Saturday, December 17, 2005
How I Discovered Where Reagan Lived in Chicago
Ronald Reagan was the only president ever to have lived any part of his life in Chicago. Private citizen Reagan mentioned that he had lived in Chicago when we talked through the OHare concourseor rather struggled to walk through the concourse, given the crowdsin 1979. It struck me then that should this guy get elected, somebody ought to find the house.
At the OHare Hilton following the celebratory repair of the leaky bathroom faucet and the story drawn from his George Gipp days, I asked him when he lived here and where. He said: I lived here for two years when I was a little kid, from about four to six. And I dont know where but I think it was on the Southside. When youre that young you dont have much of a recollection.
Even before he was elected, I was interested in finding out but set it aside. After he got elected, I set to the task at once. First, he was born in 1911 which, following his words, would put him in Chicago roughly from 1915 to 1917. His father was John R. Reagan. I went to the Chicago public library and looked up the old phone books from that era but phones were scarce for a lower middle class family of that era. Then I looked at the Chicago directories which listed families but the family wasnt listed. Looking at his biographies, I saw that at most they only spent two years in town, probably before they could get listed. I considered trying to get in touch with his older brother, Neil but didnt know how to do it. So I pondered some more.
I read where his father had worked as a shoe salesman at Marshall Field & Company. I checked Fields for personnel records but records from that far back had been destroyed. I let it pass until well after he was inaugurated and started again. It so happened that Henry Hydes wife, Jeanne, was working in the correspondence unit in the basement of the White House for a very wonderful woman named Anne Higgins (who had also done the same job for Richard Nixon). I asked Jeanne if she could pass the word upstairs and checked with her every so often. One day when I checked in, Jeanne was laughing. She said that she passed the word upstairs that this guy from Quaker Oats was interested in finding out where he lived in Chicago. He suggested trying Marshall Fields but was told that was a dead end. Then he told Jeanne something very revelatory.
He said: My father was picked up often as a common drunk. The police records should have that fact.
I checked with the police and sure enough, they listed a John R. Reagan picked up often for common drunkenness in the 1915-17 years. And the address they had was 832 east 57th street, in Hyde Park, on the Southside. It was a two-flat and the Reagans lived on the second floor.(I paid a visit to the place, knocked on the door and told the black residents that their apartment was once inhabited by President Reagan. They didnt seem impressed. I wrote the story later as an Op Ed for the Sun-Times which also published the picture of the very ordinary building in what was now a slum and indeed which when he lived there was not much better.
What struck me about that experience was the comfort that Reagan had living in his own skin, the son of an alcoholic, who suggested that his fathers detention records be looked up. Not many successful menmuch less the president of the United Stateswould so voluntarily give out that information. Reagan referred to his fathers alcoholism several times notably in his first autobiography, Where is the Rest of Me?, recounting that he once he came home from school and found his father lying on the sidewalk, arms akimbo resembling very much a crucifix. This was the first time he had mentioned his fathers police record. Theres a greatness to that anecdote about the 40th president that means very much to me. I never saw him up close again: only from afar, at the 1984 convention and the 1985 inauguration.