Kicking off the 2016 midday series at the 92Y, author/reporter/critic Jeffrey Lyons regaled an enthusiastic audience with a sampling from his father’s pivotal New York Post columns which comprise his new volume, What a Time It Was! Leonard Lyons and the Golden Age of New York Nightlife. He has, to date, authored seven books including Stories My Father Told Me: Notes from The Lyons Den (also Abbeville), a first collection of Leonard Lyon’s columns and anecdotes. Lyons fils peppered quotes from the book with experiences from his own extraordinary childhood and youth in proximity of the accomplished and/or famous.
Leonard Sucher aka Leonard Lyons 1906-1976 worked tirelessly for the New York Post (then a liberal newspaper) as author of The Lyons Den covering theater, film, politics, art- pretty much anyone or anything he thought was worthy and of public interest. He wrote approximately 12,000 columns – 1,000 words a day, six days a week, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, flew anywhere to get interviews, knew simply everyone, and was, it seems, universally well liked.
Lyons Senior, Jeffrey tells us, left the law in favor of writing when the New York Post wanted someone on staff to compete with Walter Winchell at the Daily Mirror. He’d been contributing to others’ pieces while practicing. Once a columnist, he woke at noon or 12:30, breakfasted, and made restaurant rounds, table-hopping for stories. “He wrote news, not gossip, never with his eye to a keyhole.” Then, he’d go to the paper and write his column which appeared in the afternoon paper.
After turning in copy, Leonard would return home, maybe toss a ball around with his sons, and eat dinner. Still, his day was not done. In the evening, he’d attend a Broadway opening, circulate among a dozen night clubs gathering more tidbits, then call the City Desk to dictate stories, retiring at perhaps 6 a.m. He’d breakfast with the family, go to sleep, and start all over again. A schedule like that would reduce contemporary journalists to shreds.
Far from limiting itself to nightlife, the book is divided into additional chapters like They Made the Movies, Larger Than Life (including such varied characters as Fiorello H. LaGuardia H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth II, and General Douglas MacArthur), You Dirty Rats (gangsters), Make ‘Em Laugh (comedians), and Play Ball (baseball heroes). There are brief anecdotes about politicians, writers, boxers, composers and lyricists…you get the idea. Paragraphs often have nothing to do with one another, making a reader feel the book is a Cliff Note version of more extensive portraits, but the truth is, this is the way Lyons Senior wrote, just a few sentences for each observation. It’s a book in which one learns:
…when Elizabeth Taylor went to the hospital to give birth to her third child, Michael Todd had all the hospital furniture removed from the room and brought in Louis XIV furniture. Also a Renoir, a Hals, a Pissaro, and a Monet…Asked the difference between acting onstage and in movies, Anthony Quinn said, “It’s like switching from painting in watercolors to oils.”…In December 1961, Gore Vidal was asked to be the godfather to the daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It was the fourth time he had been so honored. “Always a godfather,” he said, “never a god.”
Lindy’s was made an institution by proximity to the John Golden Theater where Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude ran 5 ½ hours. Patrons rushed over to eat during the long intermission. A waiter wrapping steak for a patron’s dog was heard to ask, would he like a pickle with that?… Eisenhower sent Josef Stalin a box of cigars, and when he lit one, he asked the British air marshal who’d delivered them, “How soon before this one explodes?” “They’re quite safe,” replied the air marshal. “At least as long as I’m in the room.”
When Red Buttons was up for the Academy Award against Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge on the River Kwai, they were seated in front of one another. Buttons won. As they filed out, his peer growled, “Tonight you die, you Yankee dog!” Orson Welles rented Errol Flynn’s yacht for his honeymoon with Rita Hayworth. They found a monkey. Welles was billed not only for the vessel, but “On board entertainment,” referring to the pet.
This is a volume not to be read through or savored, but rather to be sampled at intervals for interjections at cocktail parties. It is plate after plate of amuse bouches.