Sunday, January 09, 2000

The Sunday Age: The New York Postman

Melbourne, Australia


STEVE Dunleavy is at the bar, telling war stories. He is as thin as the wisp of smoke curling from the cigarette in one hand, but his voice is as strong as the vodka and tonic in the other, the accent almost surviving 40 years away from home.

He's on the natty side of well-dressed, still handsome in a rakish way, with the trademark quiff of silver hair that, a lifetime ago, was surely a Sydney lair's sharp brushback.

The wide boy from Bondi has been called a lot of things in his time, not all of them printable, but one description - ``the Keith Richards of journalism"- gets him pretty right, even if he does look more like Peter O'Toole than a Rolling Stone. The comparison underlines not just his astounding survival of decades of hard living but his fierce dedication to his craft. 

It's only rock'n'roll but he likes it, and has stayed true to his one true love, resisting temptations to do something easier than chase the next story. And, at 60, he's still got what it takes to make the grade in Gotham City.

Building a reputation as the ultimate tabloid newshound has made Dunleavy famous, if not rich, in his adopted country. His boss, Rupert Murdoch, might be the most powerful Australian in America, but he wouldn't be as recognised - or as loved - in the street as Dunleavy, who's worked for him for years.

These days he's back writing a column for the New York Post, the smudgy tabloid he made infamous in the 1970s and 1980s before playing his part in taking the genre to television.

Not that Dunleavy wastes much time at the Post office, which is on the 10th floor of the Sixth Avenue skyscraper from which the man he calls ``The Boss" rules the News empire. If he's not out of town on assignment, then he's mostly in his usual spot here at his usual bar, an upmarket Irish pub called Langans in West 47th Street around the corner from the News building in midtown Manhattan.

On the wall behind the bar there's a poster with a picture of him over the slogan DUNLEAVY FOR PRESIDENT. He holds court among a floating group of media identities who drop in during the afternoon to tell him things and hear him dispensing advice, wisecracks and stories from a bottomless fund garnered over 45 years on the road and polished smooth with time and re-telling.

When he was a kid on the Sydney `Daily Mirror' Dunleavy let down the tyres of a rival to beat him to a crime scene. The rival was his father, Steve Dunleavy senior - a photographer for the Sydney `Sun'. Later, father and son were rivals again in the chase after the `Kingsgrove Slasher'. Young Dunleavy hid in an outhouse, hoping to catch the crook and cover himself in glory, when he heard the deadbolt lock the door from outside. He stayed locked in while the `slasher' was arrested a few yards away. The man who turned the lock? His father, paying him back for the flat tyres.

Dunleavy is charming and courteous to all, but tough as well - somewhere between an old ballroom dancer and an old lightweight fighter. Which isn't surprising, as he did a bit of both in his youth. Put him in a bow tie and he'd be the boxing referee from central casting - a surefooted showman at home in centre ring. Poker-faced, nimble - and as wise, as Runyon would have said, as a treeful of owls.

It's tempting to think Runyon would have loved Dunleavy. If only because the Australian who found his spiritual home in New York City is perhaps the closest thing living to the legendary newspaperman who also migrated there - from the west - nearly a century ago.

Runyon dearly loved characters, and as a character Dunleavy is 24-carat box office. People are drawn to him.

Burt Kearns, for instance. Young enough to be Dunleavy's son, Kearns arrived in New York City from a sleepy suburban newspaper the night John Lennon died, and elbowed his way up in television newsrooms before getting his big break - working with Dunleavy and several other Australians to set up the hugely successful but shortlived tabloid show A Current Affair.

It was a rollercoaster ride, and it prompted Kearns to write a book about the era - a rollicking number called Tabloid Baby billed as ``the first and best insider account of a movement that changed the face of television news".

Kearns, now a television producer based in California, is back in New York to launch the book. It's during the launch that he coins the Keith Richards' line about his old mate, whom he treats as a lovable but eccentric uncle. There's plenty more where that came from, in the book.

``Dunleavy, the ageless legend with his silver pompadour, eagle beak profile and rakish charisma, was the paragon of everything that made journalism romantic and dangerous," he writes.

``He was friend to cops and criminals, bums and kings. He knew the words to any show tune you could toss at him. He could do more dialects and accents than Sid Caesar. He was a master raconteur and joketeller, his words a perfectly constructed Shakespeare of the street."

Dunleavy, sent to cover an execution, had been invited by the prison authorities to witness the condemned convict's death. He watched as guards buckled the terrified man to the electric chair with large seatbelts, winced as smoke rose from the twitching body when the current was turned on. Later, he leant over to one of his crew and stage whispered: ``Who says seatbelts save lives?"

The old street dog, as Kearns calls him, would do anything to get a story, but remained pure by his own peculiar standards - untainted by pretension and hypocrisy, although he'd plead guilty to most other vices.

He was one of a push of larrikin Australians who, working for Murdoch, the outsider, recruited American disciples like Kearns and tilted at the established networks' television news - eventually changing American news coverage forever. It was intoxicating at the time- though not necessarily, he admits now, for the better.

Dunleavy had become a star of print with the Post at the height of its fame - the Son of Sam serial killer coverage and ``Headless Body in Topless Bar" headline were in his time. But after switching to Murdoch's television enterprise he became a national figure on prime-time television. By the time he returned to his desk at the Post three years ago he was a legend of the tabloid genre he had helped define in the United States.

He was, some say, the inspiration for the tabloid reptile reporter in the film Natural Born Killers.

Then, of course, there were his books.

With a wife he ghosted The Happy Hooker, the memoirs of call girl Xaviera Hollander. His novel, The Very First Lady, concerned a woman who murdered her way to become the first female US President. But it was Elvis: What Happened? that really made his name. The book, which exposed Presley's sordid life of drugs and violence, was instantly controversial because the King of Rock died only two weeks after it was published.

Dunleavy made about $25,000 from the Elvis book, a tidy sum in 1977, but nothing compared with the millions the best-seller made for Murdoch. Dunleavy didn't care. He was happy to get the story first, driven only by the fear that he'd be beaten and content that his junkyard-dog loyalty would be rewarded by an organisation that would take care of him for life.

Once, during his time in television, Dunleavy responded on camera to charges by another author, Albert Goldman, in `Life' magazine, that his book had caused Presley to kill himself.

The interviewer, a friend, put Goldman's accusation to Dunleavy, who snatched the magazine and threw it to the studio floor, snarling: ``This is absolute garbage!"

The director asked him to do it again. Dunleavy shrugged, smiled calmly, then did it all again, snarl and all. Take two.

Afterwards he grabbed a colleague and said, deadpan, ``This book, this accusation that I killed him, that he committed suicide, mate-" His eyes lit up and he blurted gleefully: ``I really think it's true, you know! I think I really killed Elvis."

These days he has the column - often filed from Langans bar - the Manhattan apartment, the Long Island house, and the reputation that makes every day like an episode of This Is Your Life. It's a long way from where he started.

Born at Bondi just before the war, he was educated at Randwick High, where he played rugby and played up. A copy boy at 14 on the Sydney Sun, he talked his way into a cadetship with the Mirror, where he was in opposition to his photographer father.

He chuckles over the rivalry with his father, who was a colorful character, too, it seems. In the 1950s, when Frank Sinatra was in Australia with Ava Gardner he pushed Dunleavy senior's big Speed Graphic camera into his face. The photographer couldn't get to Sinatra to even up, but he punched his bodyguard Hank Sanicola instead. When Steve junior finally got to interview Old Blue Eyes in the 1980s, he had the satisfaction of thinking about that story.

After earning his spurs in the Sydney tabloid wars, young Dunleavy left in 1959, aged 20. His first stop was the Philippines ``poncing around getting drunk", he recalls. Then he worked for the Stars and Stripes in Tokyo for two years. ``In those days you could work for a newspaper and freelance for another."

He also worked in Hong Kong, on the South China Morning Post and the Far East American, ran his own bar, and did song and dance as a sideline before leaving the East under mysterious circumstances, smuggled out with a price on his head after running foul of the triads.

In New York his rabid winner-takes-all attitude was a winner. He was home. As news editor of Star magazine, he ``exhibited a greater handle on the middle and lower-class American psyche than any graduate of an American journalism school," claims Kearns. His tongue-in-cheek reactionary patriotism won him, hilariously enough, the American of the Year Award from the far-right wing John Birch Society.

Then, of course, came the 1970s and his time as metro editor of the Post at the pinnacle of its time as leader of the yellow press, stirring up fear, excitement and opinion.

He's been back to Australia only four times in 40 years. The long trip across the Pacific combined with the no-smoking rule don't make visits more likely in future.


None that he'll admit to. He says some people see him and his ilk as a ``cross between a pimp and a private eye". He chuckles and says, ``Waal, I don't worry about it. Because we were honest to our product. We take no prisoners. We make no excuses. If we got caught it was curtains. If we won, we were the victors. One thing we weren't were hypocrites."

His creed, he says, is: ``Don't complain ... but don't explain."

Of his longtime boss, Rupert Murdoch, he says loyally: ``He is the most vilified American since Mad Dog Coles was shot in Chicago." He pretends not to hear suggestions that the otherwise ``fearless" tabloids aren't quite so brave when it comes to turning the spotlight on Murdoch's domestic affairs.

And the biggest story?

The old brawler flicks this aside with ease. ``The one you did yesterday," he cracks.

Seconds later, he gets serious. When man landed on the moon in 1969, he muses, he was booked into a bed and breakfast place, covering the Ted Kennedy scandal after Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in the wayward senator's car at Chappaquiddick.

Exactly 30 years later, in mid-1999, he slept in the same bed in the same place, covering the death of Ted's nephew, JFK junior, when his plane went down.

``Ted gets bumped off the front page (on the anniversary of Chappaquiddick) because of the death of his own nephew," he says, shaking his head at this enormous coincidence as he fishes another Parliament cigarette from the pack on the bar.

He even claims to remember the room rates. In 1969, it was $38 a night. Thirty years later, it was $320. How can you doubt a man who comes up with details like that?

It's lunch time and the crowd swells in Langans. One of the new arrivals pulls up a stool next to Dunleavy and orders a cheeseburger and coke for lunch.

He is thirty-something, good-looking, well-dressed and a sharp talker. Dunleavy introduces him as Sean Hannity, a friend of his. Hannity says wistfully that he'd love to stay and have a drink and a talk, but he's gotta do the show, y' know.

Hannity, it turns out, does three hours of drive-time radio followed by two hours of prime-time current affairs television in the biggest market in the US, which is probably as big as there is on Earth. There are huge billboards with his picture on them around the city. He's big time in the big city with the bright lights.

So, how does he rate the old Aussie at the bar?

``Dunleavy?" He smiles. ``He holds court here every day and dispenses wisdom and people listen. Yeah, he's still cutting edge."

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