Foster at Kupcinet’s funeral in 2003After announcing on Friday that her last column would run on August 6, the Sun-Times’s Stella Foster, who has been writing “Stella’s Column” (the successor to the legendary “Kup’s Column”) since December 2003, told me in a telephone interview Monday that it was her decision to retire.
When I asked if there’d be a successor to the successor, the writer—who has worked for the Sun-Times since 1969 starting as Kup’s secretary—told me I’d have to ask the people now running the paper: the Chicago investment group Wrapports, L.L.C., and its newly appointed editor-in-chief, Jim Kirk. Kirk responded by email, “…you can’t replace someone like Stella so, no, there will be successor for her specific column. This was Stella’s decision to retire.”
Foster told me she took vacation time to arrive at her plan for “the next chapter of my life,” and said her bosses “had no idea I was planning on retiring.” When I asked for her age, she treated it as a hostile question— “I don’t like cutthroat stuff”—but given that she has worked at the paper for 43 years, she likely is in her 60s. Kup, who launched his column in 1943, always employed a secretary but never a legman. So Foster, like her predecessors, took on that role—but did much more. She contributed heavily to writing and reporting the column for at least 10 years before Kup died at age 91 in November 2003, and then wrote it, pretty much on her own, for the last two years of Kup’s life.
“I’ve been on deadline all my life,” Foster told me, recalling when Kup wrote six columns a week with her assistance. As Kup aged and his writing began to flirt with irrelevance, the column was cut back to twice a week—the same frequency that “Stella’s Column” has had for most of its nearly nine years of life. Kup used to quip that he’d be “terminal at my terminal.” Foster, on the other hand, told me she didn’t want to turn 80 and still be writing the column.
An African-American who grew up in Englewood and prided herself on covering minority communities and their event and issues, Foster proudly told Crain’s Shia Kapos, who reported the retirement on Friday, “I don’t have a degree from Northwestern.” She said that she tried “to give a voice to people who don’t have a voice,” explaining that while she wrote about celebrities, what got her out of bed in the morning was not “how many babies Angelina and Brad have or will be adopting,” but the chance to offer her views on “what is going on in the neighborhoods, in teenage pregnancy and domestic abuse.”
In Monday’s column, she wrote that President Obama should come to Chicago and hold the kind of prayer/support session he conducted on Sunday in Aurora, Colorado, for the victims of the Batman massacre. “I’m sure Obama knows what I’m writing,” she told me, adding that the decision to come here should not be a political calculation. “Black people would say, `We have a president who is truly a president of all the people, cares also about his people.” The President should stand in Chicago and take note of this summer’s shooting victims, many of them “wonderful kids….[who will] never realize their potential.”
When I asked where she expects her readers to go once “Stella’s Column” is retired, she answered, “I don’t know…. Ask Mr. Kirk and the new owners.” She told me that the emails, texts, calls she’s getting include many readers who are “upset, … disappointed that one of the strongest voices in the city is stepping down.” Foster is not given to self-deprecation: “I think I’m irreplaceable in terms of how I write and how I express myself and my views.”
But in a nod to her bosses, she said, “…the new owners have to do what’s best for their paper; I have to do what’s best for Stella….. They should have a right to make whatever changes they [need] to with the Sun-Times….. Who am I to question what to do with the newspaper?”
Her only plan for the future, she said, is “to relax. I don’t have to be in the rat race.” When I asked if she’ll stay in Chicago or move somewhere with a better climate, she responded, “There is no better climate than Chicago.”
Our conversation yesterday was somewhat strained. “I’m doing this reluctantly,” she said, explaining that she didn’t like the profile I wrote of Kup which was published some seven months after his death. She didn’t say specifically what she didn’t like, but it was probably the reporting I did on the effort back then by Kup’s son, Los Angeles TV director Jerry Kupcinet, to install his then-25-year-old son, David, who had recently moved to Chicago after being reared and educated in southern California, as the new Kup in “Kup’s Column.”
When I interviewed Jerry in 2004, he denied any behind-the-scenes maneuvering on his son’s behalf but said, “David would have been great at it because he’s a very good writer. He will do a ‘Kup’s Column’ in Chicago.” Others whom I interviewed confirmed Jerry’s plan for his son. The problem was that Kup, who was in terrible shape physically in the last years of his life but mentally sharp, never put any of the pieces in place to make that happen. For example, he didn’t position his grandson—with whom he was close—for a shot at taking the column by hiring him as a legman. In December 2003, when I interviewed David at his grandparents’ apartment at the Carlyle as he sat behind his grandfather’s desk, he told me, “To keep ‘Kup’s Column’ going would be a dream come true.” He also said that he never actually discussed that dream with his grandfather. “The first time I really wanted to talk to him about it, he was a day away from dying.” (The closest David got to what his grandfather referred to as “columning,” was a weekly entertainment/celebrity column for the Sun-Times’ ‘Red Streak,’ since shuttered.) That there was tension between Foster and members of Kup’s family was clear from my interviews. Also clear was that Kup and Foster shared a great deal of love and loyalty.
The tension was exacerbated, after Kup’s death, by newsman Walter Jacobson, then working at Fox in Chicago. Jacobson reported that the Rev. Jesse Jackson was readying a boycott of the paper if Foster was pushed aside for David. “Off-the-charts wrong,” Foster told me back then. Jackson, whom I interviewed a week after I spoke to Foster, called the alleged boycott threat “violently unfair, ridiculous.” He noted, however, that Sun-Times management did the right thing and things “never got to that level.”
David, who still lives in Chicago and works as a “Close Protection Agent and Private Detective” according to his “Facebook” page, did not respond to my attempts to reach him.
POSTSCRIPT: On a related note, Foster lambasted me in 2004 for writing biographies and profiles without the cooperation of my subjects. “Why don’t you start to write books that people want written?” That don’t-upset-your-subject view was one that Kup shared. It was the rare person I talked to who did not mention that what distinguished Kup was that he was almost always nice. “He wasn’t out to destroy people,” is how Foster put it. “He would never say anything bad,” Jerry Kupcinet said.
But, that said, Kup did break news. His column was packed with celebrity gossip, but also with political insider info, including some major scoops. Kup was first to report Harry Truman’s decision not to run in 1952; Kup knew because his friend, the president himself, told him. Recently, I was exchanging emails with Rob Feder, the Sun-Times’ TV and radio columnist for 28 years who now blogs for Time Out Chicago, on the subject of the lack of hard reporting on the disappearance/hospitalization of Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. “In the old days,” Feder wrote, “Kup would have had the power and influence to get the scoop from Jesse Sr. (or someone close to him). He might have written the item with a sympathetic spin, but there’s no way he would have sat around waiting like this.”
Photograph: Chicago Tribune