with ink in his veins
By Piers Akerman
September 30, 2008 12:00am
LATER this week a special edition of The New York Post will mark the retirement of the last of the great journalists of the pre-electronic era - the Australian Steve Dunleavy.
Dunleavy, or as he occasionally introduced himself, Steven Patrick Francis Aloysius Dunleavy, is that rare thing in these times of five-second celebrities, a genuine legend.
To put his 70-year-life and 55-year career into some perspective, Dunleavy's name was known from Hong Kong to Halifax, Melbourne to Miami, in a period pre-dated computers and fax machines and the now ubiquitous mobile phone.
When he began as a cadet on the old Sydney Sun, many homes didn't even have a telephone, and calls were made from coin-operated telephones found in quaint weatherproof boxes generally located on street corners.
Interstate telephone calls had to be booked in advance from operators who worked for the Postmaster-General's department in each capital and newspapers relied on banks of telex machines for their national and international news stories.
Reporters didn't go to Google looking for stories, or to idiot-traps like Wikipedia for their "facts".
Newsrooms were packed with experienced professionals who had learnt their craft after progressing through a series of rounds designed to instil in them a love of words and a reverence for truth.
The sub-editors' desk was a repository of collective memory and institutional wisdom, experts could be found there on almost every topic, and most were willing to take likely beginners through their stories, word by word, paragraph by paragraph to help them get it right.
Good editors knew what a story was, knew how to campaign, and didn't need to sit behind one-way glass listening to focus groups fantasise about visions and perfect worlds.
There were no media studies degrees and no courses in journalism in Australia, and when they did emerge, they were largely staffed by those who hadn't been able to make it in a professional news organisation.
If anyone did appear with a qualification in journalism, it was assumed they had not made their name on the road.
There was probably the same ratio of misfits and malcontents attracted to the media as there is today, and the bars near newsrooms had their share of psychologically damaged souls who had never heard of stress counselling. Alcohol and mateship carried those who had seen scenes they would never wish upon anyone through their torment.
In this world of clattering typewriters, ringing telephones, and cigarette-etched desks, Dunleavy was king.
He had a nose (quite a feature of his handsome face, actually) for a story. He had charm and personality to spare.
If he could get through on a telephone, he had the story half-written, if he could get his foot in a door and speak face-to-face with his subject, the story was on its way to the presses.
While some reporters began their day with a prayer which started: "Lord, forgive us our press passes", Dunleavy's began with cold beer.
He would pounce on a telephone as soon as it rang, in case there was someone with a story to tell. He was a great listener, and a great charmer, and the stories of his extraordinary success with women are all true.
He did have his ankle broken by a passing mini-van when he was making love on a drift of snow formed between some parked cars (he spread his coat on the snow as a blanket for his friend) across from Elaine's nightclub during a New York blizzard, and such was his devotion to the moment that he didn't realise what had happened till he was dancing later that evening.
He did romance one of Ted Kennedy's "boiler-room" girls to get the inside story on the events that led to Mary Jo Kopechne's tragic death in Ted Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick in 1969, and his then-wife, Yvonne, did co-author The Happy Hooker with Dutch madam Xaviera Hollander.
While he graduated from the university of hard knocks, he knew his way around enough to guide me on my first visit to Harvard more than 30 years ago. That we were en route to the maximum security Walpole prison to visit the Boston Strangler, Albert de Salvo (above), is another story.
He later wrote a weekly column, This I Believe, which ushered in the Reagan era and the restoration of American pride, and he became a star of a tabloid television show produced by another old Sydney reporter, Peter Brennan.
He stood up for cops and firemen and servicemen and women, and he wrote of his pride and tears when his own son, US Army Captain Peter Dunleavy, went to Iraq in 2004.
Tomorrow night, Australia's global media giant Rupert Murdoch, the editor-in-chief of the NY Post, Col Allan, and a galaxy of media greats will stand up for Steve as he turns in his NYPD press card.
Big drinks will be taken, even bigger stories will be told, and the final paragraph will be written on the reporting days of a man who fiercely burnt the candle at both ends and in the middle, living the life he loved.