From the Vault of Art Shay: The Desk

By Art Shay in News on Aug 24, 2011 4:00PM

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Art Shay

Many literary types - a rock star, several dynamic businessmen who collect my pictures and just cultural gawkers - have asked me all kinds of questions about the desk in the picture, which has resided in my garage since 1975. That's when Nelson Algren opened his home on Evergreen to friends and fans and announced he was selling out in every sense of the word and moving from Chicago to points east.

Principal amongst these friends and fans is the smiling lady in the picture, who bought the desk out of rachmeunis -- a kind of Jewish folk pity -- that sad, fatal day when Nelson played self-mocking auctioneer of his pitiable effects.

I remember his rickety poker table went to a Sun-Times columnist for $85 and he repaid Nelson, giving him a bargain by doing a feature in which he came up with the notion that we were "all there to buy pieces of the great man." We were all there to give Nelson the spending money he hadn't been able to earn in the city he helped immortalize.

I had-only half-jokingly told Florence, Studs and another friend or two the desk had, on at least the two occasions Nelson had joked on the subject, helped support him and his beloved madame Simone de Beauvoir during some tender moments in their stormy relationship. When Nelson heard me expatiating on this theme in loud whispers meant to encourage my wife to buy the damn thing as a curiosity for her rare book shop in Highland Park, Nelson dead-panned, "if that's the kind of thing you're interested in, Florence, you shoulda bought the bed." Florence blushed but bought the desk. Being a pro, she got Nelson to write a certificate of authenticity-

The other day my archivist Erica found a copy of my March 25, 1975 letter to Nelson:

"Dear Nelson, I hope the sale worked out OK and the train ride through the heartland was pleasant. Just yesterday I got your desk through the garage door, but a little of the new varnish brushed off. Is the paint job guaranteed? What about service?

I enclose the clipping (of the story)... maybe the key really is that '$900 typewriter that can do anything.' "

I've asked a couple of Chicago museums devoted to local history if they'd be interested in having the desk on which The Man with the Golden Arm, A Walk on the the Wild Side and Chicago: City on the Make sprang to life from the mind and fingers of one of the handful of great Chicago writers. The one that responded asked if my wife planned to donate it. She said no. She plans to pass it on to someone who loves Chicago and is an Algren fan.

I love to peruse some of Algren's postcards sometimes that he wrote at the desk on his uncomfortable chair, which Florence also bought. Paragraphs like this one from a book Nelson and I were working on, part of which ended up in City on the Make.

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Art Shay

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.