My Cousin Walter

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Walter Edwards Sublette, Playboy fiction editor, Aurora professor

By Bob Goldsborough

Chicago Tribune

OCTOBER 19, 2014, 5:05 PM

Walter Edwards Sublette was Playboy magazine’s assistant fiction editor for seven years and a freelance writer before launching a career as an educator at Aurora University, where he was a tenured communications professor and an artist in residence.

Mr. Sublette, 74, died of heart failure Thursday, Sept. 18, at Imperial Nursing Home, said his wife of 40 years, Cheryl Gorman Sublette. A longtime resident of Chicago’s Hollywood Park neighborhood, Mr. Sublette had battled ailments for more than 20 years after undergoing heart bypass surgery in 1991, she said.

Born in Chicago, Mr. Sublette grew up in Oak Lawn and graduated from Oak Lawn Community High School in 1958. He played trombone in his high school band and harbored dreams of a career as a professional trombonist, moving to New York City as a young man for a year to perform in a jazz band.

Mr. Sublette earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and later entered UIC’s fiction writing program, from which he earned a master’s degree in 1977.

During much of the 1960s, Mr. Sublette focused on his own writing. In 1964, he penned a novel about contemporary interracial romance in Old Town, “Go Now in Darkness,” under the nom de plume S.W. Edwards. He also did some work for Chicago magazine in its early years.

Through his studies, Mr. Sublette met Playboy fiction editor Robie Macauley, who hired Mr. Sublette as the magazine’s assistant fiction editor in 1970.

“What I remember about Walter is that he was very serious and really loved his work,” said Suzanne McNear, a colleague at Playboy and now an author living in Sag Harbor, N.Y. “He was really, really caring and precise and wrote wonderful comments about whatever it was that was coming up in our departments.”

While at Playboy, Mr. Sublette read piles of manuscripts and arranged for the magazine to publish fiction from major authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates, as well as budding ones.

“It was my dad’s job to weed out the promising stories from the duds, as well as edit them down to entice a commercial audience,” said Mr. Sublette’s daughter Stacey.

Mr. Sublette impressed his colleagues with his love of classical music.

“I remember a time in my office when he tried to show me the subtleties of symphonic orchestral conducting,” said retired Playboy editorial director Arthur Kretchmer.

After a reorganization of Playboy’s staff in 1977, Mr. Sublette left but he remained a contributing editor for a short time. He briefly moved to New York for a job at Penthouse magazine.

From the late 1970s until the late 1980s, Mr. Sublette worked as a freelance writer. In 1980, he published a book of poetry, “Resurrection on Friday Night.” In a May 1980 Tribune review, reviewer John Jacob wrote that “when these poems work, they work because they tell stories.”

Mr. Sublette wrote for several trade publications, including Future Pro and Restaurant Hospitality. He also wrote several book reviews for the Tribune.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Sublette went back to graduate school to pursue a doctoral degree. He attended Northern Illinois University and, despite a host of health problems brought on by his heart bypass surgery in 1991, completed his doctorate in 1993. Mr. Sublette then joined Aurora University as an associate professor. Mr. Sublette also founded Aurora’s Learning Center and a literary publication, the AU Review.

Mr. Sublette brought a certain style to Aurora’s campus, his daughter said.

“He was famous for wearing eccentric, colorful shirts, brandishing a cane with a brass horse-head handle and cheerfully cruising onto campus in a cream-colored 1984 Cadillac Seville he affectionately dubbed ‘Candy Cadillac,’ ” she said. “With his big personality and magnetism, he inspired others to take up creative writing and be inspired to let their imagination flow, and think of writing and creativity as positive opportunities until his retirement from there.”

The university promoted him to full professor in 2000. He retired from Aurora in 2009….

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Walter Edwards Sublette, born September 1940, was my first cousin. Our mothers were sisters, devoted friends and confidants. Oddly, however, though close cousins, Walter, who lived his entire life in Chicago, and I, who grew up in New York City, were unacquainted. The first six decades of my life, I simply knew of him. The events of his life—marriage, the births of three daughters, academic achievements of note, numerous professional accomplishments, as well as, the mounting, and increasingly acute and debilitating medical issues—I learned through my mother, subsequent to her regular conversations, via letters or phone calls, with my Aunt Ida, Walter’s mother. I was always an admirer of my cousin, but silent, and from afar.

A poet, a novelist, a writing critic, an editor, an educator, a diehard Chicago Cubs fan. Walter was all of those. In his heart and soul though, as I saw it reflected in his spirit, he was a musician, and his deepest passion was for music—primarily classical and jazz—and his beloved trombone. In fact, in the latter, post retirement years of his life, Walter became an ardent  collector of trombones—though occasionally, other brass instruments, as well—which he searched for and purchased according to their rarity and historical value, then had restored to perfection. Over the phone when he spoke of his latest acquisitions, I could hear the joy and enthusiasm in his voice. This hobby, indeed, helped him remain vital, his mind keenly focused, while his body, because of a host of illnesses, that began with a seemingly minor medical blunder during a hospital surgery decades before, continued to fail him, part by part, organ by organ, heading for shut down.

His music and his writing acted as counterbalances. The former keeping his heart and mind buoyant, while the latter was the outlet for expressing dreams, fears, pain, frustrations, and the acknowledgement of losses, both the physical and aspirational kind.

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I see

a man



in a chair

the seat

of which

is me

holding alone

an enormous


the legs of which

are tired

of supporting

an enormous man

whose name

is death who

is very gradually

breaking the legs

of a very

frail chair.

Self-Portrait by Walter E. Sublette, from his collection of poems, Naked Exile

Copyrighted material 

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My regret is never having heard my dear Walter play his trombone. 

On the other hand, what was so lovely and seemingly serendipitous about the circumstances under which we ultimately connected more than a half century into our lives, was a book Walter wrote, approximately four decades earlier, when he was in his 20s. Go Now In Darkness was first published in the 1960s, but I never got the opportunity to read it back then. Though under the category of fiction, rumor was it was clearly autobiographical, and the family elders were not happy. Consequently, they were not promoting what they deemed a betrayal of family secrets and their privacy, by the young Mr. Sublette. Amongst themselves—those of our parents and grandparents generations, I mean—they expressed their ire, because Walter audaciously chose his maternal family surname of Edwards for a pseudonym, instead of using his own birth surname; that decision served to add fuel to an already growing brush fire. And through the years, whenever I inquired about that book, a brick wall was thrown up, like it never existed.

Not until the fall following the horrific 9/11 tragedy, on a visit to the home of a mutual cousin, in Knoxville, TN, did I finally lay my eager hands on a paperback copy. Once I began reading, I couldn’t put the book down, until I’d read the very last page. The trip through his head, was breathtaking. And all while I was devouring every paragraph of Walter’s first person narrative, recognizing major characters—Walter’s parents, our uncle Sterling, his sister—in spite of the name changes, I was thinking in my head: at last, in Walter, I’ve met my kindred spirit! Another rebel with a cause, hanging out there on a limb all alone, shattering the rules, suffering the consequences, and paying dearly! In Walter, I’d found a champion, though I wished it had been sooner. 

Promptly, upon returning from my trip to Tennessee, I looked up Walter’s telephone number, and called him at his home in Chicago. Not a phone chat person, I can easily say, that exchange with Walter, a stranger just prior, was one of the warmest, most relaxed conversations I’ve ever engaged in. And we talked about his compelling book.

I’m almost positive I was the last person on earth, he ever expected to hear from. He told me a year or so later, yes, he thought that door had long been closed, but was delighted it was now open and a warm breeze was coming through. During that first phone chat, it took no time at all for us to be in sync, and subsequently we became fast friends. 

Between that initial phone call introduction in 2001, and his death in September of 2014, Walter and I met face to face only once. It was on their return drive to Chicago from their summer home in Ft. Meyers, Florida, he and his wife, Cheryl, stopped in Charlotte, NC to pay a long awaited—a lifetime, actually—much anticipated visit. Because he was wheelchair bound and needed particular amenities, they reserved a room at a nearby hotel.  But I got to spend a full day with Walter—by that time, a close friend, confidant, and more, my brother—and that was one beautiful, memorable visit. And I cooked for him! I recall serving grilled salmon…but the rest of the dinner is a blur. He said, the salmon was “cooked perfectly”, so that’s what resonated, and was worth remembering, above all!

Such a cool, open, unpretentious guy, with the most wonderful, oftentimes mischievous sense of humor, and a laugh that resonated. Oh, I do miss him! 

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