Windy City Blues

In her fun very readable Windy City Blues (Berkley 2017; $16), Chicago author Renee Rosen again takes another slice of the city’s history and turns it into a compelling read.

Rosen, who plumbs Chicago’s history to write such books as Dollface, her novel about flappers and gangers like Al Capone, and What the Lady Wants which recounts the affair between department store magnate Marshall Field and his socialite neighbor, says she and her publisher were racking their brains for her next book which encompassed Chicago history.

“She suggested the blues,” says Rosen, who didn’t have much interest in the subject.

But Rosen was game and started her typical uber-intensive research.

“When I discovered the Chess brothers, who founded Chess Records, I fell in love,” she says, noting that when researching she was surprised about how much she didn’t know about the subject despite her immersion in Chicago history for her previous books. “I thought this is a story.”

“As part of my research, I drove the Blues Highway from New Orleans to Chicago,” she says. “I also met with Willie Dixon’s grandson and with Chess family members.”

Combining fact and fiction, Rosen’s story follows heroine Leeba Groski, who struggling to fit in, has always found consolation in music. When her neighbor Leonard Chess offers her a job at his new Chicago Blues label, she sees this as an opportunity to finally fit in. Leeba starts by answering phones and filing but it soon becomes much more than that as she discovers her own talents as a song writer and also begins not only to fall in love with the music industry but also with Red Dupree, a black blues guitarist.

Windy City Blues was recently selected for Chicago’s One Book project, a program designed to engage diverse groups of Chicagoans around common themes. Rosen says she is very honored to be a recipient.

“I put my heart and soul into this book,” she says. “I think it’s a story with an important message. In it are lessons of the Civil Rights movement, what it was like for Jews and people of color along with the history of the blues and the role of Jews in bringing the blues to the world. After all, as the saying goes: Blacks + Jews = Blues.”

White Collar Girl

Even if you weren’t addicted to the black and white movies about newspaper gals such as Katherine Hepburn in “Woman of the Year” and Glenda Farrell in the Torchy Blane series like I was, Renee Rosen’s latest book, “9780451474971 (2)” about a Chicago reporter in the 1950s, is still a great read.

Rosen, who plums Chicago’s history to write such books as “Dollface,” about flappers and gangers like Al Capone, and “What the Lady Wants” about the affair between department store magnate Marshall Field and his socialite neighbor, tells about a time not that long ago when women reporters were almost always relegated to covering soft news and society items.

In her latest, Jordan Walsh wants to break out of her role as a society reporter and sees her chance when she finds a deeply connected source in the mayor’s office. But despite her source and ambition as well as family connections to such great Chicago writers as Mike Royko, Nelson Algren and Ernest Hemingway, Jordan must still contend with the attitude of it’s a man’s business.

To research her book, Rosen spent a lot of time talking to reporters to find out what it was like back in the day.

“I think what I found most surprising was how the female reporters back then were called ‘Sob Sisters’ because they were assigned the sentimental stories or stories intended to tug at the readers’ heartstrings,” Rosen says about what she found when she began her extensive research. ”Sexism in the newsroom was blatant back then. Also in terms of sexual harassment, back in the day that phrase wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary. Of course career women didn’t like it, but there was no one to turn to, no one to complain to.”

Rosen, who lives in Chicago, says she often will find herself walking down a street and thinking this is where Dion O’Banion worked (one of the gangsters featured in “Dollface”) or this is where Delia Caton and Bertha Palmer shopped (“What the Lady Wants”).

“Or in the case of ‘White Collar Girl,’ I’ve been to some of the watering holes where a young Mike Royko or a Nelson Algren would have frequented,” says Rosen, noting that she’s watched “All the President’s Men” about “a million times.”

“I can go to City Hall and walk the very hallways that Mayor Daley walked. Call me a history nerd, but for me that’s a thrill. Sometimes I do get so obsessed with a subject matter that I do find I have to pull myself back to the present time.”

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