Journalist, former Chicago Sun-Times columnist, Chicago television executive and host and blogger Monroe Anderson recently talked with me about the 1984 suicide of his friend and colleague, Leanita McClain. He wrote a column about losing her in 2009.
Scott Holleran: How did you meet Leanita McClain?
Monroe Anderson: I was still working for Ebony and living in Prairie Shores at 28th and South King Drive by Michael Reese [Hospital] and it was a very black middle class apartment complex that [Ebony/Jet publisher and businessman] John Johnson had a stake in. I had moved to Chicago in 1972 to work for Ebony. We had a meeting in my apartment to talk about organizing black journalists, which eventually became the Chicago Association of Black Journalists. I was married to Christine Harris, my college sweetheart at Indiana University. Leanita was a student who struck me as very quiet, very poised. She was attractive. I remember her not saying anything.
SH: Where did you live in 1984?
MA: In Lincoln Park.
SH: Where do you live now?
MA: Lincoln Park.
SH: Did you feel guilty about moving to a predominantly white neighborhood?
MA: No, no, no, though there have been attempts to make me feel guilty. I looked in Hyde Park and the DePaul [University] area and I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t move here to live with whites but because I didn’t know how long I’d be in Chicago and I wanted to make a profit and gain [property] value.
SH: Leanita McClain was a friend and colleague and you both split from your spouses around the same time. Following your divorces, did she confide in you about her mental state?
MA: Yes. Leanita had talked with me about her attempt at suicide, and how her stomach had been pumped. This was my first and only [experience with] suicide. She was talking about suicide, like a kind of banter back and forth, and I did not take it seriously until she attempted it. Then, instead of banter, I lectured her about it. I talked her into going to therapy. In retrospect, I know that she wasn’t honest with me. She had reached out to me first—she felt I was safe. She came and told me about leaving Clarence [Page] to find herself, which is what my wife had left me to do.
She knew I wanted to write opinion pieces and she encouraged me. I would talk to her about them. Because I had grown up in a segregated community, I had not known any white people until I went to college. So I felt comfortable talking about my ideas with her. Leanita became my go-between.
SH: Was Leanita friends with other black Chicago journalists, such as Vernon Jarrett, Bob Petty, Rosemarie Gulley, and Harry Porterfield?
MA: She was friends with all of them. Vernon was her mentor.
SH: Was she political?
SH: Did she think Harold Washington was a type of great black hope when he ran for mayor of Chicago and did she have unrealistic expectations about his candidacy that were dashed?
MA: It was the idea of Harold Washington—and he was a charming communicator—and, when she was forced to face reality, it was too personal. All those Democrats [who refused to support Washington’s candidacy] became Republicans overnight. From her perspective, when he met all the benchmarks that should have allowed him to be mayor and wasn’t supported, it was a rejection of her.
SH: She wrote of being her brother’s keeper. Did Leanita McClain consider serving her race as a moral obligation?
MA: No. It was because of the history of racism in this country. I know that when I went to Indiana University in 1965, in this lilywhite environment, I felt that I, too, carried the weight of my race on my back. These things are rarely discussed openly.
SH: Is there anything you would have done differently about Leanita McClain?
MA: No. Because there’s nothing I could do. We talked literally every day, like Gayle [King] and Oprah [Winfrey], and the weekend before Memorial Day, she had avoided me. I didn’t make too much of it but then I didn’t talk to her that Friday, or Saturday, or Sunday, so on that Monday I called her, because she hadn’t called me. There was no answer. I came in Tuesday morning and her office was dark and the newspapers were stacked up in front of her door. That’s when I called a friend who knew her real estate agent—she was selling her house—who had a key. They went over and found her. He called me and said ‘she’s gone’. I had just come out of a divorce and I had just lost my father, who had a heart attack, and her suicide was part of a maturing process for me. I had done everything to save my marriage and I realized that, sometimes, there’s nothing you can do. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. I think she was just crazy. I would tell her that too. She would say ‘I’m not happy’. She just didn’t get the mental health help she needed. Not a week went by when she didn’t talk about suicide. Her mother was an albino and she didn’t talk about—she talked about being poor but not about her mom being an albino.
SH: Have you spoken with Keenan Michael Coleman, whom she was reportedly dating prior to her suicide?
MA: No. I had met him while she was dating him.
SH: Did Leanita McClain pull a gun on him after they split?
MA: Yes. She shot at him. She called me and I went and got the gun. She didn’t shoot to hit him; she shot to scare him. She was hysterical. I got a call from her saying ‘I shot at him! There’s a big hole in my wall and he left and he’s gone!’ I got in my car and drove there and she was crying, tears running down her face, and she showed me the gun, and the hole in the wall—and her concern was that she would never see him again. I was not gonna leave that gun there—I calmed her down, and I took it home and, since I didn’t want a gun in the house, I called Clarence [Page] and told him to take it. I later went to see her and she wasn’t frantic anymore.
SH: What advice do you have for those who have been affected by suicide?
MA: There’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t encourage it—but when they do it, they do it. A friend of mine here in Chicago, who moved to L.A., has written this book about his son’s mental illness and suicide called The Dragon and the Angel. If someone wants to end their life, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.
SH: A Chicago Tribune reporter was quoted in her obituary as saying that Leanita McClain carried the weight of the city upon her shoulders. Should she have shrugged?