A giant of the golden age of New York City, journalist Leonard Lyons became a beacon of the cultural community and confidant to the movers and shakers of the day in a remarkable career that spanned four decades. In "Stories My Father Told Me," revered film critic Jeffrey Lyons looks back on his father's storied legacy. Here's an excerpt.
One day when I was in fifth grade, the members of my class were asked to stand in turn and tell what their fathers did for a living. Back then, there were few working mothers. I remember hearing: “lawyer”; “doctor”; “investment banker”; “painter”; “musician.” Then came my turn, and I said: “Columnist.” No one seemed to know what that meant, so I said: “My father writes about all your fathers.”
My father Leonard Lyons wrote “The Lyons Den” column in the New York Post and was syndicated in over 100 newspapers around the world from 1934 to 1974. His anecdotal style of writing flourished in the Golden Age of the Broadway column. Whereas others dealt in scandal and rumor, he thus stood alone, enjoying a special place in his craft.
“The Lyons Den” became an American journalism institution and our family’s key to the world. My father knew everyone! Stroll down Madison Avenue on a Saturday afternoon visiting the art galleries, and everyone knew him or recognized him or had an item for him. Our home movies, for example, had the usual scenes of my family members sledding down snowy hills in Central Park, tossing a football or baseball, and long-dead relatives mugging for the silent camera. But those color films also showed us with family friends: Marc Chagall, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Edna Ferber, Moss Hart, Adlai Stevenson, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Sophia Loren, and Frank Sinatra. Oh, and a few others, too: Danny Kaye, Thornton Wilder, José Ferrer, George Bernard Shaw, and Laurence Olivier.
It’s a safe bet that most of my classmates didn’t have such family friends. Nor did they say goodnight to their fathers at 7 a.m.; most fathers would return from work just before dinnertime. Mine, however, worked from mid-day until dawn. He spent every night out on the town—not gallivanting or drinking (he was, as they used to say, a teetotaler) but gathering stories for his next column. We thought playing baseball across the street in Central Park with Paddy Chayefsky on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as showing Richard Burton how to bunt, was normal. We thought a phone call from Hemingway or a late-night call from Milton Berle or a holiday gift from J. Edgar Hoover was normal.
One night, Norman Mailer called, seeking legal advice from my father, a practicing lawyer before he became a columnist. Mailer had just stabbed his wife.
Didn’t everyone’s parents get invited to the White House or attend Broadway openings and movie premieres? Didn’t every family have Nobel Prize–winner Dr. Ralph Bunch, Abe Burrows, and Phil Silvers sit at their seder table every Passover? Didn’t every high school football player get to train with the New York Giants? Or tour Spain with a famous matador? Didn’t other kids know Joe DiMaggio on a first-name basis or get a phone call from Marilyn Monroe on their sixteenth birthday? It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about such an upbringing. Looking back, it wasn’t just unusual. It was amazing!
In his tribute the day after my father died in 1976, Clyde Haberman of the New York Post wrote that my father “knew personally more names than probably anyone in any country.” He quoted my father saying he understood “the appetites of newspaper readers for the kings and stars and villains and dog-biters.”
“Lyons made the world’s famous familiar to the average subway straphanger,” and, saying his was anything but a gossip column, “there was more news to be made looking at people across nightclub tables than through the keyholes of bedroom doors. He expanded the column from mere show business chatter to include the professional activities of notables in politics, literature, and diplomacy.”
“Carl Sandburg, our greatest historian, called him ‘America’s foremost anecdotist.’ He reveled in ironic, sentimental, sometimes dramatic human stories about very important persons, from Broadway to the White House. For four decades ‘The Lyons Den’ was an institution and will be invaluable to historians seeking behind-the-scenes glimpses of that long era.”
It was an amazing life he led, from a poor boy born in a Lower East Side tenement in New York (who twice ran away from Fresh Air summer camp because he missed the city) to a dinner guest of the Trumans on their last night in the White House; from the son of a Romanian tailor who died young, leaving his widow to sell cigarettes individually at a candy stand (who later learned to read English so she could enjoy her son’s column in the newspaper) to invited guest at the Monaco wedding of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier. From a night-school graduate of the City College of New York to having tea at 10 Downing Street with Churchill. He traveled from winning the Spanish prize pin at P.S. 160 to wearing it on his lapel at a white tie dinner at the Kennedy White House, where the invitation had read: “Decorations will be worn.” It was quite a journey.
If only I’d had that tribute to read to my classmates so long ago!
This is a book about some of the most amazing people of my father’s time and ours: authors, actors, politicians, musicians, and athletes mostly. Stars who’ve risen to the apex of their professions telling you things you never knew about them.
Along with his brother Al, my father went to the High School of Commerce, then to the City College of New York, where he studied accounting; then he finished second in the first graduating class of St. John's Law School, before being admitted to the New York Bar in 1929.
But journalism would become his eventual calling. While practicing law, he began contributing item to columnists and wrote a column under his original name, Leonard Sucher, for the Sunday English page of the famed Jewish Daily Forward, a newspaper that still exists. The column was called "East of Broadway," a reference of the Lower East Side where thousands of immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe were clustered at the time. But he kept contributing items to the more established columnists of the day and built up a scrapbook.
Then in 1934, the New York Post announced a contest to find its own Broadway columnist to rival Walter Winchell, who'd created the genre in the Daily Mirror. My father entered, showed his bulging scrapbook, and beat out 500 other applicants to win a job at the Post — the oldest continually published newspaper in America, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1802.
Starting on May 20, 1934, he would write six columns a week for forty years to the day. It was in the age of New York's so called "cafe society." Soon after he's assumed his new job, his editor told him on a Friday that come Monday he'd have a new name. "Lyons" was chosen to be the alliterative counterpart of Winchell's.
But unlike his rivals, never once did he use the word "celebrity." He abhorred it. He said he's write about his sister Rosie in Brooklyn if she did something newsworthy, as well as presidents and movie and Broadway stars, politicians, scientists, athletes, soldiers and statesmen. They had to make news.
Early in December 1955, our family appeared on Edward R. Murrow's famous Person to Person show. My father proudly pointed east out of our living room window on Central Park West to indicate the part of town he was born. Then he showed the nation a book inscribed to him by President Eisenhower, who called my father "a real writer."
"So now," he proudly said, "if anyone doubts it, I call call myself a writer by proclamation of the President of the United States."
One night in 1952, my father sat in Sardi's restaurant with famed actress Ethel Barrymore, great aunt of today's star Drew Barrymore. She overheard someone at a nearby table referring to "the Barrymore Theater." "Excuse me," said this member of America's greatest acting family: "That's 'The Ethel Barrymore' Theater!"
The next night, my parents gave a party at our home in her honor. My brothers and I were sent to bed at our usual hour. But I awoke to the chatter of the guests in our living room, walked in, and surveyed the landscape. All grown-ups I didn't recognize . Then in the corner I spotted someone I adored. In a room full of the bigger names than his, he stood by himself, too shy to mingle. I walked past the other guests, tugged at his jacket, looked up, and said: "Mr. DiMaggio, you're the best guest here!"
Twenty-three years later at an Old Timers' Day at Shea Stadium, DiMaggio in his famed number "5" Yankee uniform spotted me, recognizing me from television (can you imagine!) , beckoned me over, and said "Jeffrey, do you remember that night?" I nodded, of course. "Would you still say that about me?"
Oh, among the other guests — the "nobodies" I bypassed to get to him that night at our home — were Edward G. Robinson, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Adlai E. Stevenson. Lightweights.
It was an incredible grind for my father, six days a week; six days a week; each day there was a full 1,000-word column to fill with exclusive, firsthand copy. To do that, he’d cover a dozen Manhattan restaurants where notables lunched. An actress told the New York Times: “He goes where the wind blows, darting from table to table, with his eyes always moving on to the next promising group.”
Two hours or so later, he’d have enough material for a rough draft of the next day’s column. He took the subway down to the Post, then on West Street in lower Manhattan. He’d write his column, hand it in to the city desk, then come home on the subway. Sometimes, he’d notice someone sitting next to him reading his column. Just before his stop, he’d delight in saying: “That guy writes a helluva column, doesn’t he?” and exit the train just as the reader did a double take.
After a quick nap (he could sleep soundly through any piano practice), or pitching for batting practice, or tossing a football to his four sons across the street in Central Park, his evening would begin. While most of his competitors (who’d handed in the final version of their own columns that afternoon) were now relaxing at home, he’d go out again to gather later stories.
The city was alive in those pre-television days, buzzing with excitement every night. He’d walk into Toots Shor’s on West 52nd Street and sit with Jackie Gleason or Mickey Mantle, meet the Duke and Duchess of Windsor down the block at the posh “21,” or have tea with Marlene Dietrich at the Russian Tea Room. All in one night! Every night! Six nights a week!
This was decades before pagers or cell phones, but if we had to reach my father, we knew he’d always be at Sardi’s, the famed theatrical restaurant, around 11:30, in the middle of his rounds. His photograph still adorns a wall in tribute.
Nightclubs like El Morocco, The Stork Club, The Little Club, and in earlier times Jack White’s 18 Club and other iconic places of that era, were all in full swing.
He’d come home around 1 a.m., and for several hours would painstakingly write the stories he’d just gathered, then dictate them—no email then—to the night city editor down at the Post, working what was in those days called “the lobster shift,” updating his column to make it fresher than his competitors’. Then for an hour just after dawn, he’d work on a magazine article. About that time, my brothers and I would awaken, sometimes getting a capsule summary of what happened around town the night before, then losing to him in a quick game of checkers before my father retired.
He wrote an astonishing 12,479 columns, each 1,000 words long. The only day he missed was the day his mother died. One or two had been “evergreen” columns he’d run while traveling overseas, or on rare occasions one was written by a guest. His columns provide a history of a glorious time in America and wherever he traveled.
My parents took many inaugural flights, as airlines were continually expanding their international routes in those days at the dawn of the jet age; Egypt, South America, Australia were all on his beat.
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Sunday nights, a Western Union messenger would pick up the column to deliver to the Post, and for a year or so it was a teenager named Edward Albee. That’s why in his masterpiece drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the quarrelling couple learns of the death of their imaginary child by way of a Western Union messenger.
“I printed that first,” my father would often beam when he’d see his stories purloined by others days later. He was trained as a lawyer and accountant, but he was born to be a journalist.
In his time there were no faxes, nor emails, word processors, Internet, computers, laptops, cell phones, and until the mid-’sixties, no electric typewriters. He worked on a portable Underwood typewriter and carried on trips clunky portable typewriters with rickety keys. Every day, his secretary annotated every story on index cards, differentiating between one-time-only news items and “evergreen” anecdotes for future reference. More than 100,000 people were mentioned in the column; some only once; others, like the ones in this book, turned up repeatedly over the years. It’s their stories I’ve culled to present a window into that incredible era.
Overseas, he was with the First Army Press Corps in 1945. There he visited Hitler’s mountain headquarters in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, to examine the remains of the infamous “Eagle’s Nest,” where a Jewish boy from the Lower East Side made it a point to urinate on the huge, ugly concrete swastikas outside. We have the movies to prove it!
He was on the set of The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957, in what was then Ceylon, and even accepted an invitation from his friend producer Sam Spiegel to push the plunger that blew up the famous replica of the bridge.
My parents attended a seder in Nasser’s Egypt, which was then closed to Jewish visitors; my mother covered Queen Elizabeth’s coronation for the column, and he and Truman Capote were the “group historians” on a 1955 tour of post-Stalinist Russia by a Porgy and Bess company.
Back in New York, making his nightly rounds, he’d go “table hopping,” seeing a star or an actor or writer he knew or who knew him—working the room, his notebook always at the ready. If he spotted a competitor, he’d leave, fearing his stories would thus not be exclusive.
Other columnists of that day, like Ed Sullivan, Hy Gardner, Jack O’Brien, Bob Sylvester, Lee Mortimer, and “Cholly Knickerbocker,” and of course his greatest rival, Walter Winchell, used “leg men.” Those were assistants and press agents who fed the columnists stories mentioning their clients, or the restaurants or nightclubs they handled. By contrast, virtually all of my father’s stories were either firsthand or double-checked for veracity. Over the years he used several secretaries, including Anita Summer, who worked diligently for him for the last quarter-century or so of the column, as her predecessors had done.
My father went to the High School of Commerce where today’s Lincoln Center stands. Though undersized, he turned out for football. The first day of practice, he was lined up in a tackling drill opposite a huge youth named “Henry.” That boy’s high school nickname was, ironically, “Babe.” Ironic because his full name was Henry Louis Gehrig. One tackle from the future “Iron Horse” of the Yankees, and my father headed off to the swimming team. But first Gehrig taught him how to drop kick the watermelon-shaped ball of that era. It was a skill my father passed on to me forty years later.
In my four decades on TV and radio as a movie and theater critic and interviewer, I’ve come to know scores of actors of my era and many from my father’s. But these are different times. With a very few exceptions, my acquaintances have been professional. Only a handful have become close personal friends. It’s just a different world today.
In my father’s time, many larger-than-life people became members of our extended family. We were house guests in Cuba at the home of Mary and Ernest Hemingway, who taught me how to fire a rifle. Orson Welles was one of my father’s closest friends, as his youngest daughter Beatrice is one of mine today. My brother Warren lived with Ira and Lee Gershwin in California; composer Harold Arlen, UN Undersecretary General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Ralph Bunche, Abe Burrows, and comedian Phil Silvers and their wives were regulars at family seders; There was nothing like having the traditional Passover songs played on our living room piano by the man who wrote “The Girl with the Three Blue Eyes.” Playwrights Clifford Odets and Sidney Kingsley and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas were godfathers to my brothers and me. Joe DiMaggio and fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller attended my bar mitzvah.
This book includes several of my interviews as well. You’ll see these current stars in a whole new light, as they reveal things they told my father and me and no one else. You’ll feel you’re seated across a table at a New York nightspot “back in the day” or are sitting on my set in the studio waiting for the stage manager’s cue as interviewees recall incidents in their lives that usually don’t appear in biographies or film books.
There’s a difference in style. My father’s encounters were more social: chats over lunch or coffee—he was a teetotaler (as am I)—or conversations in our home or on trips together. In most cases, I met stars for interviews on my sets at WNBC and WPIX. In my interviews, usually limited to twenty minutes or so, I covered their entire careers; on the other hand, my father’s chats were akin to reunions between long separated friends, relationships sometimes spanning decades.
Often, he’d take one of his sons on his rounds with him. Other times, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Astronaut Scott Carpenter, Viktor Sukhodrev (Khrushchev’s interpreter), Brendan Behan, and former Postmaster General then NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien accompanied him on his rounds. But most nights, he had no idea whom to expect, beyond those he already knew happened to be in town.
My interviews, by contrast, came after days, sometimes weeks of preparation from my vast clipping file and extensive cinemabook library and movie collection. The difference, I suppose, is like that between evolving friendships and interviews. With my father, actors were always at ease. I had to put them at ease, early in the interview, by showing them that I was well prepared.
In my father’s day, newspapers and radio, and only later television, were the primary forms of communication. Today there is a media explosion, and actors are more guarded. Say or do something you wish you hadn’t, and if the interviewer isn’t trustworthy or professional, it can flash across the world instantaneously. But both his stories and my interviews present a snapshot of times in which the most creative and talented people flourished.
Shortly before illness forced him to end the column in May 1974, New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, citing his “courage in the protection of the sources of newspapermen and his service to his native city of New York,” issued a citation in his honor “for Distinguished and Exceptional Service.”
On September 10, 2006, my father’s 100th birthday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed: “No one did more to promote New York’s deserved reputation as a capital of glamour and culture.” He added that “a century after his birth, the legacy of Leonard Lyons lives on. The names on the marquee may have changed, but the memory of Leonard Lyons remains a guiding light in New York City’s cultural community.”
These interviews and anecdotes span seventy-five years, and have been condensed and combined to present full pictures of their subjects. I’m proud to report that our son Ben Lyons has continued the family tradition, in between reviewing movies in “The Lyons Den” and conducting interviews for the E! television network on their “E! News” show. Somewhere, somehow, my father is smiling down on him, and his sister, a natural-foods chef.
Excerpted with permission from "Stories My Father Told Me: Notes from `The Lyons Den'" by Jeffrey Lyons. Available from Abbeville Press. Copyright © 2011.
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