The Gift of a Chicago Winter
Who’s the guy with Tom Dittmer? Read on.
By Megan McKinney
Where were you 40 years ago tomorrow night? If in Chicago, you will remember that it began snowing while everyone was dressing to celebrate New Year’s Eve. It snowed and it snowed and snowed. Then it stopped.
Two weeks later, it began snowing again and continued steadily for two days, dumping 21 inches of the fluffy white stuff on top of frozen New Year’s Eve mounds, where it stayed until spring, while sweeping one Chicago mayor out of office and another in.
Chicago winters are no joke, and, according to the Farmers’ Almanac, this will be a “cold one, with plenty of snow.” A Chicago blizzard means residents and suppliers are barely able to climb over and around the towering embankments to get to Potash—forget Barnes & Noble. It may be warm now, but this is the time to stock up on a supply of the books you will be demanding soon.
We nominate three books we learned about through Classic Chicago—and each has a Chicago connection. Therefore, you may know of them, too; however, we actually went out and bought Tom Dittmer’s Talkin’ Big, Ann Rutherfurd Austin’s The Bar Harbor Formation and Aaron Malavolti’s The Patriarch Rising. We read—no, devoured—each of them, without waiting for the snow to fly.
One is a memoir, but marvelously gossipy about people you may know—or wish you did. Another is almost heartbreakingly moving. And the third, well, it will make you remember much you had forgotten about pre-history and life itself. It will teach you much you didn’t know and continue to keep you wondering.
To quote Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
How ephemeral it all is. Burnmouth—built for the ages and thought to be everlasting—changes, declines, then vanishes in Ann Rutherfurd Austin’s poignant The Bar Harbor Formation.
We knew that Ann Rutherfurd Austin, aka Andy Austin, was talented, but talented as a courtroom sketch artist—which she was for 43 years. However, it turns out that she is also a brilliant novelist. And the material she was born to fictionalize is great. Fabulous, in fact!
The beautiful, talented Ann Rutherfurd Austin.
Who wouldn’t want to tuck in during a blizzard to read about life in the still somewhat Gilded Age of mid-century Bar Harbor? The novel begins with 15-year-old Katie spending another summer at Granny McAllister’s “great shingled, turreted, dormered and balconied house above Frenchman’s Bay,” surrounded by McAllister—read McCormick—cousins because Granny is from Chicago. The adorably ample old lady was a celebrated beauty some decades ago when she married a member of the great reaper family. Ann/Andy—despite various surnames, including Cohen—is also a clan member and thus very well knows of what she writes.
The real life “McAllister” cousins.
What a great book to fall into while reclining next to a window, cozy under a cashmere throw, sipping hot cocoa or tea; the office is closed, with snow flying outside. Depending on one’s own life, reading about summers at Granny McAllister’s stately Burnmouth is either a nostalgic experience or one of a nose-pressed-against-the-window nature. Either way, it is a joy.
As the book progresses, there is romance—big time—a little sex, disappointment, deep tragedy and growth. All of it is beautifully and touchingly written by an author who has experienced it all. You will love it!
While Ann Rutherfurd Austin’s life is fictionalized in The Bar Harbor Formation, Tom Dittmer’s Talkin’ Big is not. It is straight to the point and reads like a first-person high-end gossip column—because there’s a lot of that in it. A lot!
If you remember the Chicago and Lake Forest heyday of Tom and Frannie Dittmer—she was F-1, you will soon learn—you’ll relish the juice in this book. Tom and F-1 were a very much talked-about-written-about pair who pulled such epic stunts as throwing a dinner dance in the amphitheater at Ephesus, booking Diana Ross for a private concert in Venice and chartering the Sea Goddess to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary with a private cruise for 100 of their closest friends. (They separated soon after.)
Tom is now married to the lovely writer Frances Schultz—known as F-2—with whom he lives quietly on a California ranch.
Tom Dittmer and F-2.
In between, there was Sandy Hill Pittman. This gorgeous fashion magazine editor and mountaineer is best known as a survivor of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, in which eight fellow climbers perished.
Vanity Fair’s take on Sandy Hill Pittman.
Although she was also the first American woman to scale the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent, she probably gained as much attention from her relationship with and marriage to Dittmer than she did from any of the mountaineering—but let him tell you about it; his account of that portion of his life is alone worth the price of the book.
Then there is The Patriarch Rising, a mystery thriller currently waiting a second reading during Blizzard 2019. Again, this is a book with an autobiographical angle, because, even before the Medici ruled Florence, members of the Malavolti dynasty were towering figures in the neighboring city of Siena.
Michael Malavolti, author Dr. Aaron Malavolti’s alter ego in the book, is a graduate student at the University of Chicago who travels to Italy to have his DNA studied by “a giant in the field of anthropological genetic research,” who mysteriously vanishes before Michael reaches him. What the young American doesn’t realize is that he, Michael, is being trailed by potential assassins even before he leaves Chicago. The drama grows until gunshots ring out in the Siena Cathedral.
One quickly realizes this is more than an ordinary thriller; there is education in this book that demands a second reading during Blizzard 2019. Therefore, The Patriarch Rising rests beside the sofa awaiting a swirl of snowflakes outside the window for the beginning of another reading.
Praise the Chicago winter! Pray for a blizzard! Your friends in Palm Beach and Palm Desert don’t have a hope of tucking in under a cover with a hot drink, the office closed, snow blowing against the window—next to a stack of juicy Blizzard Books!
Robert F. Carl