REPRISE: Illinois crooks and politicians: an interview with Taylor Pensoneau

Author Taylor Pensoneau and his wife, Elizabeth March Pensoneau,

THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AUGUST 9, 2012.

Mention bootlegging in Illinois and Al Capone immediately comes to mind. Few people realize how widespread the activity was, or that some of the bloodiest battles over who controlled the practice in Illinois took place not on Chicago’s North Side, but in southern Illinois. A decade ago, author Taylor Pensoneau published Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons – Southern Illinois’ Legendary Gangsters (Downstate Publications, New Berlin, IL, 2002). Writing in his crisp, journalistic style, Pensoneau related how the Shelton brothers (who made the James boys look like kids in somebody’s choir) engaged in bloody combat, using armored trucks and, in one instance, an aerial assault, in and around downstate Williamson County. The book continues to sell well and surprise readers when they learn that the worst criminals weren’t found in the big cities but right down the road.

Pensoneau grew up in Belleville, Illinois, and early in life decided that he wanted to write. After graduating from the University of Missouri at Columbia (“Mizzou”) with a degree in journalism, he went to work at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (PD) and soon became a political writer. His success earned him an assignment as PD bureau chief in Springfield, Illinois where he made many important contacts. Those contacts later led to biographies of some of Illinois’ most famous—and infamous—politicians like Governors Richard Olgivie and Dan Walker.

Taylor and his wife, Elizabeth—a former magazine editor—live in New Berlin, Illinois, where together they operate their own publishing company, Downstate Publications.

A popular speaker in the area on issues relating to writing, Taylor Pensoneau is man who takes his craft seriously. He is also very much a gentleman.

What follows is an interview I conducted recently with Taylor about his career, his books, and his fascination with crooks and politicians.

Morris Chair: You started your career as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  How did the experience help you achieve your goals as a writer?

Taylor Pensoneau: My writing in books and for other venues has been governed almost entirely by the writing style demanded of reporters at the Post-Dispatch.  The editors insisted on succinctness in articles or stories in which clarity was attained through minimal wordage getting right to the point.  As I gradually progressed to lengthy news analyses on the editorial pages, some deviation from the norm was permitted.  However, flowery lingo never was tolerated.  Interestingly, reviewers of my books often have noted that I write like a journalist.  Some mean this as a compliment, a few not so.  Whatever, I guess I write like a journalist because I am a journalist.

MC: Your only work of fiction, The Summer of ’50, features an iconic, hard-boiled newspaper reporter named Jake Brosky. Is Jake your secret alter ego?  Did you imagine, when you were younger, being a hard-boiled tough guy who dug deep and dangerous to get a story?  Be honest now.

TP: Honestly speaking, the answer is yes.  I did envision as a young reporter being a callous digger who’d stop at nothing to bring investigative disclosures to the front page.  Jake Brosky was a compilation of older reporters I observed at the Post-Dispatch.  The main model, though, was Ted Link, one of the premier investigative reporters in the United States.  And believe me, he was hard-boiled.  I think he even carried a pistol.  Now, as for yours truly, I had some notable successes in investigative reporting involving Illinois government, results of my penchant for deep digging.  But, I never reached the unfeeling, ruthless stage of some in the business.  Through it all, I still coveted, deep inside, being regarded as a nice guy.  Too, I sometimes had mixed feelings about the outcome of a successful probe.  The satisfaction part of it might be tempered by the not joyous realization that I had caused damage to the career of a person or persons in Illinois government.  It was like wanting to burn a candle from both ends.

MC: Your career turned to politics, quite unexpectedly, early into your newspaper career through the opportunity to come to Springfield.  Tell us a little about that.

TP: I had no inkling ahead of time that the editors of the Post-Dispatch were to select me to man a reactivated P-D bureau in the pressroom in the Illinois Statehouse.  However, having one’s own bureau away from St. Louis was a big deal at the paper, and it offered an unlimited opportunity for me to make a name for myself.  I couldn’t have been more excited about the move.

MC: How did you adapt to the world of politics, with its ever-shifting allegiances and agendas, and also to the personalities encountered in Springfield?

TP: Let me say right off the bat that, when the newspaper moved me to Springfield, I knew more about Missouri politics than those in my home state of Illinois.  At the time, the only big political names in Illinois familiar to me were Alan Dixon, Paul Powell, Paul Simon, Governor Kerner and Mayor Daley.  Nevertheless, I hit the ground running in the Illinois Capitol, utilizing my zeal and open-mindedness in a sort of crash course to bring myself up to snuff.  The home office gave me incredible freedom and time to get my bearings.  Not all reporters coming to Springfield enjoyed that kind of break.  Developing sources was not that difficult.  Many downstate—or at least central and southern Illinois—politicians and officials welcomed a Post-Dispatch presence in the Statehouse.  I was an automatic magnet for liberals because of the P-D’s liberal editorial policy.  And, it was amazing how quickly reformists and do-gooders sought me out.  Few reporters in the Statehouse not from Chicago were engaging in investigative or other reporting that went beyond the norm.  I benefited greatly from that, especially in view of the fact I was not sent to Springfield to duplicate the wire services—all of which my paper subscribed to.  I was free to separate myself from the rest of the downstate reportorial pack.

Former Illinois governor Dan Walker: “…a fascinating and complicated individual.” Image source: NC Times

MC: Dan Walker.  Need I say more.  Bring him up in a crowded room and you will start an argument.  “He was the worst thing ever to happen to Illinois,” is frequently heard.  But, some who worked with him think that he walked on water.  Your book about him is aptly titled “Dan Walker: The Glory and the Tragedy.”  What is your take on the guy?

TP: Walker is a fascinating and complicated individual.  At the time I am answering these questions, he is nearing his ninetieth birthday.  We talk by phone several times a month.  He says I am the last confidant in his life, and I believe him.  The only person I’ve understood better than Walker has been my own father.  My insights into his mindsets, frailties, psyche and, yes, brilliance, extend even beyond what I brought out in my biography of him.  And the book delved into a lot.  Walker certainly did not walk on water.  Yet, it is ridiculous to say he’s the worst thing to happen to Illinois.  Blagojevich may be a candidate for that assessment.  Remember, Walker broke the Daley machine’s stranglehold on the state’s Democratic Party.  Considering his poverty-stricken upbringing, there is much about the Walker story that is inspiring.  Prison or no prison.  And don’t forget, his federal conviction had nothing to do with being governor of Illinois.

MC: The book for which you perhaps are best known is Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons, the saga of the Shelton gang in southern Illinois.  What drew you to this story, and why do you feel it is important?

TP: I was inevitably drawn to the Shelton book.  As I grew up in Belleville, people talked about the Shelton brothers all the time.  At the Post-Dispatch, older reporters who’d covered the Sheltons related their experiences to me.  Later, in covering politics in southern Illinois, I encountered people still infatuated with the Sheltons’ criminal dynasty.  When I was asked after my Governor Ogilvie biography came out late in 1997 to consider a book on the Sheltons, I was surprised to ascertain that one had not been written.  As to why I feel the book is important, I say the following.  The Shelton exploits make for darn good reading.  That’s one thing.  Moreover, the Sheltons ruled downstate crime in Illinois during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and World War II.  As I relate the Shelton story, I put into context the culture and other ingredients of downstate Illinois life while the Sheltons rode high.  Consequently, the book fits to some extent into a historical genre.

MC: Politicians and crooks.  They seem to attract you.  Any comment about this?

TP: I field questions about this all the time.  My attraction to or interest in politicians is easy to figure.  Coverage of political news was a major part of my job.  In fact, my byline identified me as the Illinois political correspondent of the Post-Dispatch.  Going back further, I always was interested in government and public policy issues.  As for the crooks, I developed an early fascination with the fabled lawless period in southern Illinois during the first half of the twentieth century.  There was more to it than the Shelton gang.  I absorbed all I could on the subject.  Another facet of my attraction to criminal history is that books on the black sheep in society sell very well.  So I admit to a commercial consideration in my writing on gangsters.

MC: It is obvious that your wife Liz has played a major role in your success as a writer.  Could you comment on this?

TP: Most definitely.  We are a team.  The role of Liz in my books is two fold.  First, Liz, a retired editor of a magazine, edits my writing.  This is a real boon for me, having a great in-house editor.  Secondly, Liz oversees the business end of Downstate Publications, the small firm we set up to publish some of my books.  This is a demanding task because of the detailed paperwork involved in dealing with Barnes & Noble and other retail outlets.  Frankly, I would be lost without her.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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