of St. Columbanus, the reedy, introverted Nelson escaped to the University of Illinois in 1927, where he buried himself in books, leftist writings, and the breasts of his landlady — even then, he was never far from a screw. Journalism jobs weren't to be had when he graduated in 1931, so he dropped the weighty name Abraham and joined the millions of other American wanderers shivering in culverts and dodging train yard dogs. He picked grapefruits and oranges, worked as a carny, played — and was played by — cons, and concluded, bruised and angry, that real life supported the Marx he'd read in college. A confirmed Communist, he crawled back to his parents' house in 1933 and joined the John Reed Club, where his new friends Jack Conroy and Richard Wright encouraged his graphic realism. His break came when Vanguard Press commissioned a novel off a piece he'd written in Story magazine. A $100 advance in hand, he retraced his travels through the South, holing up for a few months at Sul Ross State Teachers College in Alpine, Texas, where he lectured in return for use of a rare Royal typewriter. He was caught trying to steal it when he left in January 1934. The experience of sitting in the county jail for a month awaiting trial burned itself into Algren's mind the way World War I had traumatized László Moholy-Nagy — the swelling boredom, punctured only by the random, almost playful violence of the inmates and the callous jailers. Virtually the same jail scene appears in every one of his major works of fiction, reworked and refined, as if he could never fully make sense of its horror. Finding him guilty, the state of Texas sent him back to Chicago on his own recognizance.
Vanguard published "Somebody in Boots" (originally called "Native Son") in March 1935, a desperate travelogue of Depression America that follows Cass McKay through the scoured plains of West Texas to the docks of New Orleans where he, as Nelson had, lives off rotting bananas for weeks at a time. Boxcar gang rapes, jail time in a Texas backwater, lovers and sisters turned into whores, are all told in a deeply, sometimes overly, poetic style. Cass can't help but be as brutal and ignorant as his upbringing, yet as he tries to find a way to live as a man in a nation that punishes its people for the crime of poverty, he has an innocence, an animal desire to be of some kind of value. When he finds love with Norah Egan in Chicago during the Century of Progress, redemption seems possible. Of course, it's not. Later Algren called it "an uneven novel written by an uneven man in the most uneven of American times," all of which is true.
The book's commercial and critical failure crushed Algren, whose independence and biting wit hid an extremely sensitive core. After a suicide attempt, a breakdown at Yaddo, and a brief commitment under the care of Karen Horney, he found stability in the South Side bohemia of the 1930s, living with his then-wife, Amanda, on the white side of Cottage Grove Avenue in one of a string of abandoned storefronts known as the Arcade or Rat Alley. Going deeply into Communist writing circles with Wright and Conroy, he became secretary of the Chicago chapter of the League of American Writers, where he met Langston Hughes, Malcolm Cowley, and Upton Sinclair. Wright found him a new job as an editor and writer at the Illinois Writers' Project in September 1936. Permanently rumpled, tall and sardonic, Algren cast a long shadow at the WPA office, equal parts lothario and encouraging mentor to younger writers like Margaret Walker. He liked to go bowling at lunch with Studs Terkel. His belief that the WPA "served to humanize people who had been partially dehumanized" and that it "provided a place where they began to communicate with people again" sounds like a description of its effect on him as much as the nation as a whole. Though he sided with Stalin's realism over Trotskyist abstraction and alienation, a stray cat like Algren wasn't meant for party discipline. In 1939 he left the Communist Party to schmooze editors, apply for grants, and start the agitprop magazine The New Anvil with his old friend Conroy; they raised money through raucous theatricals featuring Algren vamping onstage in a wig that Studs borrowed from the Chicago Repertory Group.
In the spring of 1940, as Wright hit it big with "Native Son" (a title officially bequeathed to him), Algren, now divorced, moved to Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street in the heart of old Polish Chicago near St. Stanislaus Kostka, at the time the largest parish in the United States, nicknamed Stanislawowo. Dubbed by Wright "the Proust of the proletariat," Algren immersed himself in the guts of a city he saw getting "bigger and greyer and sootier and more clamourous every day." He bought kolaczki at Polish bakeries, hung around syphilis clinics and courtrooms, listened to the old lushes on the last stool, the pool hustlers, and ladies in babushkas. At the turn of the century, this had been the city's densest slum, and things were only slightly better now. Unlike "blighted" Bronzeville, there'd been no renaissance in these parts; humanity here fell below the reach of Communism and salvation. "God has forgotten us all," says one of his characters. "He has even forgotten our names."
Harper & Brothers published "Never Come Morning" in early 1942, to strong reviews. Malcolm Cowley in The New Republic called Algren "a poet of the Chicago slums." Its story is simple, maybe too simple for its own good. Bruno "Lefty" Bicek dreams of being a boxer, but for all his muscles, he's gutless inside, and when the boys in his gang want to share his girl Steffi, Lefty doesn't have the courage to keep them off — the need to be regular matters more than the need for love. As men line up, the furious, frustrated Lefty breaks the neck of a Greek waiting his turn. While Steffi goes to work as a whore for the local fixer, Lefty pulls some petty crimes and ends up doing time. When he comes out, he works as a bouncer at Steffi's brothel; admitting everything to her, he begs forgiveness. They have no one but each other, so together they cook up a plan to buy her out. Lefty will get a rigged bout through the fixer and then double-cross him. Lefty wins the fight, but the fixer turns him in for the murder of the Greek.
There's barely enough for a novel there, which Richard Wright and Algren's editor at Harper & Brothers continually told him. But both "Somebody in Boots" and "Never Come Morning" reveal in rich detail the lives and souls of thugs, hookers, and dirty cops. Algren dodges the trap of most lumpen naturalist fiction by never mistaking his sympathy for an excuse. Yet it's his prose style that elevates these books, with its echoes of Ben Hecht at his most poetic, ornate and so beautiful that it threatens to overwhelm its subjects, like Louis Sullivan's late banks. Hemingway called "Never Come Morning" "the best book to come out of Chicago," and Algren believed a life as the city's Baudelaire was possible for him now. He wanted to write "honestly, for honest men; for the milkman, for the janitor, for the street-car conductor." Though he sounds like Walter Gropius when he writes, "The chief thing should be to share, as fully as one is able, in the common experiences of common humanity," he could not be farther away.
But rather than put Algren on a pedestal, Chicago kicked him in the shins. Despite local reviews comparing the book to "Native Son," the Polish Daily Zgoda accused him of comforting the Nazis with anti-Polish propaganda, so Mayor Ed Kelly, well aware that Nelson Algren had one vote versus the 30,000 or so vulnerable Polish ones in the 26th Ward, had the book pulled from the shelves of the Chicago Public Library. Meanwhile, the FBI stirred up an old investigation of Algren's Communist past. The message was clear: It was OK to depict black depravity; it was not OK to depict the depravity of being regular. Sales ground to a stop, and by the summer of 1942, Algren was a syphilis inspector for the Department of Health. Drafted the next year, he made an abysmal soldier; his short service was most notable for the illegitimate daughter he fathered in Germany and his three-month stint of nonstop gambling as he waited to be demobbed in Marseilles.
Algren arrived back in Chicago in December 1945, lucky to find the dumpy one-bedroom without a bath where he could inflict his dark moods on no one but the cat. He often dropped by a tiny Rush Street bookstore with a creaky floor, a barrel of apples, and a thoughtful stock selected by its stout, mercurial owner, Stuart Brent. Over the next five decades the Seven Stairs would become the city's prime literary outlet and Brent his biggest booster. Doubleday bought a collection of short stories from Algren, "The Neon Wilderness," and it had just hit the stores when he fielded the unusual phone call on Feb. 21, 1947.
The Palmer House had no "leetle café," but it did have Le Petit Café. Algren was stung that she took him for a rube. He cased the room, its women très chic in their mink stoles. One gal in a thin coat with tricky cat eyes kept walking in and out. He suspected it was her; well, he knew it was her; the copy of Partisan Review tucked under her arm was a dead giveaway, but it also kept him at bay. None of the scenarios he'd imagined on the streetcar coming down here had involved Partisan Review. But no other woman in the room had such regard for herself, and no other woman had eyes quite like hers, slanted downward at the corners with such natural elegance.
At last he stepped forward, lean and straight if disheveled. Her name — Simone de Beauvoir — rang a bell. He bought her a drink, and they talked haltingly, each mangling the other's language while they took stock. She was French, so Algren explained his contribution to the war effort — lucky for him she didn't understand much. He watched her full lips circle the edge of her glass, her eyes glazing a little. Good looking and tightly wound, she didn't pretend to be interested, and Algren found that intriguing.
He had no clue what to do with this Simone de Beauvoir. She was here until tomorrow evening, then off on the Super Chief to L.A. Would she like to go hear some jazz? Simone sniffed — there was no good jazz anymore. She nodded up at the Bing Crosby playing. Americans had killed it with the "sweet jazz," she said. Jazz ended with Armstrong. Maybe a nightclub? Tony Martin at the Chez Paree? He was relieved when she rolled her eyes. Burlesque? Algren regretted the word as it came out of his mouth — snare drums and conventioneers eager to see a little titty. She made a small moue. This De Beauvoir was a tough room to play; no girly "whatever you want to do" business from her — she was the heavy bag. Algren dragged a hand through his hair, already a mess but now standing up straight on his head, wondered what Frenchy here'd make of the joint across Wabansia. Well, said Algren, I could show you the city that none of the tourists see. You know, the rough side.
She tilted an eyebrow. Now she was intrigued.
So they left the flashing signs of the Loop, the honking cabs and tall buildings, to head west on Madison, past the opera house and over the river to where the streetlamps were few and far between, the sidewalks were cold and empty; the only proof that spring would happen was the "Vote Kennelly" signs in loyal windows; Election Day was in early April.
You could hear the thumping rhythm outside the door of their first stop; heat and sour stink hit them as they walked in, the blare of the small band. Heads turned, then turned back to their beer — Algren was a regular. Simone registered the details: toothless bums bobbing their heads while a cripple leaped into the center and began a hop-frog dance amid other clutching dancers; bright, cracking makeup on the wrinkled face of a drunk old woman; vaguely melodious shouting and occasional pitched screams. It was a voluntary madhouse, a museum of expired vices, a final cry of joy for ruined lives.
He may as well have shown her a Van Gogh.
"It is beautiful," said De Beauvoir, breathless.
Right then he knew. Any other woman in Le Petit Café would've run out of this dump in tears, but she saw it with the same wonder and affection as he did. Their eyes caught. He pulled her away and on to the next bar, where she met more characters. It turned out Richard Wright was a friend of Simone's in Paris. Another whiskey, and then back to Wabansia and Bosworth. The sex was phenomenal. Algren had never made love to a woman on anything like even terms, but Simone examined his body and his bookshelves with equal curiosity and energy. The cat made himself absent. The next morning Simone got back to the Palmer House in time to answer a call from the French consulate — there was to be a tour of the Art Institute and the Loop, a lunch with the Baroness de La Paumellière who was also in town, along with members of the Alliance Française. After lunch in the Arts Club, they whisked her into a black sedan for a tour of the city's wonders, the skyscrapers, floes of ice rolling on the lake, the statue of Ceres atop the Board of Trade, the opera house she'd passed last night. All very nice. She drummed her fingers. Dinner was at 6. There was still time. She directed the driver to Wabansia and Bosworth; Algren bounded out of the door without a coat. He nodded at the sedan. "My neighbors are going to start asking me for money."
Upstairs they reunited as if they hadn't seen each other in years. Then they got dressed, and she insisted he take her for a walk around Stanislawowo, a piece of America fermented in Polish backroom vodka. They downed shots, ate sickly sweet sour cream cakes, and strolled through the cold as Algren told her his story, talked about his writing. Already he was her "crocodile" and she was his "frog." There needed to be more. She would be coming back east in April. There would be more time then ...
Back at the Palmer House, lobster and martinis for dinner, spent in a fog. Simone made a last call to Algren; the phone had to be taken from her so she wouldn't miss the late train west. Since the 1920s she'd been with Jean-Paul Sartre as his helpmeet, his partner, his servant, once and even now occasionally his lover. But the experience with Algren, her "local youth," had been illuminating to say the least — the American, for example, did not feel it necessary to argue philosophical points while inside her. That alone had changed her world. Heading toward L.A., she read "The Neon Wilderness," recalled his "hovel, without a bathroom or a refrigerator, alongside an alley full of steaming trash cans and flapping newspapers." Mostly she recalled how much it hurt to say goodbye. Meanwhile at Wabansia and Bosworth, she'd left behind a copy of that week's New Yorker. At a certain point it dawned on Algren that the Simone referred to in the "Talk of the Town" as "the prettiest Existentialist" was indeed his Frog Wife.
Thomas Dyja is the author of "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream." Excerpted from "The Third Coast," due out from Penguin on Thursday. © 2013 by
The Third Coast
By Thomas Dyja, Penguin, 544 pages, $29.95
Dyja will appear at this year's Printers Row Lit Fest, which is June 8 and 9. Check printersrowlitfest.org for updates.