I met Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page while he was on a book tour in Los Angeles and I scheduled him for an interview on The Leonard Peikoff Show at KIEV. I remember the interview as lively and interesting, and we reconnected years later through social media. This is an edited transcript of our recent conversation about the suicide of his former wife, Leanita McClain.
Scott Holleran: You were married to Leanita McClain for several years before you divorced. How did you meet?
Clarence Page: I was working in the [Chicago] Tribune newsroom—it was about 1972, because she was four years younger—and I looked up and she was the new intern hired from Northwestern [University in Evanston] and she was fresh off the campus. She was about 22. I was fresh out of the Army. I was about 26.
As soon as I met her I wanted to go out with her but I didn’t want to be too forward. I had two tickets to see Westworld and I asked her to attend the screening. We dated rather steadily and it was a slow build. We moved in together into an apartment between Lincoln Park and Lakeview, a one-bedroom apartment off Broadway on Wrightwood, just south of Diversey. We lived there and, after we moved in, we were married in six months—I was an only child and she was [the youngest of three children] and I wasn’t that eager to jump the broom. One day, my mom called and Leanita was there and answered the phone. She felt so guilty and nervous and she said ‘can we please get married?’ We went to City Hall and later we moved into the condominium on Lake Shore Drive off Belmont Harbor. It was in 1980 that she wrote the Newsweek piece [“The Middle-Class Black’s Burden”] and I left the Trib and went to [Chicago CBS affiliate] WBBM-TV.
On Memorial Day in 1980, our four-year-old nephew died in a tragic accident. After that, things took a bad turn. We could hardly see a four-year-old without her breaking down. It was a rollercoaster. She was the one who wanted to leave. She said she needed to be alone. I took it personally and figured that she just got tired of me. Then, one day she called me and said she had cut her wrists and had taken pills. I rushed her over to St. Joseph’s Hospital. I talked her into moving back in and she did—but she moved out again within a week. She bought a house in Hyde Park, with the primary motive to get married and have kids; then she backed out and went ahead and bought it anyway—she was digging a hole and feeling that she deserved this feeling. At one point, she fainted during a TV show taping. I picked her up and took her to her home and her refrigerator was empty.
Psychologically, you could see that Lea’s problem was race. Now we know that she was clinically depressed and what we would now call bipolar.
SH: What was she like as a journalist?
Clarence Page: She liked the copy desk best and she was happiest there. She didn’t like people that much—she didn’t like strangers and getting into people’s business, so she was not one who had dreamed of being a reporter her whole life. She had wanted to be a teacher like her sisters. A teacher at Chicago State [where Lea had attended college] had told her that she was an excellent writer and thought she could get a scholarship to Northwestern. They sent her a $6,000 check for her tuition to the housing project. Her father, who was a factory floor janitor, sat there staring at it because it was more than he made in a whole year.
But she never had a fire in her belly. One of her assignments was to cover the circus and Leanita was assigned to write a feature story, so she had to ride an elephant. She was scared of the elephant, riding down State Street, and the photographer kept telling her to smile and she came back and wrote that she had hated the experience—but her editor made her rewrite it. She was talented enough to write a piece of fiction. And that was one of my early indications that she was not in sync with the newsroom.
Scott Holleran: How was her My Turn column in Newsweek received?
Clarence Page: Black folks loved it—conservatives hated it. But everyone thought it was moving. This piece was more like the agony of the black middle class. She was saying what [certain] black intellectuals had been saying about the terrible twoness of being African and being American and Leanita changed the metaphysics to having a foot in each world and not feeling comfortable in either. She was the only one writing about the paradox.
Scott Holleran: What advice do you have for those who have been affected by suicide?
Clarence Page: The first thing is that it’s like Alzheimer’s—which my dad had and just died from—in that it’s harder on the survivor, so you need to not be ashamed to get counseling and get through it. Be aware of the danger signs and don’t be in denial. Get help. They usually try at least twice before and Leanita fit right into that pattern. Don’t hesitate to get them into counseling and if the person still commits suicide, don’t feel guilty. There’s more open discussion now and there’s a general understanding to get out of the superstition stage and start to deal with these [depressant] emotions.
Scott Holleran: What advice do you have for those who may have thoughts of suicide?
Clarence Page: Like the campaign to help gay teens says, it gets better. A disparate number [of suicides] are gay kids or they are carrying a cloud of depression—my wife, who teaches at George Washington University—has been concerned about certain students. Since [the suicidal murders at] Virginia Tech, there’s more awareness. When I think of Leanita, she wasn’t the only tragic case in journalism. One of the Trib’s Pulitzer Prize-winners, George Bliss, had a nervous breakdown. He went away, came back and sat there, spaced out, and apparently he had a problem grasping reality. Then, he shot his wife and shot himself. That affected Leanita deeply.
Scott Holleran: In her suicide note, Leanita McClain asked you to handle the arrangements. How did you cope and what pulled you through?
Clarence Page: At the time, I felt sad and remorseful and guilty but I also didn’t feel alone—I had her family and a circle of friends and it helped that I was being interviewed all the time.
Scott Holleran: Do you think you suffered a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Clarence Page: Yes, I suppose so. I’m an Army veteran, though in a way it was like ‘ignorance is bliss’. When [she] finally did [kill herself], I was shocked but not surprised. It was therapeutic for me to help her friends and family. And I learned a lot about the media. It made me a more responsible reporter.
Scott Holleran: One 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?
Clarence Page: I think so. She was emblematic of Chicago and a racial and political mood of the city at that time, which she filtered through her own personal troubles.