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Zay N. Smith

Mark Brown: “Zay Smith was the undercover bartender who wrote the famous Mirage tavern investigative series. 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. 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, 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. It was from those notes that Smith culled the colorful details and conversations that brought the bar to life. The resulting 25-part series that began in January 1978 was a blockbuster in an era when newspapers had far more readers and consequently greater influence than they have today.”

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