For one of the world's most revered film critics and his steadfast wife, naming their Chicago heroes begins and ends with each other.
By Hank Sartin Photograph by Chris Strong.|
Never mind the tens of thousands of film reviews, the worldwide following and the Pulitzer. For many, Roger Ebert’s name comes with an &; for years, it was Siskel & Ebert. Then it was Ebert & Roeper. But for those who know Roger well (and it’s hard to know him at all without calling him Roger), there’s been another partnership, one that has been getting more public notice during his recent battle with cancer. For the last 16 years, it’s been Roger & Chaz. That would be Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert. In addition to being Roger’s wife, she’s the vice president of the Ebert Company (which handles Roger’s varied business interests). And since Roger lost the ability to speak in 2006, she’s been his public voice.
When Roger’s cancer, first diagnosed and treated in 2002, spread to his jaw, it demanded major surgery, in which part of his mandible was removed. As he was preparing to leave the hospital, one of his carotid arteries ruptured. Roger came very close to dying, and his recovery was long and hard. Eventually, doctors performed a tracheostomy, which left Roger unable to speak. He has not spoken since.
But Roger didn’t have any intention of hiding his illness, and with support from Chaz, he resumed his public schedule. Sometimes he would use a voice-synthesizing program to deliver short speeches, but often Chaz did the speaking for him as part of her increasingly public role.
During our interview with the couple, Roger is at his most energetic when we talk about Chaz. He’s especially ecstatic about her blogging from the Cannes Film Festival for the Sun-Times. “I advised her to write in the first person,” Roger explains, using his Mac and a synthesized voice, “like literally writing me a letter.”
Chaz expands on the point: “I love writing to him. When we first started dating, Roger and I would write to each other every morning. We have this correspondence somewhere.” Charmingly, our interview almost derails for a few minutes as the Eberts try to figure out where that early correspondence is stored.
Their relationship started out like a Chicago celebrity fairy tale. Back in 1989, Roger was dining out with old friend Eppie Lederer, also known to advice-seeking newspaper readers as Ann Landers. Chaz was at another table with some people Lederer knew, and Roger was clearly taken with Chaz. “He wanted to meet me, so he had Eppie walk over with him to make the introduction,” she recalls.
The attraction was mutual, and they began dating. They appreciated then, and continue to love, the intellectual engagement they share for life. “Roger’s passionate about life. Passionate about books, passionate about movies.” Sometimes there are disagreements: She loves A Clockwork Orange, Roger not so much. “I find that I learn from Roger,” explains Chaz, “even if I don’t agree with him.”
What followed in 1992 was a midlife marriage for both of them. Chaz had been married before, so she knew what taking that step would mean. “I think that I am better in marriage. I like taking care of people and having someone there in my corner and being in someone’s corner.” Roger, on the other hand, had been single into his forties. But looking back, he doesn’t recall any trouble adapting. “I had been single long enough,” he says.
Looking for a way to describe the Eberts as a couple, their longtime friend Robert Feder, a Sun-Times business columnist, makes a surprising but apt analogy. “I think I might say Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. They’re two really great, outstanding public figures in their own right who come together in an extraordinary partnership. As I recall, Eleanor Roosevelt was in many ways the eyes, the ears and the legs of her husband when he was unable to physically be everywhere. She enhanced him, she advocated for him, and she grew in her own public stature.”
Then Feder laughs. “I’m thinking of Roger reading a reference to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and rolling his eyes.” Roger may find the comparison amusing, but it gets some things exactly right. Throughout our interview, Chaz often pauses before answering a question to see if Roger is going to type a reply into his voice synthesizer. She describes herself as a more private person than Roger and she defers to him, but when she does give an answer, it’s well thought-out and honest.
Throughout his illness, Roger has chosen to keep the lines of communication open not only to his family and friends, but also to his readers, a path he has followed no matter how painful. In early 2007, he decided he would attend his annual April film festival in Urbana. Many advised him to skip the festival, not for health reasons, but because the tabloids would publish “unflattering” photos of him.
Roger’s solution was simple: He beat them to the punch. In a forthright column on April 23, Roger explained: “So let’s talk turkey. What will I look like? To paraphrase a line from Raging Bull, I ain’t a pretty boy no more. (Not that I ever was. The original appeal of Siskel & Ebert was that we didn’t look like we belonged on TV.)” Roger illustrated the piece with a photograph of himself in his tracheostomy collar, his lip pulled down on one side as a result of the surgery.
“We didn’t sit down and say, ‘Let’s be the public face of cancer or cancer survival or rehabilitation,’ ” Chaz explains. “It was to us more of a natural, organic outgrowth of how we are as people. Roger was always public and out there and enjoyed meeting people. He decided, Why should this stop him? The only conscious decision was whether he should go to his festival.”
Roger’s public appearance at the fest was a triumph, but the road back to health continued to be bumpy at best. In early 2008, he underwent additional surgery, which Roger and Chaz had hoped would restore his voice. But the procedure was unsuccessful, and the recovery difficult. Then, while doing physical therapy in hopes of getting to Ebertfest again, Roger stumbled and injured his hip.
Whether to try surgery again is one of the few points on which the Eberts are not in full agreement. “The thing I would like to use [Roger’s Sun-Times] blog for,” Chaz says, “is to find out what else is there in the medical or scientific community that could help his next surgery be successful.” But Roger isn’t interested. “I’ve barely survived two of my three surgeries,” he explains in a follow-up e-mail. “Enough is enough.”
Being without a voice seems to have made Roger all the more avid about writing: “I started out by writing in the first person, and now I do it more strongly than ever. It’s how I talk.” In fact, Roger’s direct, personal approach to criticism—in print and on television—has been the hallmark of his career.
“That’s one of the keys to his success,” Feder notes. “He doesn’t adopt a public persona or a TV persona that’s different from the real person. I think that’s why he’s always connected so well to so many people. In a certain sense, the Roger that people think they know and that they see on TV is the real Roger.”
As if the reviews—which he’s once again writing at a remarkable rate—weren’t enough, Roger uses his blog to muse on everything from the Olympics’ opening ceremony to his early days as a newspaperman. Roger’s justly proud of the blog, taking time out during our interview to show us the stats and a map illustrating how many hits he gets from different countries. Roger, it should be noted, is hot in Australia, India, the United Kingdom and, at least after his Olympics post, in China. The site also features one of the most polite communities of commenters we’ve ever seen online. People may disagree, but they do so in a civilized manner.
Roger recently used the blog to share his feelings about the end of his and Richard Roeper’s professional association with Disney, which has revamped the show with new hosts. Roeper and Ebert hope to take the two-reviewer format and the thumbs (to which Roger and Gene Siskel’s heirs own the rights) somewhere else, with Roger and Chaz probably involved in a production and supervisory role, but they aren’t saying anything more about that yet.
Faced with serious health issues at age 66, some people might choose to retire. But that’s not Roger. He can’t imagine not writing. “Writing is my life’s blood. It is one thing that I can do with no reference to my health problems.
“I always said that I couldn’t retire until I’d written a book about Scorsese,” he continues. “Now I have and I’m still not retiring.” He’s referring to Scorsese by Ebert (University of Chicago Press, $25), due out in October. In that volume, Roger reprints his initial reviews of all of Martin Scorsese’s films and adds a new reflection on each of them.
We wonder if he might set some new goal to stave off retirement. He gives it a moment’s thought and then types, “A book on Herzog,” referring to the noted filmmaker Werner Herzog, whom, like Scorsese, he’s been fascinated with throughout his career.
Take your time, Roger.
Three quick questions with Roger Ebert:
What is your quintessential Chicago moment? Walking up Wabash from the old 12th street station with the L roaring overhead, seeing the Sun-Times at the head of the street, and going in for my first job interview.
What is your perfect Chicago place? My morning walk around the ponds of Lincoln Park, around the lily pond, through the zoo, and around the gardens south of the conservatory.