Michael Kilian – Corporal, United States Army

Michael Kilian, a veteran Chicago Tribune columnist who also wrote mystery novels, nonfiction on public affairs and the Dick Tracy comic strip, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 66.

The Toledo, Ohio, native spent nearly 40 years at the Tribune and wrote more than 6,000 articles on subjects ranging from politics and military affairs to show business, the arts and the niceties of “high society.”

Kilian's wife, Pamela, said her husband suffered a serious liver ailment about a year ago but continued working until very recently.

Kilian, who attended several colleges but never graduated, broke into journalism through the City News Bureau of Chicago in the mid-1960s. He covered presidential campaigns for the Tribune beginning in 1968, and went to Washington in 1977, writing a column for the newspaper that often was laced with satirical humor.

“Writing humor is one of the most difficult things any writer can do,” said former Tribune managing editor F. Richard Ciccone, who co-authored a book with Kilian. “He used to pull it off quite successfully.”

Kilian was regarded as one of the Tribune's most versatile writers, equally at home covering a     Pentagon briefing as he was a White House state dinner or a drama opening.

Kilian's 24 books reflected his wide interests. They included mysteries set during the Civil War and the 1920s, as well as novels about terrorism and presidential intrigue. He also co-authored nonfiction books about the movers and shakers in Chicago and Washington and a well-received critique about the defense establishment.

Cartoonist Dick Locher, Kilian's collaborator on the Dick Tracy strip, said his colleague wanted to do everything in journalism. “He'd take a task and run with it,” Locher said. “He loved it. He immersed himself.”

Kilian was the son of a Chicago television pioneer, Fred Kilian, and radio actress Laura Leslie.

A U.S. Army veteran who served in South Korea during the early 1960s, Kilian will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Michael Kilian


`Consummate journalist and author'
By William Neikirk and Glen Elsasser
October 27, 2005

 Michael Kilian, an award-winning reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune who wrote 24 books and the Dick Tracy comic strip during a long and colorful career, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 66.

During nearly 40 years at the Tribune, Mr. Kilian wrote more than 6,000 articles on a broad range of subjects that included politics, military affairs, the environment, history and show business. He was one of the paper's most versatile writers, equally at home covering a Pentagon briefing as he was at a White House state dinner.

Mr. Kilian was an old-fashioned reporter who got his start at the City News Bureau of Chicago and joined the Tribune when it was a Republican bastion that often called the shots in party matters. Yet he adapted as the newspaper modernized and shed its partisan past, and he became one of its most prolific writers, covering a remarkable range of events from presidential campaigns to theater openings.

Tribune Managing Editor James O'Shea called Mr. Kilian “a consummate journalist and author, prolific, professional and courageous. … He always lent an ear to someone experiencing the frustrations common to our craft. He was a source of inspiration to many who read his columns, articles and books.”

His books also reflected his wide interests. They included Civil War mysteries and novels about the Cold War, terrorism and presidential intrigue. He also co-authored non-fiction books about the movers and shakers in Chicago and Washington and a well-received critique about the defense establishment with Tribune staff reporter James Coates.

Cartoonist Dick Locher, Mr. Kilian's collaborator on the Dick Tracy strip, said his colleague wanted to do everything in journalism. “He'd take a task and run with it,” Locher said. “He loved it. He immersed himself.”

Mr. Kilian covered presidential campaigns beginning in 1968 and came to Washington in 1977, writing a column for the newspaper that was often laced with satirical humor.

“Writing humor is one of the most difficult things any writer can do,” said former Tribune Managing Editor F. Richard Ciccone, who also co-authored a book with Mr. Kilian. “He used to pull it off quite successfully.”

Mr. Kilian won the United Press International's humor writing award in 1971. Later in his career, he provided coverage of the first lady, particularly as it related to the arts in Washington.

Told of Mr. Kilian's death, former First Lady Barbara Bush said in a statement: “George and I were so very sorry to hear the news of Michael's passing. Our friendship went back to the early days in New Hampshire, and Michael was one of those reporters who made those long, grueling days out on the campaign trail fun.”

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) remembered Mr. Kilian fondly when Hyde was a member of the Illinois legislature. “Mike was essentially conservative, and that was rare,” Hyde said. “But Mike was balanced, and had a wry sense of humor.”

His writing flair won him awards, including a Tribune Jones-Beck writing award in 1986 for his coverage of the Caroline Kennedy-Edward Schlossberg and Maria Shriver-Arnold Schwarzenegger weddings and Prince Charles' visit to the U.S.

He was a stickler for the socially correct, not only in dress but also in status. He studied the Social Register and was conversant about the Union League Club, and he wrote a series of Jazz Age mysteries lionizing the Roaring Twenties.

On a piled-high desk there were reports on military and environmental issues and autographed pictures of actresses, along with invitations to big parties. One such invitation was for a 1989 garden party for Queen Elizabeth II's birthday at the British Embassy.

At times he would come to work wearing white sailing slacks, a straw hat and a comfortable shirt with an ascot, reflecting a more formal era, and he would regale listeners with stories about the CIA he had picked up from his companions.

When the remnants of Hurricane Isabel hit the capital two years ago, Mr. Kilian showed up for work wearing jodhpurs and rubber boots, announcing to his boss, “Capt. Kilian reporting for duty.”

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1963, he served with occupational forces in Korea and began his journalism career in 1965.

Tribune reporter Bill Mullen said Mr. Kilian often critiqued the work of other reporters, who sometimes resented it, until they realized he usually was correct. But Mr. Kilian was so bad at poker that other reporters would send a taxi to summon him to late-night games. “He liked to play and he always had money,” Mullen said.

He never finished college, though he attended the New School of Social Research and the University of Maryland. Born in Toledo, Ohio, he was the son of Chicago TV pioneer Fred Kilian and radio actress Laura Leslie.

He considered himself an authority on the Civil War, the American Revolution and on Ireland, particularly its troubles in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Kilian fell ill with a liver ailment more than a year ago yet continued to work until recently. He is survived by his wife, Pamela, and two sons, Eric, 27, and Colin, 24, and his stepmother, Sara. He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with a memorial service planned on November 19, 2005.

Michael Kilian; Author, ‘Dick Tracy' Writer

Michael Kilian, 66, a journalist, author and cartoon-strip writer drawn to satire and intrigue who nearly engineered a divorce between Detective Dick Tracy and Tess Trueheart, died October 26, 2005, at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He had liver failure.

Long based in Washington for the Chicago Tribune, Mr. Kilian wrote about military and political affairs as well as the arts and society scene from the District and New York. He also co-wrote guidebooks to political power, including “Who Runs Washington?” (1982), and more than a dozen thrillers set in the Cold and Civil wars.

Dick Tracy, a square-jawed crime stopper created by Chester Gould in 1931, fell to successors after Gould's retirement in 1977.

Starting in 1993, Mr. Kilian teamed with illustrator Dick Locher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist at the Tribune, and brought to the strip topical plotlines involving hate crimes, terrorists and child abductions. They created rogues named Pixel and Cellphone for a storyline about DVD piracy.

In February 1994, a week before Valentine's Day, they aroused great publicity by having Tess Trueheart serve Tracy with divorce papers. The workaholic Tracy was rarely at home, and when he arrived, he was met with a cold dinner and an increasingly colder wife.

“It was cumulative with her,” Mr. Kilian said in 1994. “And whereas her attitude now would not have been acceptable in the '40s, '50s or early '60s . . . you should not, as the wife or husband of someone like this, just sit back and take it.”

In fairness to Tracy, Trueheart might have anticipated her problems. After all, Mr. Kilian pointed out, they dated for 18 years before he agreed to marry. But in the end, they reconciled for their children and took a vacation that renewed their flame.

At its peak, which lasted through the 1950s, the strip ran in more than 500 newspapers. Tribune Media Services now syndicates it to about 50 newspapers.

Michael David Kilian was born July 16, 1939, in Toledo and raised in Chicago and Westchester County, New York. His father produced radio serials, including “Terry and the Pirates.”

After Army service and some journalism experience, Mr. Kilian joined the Tribune in 1966 and, within a few years, became a member of the editorial board and a columnist. A subject he revisited was the struggle for peace in Northern Ireland and his scorn for the Irish Republican Army.

In columns, he was also known for a satirical format involving mock transcripts of congressional testimony. He once took the Reagan administration bromide about relaxing air-quality standards to “a reasoned pace” and applied it to matters of race relations, highway safety measures and arms control.

In a lampoon of the media, he presented the War of 1812 as if it had been covered by Dan Rather. The report begins: “The War of 1812, already growing increasingly popular as it drags on into the War of 1813 and the War of 1814, took a new and ugly twist today with reports that British warships are sailing up Chesapeake Bay and are about to attack Philadelphia.”

Similarly, on the arts beat, he was skilled with the double meaning and wry observation.

In 2002, for an exhibit featuring photographs of a Tuscan countess at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he began his article this way: “Let us now take up the awesomely trivial but frightfully compelling question: Who's the vainest woman who ever lived?

“The number of contenders would seem to be as myriad as the stars, but there is an answer.

“Marie Antoinette? Not really. Frivolous, yes. Self-indulgent, yes. Preferred cake to bread, yes. But no more vain than your average spoiled royal. Besides, as contemporary depictions of the French queen amply attest, she was no tomato (though she definitely was sliced).”

His novels were zippy thrillers meant mostly to entertain. They included “The Valkyrie Project” (1981) and “Northern Exposure” (1983) as well as a historical novel he regarded as a favorite, “Major Washington” (1998), about the future first president.

He wrote a Civil War mystery series featuring Pinkerton agent Harrison Raines and several Jazz Age mysteries with bon vivant Bedford Green. Under the name Rex Dancer, Mr. Kilian wrote suspense books starring a fashion photographer.

Fond of white slacks, blue blazers and ascots, Mr. Kilian frequently looked as if he had just stepped off the presidential yacht in 1930. The McLean resident also was a glider plane pilot and had written a humor book about flight with Locher.


Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Pamela Reeves Kilian of McLean; two sons, Eric Kilian of Falls Church and Colin Kilian of Brooklyn, New York; his stepmother, Sara Kilian of Atlanta; and a brother.

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