BOOK REVIEW: 'The Third Coast': Detail-Rich Account of How Much of the Post WWII American Dream -- and Nightmare -- Was Created in Chicago

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
The American way of life  in the postwar world was a product of Chicago. From the steel in its new Miesian skyscrapers to its stacks of golden crispy McDonald's French Fries. The city was navigating the transformation of the cultural ideal of the common man into a national mass market strategy. -- Thomas Dyja, "The Third Coast", Page 336
 BOOK REVIEW: 'The Third Coast': Detail-Rich Account of How Much of the Post WWII American Dream -- and Nightmare -- Was Created in Chicago

That statement by Thomas Dyja in his enthralling  book "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream" (The Penguin Press, 544 pages, maps, glossy photo inserts, notes, index, $29.95) sounds a little overdrawn, but native Chicagoan Dyja provides more than enough information to make his point -- in an exceedingly entertaining book.

 I was attracted to the book -- as I am to all books about Chicago -- in part because it was where I moved in the summer of 1961 after graduating with a B.A. in English from Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb,  about 50 miles west of the Loop,  and began my first real job. It wasn't in journalism -- that came in January 1966 when I joined the staff of a daily  newspaper in nearby Hammond, IN -- but I was the small town boy in the mecca of the Midwest and it was marvelous -- paradise, even. 

My one-bedroom apartment on Grant Place in Lincoln Park cost me  all of $75 a month -- very affordable on my $5,200 a year salary -- and it was a short walk to  a place I fell in love with on first sight, Old Town at Wells Street and North Avenue, home of the Old Town School of Folk Music, Second City and many other attractions. The first two institutions are covered in the cultural section of "The Third Coast."

Dyja describes -- to pick just one example --  how rock  'n' roll was born in the Chess Record studios with Chuck Berry recording "Maybellene." According to Dyja's account (page  293) Leonard Chess changed the name of Berry's song from "Ida Red" to "Maybellene" , pointing to a bottle of  Maybelline mascara that a secretary had left on the studio's piano. 

"It has to have three syllables", Leonard yelled (he liked to yell, usually laced with a rich variety of profanities) , and with this pronouncement, rock 'n' roll was born in 1955. (The song title's spelling was changed to avoid a copyright infringement suit from the cosmetics maker). 

The book abounds with details like this -- something that appeals to my  inner trivia geek . 

Dyja notes that Leonard and Phil Chess were white men who made their money from black artists; but he adds that they -- contrary to some other accounts --treated Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and other blacks the same way they treated white artists. The brothers Chess were in it for the money, but so were the artists, including Berry, who earned  a living as a carpenter in his father's contracting business (Page 290-291) and vowed never to pick up a hammer after he traveled  to Chicago from St. Louis.

If you're a fan of "Saturday Night Live" or "The Colbert Report" you'll learn -- if you don't already know it -- the connection with those two shows with Chicago's groundbreaking Second City improv theater, which grew out of earlier efforts like the Compass Theatre. Dyja describes the birth of Chicago improv -- which led to other theatrical efforts that made the city such an important theater center -- in considerable detail. Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Shelley Berman, Barbara Harris and the parents of Ben Stiller -- Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara -- all got their start in Chicago. 

Television innovations that we take for granted  were born in the city by the lake: The first host of NBC's "Today" show was Dave Garroway, a fixture in the Chicago School of Television on NBC-owned WNBQ before he moved to the Big Apple, broadcasting from the Merchandise Mart, along with Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison of "Kukla Fran and Ollie" and Louis "Studs" Terkel's "Stud's Place." The latter show was an inspiration for the TV sitcom "Cheers"  -- just as Dyja says the station's "Vic and Sade" was a "kind of great uncle" to Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion."

I pride myself on my knowledge of Chicago (hometown of both my mother and father) but I was surprised at some of the details that Tom Dyja unearthed and placed on display in this book, which is enhanced because of its listing of sources and a wonderful bibliography. By the way, here's a link to my 2012 review of a book about Chicago in 1919, "City of Scoundrels":

New York City-based NBC used Chicago -- at the end of the coaxial cable -- as a source of low cost programming, Dyja explains, noting that before jet air travel supplanted trains nearly every coast-to-coast trip included a Chicago stop. This flow of people made  made it America's central clearinghouse, laboratory, and factory. 

At the same time that the atom was being split at the University of Chicago -- which gets a great deal of coverage in "The Third Coast" -- the city provided a new home for the Bauhaus of Dessau, Germany, which was detested by the new Nazi regime. Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and others found a welcoming home in the city that created the steel-framed skyscraper and was the home of Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, John Root and many more.

Moholy-Nagy, a multi-talented Hungarian artist,  found a patron in Container Corporation of America owner Walter Paepcke, who later bought the old mining town of Aspen, Colorado and started the Aspen Institute. Moholy's Institute of Design thrived and was later folded into the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), whose South Side campus featured buildings designed by Mies.

This expansion of IIT affected the city's African-American community, at that time concentrated in Bronzeville, where the disastrous experiment of high-rise public housing like the Robert Taylor Homes led to many of the problems affecting present-day Chicago.

 Racial divisions were particularly highlighted with riots when blacks moved into formerly white, predominantly ethnic neighborhoods, Dyja points out. The maps at the front of the book are particularly useful to those unfamiliar with Chicago's geography -- and helped this former Northsider comprehend what was going on in White Sox territory.

The election of Richard J. Daley as mayor in 1955 -- he was supported by legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson -- let to more construction that changed the skyline of the Loop. It was also the time of white migration to the suburbs and violent protests by whites against  African-Americans arriving in their formerly all-white enclaves.

Dyja covers the city's rich literary scene extremely well, with his accounts of novelist Nelson Algren ("The Man With the Golden Arm," "Walk on the Wild Site") and his French mistress Simone de Beauvoir; Gwendolyn Brooks and many others. His account of how Hugh Hefner changed the face of magazine publishing is one of the best I've seen.
Thomas Dyja
Thomas Dyja
Photo by Art Shay

"The Third Coast" is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand Chicago -- and, by extension  the creation of post WWII urban America. On top of that, it's supremely readable. An unbeatable combination.   Update: For my Friday, Dec. 20 on-air review of "The Third Coast" with Craig Hammond of WHIS in Bluefield, WV: and listen to the Dec. 20, 2013 broadcast replay.

About the Author

Thomas Dyja is the author of three novels and two works of nonfiction. A native of Chicago's Northwest Side, he was once called "a real Chicago boy" by Studs Terkel. He now lives in New York City. His website:
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