Chicago's lonely liberal, Leon Depres, dies at 101

Wed May 6, 2009 6:59pm EDT
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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Leon Depres, often described as Chicago's conscience in standing up for blacks' and women's rights during the iron-fisted tenure of former Mayor Richard J. Daley, died on Wednesday at age 101, friends said.

Despres was elected a Chicago alderman in 1955 from the liberal bastion of Hyde Park -- home to President Barack Obama -- and served in the city council for 20 years, coinciding with Daley's tenure that ended with his death in 1976.

Daley sometimes took out his anger against the tall, elegant attorney -- often his sole opponent in the sheep-like council -- by cutting off Despres' microphone in mid-speech.

"He was the conscience of Chicago on ethics and integrity as well as its liberal spokesman," said political scientist Dick Simpson.

"When he took office there were the 'Silent Six;' six African-American aldermen who didn't stand up to Daley on racial issues. A local black newspaper referred to Despres as the only black on the council," said Simpson, who succeeded Despres as head of the unloyal opposition in the council under Daley's successors. Daley's son is the current mayor.

Depres also fought for equal rights for women, and for preserving the city's landmarks and parkland.

The title of his 2005 memoir was telling: "Challenging the Daley Machine."

Depres and his wife Marian, who died in 2007, paid a legendary visit to Mexico in 1937, ostensibly on an errand to take clothes to exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

The couple became friends with artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who was having an affair with Trotsky. A famous portrait Rivera did of Marian Despres hangs in the Despres home, Simpson said.

Leon Depres took Kahlo to the movies while his wife sat for the portrait, and he recalled how attractive Kahlo was in a 2005 interview with the New York Times: "We had a good time."

(Reporting by Andrew Stern; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

<p>The cover of the 2005 memoir "Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman's Memoir," by Leon Despres. REUTERS/Northwestern University Press/Handout</p>