Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why Steve Dunleavy has been missing in action

It was ten years ago this morning that Burt Kearns awoke at the Paramount Hotel in New York City to find a message had been slipped under his door. The note read: "Frank Sinatra died. See you in L.A. Steve." Hours earlier, Burt had been facing Dunleavy in a sitdown in an Italian restaurant across the street from Langan's on 47th Street, trying to assure the tabloid legend that what he'd written about him in his forthcoming book was not going to get him arrested or deported. Dunleavy was not entirely reassured, but in the months to follow would be one of the few tabloid television heavyweights (Maury Povich, Rafael Abramovitz & Eames Yates were among the others) to support the memoir Tabloid Baby publicly without knowing what potentially toxic secrets were lurking between the covers.

We've been aware of Steve's absence from the pages of the New York Post since December, when he'd offered to write a column on the Roman Catholic Church's ban of the song Danny Boy at funerals, and have known about his health issues for months, but we haven't let on because mateship trumps scoopship, and one thing Steve Dunleavy has taught many of us is the value of mateship.

Now Steve's let the cat out of the bag, or the cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river, but in any case, it was his decision how and when to talk about it. He did this morning, with his old mate Jim Brady:

James Brady On Media
Desperately Seeking Dunleavy
James Brady 05.15.08

Star reporter for the New York Post, tabloid TV news hound, best-selling author--colorful, brawling, carousing Australian Steve Dunleavy was missing in action.

Dead? No, there would have been an obit. Stopped drinking? Not bloody likely, mate. Had Rupert Murdoch in a pious moment sacked the rogue? Not Murdoch's fiercest, most loyal and longest-running attack dog. Yet not a single, outrageous bylined story in three months. Where was Steve Dunleavy when the newspaper and nation needed him?

"It's m' legs, mate," he said when I called his Long Island home. "Sitting or lying down, no problem. It's the walking. You remember how I sprinted from bar to bar? Today I lurch from bar to bar." He blathered on about some long-time hereditary problem with his legs--vascular, something about pressure on a spinal disc, three hours of tests at Mount Sinai.

"I went to some Mickey Mouse Long Island doctors, which was my mistake. I spent two months in the Keys, sun and salt water, a little condo we have, but it didn't help. I don't use a cane but have an old shillelagh. Then Roger Wood (long-time Post editor in chief) suggested, "Go see that boy Howard Rubenstein (the PR guru). He represents every famous doctor in town." They've put me on five weeks of meds. If that doesn't do it, there's always the surgery option."

And is he drinking now? Dunleavy sort of failed to respond to that one. "Rubenstein is on top of things," he said evasively.

I sought to console my old partner in crime. "I miss work terribly," he said. "But I can't go out. If I were running up a daily 'thumb-sucker,' [his dismissive term for a Frank Rich-type opinion column] I could do it from home. But I have to be out reporting."

Dunleavy began life as a 16-year-old copy boy on the Sun in Sydney. "Five dollars a week. Then I moved to the Sydney Daily Mirror and earned my cadet ship. My dad was a famous press photographer on the Sun and we became very competitive." (He once deflated the old man's tires to beat him on a story).

And wasn't Dunleavy "a tea boy" on the South China Morning Post? "No," he said huffily, "I was a reporter by then." UPI hired him in London and in 1966 sent him to New York where he worked the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. trick in the old Daily News Building on East 42nd Street. "UPI was a great organization then, but cheap. You didn't ask for a $10 raise because your boss probably didn't make that much."

Murdoch hadn't yet invaded America but had a news bureau upstairs in the same building, and when Dunleavy "bumped into Neal Travis in the elevator," he took on a second, part-time job "as a casual," as a freelancer was then known, afternoons. "I could use the money." He went full time in November 1967 for Rupert's bureau. "An exciting time, Charles Manson, the 1968 riots, Vietnam."

When Murdoch launched his tabloid weekly, then the National Star, in 1974 and hired me for $50,000 as an editor (I also wrote the gossip column free under a pen name), he introduced Dunleavy. "He'll be your chief reporter but don't give him a title or any authority. And don't drink in the same bars he does."

The Star newsroom on Third Avenue was a roughneck operation, mostly Aussies and Fleet Streeters, but some steals from the Daily News. Plus a freelance stringer named R. Couri Hay, today a flack for nightclubs and the darling of East Side society women, but then a bowtie-wearing errand boy innocent of grammar, punctuation, or spelling. Evenings Hay hung about, making long-distance personal calls, rifling desk drawers and reading people’s mail, and when Dunleavy caught him, he chased him around the room, cursing and throwing ashtrays at him.

It was rarely dull. There was the night a blizzard buried Manhattan and Dunleavy, "reclining" with a young woman in a snowdrift outside Elaine's, and had his foot run over by a snowplow. Snarled Pete Hamill of the Daily News, "I hope it was his writing foot."

When Murdoch bought the Post, along came Dunleavy. "Son of Sam" was Jimmy Breslin's story. But Dunleavy scored a nice "second day" beat by wangling a 3 a.m. at home interview with Sam Carr and his dog, shouting "police reporters, police reporters," when the startled Carr pulled a cocked pistol.

As Teddy Kennedy was concocting alibis for the drowning at Chappaquiddick, Dunleavy and Ray Kerrison spent a week at the Cape where, to prove or disprove something, Dunleavy stripped to swim the swift-flowing channel as Kennedy allegedly had. "I was an Australian and a swimmer," he said. And when the story and photos of the swim ran next morning, said Dunleavy, "The place looked like Jones Beach with 30 or 40 reporters in the water."

When Elvis Presley's disaffected bodyguards offered to tell (or sell) their story, Dunleavy was dispatched to Dixie where he and the bodyguards, sequestered and drinking in a rural motel, cobbled together a series of stories for the Post--and for a paperback original, destiny struck! On the book's official pub date, Presley died. Elvis, What Happened went straight to No. 1 on The New York Times list and stayed there 16 weeks.

All this notoriety led to his being put on TV. "The Boss sent me to Channel 5 News and I didn't know a damned thing about television, but I learned." That led to the syndicated Murdoch show, A Current Affair, anchored by Maury Povich, and a spin-off called The Reporters.

Celebrated for first-punch fights at Costello's now defunct saloon and for sleeping overnight in a straight-backed wooden chair in the Post's city room when the paper was on South Street, in recent years Dunleavy has been favoring a booth at Langan's, a pub near the Post's current midtown HQ, for his recuperative overnight naps.

And if the brave new meds don't kick in, and the legs don't respond, would Dunleavy agree to an operation? "Don't want to, and face it, mate. No one wants to operate on a 70-year-old man who's burned the candle at both ends. And in the middle."

(...a tip of the Tabloid Baby hat to David Peterkin for keeping us informed...)


Anonymous said...

(yawn) got anything interesting?

Anonymous said...

I have your mother right here, sucking my balls. It feels pretty interesting.

Elli in Israel said...

thanks for the update on dunleavy, he's a hall of famer if ever there was one.

Anonymous said...

good read. What's behind the story.