1999-2010

Monday, September 22, 2008

Giving Steve Dunleavy his due


All too many latte-sipping American "mainstream media" professionals journos thumb their noses at true journos like Steve Dunleavy. His countryman Mark Day today gives him the honor he deserves (and be sure to read to the third-to-last graph):

The Australian September 22, 2008

Steve Dunleavy, the last of the old-school legends

ON MEDIA: MARK DAY

IT is difficult to summon the words to adequately describe the amazing life and swashbuckling style of Australia's legendary news man Steven Francis Patrick Aloysius Dunleavy. Outrageous, extravagant, inimitable and hugely successful don't do it justice.

He has been called the Keith Richards of tabloid journalism, but that's half-arsed. It should be that Keith Richards is the Steve Dunleavy of rock music.

The Dunleavy era of journalism, which began at the Sydney Sun in 1952, has ended. It kind of petered out a few months ago when Dunleavy's legs gave out.

He said it was a vascular problem; genetic inheritance and all that, but it was probably the booze. It deserved to be, for few human beings have ingested the volumes of vodka to rival Steve and lived to tell the tale.

Dunleavy will be farewelled on October 1 at the Bourbon Street Bar and Grille on New York's west side. No doubt the entire zone will be secured by Steve's mates, the New York cops, probably backed up by the city's firemen and a platoon of US Marines, all of whom he has rabidly supported with his hard-hitting, between-the-eyes outpourings over the years. His views were right wing, some would say in the extreme, but they were genuinely held, and they earned him the title of American of the Year from the good ol' boys of the lunar right in the 70s.

They don't make 'em like Dunleavy any more. As Ken Chandler, a former editor of the New York Post said: "You put him on a story and he just goes until he gets it. It's the old way of doing things. I wish I had a newsroom of Dunleavys."

Dunleavy left Sydney in the late 50s and worked in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Spain and London before arriving, destitute, in the Big Apple.

Dunleavy and I worked together in the News Limited bureau in the NY Daily News building from 1968 to 1970. Much of our work involved rewriting material to give it an Australian flavour, but that was too mundane for Steve. He got a scoop when he interviewed the notorious serial killer Albert DeSalvo, aka the Boston Strangler, in jail. The visit was approved because DeSalvo was entitled to have one visitor a month -- and no one had asked. It is a lesson for all reporters: if you don't ask, you don't get.

In this period Dunleavy also put to test Teddy Kennedy's story about the accident on Chappaquiddick that killed his campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne. He swam the swift-flowing channel that Kennedy said he had negotiated to call help. When asked why he did it, Dunleavy said: "Because I'm from Bondi and I can."

Dunleavy was a reporter on the National Star, Rupert Murdoch's first foray into American publishing. The editor, our old bureau chief Ray Kerrison, of Cobgogla, South Australia, recalls that the Star's rival, the National Enquirer, had "paid a ransom for the exclusive serial rights to the hottest book of the decade -- Judith Exner's revelations about her affair with President Kennedy".

Kerrison says: "The book was under lock and key, guarded tighter than Fort Knox. One day, I told Steve, 'We've got to get a copy of the book and beat the Enquirer to the punch'. Steve said, 'Boss, gimme some time and I'll get it'.

"He disappeared. A few days later he turned up in my office, clutching a copy of the Exner book. I couldn't believe my eyes. 'My God,' I said to him, 'Where the hell did you get that?' Steve looked a bit sheepish and said, 'Boss, don't ask. You wouldn't want to know.'

"We 'reviewed' the Exner book in the next issue. The Star's circulation went through the roof. The Enquirer went berserk, threatening to sue us to kingdom come, etc. To this day, I don't know how Steve got his hands on that book. I dare not ask. But it was just one of his scoops in a lifetime of working the streets."

And then there was Elvis. Dunleavy met a pair of Elvis Presley's bodyguards and worked on them with liquor and charm. They told stories of the excess and madness that had turned Elvis into a gross parody of his former self, which Dunleavy cobbled together into a book called Elvis: What Happened.

It was published the day Elvis died and spent 16 weeks on top of the New York Times best seller lists. In typical fashion, Dunleavy just wrote the book, handing all rights to Murdoch as publisher. To his credit, Murdoch bought him a house on Long Island.

There are many such stories that contributed to the Dunleavy legend. But there were also moments when he was reminded that his world was not necessarily shared or aspired to by others.

Visiting Sydney in the early 70s, after more than a dozen years away, Dunleavy walked into the bar at the now demolished Invicta Hotel. A photographer from his old Daily Mirror police rounds days looked up from his beer and said: "G'day Steve. Been on holidays, have ya?"

Just as it is hard to describe Dunleavy's life without excessive superlatives, it is impossible not to mention sex. It is said Dunleavy would f..k anyone or anything for a story, and that is true.

He got a scoop for the News of the World when he wined, dined, seduced and ignobly reported the pillow-talk and tears of one of Teddy Kennedy's "boiler room" girls after the Chappaquiddick scandal. I visited him one evening in his New York apartment. He opened the door and greeted me, naked, before introducing me to a star witness in a police corruption investigation, also naked. They were engaged in an in-depth, probing interview of sorts -- another scoop.

To many women, Steve was sex on a stick. They loved his bouffant hair, his salacious eyes and cheeky patter, as well as his reputation as a pants man extraordinaire. When his exploits became grist to the mill of Burt Kearns' book Tabloid Baby, Dunleavy wrote in his Post column: "Of course, I normally would have sued the son-of-a-gun for what he wrote about me, but I can't -- it's all doggone true."

Now it's sayonara, Steve. Wherever journalists gather for years to come, they'll talk of his exploits. There'll be tut-tuts about the booze and his Rabelaisian excesses, but there will also be agreement that he was the last of the old-school legends.

I can't be in New York for Dunleavy's farewell, but from afar I'll lift a jar to one of the most enduring, generous, loyal and endearing friends of my life.

www.mday@ozemail.com.au Blog: www.theaustralian.com.au

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