The Magazine

The Lonely Skybox

Chicago is bereft of celebrity fans.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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We weren’t in Siskel’s car 10 minutes when he told me how lucky he was to have his job, and all the money that television syndication brought in. His first connection with the movies came through the novelist John Hersey, who was his housemaster at Yale and who lined him up with a job at the Chicago Tribune. At the Trib, he was asked what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to write about movies. This was before movies became the great subject of the college-educated middle class and movie critics became mini-stars, their opinions on everyone’s tongue. (Soon enough, the passionate interest in movies waned, to be followed and eclipsed by discussions about restaurants.) 

Siskel’s good luck, he told me, had made him wary. Both his parents had died in their early 50s, and he would soon be turning 50 himself. He had young children. He feared the imminence of his own death. And die he did, five years later, of a brain tumor, at 53. 

“I’ve got great seats,” he said. He told me that the Chicago Bulls management wanted him to have front-row seats for their games. He had to pay for the tickets, though, and at $125 a seat, with four tickets for every home game, the tab for the season was $20,500—not an easy check to write, he allowed. He was, however, able to sell off many of the tickets to well-to-do friends. 

At Harpo, we were met by Kotlowitz, Jacobs, and Oprah. Without makeup, Oprah Winfrey looked as any 40-ish black woman at the end of a hard day at the office might look. Instead of catching a bus for an apartment in South Shore, however, she would be stepping into a limo headed for a swank Michigan Avenue duplex. She joked cordially about our boys’ night out, and about basketball itself being, she guessed, “a guy thing.” 

We drove up Madison Avenue to the United Center arena. Siskel’s seats were in the front row, across the floor from the players’ benches. Waitresses took our drink orders. This was the 1993-94 season, a dreary time for the Bulls, the year that Michael Jordan retired from basketball in the hope of starting a baseball career. That night the Bulls were playing a characterless New Jersey Nets team, to which they lost by 18 points. Was I on television, photographed along with Chicago’s not-very-impressive celebrity, a middle-brow if nationally recognized movie critic? I have no notion, and a little less interest.

Afterwards, in the parking lot, Siskel picked up his car phone—cell phones were not yet in regular use—to make a restaurant reservation: “Hello,” he said into the phone, “this is Gene Siskel, and I’m calling to reserve a table for 4, roughly 20 minutes from now.”

(His opening comment—“This is Gene Siskel”—reminded me of a story about Ira Gershwin and his wife and another couple who, early on a Saturday night, were contemplating dinner at Sardi’s. “I don’t think we can get a table there on such short notice,” Gershwin said, “but let me try,” and off he went to make the call. He came back to report that it was no-go, no tables were available. The husband of the other couple said he would like to try his luck at it, and went into the other room to make the call. “Yes,” he said, “it’s fine. Sardi’s, at eight p.m., table for four, center of the room. No trouble whatsoever.” How did he manage to do that, everyone wanted to know. “Simple,” the man said, “I just told them I was Ira Gershwin.”)

At the restaurant, as I paused over an enticing dish of linguini and clam sauce, Gene Siskel said, “Now that I have all of us together, I’d like to talk a little about where black-Jewish relations are heading.” I inwardly groaned: In a world where tact did not matter, I would have lifted my dish and glass of wine and moved to another table. Instead, I sat through a conversation that seem to put lead on my fork. 

Siskel drove Alex Kotlowitz and Jeff Jacobs back to Harpo, where their cars were parked, and then drove me back to his apartment, where my car was. I thanked him for dinner and for the ticket to the game. We shook hands, and agreed that we hoped to meet again, but never did. On the way home, I decided I preferred seats much higher off the floor.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, with Frederic Raphael, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.

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