‘Right now I want to hold you so badly’

The love letters a famous columnist wrote to woo his wife were his most important assignment

David Royko/ University of Chicago Press/ istock/ Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

She had grown into a tall, gorgeous blond, but it was her intelligence and kind heart that won him over. He was thankful to have grown into a taller-than-her fellow, but he was gangly and shy with a prominent Adam’s apple and an even more prominent nose. He fell in love with her when they were just children in Chicago, but he could never muster the courage to tell her how he felt. Instead, he became her best friend, playing Cyrano to her Roxane, and vetting suitors for her. He did such a good job that she married one of them.

Crushed, he packed up for military duty in Korea. But a year later, when he returned to a new posting in Blaine, Wash., he learned that she had filed for divorce. Wasting no time, he grabbed pen and paper and wrote to her, boldly and finally declaring his love.

So begins Royko in Love, a collection of warm, fervent love letters written by a man who later made a rather good living out of writing—though not about love. Mike Royko never shared his private life with his legion of newspaper readers, but they came to know him as a perceptive, chain-smoking, funny-but-fearless champion of the underclass, and a thorn in the side of the Chicago politicians he took delight in spearing. He became a celebrated syndicated columnist and a Pulitzer Prize winner, but the love letters written in 1954 to woo Carol, his childhood sweetheart, were likely the most important assignment of his life. He sure wrote like it was.

Within a few letters of that bold first declaration of love we are drawn into an intimate relationship. We become privy to the whole human turmoil that Mike goes through as he spills out his heart in letter after letter to Carol, almost every day, sometimes a couple of letters a day. We don’t hear a word from her but she is present nonetheless. Mike repeats parts of her letters, questions the way she’s phrased a sentence, shares his daydreams and draws on his memory of her appearance to such an extent that the photographs included in the book are almost unnecessary. Mike’s strategy of keeping the focus on her as much as possible is also seductively clever: what woman doesn’t like reading flattering things being said about her?

We also get a pretty good idea of Mike Royko himself. Tenacious he most certainly is, critical of the military, the type of guy his fellow airmen flocked to because he was the one who had a car. But this is a man laid bare, and his tender and heartfelt letters ripple with an undercurrent of fear that Carol might again slip away from him. The sense of urgency is palpable.

We feel his exhilaration when he writes of receiving her letters; through his descriptions we visualize his lanky frame on his military bunk at 3 a.m., hunched over a sheaf of lined paper, writing his tender missives under a harsh light. Woven through the letters are snippets of postwar military life; astute observations of base politics (“We have two officers on our golf team playing because of their rank instead of their skill”); of the social culture of the 1950s; of a military man’s life as he waits out his duty so he can get back to the real world and begin life on his own terms with the girl of his dreams. At one point he drives 35 miles to a telephone for a pre-arranged call with Carol only to become suddenly tongue-tied. His frustration jumps off the page. Other times, he simply cannot help himself: “Right now I want to hold you so badly I could drive my fist through a wall.”

These days, couples date for years before getting engaged, and then wait a few more years to save up for the wedding. In Mike’s case, he woos and proposes to Carol months before they come together as lovers rather than friends, and then marries her by November.

The letters—114 in all—chronicle a dramatic, whirlwind courtship, and that’s where they end.

We learn from notes peppered through the book that Mike and Carol had two sons, and lived a good life that wasn’t without its share of storms. Carol died of a stroke in 1979 at age 44; Mike died in 1997. His tribute to his wife, a poignant third-person column titled “November Farewell,” is included in the book. Have the Kleenex box handy.

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