by Sean Chercover
Ernie Rizzo, Chicago’s most famous private eye, died last Sunday of a heart ailment at the age of 64. (Tribune article, Sun Times article, New York Sun article)
You’ve seen Ernie Rizzo on television, talking with Phil Donahue or Geraldo Rivera or Bill O’Reilly or Paula Zahn, or… He was involved with so many high-profile cases (Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Yoko Ono, Michael Jordan, Henry Hyde, Helen Brach, the Wrigley family, the Walgreens family, Scott Peterson, R. Kelly, and on and on…) and was such a good self-promoter that he, too, became a celebrity.
I first met Ernie in 1991. I’d just earned my Illinois Blue Card and was eager to get started as a private detective. Ernie was generous with his time. He offered pointers, warned of pitfalls, and helped me get my start in the business.
One of the first things he told me was, (and I use quotes liberally here, since I’m quoting from memory) “Half of success in this business is selling the image to your clients. A lot of these lawyers, they sit behind desks all day, and they get off on hanging out with a private eye, living your stories vicariously. You gotta be good at what you do – that’s number one – but you also gotta sell the image.”
He was right, of course. The thing is, Ernie was so good at “selling the image,” a lot of people never saw anything else in him. But some of the lawyers he worked with regularly did, and what they saw was a creative thinker, an incredibly smart detective who craved attention, had a problem with authority, and could look right into people and read the motivations behind their public masks.
Ernie hated hypocrisy, especially in society’s most powerful. He was proud of his skills and his success, and he loved to win, but he never put on airs. He was the smart kid from Taylor Street who made good without going corporate.
Raymond Chandler wrote, “…down these mean streets a man must go who himself is not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…” Ernie may have been tarnished, but he wasn’t mean and he wasn’t afraid. Two out of three ain’t bad.
Later, after I moved to New Orleans, I called him for advice, and he delivered. But after I left the business, we fell out of touch, as people often do.
Earlier this year, I made contact again, and we got together for drinks. We met on Rush Street and you should’ve seen him. White linen suit, gold and diamonds, and he was working the crowd like a pro. People calling out his name, and Ernie pressing the flesh and flashing smiles. Everybody knew him and he knew everybody. At Tavern On Rush, we were escorted to the roped-off VIP section, where we caught each other up on our lives. People stopped by the table to shake his hand and say hello and offer their respect.
The next time we got together, I gave Ernie the manuscript of Big City, Bad Blood. I hoped he’d get a kick out of it, and he did. He even gave me a really nice blurb for the cover.
After that, we talked a lot on the phone. Ernie had all the best stories, and he could talk for hours. He was entertaining as hell.
Then one day, he asked if I’d co-write his autobiography. It took me about half-a-second to say yes.
The last time I saw Ernie Rizzo was couple of months ago. We had breakfast together at a Denny’s in Schaumburg. Ernie pulled up in a little yellow sports car. As it had for years, his license plate on the new car read, “I SPY.” Selling the image.
I don’t know if he knew at the time that he had a heart condition, but from his choice of breakfast food, I’d have to guess he didn’t know yet. We talked some more about his autobiography, about his belief in coincidence, about the lessons he’d learned in 40 years of detective work. He talked about his daughter Tracy, of whom he was enormously proud, and about her career as a lawyer. Just as we were wrapping up, his cell phone rang out the theme from The Godfather. It was Fox, asking him to do a noon television interview.
And off he went, in that little yellow sports car with the “I SPY” plates. Off to sell the image some more.
Ernie Rizzo has left the building. And Chicago is a less colorful place for his departure.