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  WINDY CITY TIMES

PASSAGES Chicago gay pioneer Richard Cooke dies
by Jon Putnam
2020-12-17

This article shared 2079 times since Thu Dec 17, 2020
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Richard Cooke, a longtime Chicago resident and familiar East Lakeview presence along with his dachshund Governor, died in the early morning hours of Dec. 12, after suffering a heart attack earlier in the week. He was 72.

Whether taking a walk or just relaxing outside one of the neighborhood coffee shops, Richard and Governor could be spotted every day in the vicinity of Broadway and Belmont—Richard with his trademark hats, Governor sporting the distinctive Cubs visor that made her a local celebrity. On game days, baseball fans looked forward to greeting the duo outside Wrigley Field, where Governor was always happy to pose for photos.

Richard Cook was born Feb. 14, 1948, the only child of Frederick Cook and Dorothy Surleta. (Richard added the "e" to his last name as an adult.) Richard never met his father, who died of a heart attack at age 32, when Richard was a year old. A few years later, his mother married Louis Klein.

Although Richard felt that his stepfather favored Richard's younger half-brother, Louis and Dorothy Klein were quite generous with Richard—buying him a car, a motorcycle and, as a high school graduation present, the offer of either a boat or a college education. (He chose the latter.) Mrs. Klein also helped Richard with the baking when he opened his restaurant Bazooka in the 1980s.

Richard was status-conscious from an early age. For much of his childhood, the family lived at 7326 Jonquil Terrace. "Jonquil Terrace was in Niles, two blocks out of Park Ridge," Richard explained in a 2019 interview. "But I used to tell everybody I lived in Park Ridge. I didn't want them to know I lived in Niles."

He graduated from Maine South High School in Park Ridge, in 1966—one year behind future First Lady Hillary Rodham.

After graduation, Richard moved into the city and got his first apartment, a studio on Wellington. "It didn't last long. It was a studio in the back of the building facing an alley, right by Pine Grove … . I liked being there, because Pine Grove at night, that's where everybody cruised.

When he got his first job at an upscale men's clothing store, Richard made the somewhat surprising decision to assume a different identity. "I thought, 'I'm new to the city, I can make any name I want.' So I picked the two nicest streets in Park Ridge that I can remember: Stacy Court and Edgemont Lane. And I told them my name was Stacy Edgemont. Oh, God! What was I thinking? How embarrassing!

"I took that fake name for a while and worked at a haberdashery on Wells Street, and then I worked at an unemployment agency. That didn't last, that was a joke, that was terrible."

He considered teaching and briefly attended Illinois Teachers' College ("It was just awful") before enrolling in a two-year program at the Ray-Vogue design school, headquartered at 750 N. Michigan. Richard had been at a house party when "these three queens came down the stairs with their heads held high — you know, that 'model walk' — and I go, 'Who is that???' 'Oh, they're Vogue girls!' 'Vogue girls? What do you mean?' 'They go to Ray-Vogue.' 'Oh … I want to go to Ray-Vogue!'"

He then found a job working coat check at the bar Ruthie's. At that time, Clark and Diversey was the hub of gay nightlife. "Shari's was right on the northeast corner of Clark and Surf, and the southeast corner, what is now McKillip Animal Hospital, that used to be The Annex," Richard recalled. "And about three doors down was a gay restaurant, I forgot the name—Country something—and they had the best peanut butter pie. And then four or five doors down toward Diversey was Ruthie's. That was 'The Strip'.

"My friend Diane was the coat check girl at the Annex, and I would just hang around there. And she was sick. 'I don't want to go in tonight.' I was at her house. I said, 'Let me go.' She said, 'No, I need to go. I need the money.' I said, 'I don't want the money. I'll bring you all the money. I just want to work the coat check.' She goes, 'Really? You'll give me all the money?' So I went and I worked all night, and afterwards I gave her all the money. I didn't care about the money. And I did that several nights for her, and that's why they hired me to do the coat check at Ruthie's, down the street. Because I had done it at the Annex.

"And it's funny, at the Annex I had my 21st birthday and the owner there, a big Mafia guy, said 'What are you guys celebrating?' 'We're celebrating Richard's birthday. He just turned 21.' It was like, well, he's under age and he's been in the bar all this time? He just now turned 21?"

"Eddie Dugan was a bartender at Ruthie's, and Arthur Johnston and Pepe [Pena] were bartenders at Shari's. That's where we all started from."

Chicago's late 1960s/early 1970s gay scene wasn't limited to Clark and Diversey, however. "There was a big dance bar on Chicago and Rush called The Normandy, when I was in college at Ray-Vogue. It was a huge dance bar, we loved The Normandy. But after a few years it got tired, and that's when The Bistro opened. So Eddie's idea wasn't so original … he just copied The Normandy.

"And then across the street from The Normandy was Kitty Sheehan's, that prissy little bar … just a bunch of old drunk queens at the piano. It was dressy, you had to wear a coat and tie, and Kitty was really mean. If you were standing, she'd walk behind you and take a stool and push it into you so you had to sit down," explained Richard. "Kitty Sheehan's husband was a police commander, so you knew you would be safe there. It wouldn't get raided."

Richard also liked hustler bars. "There were two, Jamie's and the New Flight … I loved hustler bars, because the boys at least were masculine. They weren't a bunch of silly queens running around."

After graduating from Ray-Vogue (with a diploma for interior design), Richard first moved to 3314 N. Lake Shore Drive, and from there to 506 W. Roscoe—the former Korshak mansion, longtime home to a powerful Chicago family. "We rented one floor of that, about six of us … 'The Roscoe Raiders,' we used to call ourselves. We had the first floor of this big mansion. We each had our own bedroom … that was when we were all working at Ruthie's and I had just gotten out of school."

One of the roommates was Eddie Dugan, who would later open The Bistro. "I remember [Eddie] was delivering liquor for a liquor store over on Armitage … and then he worked at a gay bar called The Inner Circle, downstairs on Armitage. That was THE crowd you wanted to hang around with. It was like Sidetrack is now, but smaller. And he was a bartender. Everybody wanted to be at The Inner Circle."

Richard opened two businesses in the years immediately following Ray-Vogue. The first was a store on Oak Street called Fabrics Limited. Although it didn't succeed ("It was a bust. I had one customer in a month and a half"), it wound up being an important resume item when Richard moved to New York City several years later.

He also launched Cooke & Company Interior Design, operating out of his apartment in the old 900 N. Michigan building. "I was on the waiting list for a year to get in. It was kind of a tony building, but the second floor was kind of little cheap apartments. They weren't as grand as the rest of the building was. I think they were for people visiting or for servants."

It was around that time that Eddie Dugan was looking for a property for a new dance club. Richard often joined him. "We were looking constantly for places. We looked at so many different places. After a while it gets to be like 'Oh, Jesus …!'

"So we went to look at [420 N. Dearborn] and I just remember going in there and it was so dark and dirty, and they had those big old booths like the Italian restaurants had, and then we went upstairs and it was unfinished, and I remember seeing all these plastic daisies in pots—there must been a hundred of them. What the fuck are they doing with these? So Eddie took the place. I asked him for like 50 of the daisies so I could use them for my store on Oak Street, to put them on the stairwells going up. And he said, 'Yeah, take them, sure. I don't want them.'"

However, Richard and Eddie had a falling-out not long before The Bistro opened, and Richard was barred from the club. The Bistro was the new hot spot; for somebody who valued social status as highly as Richard did, being excluded was unbearable. So he left Chicago. "I went to New York because The Bistro opened. I couldn't stay here, because everybody was going to The Bistro!"

He arrived in Manhattan in 1973 and rented a room at the West Side YMCA, at 5 West 63rd Street. "They have a floor for people who only stay there for a night or two or three, and then they have other floors for long-term guests … I didn't know if I was gonna stay or not. But I know that whenever you took a shower, if somebody heard the showers going, all of a sudden all the other queens would come out of their rooms and they were taking showers too, because they wanted to see who was taking a shower. It was so funny."

After about two months, Richard found a job with Burlington Industries, a textiles firm located in Midtown Manhattan. After being hired, Richard asked why he was selected. "They said, 'While you were in Chicago, you started your own fabric store.' I said, 'But it failed.' They said, 'It doesn't matter. You took the initiative and you tried. And that's what we want to see.'"

The newly employed Richard moved out of the YMCA and into an apartment in The Meurice, a pre-war building at 148 West 58th Street. "It was named after a very famous hotel in Paris. It was a small place but it had gorgeous wood paneling in the lobby that needed to be refinished—they were supposedly refinishing it but never did—and it had a big crystal chandelier. I had a small studio that faced the back of the building. It was right off of Central Park, three blocks from my job. I could go home for lunch, so it was perfect. I loved that building. I ran into Alistair Cooke in the lobby." (Today, a two-bedroom apartment in The Meurice rents for $5,400/month.)

Richard's New York adventure began to wind down after he moved south— to a new apartment at 30 Christopher Street, in Greenwich Village. "That was my downfall," he admitted. "I fell in with the 'Greenwich Village Syndrome,' they called it. Because who wants to work? You didn't want to leave the Village. You didn't want to go past 14th Street. You just wanted to stay in the Village and have fun and get high all day long and do drugs and have sex."

Adding to Richard's distractions was that he had fallen in love with the legendary Fire Island. "I quit my job at Burlington, like a fool, and I was there all week long. I never went back to the city.

"There was an ad in the [Village] Voice looking for people to buy shares to get a house together. Everybody would chip in to buy a share—they sold like six or eight shares. There were two beds in each bedroom and each bed was a share.

"So I bought a whole share and I had my own bed. But then nowadays people were buying half-shares, which means they could only use it every other weekend. Somebody else would use it. And then they were buying quarter-shares, which you only use it once a month … because it was so incredibly expensive. But you certainly wanted a share. You didn't want to go out there and not have a place to stay … and I'll tell you, if you had a place to stay, you got laid!

"It was fun. In the morning we'd wake up and see who was at the table for breakfast."

Richard had fond memories of Fire Island. "Every gay person should do Fire Island. Even if it's just for a weekend. Stay at the Belvedere Hotel on the row—don't stay at the Botel, because everyone can see you there. They can't see you at the Belvedere, because it's kind of hidden away."

Returning to Chicago in 1976, Richard unexpectedly found a job as a DJ. "I came back from New York and there was a job opening at the Broadway Limited. I went and applied like a fool, not knowing how unqualified I was. I just assumed I would just go and play records … how hard can it be?"

Broadway Limited was a dance bar located "where Wilde is now. Above it. The downstairs was like a courtyard, where you'd go in. There were these fake storefronts, and in the back they had a train car, a whole car from a train, and that was a dining car—a restaurant. You could go sit there in the dining car and order food. Broadway Limited, you know, like a train. Then you had to go up these wooden stairs to the bar—a dance bar that wasn't really that big. And then when you left, there were these big old wide stairs, and you'd get so high, people would be falling down these stairs. It was kind of funny. We had good times there."

However, it didn't take long for Richard to realize that being a DJ wasn't his strong suit ("I couldn't do it, it was just really hard. I mean, it's not fun when you've got to count beats per minute, per song, all this bullshit"). Instead, he turned to writing. "I knew Roger Chaffin, he owned RJ's Video, and he worked at GayLife [newspaper] … and he hired me to do a column."

Initially he wrote about Chicago's DJs. "Nobody paid any attention to them, but I came from New York, where the DJs were gods," Richard shared in 2019. "So when I started writing my column, it was all about the DJs. I put their playlists, pictures of them, and I wrote about them, interviewed them, talked to them, talked about the music and the records. And that's how I first started out: writing about the music. And then from there I expanded to gossip, news. Fake news, mostly.

"They had me write as a restaurant reviewer once, and I started doing a few of those, but I never said anything about the food. I would go and I would say how hot the waiters were."

Writing also turned out to be a way for Richard to mend fences. "I thought, 'Well, I've really got to get on Eddie's good side again.' So I wrote this big article about The Bistro, about how it was THE place to go, and it reminded me of New York, and just constantly praising and writing it up and everything, laying it on thick. And of course from then on they let me in all the time."

Richard eventually left Gay Life for Gay Chicago, which Eddie Dugan had co-founded. "But after a while Eddie lost interest and Ralph Paul [Gernhardt] took over the magazine, and he couldn't stand me because I was associated with Eddie. He thought I was too tony and too stuck-up and all this sort of bullshit, which I wasn't. … So after like seven or eight months, he found an excuse to fire me."

Richard went on to write for Babble. As author and historian Owen Keehnen notes: "During the disco era his nightclub gossip column of queer Chicago was called DISCOvery ... and he did a gossip column into the 1990s for Gab/Babble."

Richard's writing got him into trouble with Wanda Lust, a local personality at the time. Wanda was dating a younger man. "I wrote that she was robbing the cradle—because here she was, this big old drag queen, a nelly queen, with this little twinkie. So that's when she cornered me at Center Stage … I forgot what she said, but it was a little frightening. She was gonna beat the fuck out of me, she said. So I just went and hid in the DJ booth the rest of the night.

In the early 1980s, Richard joined John "Woody" Lorenz, DJ Michael Graber, and Jimmy Thompson to open an after-hours dance venue called the Riverside Club, located on the first floor of a storage warehouse at 1015 N. Halsted.

"We had Michael Graber as the DJ, who was very good—one of the top DJs in the city," Richard recalled. However, the club was not a success, so in 1984 the same group opened the combination restaurant/bar Crazy Mary's and Bulldog Road, at 2914/2916 N. Broadway.

"When we took over the place, I tore the front wall out. It was not even insulated, it was just wood … and I guess I should have asked the landlord for permission, the guy who owned the place, but we didn't! And Woody went to the lumberyard and got these four French doors, which turned out to be like $500 each, and put them on his credit card and we installed those. And I would just open the doors so you were like sitting outside, because the doors would all open. And we were the first ones to do that. Nobody else did that back then."

They hired Michael Shimandle—who had previously managed The Bushes—to manage the bar, while Richard managed the restaurant. "Michael named the bar. And I came up with the name Crazy Mary's, because I knew there was a Hamburger Mary's in San Francisco," said Richard. "And I thought, 'Let's call it Crazy Mary's, because everyone will think we're associated with that, and it'll bring people in.'

"The office used to be a walk-in storage thing as big as a cooler, and we made that our office and we would sit in there smoking joints. If I was in a bad mood, all the employees would say, 'Get Richard a joint, quick! He'll settle down.' So they always made sure I had joints."

Once the bar and restaurant were up and running smoothly, Woody fired Richard. "When I got the restaurant working really good, they didn't need me any more! Woody said, 'The restaurant's working fine, so why are we paying you this big salary?'"

In 1986, Richard opened his own restaurant, Bazooka, at 3561 N. Broadway (where Angelina's Ristorante is today). To make ends meet, Richard slept in the basement! Bazooka was reviewed in the Chicago Tribune, which described it as "nine tables cozy and blue jeans casual with the feel of a '60s coffeehouse," and noted that "Owner Richard Cooke does all the cooking with a little help on pies and cookies from mom, Dorothy."

Richard had dogs for all of his adult life. The last one, the dachshund Governor, was born Jan. 10, 2009. She was 11 weeks old and weighed a pound and a half when Richard adopted her from a pet store in Evanston. "When they told me she was the runt of the litter, I said 'That's the one I want!'

"I had to put a bell on her, so in the middle of the night I would know where she was. I never crated her, I didn't want her to be in a crate, so when she walked around I could hear that little bell ringing."

Richard had given the same name to other dogs. Decades earlier, when he was new to Chicago, he met "this really rich, collegiate guy, I can't remember his name, but he had a dog named Governor. And I was just so impressed—everything about him was so rich. He was really wealthy. When you're young like that, that was impressive. And I thought, 'Oh, how neat! The dog's name is Governor.' And I thought, 'If I ever get a dog, I'm gonna name it Governor.'"

The first Governor was a Lhasa Apso that Richard adopted when he was about 21 and still a student at Ray-Vogue. "So over time I've had three or four different Governors," Richard reflected in 2019. "And this is the last."

Dean Ogren was one of many, both friends and strangers alike, who enjoyed running into Richard and Governor along Broadway over the years. "I will miss my visits with Richard and Governor, who was always so excited to see any company that would come by … . I loved bringing dog toys, so I was a favorite, and the kisses, not from Richard from Governor ... and if you were a well-known friend, there might be a puddle of joy on your visit as well … . Governor's way to say I'm so glad to see you. I am sad for her as well."

In the words of Owen Keehnen, "RIP Richard. Thank you for your bold life and for sharing some of that. Because of your stories we have a clearer vision of our history, and you were a part of that legacy."


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