Henry Sell's success writing ethnic focused articles for The Chicago Daily News had gotten him in the newspaper's door. But, Sell wanted more. Contributing articles a few times a week was one thing, but Sell wanted a staff position and set about trying to determine what was missing from the paper and how he could fill that niche.
After studying the newspaper, Sell got an idea.
...Although most of the Daily News reporters were mad about books and writing, the paper gave no proper coverage to current literature. What was more, he knew that the local boys were having a frustrating time getting a hearing for their kind of writing. Few of the elegant literary critics in the East were attuned to, or approved of, the lively boisterous literature coming out of Chicago.
The Daily News, though Henry, could do well with a weekly book page. What's more, if it were modeled on the real-estate section, including book news and book advertising, it could pay its own way. (Leckie, 33)
Sell first presented the idea to the newspaper's business manager, John B. Woodward. Woodward was skeptical, but he'd try anything because the paper was in a money crunch. Woodward took the idea to Charles H. Dennis, editor-in-chief and Dennis thought the idea just might work and gave his approval.
No sooner had Dennis given his blessing, Sell started to find his writers. He offered them the books that they reviewed in exchange for their services.
Along 57th Street [Chicago's Bohemia also known as "Chicago's Left Bank"], through the halls of the Fine Arts Building [where Sell had previously served as the buildings representative and studio rental agent], into the studios of the Art Institute went the word that Henry Sell was creating a weekly book page that would be a sounding board for the efforts of those who wanted to push toward new horizons. (Leckie, 35)
Offers to write for the book pages came in quickly and Sell had sent letters to book publishers requesting review copies of books for the writers. But, Sell had one other problem. He needed advertising for the pages, as he had promised Dennis, and that meant getting the Eastern publishers on board.
Sell's trip to New York and Boston garnered the desired result. He sold enough advertising to launch his Wednesday book pages. Wednesday was selected because the newspaper's advertising revenues were their lowest on that day.
By the time Sell returned to Chicago, books had begun to arrive and Sell got to work on his new section. From the beginning, Sell's pages created quite a stir.
As Ben Hecht told it: "Henry Sell popped up suddenly on the third floor as the paper's new literary editor. There had been no such high-sounding character on the News before him."
In later years, H. L. Mencken [Mencken and Sells were friends for decades] told Sell that the Wednesday book page was, "the only civilized book section in this whole Presbyterian satrapy."
Sell demanded originality from the writers and they were happy to comply. He hated imitative writing and Chicago writers weren't like any others in the country. In some ways, the section was a free-for-all, but it put Chicago's writers on the literary stage. Sherwood Anderson and Ben Hecht and Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters often seemed to be in a mutual admiration society and constantly promoted each other's work.
Sell set it up so that the writers who had reviews in the Wednesday edition would get a free lunch on Friday at Schlogl's. They met around a large round walnut table in the corner. What started out as a Friday meeting, quickly turned into an almost daily gathering.
"In 1907 one of the diversions of an afternoon was to go to a trap door in front of Schlogl's restaurant in Fifth Avenue, and take a descending elevator which went down thirty-three feet below the surfaceof the street. There an electric car awaited the favored visitor, which immediately whirled him for miles under the city, past depots below ground, and under the store of Marshall Field, under Polk Street Station, under coal yards and freight yards without number." (The Tale of Chicago by Edgar Lee Masters)
Beginning in 1916, however, Schlogl's became much more than the entrance to Chicago's underground. It was located on an alley near the Daily News office on Wells Street
Lunches at Schlogl's were known sometimes to tast longer than three hours. It was the kind of place that encouraged rambling conversations over endless cups of coffee. Part Viennese inn and part English men's drinking club (women were allowed only in the upstairs dining room), it had brass-plated umbrella stands, a long black walnut bar, an old pendulum clock, and hunting prints and oil paintings of hooded friars and rotund tavernkeepers on its walls. The once-white ceiling had blackened over the years from the incessant smoke of countless pipes, cigars and cigarettes. A one-pound block of unsalted butter was on each table, and the menu included such unusual fare as eel in aspic, roast venison, partridges and mallards in season, and "owls to order. (Sawyers, 71)
There were also hearty German-style dishes and apple pancakes, a favorite of the period, were a specialty. It goes without saying that beer and wine flowed freely.
The Schlogl Roundtable predated its New York counterpart (The Algonquin Round Table, 1919-1929)by just a few years. It's unfortunate that more has not been written on this equally important gathering of literary notables. Regulars at the Roundtable included Daily News staffers such as Henry Justin Smith, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht and others. They were often joined by Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Charles MacArthur (later an Algonquin regular) and John T. McCutcheon. Occasionally Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair and even D. W. Griffith would arrive for lunch.
Sell left the Daily News in 1919. But, the Chicago Round Table lasted until 1930.
While relating a small portion of Henry Sell's story on this blog, I have been surprised that there has not been more written about this Renaissance Man; not even a Wikipedia listing. He was incredibly influential in the careers of many early 20th century Chicago writers and truly deserves to be recognized. For the whole story, I encourage readers to inverstigate the resources listed below.
Sources and Recommended Reading:
Leckie, Janet. A Talent for Living: The Story of Henry Sell, An American Original. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1970.
Sawyers, June Skinner. Chicago Sketches: Urban Tales, Stories, and Legends from Chicago History. Chicago: Wild Onion Books, 1995.
Smith, Alson J. Chicago's Left Bank. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953.
WILLA SIBERT CATHER: To Our Notion the Foremost American Woman Novelist by Henry Blackman Sell. Published Chicago Daily News, March 12, 1919.