Jane Byrne (1934–2014)

By

Jane Byrne passed away this morning. She was the first—and only—woman mayor of Chicago. This piece first appeared in A Public Space, and later in Love and Shame and Love. 

Rumpus original art by Eric Orner.

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She used to be one of the wonderful people.
—Michael Bilandic, 49th Mayor of Chicago on Jane Byrne 1

All of it over now and this is not much of a secret, but even so. It’s never been told before. Her enemies, my father said, couldn’t use it in the 1979 campaign; they weren’t sure if it would help her or hurt her. In politics you can’t run the risk that embarrassing someone might actually make them look more human. Voters like a human being once in a while. Not too much human in that being, but a little they can handle. And that’s why they loved Jane. At first. After a while she got way too human for everybody.

It’s not indecent. It anything, it’s sweet really. And it would be sweeter still if I kept my mouth shut. But why stop now? I’ve aired a lot worse laundry than this.

Jane Byrne, Fighting Jane. Mike Royko called her Mayor Bossy. She ran against the machine and squashed it, the whole goddamned machine. The machine that gave birth to her, the machine (what was left of it) that she re-embraced practically the day after she sent Mike Bilandic packing. First you stomp it, then you make it yours again. Getting votes is one thing, running a city another. So long you reformers, put on your goody-two-shoes and run, Marty Oberman! Operator, get me Eddie Vrdolyak!

My father told me it. My father spent years on the periphery of city politics. He was a lawyer in the City Planning Commission. If anybody asked him what he did, he’d say, “I make plans, lotta lotta plans…” But even in the wings you pick things up here and there. Jane Bryne, the woman who was to become the 50th Mayor of the City of Chicago used to stand on the balcony of her Marina City East apartment, naked as a fuzzy little peach (my father’s phrase) and make eyes and more at her husband-to-be Jay McMullen who’d be standing on the balcony of his Marina City West Apartment, also in the buff. McMullen was a scraggled veteran newsman. My father said he looked more like a hairy coconut than a peach. But imagine them. Those two unbeautifuls on their respective balconies, in the cold, checking each other out with binoculars. Even by then they’d both been knocked around enough, not a sight to see for most people, but what a thrill it was for the two of them. Like two happy grunts eyeing each other from their foxholes. Luxury apartments but that didn’t make a Democratic primary battle any less the blood sport of fellow chattering gladiators. jane2Brothers killing brothers. But they were going to be in this thing to win. Together they’d conquer Bilandic – or die. Those two were going to be the Romeo and Juliet of municipal government, Bonnie and Clyde of Streets and Sanitation. Jay once said that he’d slept with every girl in City Hall. He’d roll over in the morning and get a scoop. So tell me, baby, is Santorini in the budget office on the take or what? But that was in the Daley years, in the bad old days. Now even Jay McMullen’s going to behave. He’s in love with the woman who is going to be the first and greatest woman mayor of any great American (American? World!) city …

Jay who was to become her most trusted advisor. And maybe that was the problem. When Jane pointed a gun at her foot, it was Jay who pulled the trigger.

(You remember Jane Byrne?) Jane in those sexy white heels hanging off that garbage truck. Jane and Jay moving into Cabrini-Green and sending out Christmas cards? Mayor Byrne’s Chicagofest!

She couldn’t be bought off. That wasn’t the problem. It was that power so seduced her. The mere idea of it – not necessarily what you did with it. And what she did with it was messy. Mostly she seemed to just tell people off. Oh how gloriously Jane Byrne told people off.  She told off George Dunne. She told off Richie Daley. She told off the Chicago fire fighters. She told off the Sun-Times, the Tribune, WBBM, the South Town Economist. She told off Jimmy Carter. She told off Princess Margaret! Her mentor, the old man, Mayor Daley, had taught her about timing and in the end, that’s what was so off. She punched so often finally the only person she hit was herself.

So in the end she lost the war, first to Harold, and then ultimately to Richie. Things have returned to normalcy in the City of Chicago. City of I Will. Chicago the beautiful. The Magic City of the West. The Central Trade Market. City of Diversified Industry.

But of all the scraps of what’s been long forgotten, think of those two are out on their balconies, flashing each other, just the shadows of two lovers against the rosy polluted skyline. Jane does a little come hither dance in those white heels. Stay there, Jay. Don’t move. Don’t come over. Stay right where you are and watch me.

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1. By this I might explain on the day of Mayor Bryne’s death that her predecessor, Mayor Bilandic, didn’t mean this as compliment. He meant she used to be one of the wonderful people until she ran against his ass. He said it during the campaign that him his job.


Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →