A lifetime in letters

Chicago legend Roger Ebert shared a deep friendship and long correspondence with his mentor and friend, Illinois English professor Dan Curley.
Written by Abigail Bobrow
Photos courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives and Katie Miller

At the start of the fall semester of 1960, Roger Ebert (MEDIA ’64) walked into a classroom in the English Building. Before him stood Professor Dan Curley dressed in a Ragg sweater, corduroy pants, flannel shirt, and “those shoes he got from Sears because then he could just order the same number every time that a pair wore out.” It was the uniform, Ebert would later affectionately remark, Curley always clung to.

That serendipitous meeting between student and professor on the first day of school would prove to be profound for both. Remember, there was once a time when a young Roger Ebert wasn’t the world-renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, a tastemaker that could elevate or sink a film with just two thumbs.

At one point, he was just a student — albeit an accomplished, precocious, gifted one — going to college in his hometown, trying to figure out what to do with his life.

Roger Ebert (left) as a student and Professor Dan Curley (right). Photos courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives.

That first class with Professor Curley led to many more.

Ebert would sometimes drop off assignments at Curley’s home, where they would sit “in the living room, dark and comforting, drinking tea,” discussing their reading. In fact, Ebert took so many classes with the English professor that he joked, “I’m majoring in Dan Curley.”

Once Ebert graduated from Illinois, the letters began to flow. To read them is to witness a friendship unfold and strengthen.

Donated to the university as part of Dan Curley’s papers, the correspondence chronicles inside jokes, career frustrations, and the shared sensibilities only two writers would understand.

Ebert described his fear of being drafted to Vietnam, his hope of landing a job writing for a prominent publication, his newfound love of supplying wry commentary on news, books, and, yes, movies.

In turn, Curley gave advice, shared updates about his own writing, and brought Ebert up to speed on his family life in Urbana.

In 1966, as Ebert finished up a year at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Curley invited Ebert to visit him in London before heading home. Curley took Ebert on a walk through the city, one that had a deep and lasting impact.

“Dan started me on a lifelong practice of wandering around London,” Ebert wrote in Life Itself: A Memoir. “From 1966 to 2006, I visited London never less than once a year and usually more than that.”

A letter Ebert wrote to Curley. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives.

Nearly twenty years later, in 1985, Ebert convinced Curley that they should write a book about the walk. Curley agreed and described the pending research/writing trip in a letter to a friend: “When a friend and former student was passing through, I took him on one of my favorite walks up over the Heath from Keats to Karl Marx, via Kenwood, the Spaniards, and the tomb of Boadicea,” he wrote.

“This friend turned into Roger Ebert, a television personality of the film reviewer sort. He is always passing through London on his way to some Cannes or other, some Venice, and he always takes this walk . . . He has improvised on my original and now has the giddy idea of a book.”

A 1966 letter Curley wrote recommending Ebert to graduate school at the University of Chicago. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives.

In 1986, they published The Perfect London Walk, a slim book with photos and detailed explanations commemorating what Ebert affectionately called “Curley’s Walk.” The walk was an off-the-beaten path tour of London, punctuated by stops at lush gardens, crowded pubs, haunted cemeteries, and literary landmarks.

Sadly, only two years after the book was published, Curley was killed in a traffic accident. He was seventy years old. Ebert came to speak at a memorial held on campus remembering his great friend and mentor, and wrote about Curley on his Chicago Sun-Times blog. Ebert also remained close to Curley’s wife, Audrey, and lent his support to their children who were running Curley’s literary magazine, Ascent.

Among Curley’s papers in the archives are a letter and some photos Ebert sent to Curley’s daughter, Sean, six months after her father’s passing.

“At a little past noon,” Ebert wrote, “I spread Dan’s ashes from the top of Parliament Hill on a place overlooking London.”

Remarkably, while Ebert was on top of the Heath he encountered some walkers who turned out to be friends of Curley’s. In their hands was The Perfect London Walk.

“So Dan,” he closes the letter, “continues to show the way. Love, Roger.”

View from Hampstead Heath, London. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.