Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dunleavy postscript: Once were warriors

Most apparent from the crowd at Steve Dunleavy’s retirement party earlier this month was its substantiality in terms of journalistic background and accomplishment. The number of editors, writers, reporters, media professionals, tabloid journos and pop culture stars was a reminder that the tabloid television genre began as something very different than what was mutated from its drippings, as show business and network news bystanders insinuated themselves into the mix, leaving a legacy of having, as The New York Times pointed out partially erroneously in its Dunleavy tribute, “inspired a lot of what is on television today, like TMZ.com, Court TV and Fox News Channel.”

True enough that Roger Ailes appropriated the tabloid template stamped by Peter Brennan and perverted it for sordid political ends that gave the world the war in Iraq and the increasingly desperate and hysteric GOP talking point parrot Sean Hannity, and though the Times erred in stating that Court TV is “on television today”-- it was replaced by truTV nine and a half months ago-- it’s saddest to think that what was begun in New York City’s grittiest and most legendary local television news operation and what shook the television newsworld to its very core would be reduced in Timesian arrogance to the slime of the corporate porn-pushing gossip site TMZ.com and its inconsequential whitewashed syndicated television sister, who work in an amoral, immoral celeb-sucking netherworld that runs absolutely counter to the taboid teachings of the giants who gathered in the Bourbon Street Bar on West 46th Street on the evening of October 6th to say goodbye or at least pay tribute to the greatest giant among many.

TMZ? Read Tabloid Baby to learn the background of its shaved bronzed midget frontman and the women who nurtured his rise. And read Tabloid Baby to find what The Times and others in the "mainstream" dare not admit: that the true influence of Steve Dunleavy, A Current Affair and the tabloid revolution is reflected in the pages of the New York Times, the staffing and coverage of the network news organizations and stories and news that envelope our culture in a 24/7 cycle.

At that party earlier this month, Dunleavy himself sat with his back to the bar, roped off from the crowd at a high table with his wife Gloria at his side and behind her, always deep in conversation, Rupert Murdoch, looking very much like a rumpled newspaper boss, not the international billionaire mogul with the exotic young bride; his hair streaked Grecian Formula black and not the orange or aubergine we’d read about in the Vanity Fair article on the flight from LA a few hour earlier.

Jim Brady was a step ahead of us as we pushed through the crowd to greet Steve. Brady took Dunleavy’s hand, gave his shoulder a squeeze, told Steve he’d be missed and that now was the time for him to write the autobiography. Brady, a former Murdoch man who writes the celeb profiles for Parade and Forbes, broke the story of Steve’s infirmities. He wrote a belated tribute in Forbes last week which we reprint even more belatedly:

Brady On Media
Dunleavy And The Boss
James Brady 10.09.08, 6:00 AM ET

He's one of the last of the old-time big city newspaper leg men, and now the legs are shot, so last Tuesday, a rainy night at a vintage gin mill in Manhattan's theater district, a bunch of us got together to serenade the outrageous Steve Dunleavy into hard-earned retirement at age 70.

I don't know that many of the old press lords--Luce or Hearst or Joe Pulitzer or Jock Whitne--attended goodbye parties for booze-lubricated reporters in their employ, but Rupert Murdoch did. The Dow had plummeted by 777 points the day before, the Jewish holidays had just begun, Murdoch's New York Post was cheerleading for McCain and Palin, and there was Murdoch in a gray suit, coming in from the rain, past the bagpipers and firemen, the movers and shakers, the cops, the pretty girls and half the Post's city room, to say goodbye to a man who'd worked for him 40 years.

Dunleavy had commandeered for himself a familiar bit of bar, where he stood, sober if somewhat shaky, greeting well-wishers but refusing to rest his skinny butt on a bar stool. Steve, long ago, worked for me back on the National Star, a supermarket tabloid Murdoch launched in 1974, but I told that story in this column months ago, when Dunleavy first confessed his legs were going and he might have to pack in his column for the Post. (See "'Dirt' On TV.")

Steve's last week began in extraordinary fashion when The New York Times ran a thousand-word feature on him. The Post and the Times have been feuding so bitterly in recent years, this was the equivalent of a Tass editorial in praise of Capitalism. Tim Arango wrote the Times piece, quoting not only Murdoch but old rivals Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, Post editor Col Allan, and Jonathan Mahler, author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.

I especially liked Jimmy's line, "Steve is one of the three people in America who loves Rupert Murdoch. In a time of listless reporting, he climbed stairs. And he wrote simple declarative sentences that people could read." Breslin then derided today's newspaper sentences, "52-word gems that moan, I went to college! I went to graduate school college! Where do I put the period?" Hamill, who once shared with Dunleavy a mutual distaste, appeared to have mellowed, saying of Steve, "He always had this energy. I always thought he was writing his columns like he was double-parked."

After I chatted up Dunleavy, urging him to write another best-selling potboiler while he was still alive, and demanding had he been, in Aussie slang, a "wanker" or a "poofter"? "I was a wanker, mate, but never a poofter." Then, with a bottle of Corona, I worked the room, chatting up editor Col Allan, who may not own a necktie, but who was actually jotting notes, covering the story; columnist Cindy Adams; lanky, red-haired reporter Cynthia Fagen ("the carrot"); and rock critic Dan Aquilante ("You gave me my start on Page Six!"). Also in attendance were firefighters' union leader Steve Cassidy; Ed Burns, the retired cop whose sons Ed and Brian make movies; PR guru Howard Rubenstein; former Post publisher Marty Singerman; Richard Johnson and Paula Froelich of Page Six; restaurateur Elaine Kaufman; some TV types and a gent from Bamberger's in Newark.

At the door, they were handing out eight-page mock-ups of the Post, packed with stories and pics of the evening's hero: Steve with Reagan; with Castro; holding the gun that shot Lennon; with Joey Buttafuoco; Mike Tyson; the Boston Strangler; Bill O'Reilly; at home with Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate; arm-wrestling with Mike Bloomberg; with Geraldo; asleep in a city room chair. Ray Kerrison, who was our racetrack columnist from those first days at the Star, wrote a loving reminiscence, headlined, "50 wild years of news and booze with the man who's king of both.

It's probably my fault for leaving the party early, but when I went out into West 46th Street, not a single punch had yet been thrown, a cop or fireman thrown out, an editor or publisher pummeled, an ear bitten off, or Rupert--standing there happily amid the scrum--cornered by any number of bores, but not being chewed by anyone. Not with Steve Dunleavy, shakily but faithfully, there at his side.

Loyalty most places is pretty rare, so it was nice being at the Bourbon Street Bar, remembering 1974 when I was broke, writing and hosting a New York magazine cable TV talk show for nothing, when Murdoch came to America to stay, hiring me to run his new tabloid, and nothing ever again would be the same. For me or for any of us.

"Dunleavy will be your chief reporter," Rupert said then. "Just don't go drinking with him." A week later, my "chief reporter" and I were having the first of many at Tim Costello's bar. As Dunleavy was quoted in the Times: "I always had dreams of dying at the desk. It's frustrating not doing what I love best, and serving--I know it sounds corny--the one who I admire the most. Murdoch. The boss."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well done, Burt.