Zay Smith was the undercover bartender who wrote the famous Mirage tavern investigative series and later authored the popular QT humor column during a 32-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Smith, 71, died Monday night at Norwood Crossing nursing facility from lung cancer.
He was long regarded as one of the most graceful writers in Chicago journalism, his work distinguished by a keen eye for detail and a sardonic sense of humor.
He started doing the QT column, originally called Quick Takes, for the Sun-Times in 1995, using short news items to draw laughs and deliver social commentary.
Smith continued publishing the column online after leaving the Sun-Times in 2008 when health problems and the economic fallout from a shrinking newspaper industry ganged up on him.
In a QT item posted just last month, Smith displayed the biting wit that earned his quick hit style a loyal national following:
“News Headline: ‘Coronavirus: Trump’s name to appear on US relief checks.’
“Still waiting on the death certificates.”
But it was Smith’s early work as “Norty the Bartender” in the hard-edged Mirage investigation of everyday Chicago corruption that cemented his place in newspaper history.
At the suggestion of now-legendary Chicago investigative reporter Pam Zekman, the Sun-Times bought a dive bar on Wells Street in 1977, renamed it the Mirage and operated it undercover for four months to document the payoffs and graft that were part of doing business in “the city that works if you know how to work it” — as Smith wrote in the introductory article.
Smith had been at the paper only a short time when he was picked to join Zekman on the project in part because he already had established himself as a talented writer but also because nobody would recognize him.
To further his cover, Smith chose to revive the “Norty” nickname bestowed on him by college buddies who mistook his middle name Nockton for Norton.
In preparation for the role, Smith attended bartender school, which became part of the series — with a story about how the school taught barkeeps not only how to make drinks but also how to steal and cheat.
Between customers at the Mirage, Smith would slip behind the bar to take copious notes, said William Recktenwald, who joined the undercover team as chief investigator for the Better Government Association and later became a top investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
It was from those notes that Smith culled the colorful details and conversations that brought the bar to life and produced a compelling narrative.
The resulting 25-part series that began running in January 1978 was a blockbuster in an era when newspapers had far more readers and consequently greater influence than they have today.
Smith wrote every story in the series and later a book, “The Mirage,” published by Random House in 1979.
“He had a wonderful eye for the really humane part of what we were seeing. It wasn’t just the corruption,” said Zekman, who soon after the Mirage took her investigative talents to WBBM-TV.
“He was a perfect choice,” said Zekman, who had never met Smith before they were assigned to work together. “He had a perfect writing style for the stories.”
The Mirage series was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. It was selected by the Pulitzer jury as the winner, but the Pulitzer Board overrode the selection because of objections to the Sun-Times’ use of undercover techniques — a decision that still rankles many who consider it among the greatest newspaper investigations in the city’s history.
Smith always defended the ethics of undercover reporting.
“We think it’s a useful tool if it’s properly done. Everybody can see how we do it. We lay it out. We follow the law,” Smith told WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” program in 2018 for the 40th anniversary of the landmark investigation.
He explained during the show how he and Zekman clumsily passed envelopes containing cash bribes to city inspectors by laying the money on the bar as they’d been advised.
“The stratagem was to stand there like goofs and not know what to do, and I’m sure they thought we were a little backward in our knowledge about how the city works,” Smith said.
The Mirage team received several tributes during that anniversary year, including a sold-out panel discussion hosted by the Sun-Times at the bar’s former location, now the Brehon Pub.
A shy and reserved person who generally avoided the limelight, Smith was particularly appreciative of the 40-year accolades, friends said, in part because they allowed his two sons, Bryant, 31, and Zachary, 28, to better understand their father’s career achievements.
What impressed Bryant Smith, more, though, was that his father “always put being a father first.”
“He was always super, super encouraging of our artistic talents,” said his son, a professional trombone player.
Bryant Smith said his father was a man of diverse passions: from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to the Three Stooges, a paradox evident in his writing.
Smith grew up in Palos Park. His father was an airline pilot turned architect and designer. His mother was an English teacher.
His first newspaper job, before joining the Sun-Times, was with the Worth-Palos Reporter, where he wrote a column, “Having My Zay.”
Smith also taught at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, imbuing young journalists with his rules for better writing. Among them: When you’re writing about a bear, bring on the bear.
That meant: “Don’t dance around the subject. Bring it on,” said his ex-wife Susy Schultz, a former journalist who is now executive director of the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
One of Smith’s former editors, Mary Dedinsky, who now runs a journalism program for Northwestern University in Dohar, Qatar, said she uses the Mirage book to teach students how to edit their own writing, explaining how Smith would meticulously rework each sentence for clarity.
“He made writing look so easy because he was such a taskmaster with himself,” Dedinsky said.
Schultz and Smith divorced in 2013 after nearly 30 years of marriage but remained close friends even after she remarried, spending holidays and birthdays together in her new home.
Health problems hampered Smith in recent years. His right leg was amputated because of an infection resulting from previously undiagnosed diabetes.
But his son Bryant said Smith rarely allowed his health problems to prevent him from attending Bryant’s regular Sunday night soul gigs with the band Midnight Sun at Da Touch in Bellwood — or to dampen his spirits. Smith’s family is establishing a memorial fund in his name to benefit the band.