My favorite story about Roger Ebert had nothing to do with movies. It had to do with a dinner party.
I was working with Roger, who died last week, at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was due at our house in Chicago at 8 or so, and he was not bringing a date.
But an hour beforehand, he called my wife. He had met a woman at a bar, and could he bring her? Of course, my wife said. Our dinner parties were emphatically informal.
Although Roger and I were colleagues at the time, I was more an admirer than a friend, and that is what you could still call me today. To this day, I credit him with turning me into a serious movie buff. Until he died, I read his reviews avidly. I have every single one of his books, including the compilations of his reviews.
Roger’s reviews are compulsively readable. I can’t begin to count the number of movies I saw only because of one of his reviews. Although I didn’t agree with all of them, more often than not I did.
Accounts of friendship with Roger Ebert neglect the kind of person he was. He was exactly as he appeared. He was friendly, opinionated, funny.
The Love Life of Roger Ebert’– No Stars. A local theater owner put that up on a marquee, took a picture, and sent it to Roger, who showed it around the department. I’ve got several people, he protested, who’ll testify that it should say two stars.’
So, when he brought his new date to our house and when it became clear to Roger and the rest of us that something was wrong, all the rest of us watched with horrified amusement.
The date’s name was Debbie. She went to the bathroom a lot. And when she returned, she was worse off than when she left. She couldn’t pour the wine. She tried eating the veal off the serving plate.
Roger tried his best to help her, but he wasn’t having much success. Everyone was on edge, worried what she might do, and fascinated as our noteworthy guest tried to make us feel comfortable. But he may as well have tried making us feel comfortable in the middle of a train wreck.
Debbie’s not feeling tip-top, Roger finally said, making his apologies for leaving early. And he and she left, she clutching his arm so she wouldn’t fall, Roger looking as if he would just as soon let her.
Back at the dinner, it was as if everyone exhaled all at once. We agreed that only Roger could have handled the episode with as much class as he did. We heard later that he had to stop the car so Debbie could throw up. And when he dropped her off, she asked whether he wanted her phone number.
No, said the world’s best and most popular movie critic, I do not.
Several months later, the Sun-Times’ partner newspaper, the Chicago Daily News, folded. Many good and talented people lost their jobs, most at the Daily News but also a dozen at the Sun-Times.
The publisher and owner of the Sun-Times planned a big dinner at the Drake Hotel for those of us who had survived. In retrospect, it was a good idea, for it took our minds off what had happened. The coming party was the talk of the newsroom.
On Friday, the day before the big party, my office phone rang. It was Roger, calling from his desk maybe 15 feet away. He didn’t say anything except:
I know exactly who I can bring to Marshall Field’s party.