November 26, 1979 12:00 PM

It was a scene worthy of The Bickersons. With just a few hours to go before she was scheduled to plead Teddy Kennedy’s case in front of the Democratic National Committee in San Antonio, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne was furious with her speechwriter and her speech. “Why don’t you just throw that in the trash?” she growled at the author, who shot back: “I can write better speeches than anybody you know.” Sensing trouble, the mayor proffered an olive branch. “You wrote a lot of the things I wanted,” she said, “but all this stuff about broken dreams…” The writer indignantly threatened to return home, later complaining to a bystander: “I had two drinks on the plane and she accused me of being drunk when I wrote her speech.”

If it seemed a nut was loose in Cook County’s precision Democratic machine, that was only fitting. Taking place somewhere in the middle distance between sexual and party politics, the set-to was the latest episode of the Jane-and-Jay show—a husband-and-wife act now playing at Chicago’s City Hall to mixed reviews. Byrne, 43, has managed to inspire more than a little critical debate on her own—as, for instance, with her recent whiplash U-turn from the Carter to the Kennedy camp. But to many Chicagoans, Her Honor’s most enduring—and to some endearing—quiddity is the 59-year-old Chicago Sun-Times real estate reporter who serves as her sometime speechwriter, traveling companion and éminence bleu, husband Jay McMullen. Operating less in the spirit of Eleanor and Franklin than of Stiller and Meara, Byrne and her irrepressibly raffish sidekick have become one of the most colorful and odd couples in U.S. politics—and a pair of wild cards in the quickening race for the Presidency.

A martini-drinking veteran of 23 years on the City Hall beat for the now defunct Chicago Daily News, McMullen was a legend in the Windy City long before he married the widow Byrne last year. To be sure, the legend was not exactly suitable to a political consort. “Jay gloried in his reputation as a roué, a free spirit and a lover,” recalls his former editor, Jim McCartney. “He had a reputation as a womanizer that he encouraged.” Though of late he has backed away a bit from that lurid history, Jay’s friends still find him to be one of the most colorful characters in the Chicago press since Front Page. But one less charitable alderman on the city council sums up Chicago’s First Gentleman in one word: “Sleazy.”

Without question, McMullen is a salty, boisterous fellow. As a young Northwestern graduate, he made his mark in journalism in 1952 by persuading the former Mrs. Adlai Stevenson to talk about her troubled marriage, and he has never been noted for tasteful reticence. “No woman could walk by without Jay saying, ‘How’d you like to screw that babe?’ ” a colleague recalls. McMullen’s extended lunch hours were the source of epic rumors in the City Hall press room. “There was a day when I could roll over in bed and scoop the Tribune,” he told Esquire the month before he married Byrne.

Former Daily News colleague Rob Warden recalls the granddaddy of all Jay McMullen stories: “One night Jay called the city desk and said, ‘Look out the window at the Executive House [a nearby hotel].’ There on a balcony, nude from the waist up, was Jay, waving madly—and this woman, also nude from the waist up, waving.”

His courtship of Byrne was as burlesque as the rest of his romantic life. He first met her in 1969 during her confirmation hearings for the post of Chicago’s consumer sales commissioner. “I’ll never forget that day,” he recalls. “This one alderman made a really brutal attack—he called her ‘a photographer’s model with no qualifications.’ ” (When reminded of the confrontation, the mayor cracks, “That was 11 years ago—I wish somebody would call me that today.”) In any case, scenting the beginnings of a biggie, McMullen slipped the commissioner-to-be a note: “Why don’t you faint, or slap his face? It would make such a good story.” Byrne was shocked, and remembers that at the time “I thought, ‘Oh, go away.’ ”

McMullen did—for a while. At that point he was still married and living the life of a suburban squire in a manse in the exclusive North Shore suburb of Kenilworth. But in 1973 his first wife, Peg, the mother of his lawyer son, Stephen, divorced him. Enter Byrne—whose Marine lieutenant husband William Byrne died in a 1959 plane crash. She was already his best source at City Hall and soon became the woman in his life as well—despite his first romantic overture. “Hey you,” he bellowed at Byrne in a City Hall corridor one day, “come here.” Startled, the commissioner snapped, “What is it?” Said McMullen: “I never noticed this before. You have great legs.” “That,” Byrne recalls, “didn’t help.”

By the time of their marriage a year ago on St. Patrick’s Day, he had been laid off when the Daily News folded, and she had been sacked as consumer sales commissioner for impugning the integrity of then Mayor Michael Bilandic. “Honey,” McMullen told his longtime companion, “we’re both out of a job so we might as well get married while we have time for a long honeymoon.” There was one element of additional pressure once Byrne announced her intention to challenge Bilandic in last February’s mayoral primary. Somebody in the administration leaked that Byrne’s car had been ticketed for all-night parking near Mc-Mullen’s apartment. Of course, not even her husband-to-be thought she had a prayer of unseating Dick Daley’s successor. “I was a prisoner of the conventional wisdom,” he recalls. “I thought you can’t beat City Hall.”

Byrne thought she could—and, with an assist from Bilandic’s bungling of snow removal efforts after last winter’s blizzards, she did. After that, McMullen’s antic character became an issue in city politics. When Byrne was consumer commissioner, says one angry Democrat, “McMullen spent two or three hours a day in her office telling her what to do.” Now, complains another, “She listens to nobody but Jay and her brother.” The Mayor’s Man turns aside such carping with a smile. “Sure I give advice,” he says. “But it’s like introducing a bill in the legislature; when it comes out you don’t recognize it.”

McMullen also now says that his image as a philanderer is all wrong. “Look, I lived in Kenilworth for 15 years,” he notes. “I was the president of the New Trier High School Parents Association. I was president of the Little League. I organized community softball teams. I was a great father, a great citizen. I don’t know where people get all this Lothario stuff.” His wife, however, does. “I know where it comes from,” Her Honor tells him straight to his face. “You make all those cracks. At times you’re a cross between Billy Carter and Martha Mitchell.” McMullen insists his reputation is really unearned, but can’t resist adding: “Nobody’s gonna deny it and say, ‘Hey, fellas, I’m really a lousy lay.’ ” The mayor interrupts: “Jay! That’s enough.” He goes deadpan. “I never had an affair with anyone in City Hall in the 23 years I covered it,” he swears—and rushes to defend his courtship of the mayor: “We didn’t have an affair. We dated. We were engaged. We got married.”

McMullen’s moments of candor may be the least of Mayor Byrne’s problems at the moment. For a woman who started her political education in a John Kennedy campaign and did graduate work in the school of Richard Daley, she has made some surprising moves. Local foes are having a field day with her decision to appoint her only daughter, Kathy, 22, a law school dropout, to a $17,500 city PR job in a time of wholesale payroll cutting. Worse, some say Byrne is botching the Kennedy campaign in Illinois, over which she was given control in return for her endorsement. Her first move: to install a political neophyte as campaign manager and exclude from the inner circle potential Cook County rivals, including state Sen. Richard J. Daley Jr., who could take what’s left of his dad’s machine back to Carter. Daley Jr. is now reported to be in line for a big federal job.

What no one doubts is the sincerity of Byrne’s commitment to Kennedy. Says Chicago Tribune political editor F. Richard Ciccone: “She really thinks Ted Kennedy is going to re-create the JFK era and save the world.” Nor do they question her savvy or her courage, which Ciccone argues is formidable. “Jane Byrne wasn’t afraid to fight City Hall,” he says. “And she’s not afraid of the President of the United States.” But stormy weather lies dead ahead. And as husband Jay told her in the summer of ’78, when Mayor Bilandic looked all but unbeatable: “Wait till the snow falls, honey. Even Mickey Mouse could run Chicago in the summer.”

You May Like

EDIT POST