Irv Kupcinet was the most popular guy in town. He was known as Kup by all of his friends, a circle as large as the population of Chicago itself and beyond a social network of people including popes and waitresses, presidents and doormen, athletes and accountants, Hollywood stars and sanitation workers. When he passed anyone on the streets of Chicago, whether they knew each other personally or not, he would wave. "He would say, 'Hello, Friend,' and he meant it," said his son, Jerry Kupcinet.
Kup, Chicago's most famous newsman and broadcaster, died on Nov. 10, from respiratory complications with pneumonia. He was 91.
"Through his Sun-Times column and television program, Kup seemed to embody Chicago with all of its energy, excitement, and optimism," said Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who attended Kup's funeral at Chicago's Temple Sholom, where Kup was a longtime congregant. "This is a city full of interesting and entertaining people. Sometimes, it seemed, Kup knew them all."
Dubbed "Mr. Chicago," Kup wrote his famed column, a who's who of entertainers, sports figures, and politicians, for more than 60 years. "Kup's Column" was a centerpiece of the Chicago Sun-Times, running six times a week in its prime. Though his column was commonly referred to as a gossip column, Kup was always kind with his pen.
"What I admired most about him was that he knew our secrets, but never published them," eulogized Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes reporter and longtime friend of Kupcinet. "There wasn't an ounce of malice in him."
He dug up more scoops than anyone in the business, the result of hard-nosed journalism a combination of incessant phone calls via his giant roledex of stars, world leaders, and ordinary citizens alike, showing up to any and every event, and his obsession with fact checking.
"His office was his lifeblood," said Stella Foster, his devoted assistant for 34 years. "He's still doing his column, maybe not down here but up there."
Throughout his illustrious journalism career, Kup represented his Jewishness proudly to the city of Chicago. He worked for a number of Jewish causes in the area and would often write about Jewish happenings around town in his column.
It wasn't rare to spot Kup with his wife, Essee, by his side at Jewish organizational events in the city. Among his causes, he was a loyal supporter of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF/JF).
"Irv Kupcinet was a proud Jew and lover of Israel," said Steven B. Nasatir, president of JUF/JF. "Kup would always go out of his way to be helpful in connection with Jewish issues. We were proud that he was a donor to JUF every year of his adult life, often coming to our events."
Kupcinet was also a passionate Zionist. Among the causes closest to Kup's heart was Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, in which he served as Chicago chairman for more than 30 years. At the institute, he and his wife established the Karyn Kupcinet International School for Science in their late daughter's name, which to this day brings outstanding college science students from around the world to study each summer.
"There was virtually no organization in the Jewish community that needed his help to which he did not respond," said Rabbi William Z. Novick, regional director of the Chicago Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science. "He was a do-gooder in a very positive sense and he was proud of his Jewishness."
The Jewish community is proud to claim this vivacious Chicago symbol as one of its own. "It's characteristic of Chicago that a person who became an instant personification of the whole city would have emerged from the city's neighborhoods and retain visibility within his community throughout his long life," said Michael C. Kotzin, executive vice president of JUF/JF, who had a relationship with Kup in light of Kotzin's Jewish relations and communications responsibilities.
"It's a source of pride for many in our community that it is the Jewish community from which he emerged and to which he remained close."
Kup came from humble beginnings on Chicago's West Side in the primarily Jewish North Lawndale neighborhood around 16th and Kedzie. He was the youngest of four children of Russian immigrants, Olga and Max Kupcinet. His father was a bakery truck driver. As a boy, Kupcinet would help his father make deliveries on a horse and wagon.
At Harrison High School, he edited the school paper, starred in the school play, and was president of his senior class. He earned a football scholarship to Northwestern University, but a fistfight incident with the coach's brother forced him to transfer to the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks.
He played on a college all-star football team with future president, Gerald Ford, and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League upon graduation. When a shoulder injury cut his season short, he landed a $32.50-a-week sports writing position at the Chicago Daily Times (now called the Chicago Sun-Times).
Kupcinet later broadcast Chicago Bears football games on the radio with another famed Chicagoan, Jack Brickhouse, for 24 years.
Kup's newspaper sports column would always close with a short "people" section, which became what is today known as "Kup's Column," after Kup's editor asked him to write a column to rival famous columnist Walter Winchell.
Along the climb up the journalism ladder, he met a red-headed Northwestern co-ed named Esther "Essee" Solomon. The two married on Feb. 12, 1939, and honey mooned during spring training in Florida.
Essee was the love of Kup's life. At Kupcinet's funeral, his granddaughter, Kari Kupcinet-Kriser, spoke of her grandparents' love affair:
"Countless times, I'd watch them hold hands for no reasons and I'd listen as he told her how much he loved her," said Kari. "And she would say, 'I love you too, Irving.' And then of course, he would say, 'What, dear?' She would get mad and yell at him something like, 'Oh, God, Irv, you're deaf,' to which he'd inevitably reply, 'That's how we've stayed married.'"
The two were known for hobnobbing with Hollywood's top A-list celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Danny Thomas, Ava Gardner, and good friend Bob Hope at Chicago's chicest night clubs, including their almost nightly visits to Chicago's Ambassador East's Pump Room.
Kup was also a pioneering television talk show host. In 1952, he debuted on a late-night news/interview program on CBS. Five years later, he replaced Jack Paar on an NBC program, which would later become "The Tonight Show." Kup's own show, featuring "the art of lively conversation," as Kup put it, ran from 1959 to 1986, syndicated at one time to 70 stations around the country, which featured big news names from Malcolm X to President Richard Nixon. The show garnered 15 Emmys and the prestigious Peabody Award. In 1982, Kupcinet was elected to Chicago's Journalism Hall of Fame.
For 50 years, Kup also hosted his annual Purple Heart Cruise for wounded war veterans, which was financed by newspaper reader donations.
The couple had two children, Jerry and Karyn, two grandchildren, and two great grandchildren, all of whom Kup would gladly pass up an evening with a president or movie star to spend time with.
Karyn, an aspiring actress, moved to Hollywood, where she was murdered in 1963 at the age of 22. To this day, the crime remains unsolved. Kup never stopped grieving his daughter's loss. Two years ago, his wife and partner, Essee, died after 62 years of marriage.
What do we tell future journalists about this legend named Kup? asked John Cruickshank, Chicago Sun-Times vice president of editorial, in a eulogy. "We're going to tell them that there was a guy here once who lived larger than the rest of us," he said. "He was taller, he had a firmer handshake, a brisker stride, a more penetrating eye, and a bigger heart."
Whereas other celebrated Chicagoans had street signed named after them, Kup got a bridge, (The city named the Wabash Avenue bridge over the Chicago River for him in 1986.) and Kup acted as a bridge between communities and generations, according to Cruickshank.
At the funeral, Kup's grandson David Kupcinet remembered the following words that Kup once told him when David was leaving left town on vacation. Today, these words echo with David and with all of Chicago: "It's a lonesome old town when you're not around."
Survivors include his son, Jerry, and two grandchildren, Kari Kupcinet-Kriser and David Kupcinet, and two great-grandchildren.
Donations: The Chicago Academy for the Arts. 1010 W. Chicago Ave. Chicago, IL. 60622 or Karyn Kupcinet School at The Weizmann Institute 79 W. Monroe St., Suite 1111 Chicago, IL. 60603