The Chicago Syndicate: R.I.P. to Jimmy Agnew, "The Best Crime Researcher in America"

Sunday, November 18, 2012

R.I.P. to Jimmy Agnew, "The Best Crime Researcher in America"

Jimmy Agnew didn’t need Google. Before the Internet, Mr. Agnew plucked literary gold from mountains of obscure resources to provide research to some of the nation’s top true-crime authors. Legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko once dubbed Agnew “the best crime researcher in America.” Mr. Agnew, 67, died on November 8th after battling pneumonia.

Tapping his police sources and well-informed bartenders and cabbies, his personal files of news clippings as well as little-known books, magazines and artifacts, Mr. Agnew did legwork for Charles Manson prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi; Chicago newsman Bill Kurtis, and journalist Nick Pileggi, who wrote the book “Wiseguy,” which became the film “Goodfellas.”

Pileggi credited Mr. Agnew with being “enormously helpful” with “Wiseguy” and “Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas.” Director Martin Scorsese turned both books into films. “Casino” was based in part on Chicago’s mobster brothers, the Spilotros. When Pileggi quizzed Mr. Agnew on the history of the Chicago mob or the names of the street bosses in any given era, Mr. Agnew always had “superior” information, he said. “He had terrific police sources who would tell him things they would never tell me because they didn’t know me,” Pileggi said.

“If Damon Runyon had chronicled Chicago — and done it a handful of decades hence — instead of Broadway in the ’20s, ’30s, he’d have based a character on Jim,” said celebrity profiler and author Bill Zehme. “He spoke Runyon fluently . . . broads and joints and dames and so on.”

With bushy eyebrows and a ruddy Irish face, Mr. Agnew resembled a cross between journalists Andy Rooney and Jimmy Breslin.

He befriended many Chicago journalists in the 1960s and ’70s in the smoky bars that comprised “the trail” — a sudsy pilgrimage that led from the Billy Goat to Riccardo’s and O’Rourkes, said his brother, Pat.

“He was a charter member of the regulars at O’Rourke’s Pub,” Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, a friend who knew him for 40 years, said in an email. “In addition to his crime researching, he had a deep knowledge of movies and in my early years on the job sometimes showed me 16mm prints of films he thought I should see.”

Mr. Agnew’s authority on films helped land him a job as assistant manager of Chicago’s Clark Theater, a quirky showcase for cinephiles at Clark and Madison until it was razed in 1974. Mr. Agnew had a hand in picking out the features. He especially loved “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

His love of good film dialogue helped lead him to literature, according to his brother, who said the film and history buff “would have loved to see Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln.’ ”

Mr. Agnew got his start as a literary sleuth while working for prolific Chicago crime writer Jay Robert Nash, author of more than 70 books, including the “World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime.” Mr. Agnew’s brother said he did research for the Nash book “Dillinger: Dead or Alive?”

He also founded and edited a short-lived magazine — Real Crime Book Digest — that reviewed crime books. And he worked as chief researcher for Illinois Police and Sheriffs News, his brother said.

“I’m not successful,” Mr. Agnew told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001. “I could not pay my bills by my research or my radio bookings. It’s just a hustle — a literary hustle to keep my hand in the action.”

Though literary paychecks were at times infrequent and less than lucrative, Mr. Agnew always could fall back on what he knew.

His childhood home was one of 39 rooms at an SRO (single-room occupancy) boarding house his parents owned in Uptown. Mr. Agnew later ran the place. He worked the night desk of a Rush Street apartment building until several weeks before his death, his brother said.

Mr. Agnew also worked for a time as a bartender at Uptown’s Shamrock Tavern.

His parents — John Agnew, from Crossmaglen, County Armagh, and Katie Gallagher, of County Donegal — met in 1929 on the boat that took them from Ireland to America. John Agnew worked in the Stockyards.

Young James attended St. George and Senn high schools, then Amundsen Junior College.

At 23, he served in the National Guard and was stationed outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel, headquarters for the Democratic Party’s 1968 political convention, as anti-war demon­strators clashed with police in the streets, chanting, “The whole world is watching.”

Zehme said Mr. Agnew quit drinking nearly 20 years ago and “helped a lot of people quit hooch thereafter, most generously and patiently.”

He recalled Mr. Agnew’s mastery of the fax machine in a 2001 Sun-Times interview. When Zehme was just starting to work on his Sinatra book “The Way You Wear Your Hat,” he said, “Within hours of my first conversation with him, maybe minutes, my fax machine began humming with these piles of pages filled with mad scrawls — phone numbers of people who might’ve once met Frank, names of books he was already hunting down for me, articles from long-extinct publications.”

Pileggi once told the Sun-Times: “He’s got phone numbers for people in prison!”

For the same 2001 story about Mr. Agnew, Bugliosi said of him: “He knows what’s going on everywhere in this country, no matter where it comes up. Now, I don’t know how he knows — don’t ask me — but if something appears in some obscure magazine, he’ll send me a fax . . . telling me I’m on page 44 of this magazine I’ve never even heard of. And I tell him, ‘Jimmy, how in the hell do you know?’ ”

Other survivors include another brother, John, and cousins Margaret Forker and Nora McCarthy, whom he considered sisters because they grew up in the same household.

A mass was celebrated in his honor at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church, 4200 N. Sheridan.

Thanks to Mitch Dudek and Maureen O'Donnell.

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