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Former Sun-Times society columnist Mary Cameron Frey dies at 86

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Frey at her 2006 farewell party

Mary Frey checks out the cake before her going-away party at the Chicago Sun-Times in May 2006. | Sun-Times staff photo

Former Sun-Times society columnist Mary Cameron Frey, notepad in hand and photographer in tow, was a staple at charity events in Chicago for decades.

She was uniquely suited for the job. As the wife of former Bell & Howell CEO Donald Frey she ran in the same circles.

“It was a society column, sure, but it was so much more than that,” recalled former Sun-Times managing editor Joyce Winnecke.

“It was about the money and the people who decided how it should be used. Mary covered the civic and corporate leadership whose contributions of time and money made very big things happen in Chicago — theaters and parks to be built, symphonies to thrive, child care and education programs to care for countless.”

Frey, 86, died Wednesday morning of natural causes in South Carolina.

Winnecke also noted that when big news stories broke and her colleagues in the newsroom had a hard time getting certain city power-brokers on the phone, Frey was known to lend a hand.

Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg wrote in 2006, upon her retirement from the paper:

“Mary is a dame in the grand style of old. She has money and didn’t just report on society — she belonged to it.

“Mary commanded respect — maybe even a little fear. She took control of social functions with the assurance of a general directing his troops. Almost no partygoer on the black-tie circuit escaped the humbling sting of being ordered out of a photograph by Mary, who knew who was important and who should stop putting on airs and slink undocumented back to the buffet table.

“That doubtless put a crick in the crinolines and cummerbunds of many. But those of us who knew Mary found her a loyal, kind and solicitous friend and a valued colleague, the sort of larger-than-life personality rarely produced at journalism schools.”

Kick-off event for Operation Brown Bag food drive at Daley Plaza

Mary Cameron Frey (right) adds her contribution to Operation Brown Bag at a 1994 Daley Plaza kickoff event for the annual food drive. Behind the table are (from left) fellow Chicago Sun-Times columnists Ginny Holbert, Irv Kupcinet, Ray Coffey and Lon Grahnke. | File photo

Frey, in her final Sun-Times column, thanked the people she covered.

“I want to pay special tribute to the social and philanthropic community I have had the privilege of covering for the past 20 years. I am constantly impressed by their untiring and selfless efforts on behalf of the less fortunate, and how they strive to make Chicago a better place for all of us.”

After a private retirement party for Frey, her pal, fellow (and now former) Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker, documented a few of the bold-faced names who attended:

Linda Johnson Rice, Juanita Jordan, Janet and Rob Feder, Lisa Lenoir, Maureen and John Barron, Stanley Paul, Fred Tokowitz, Beverly Blettner, Tom Gorman, Martin Gapshis, Peggy Lombardo, Nancy Klimley, Bill Adee, Neal Zucker, Desiree Rogers, Barbara Israel, Mary Ann and Heinz Kern, the newly single Jules Stiffel, Donna Atwater, Mamie and Julius Walton, Tiffani Kim and Brad Griffith and Julie and Fred Latsko.

Frey “was in the office every day and out on the town every night, perfectly dressed and coiffed for any encounter,” John Barron, former Sun-Times publisher, wrote in recalling Frey’s many years of service at the newspaper.

“Mary covered the movers and shakers of Chicago with the passion and intensity of a dogged beat reporter,” Barron said.

“Her readers always received a great insight into Chicago society, but she was equally entertaining … and educating … in the newsroom. We were the lucky beneficiaries of her unedited observation, matched with devastating wit.

“She knew everybody and was always ready to help with background, context and, most crucially, a phone number.”

Frey took pride in making introductions and connecting people from various backgrounds ranging from entertainment to politics.

Some significant handshakes were no doubt made in her own living room.

The annual Christmas party she hosted at her Near North Side home was a must-attend event.

“One year there were three governors and a congressman in her living room,” recalled Winnecke.

Barron said those parties at Frey’s Chicago home were “legendary,” adding that the landscaping at another home in Michigan “provided stunning proof of the expertise she brought to her other role at the Sun-Times, as our gardening columnist.”

Frey, Barron said, “was perhaps the most unguardedly honest, frank person I’ve ever met. If you could handle the truth as she saw it (and she was usually right), you had a friend for life.”

Donald Frey

Mary Frey and her husband, Donald N. Frey, chairman and president of Bell & Howell, moved in the same circles she would cover as Sun-Times society columnist. Here, Donald Frey is in a 1975 photo shoot celebrating “the return to evening hats” at a party in Kenilworth. | File photo

Chicago public relations icon Margie Korshak, who knew Frey for decades personally and professionally, said of her late friend: “She was a hoot who loved being with people. She was very smart and cagey, and a tough lady in the best sense of the word. She was the last of a dying breed.”

Frey was good friends with late Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert and his wife, Chaz.

Chaz Ebert recalled: “One of my favorite memories of Mary is when I gave her a birthday party and she had us put ‘70’ on the cake. The very next year her son gave her a birthday party and he put a ‘75’ on the cake. We were all surprised. But she just laughed and said that at that point in life she gets to choose which age she wants to celebrate!”

Her son, Bill Cameron, said Frey, who sat on the boards of several charities, was tenacious.

“For years before working as a columnist, she was a fundraiser for these non-profits and she just would not take no for an answer,” he said.

“I remember she was once asked ‘How do you get all these CEOs to donate?’ and she said ‘I call them and ask them.’ And when she was asked ‘What if they don’t call you back?’ she said: ‘I call their wives.'”

Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre, issued a statement mourning Frey’s death, calling her “a gifted journalist and longtime champion of the arts in Chicago.

“With her trademark wit and professional grace, Mary’s tireless support of Goodman Theatre’s charitable efforts over the decades helped establish a broader awareness of, and respect for, the not-for-profit theater industry here. She has made an indelible mark on our city, and we are grateful.”

Frey, who had a sharp wit and sense of humor, moved to South Carolina in May to be near her son, Bill.

“She was zinging people with jokes right up to the day she died,” Bill said.

Frey was also a prolific traveler and gardener.

Services are pending.

Mary Frey party on her final day at the Chicago Sun-Times in May 2006

Mary Frey checks out the cake before her going-away party at the Chicago Sun-Times in May 2006. | Sun-Times staff photo