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Steve Dunleavy: The Writer They Call Mr. Blood and Guts

A profile of the ‘Post’ newspaperman whose crime coverage in 1970s New York made headlines

Steve DunleavySteve Dunleavy

Steve Dunleavy

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Hong Kong — August 16th, 1965 — A young reporter for the Hong Kong ‘American’ sits in heavy thought at his desk. He faces the toughest assignment to come along yet in his twenty-nine-year-old life. Early the next morning, William C. White, an American soldier who defected to Red China during the Korean War, will return from China and surrender himself to the American consul in Hong Kong.

The writer is Steve Dunleavy. His assignment: to get an exclusive interview with White. Wide-open newspaper competition is nothing new to Steve, who dropped out of school at age fourteen to start newspaper work in his native Sydney, Australia. Once, when he and his father worked on competing papers in Sydney, young Steve slashed his father’s tires to beat him on a story. His father retaliated by locking Steve in a laundry room at the scene of a crime.

Steve sits, chain-smoking du Mauriers and pondering all the possible angles to get to White before the competition. He obviously can’t get into China and intercept White before he gets to the border … but … what about the transfer point? Steve remembers that the American consul has a blue 1963 Buick four-door sedan and is always driven by a crew-cut marine. It’s a long shot, but….

Five o’clock the next morning. White comes across the China border at the Lo Wu Bridge. He’s a little bit early, but waiting for him is a very official-looking man accompanied by a ramrod-stiff crew-cut marine who speaks fluent Mandarin and can thus interpret for the exchange.

The official-looking man shakes White’s hand and directs him into a waiting blue 1963 Buick four-door sedan with tiny American flags on the front fenders. They drive away.

Steve’s hands are shaking a little as he realizes he’s gotten away with it. He begins “debriefing” White in the Buick. Locating an identical Buick had not been too difficult, but finding a crew-cut guy who could speak Chinese had been the hard part.

Steve drops White off at a fleabag hotel in Hong Kong. White thanks him and asks, “What time should I be at the consulate?”

“Any time you want, mate!” Steve shouts as he speeds off to file his exclusive. “I’m not the consul!”

Steve feels the kind of high you get only when you know you’ve scooped the world. There’ll be no stopping this boy.

And there was no stopping him. Steve roamed the world, eventually landing in New York City, where he rose to prominence as the number one éminence grise for Australian press magnate Rupert Murdoch (who at last count owned eighty-nine newspapers and other news interests in America, England and Australia). His most spectacular assignment from Murdoch was the flaming Elvis: What Happened?, the book he wrote from interviews with three of Elvis’ former bodyguards. Elvis: What Happened?, which explicitly listed Elvis’ drug habits, was published the day Elvis died. Elvis had read it a week before. Steve still gets death threats from Elvis’ fans, and once someone sent a hearse to the New York Post, where he now works, with instructions to pick up Steve Dunleavy’s body. (It’s commonly assumed that Steve got rich off that book, but in fact he wrote it for Murdoch’s World News Corporation for a flat — and undisclosed — fee, and Murdoch got the royalties.)

In Sydney, Steve had been a barely average student and had left school as soon as his father would permit it. Sydney, then as now, was a real newspaper town, with four competing dailies. Dunleavy’s father and grandfather were newsmen, and Steve romantically felt he’d been born with ink in his blood. At thirteen he went to work as a copy boy for the Sun, where his father worked. But at the Sun there was talk in the news room that Steve would get preferential treatment because of his father’s influence, so Dunleavy jumped to the rival Daily Mirror. He became a reporter at age sixteen, covering the police, city hall and shipping beats.

Like a restive, prowling alley cat, Steve yearned to leave Sydney’s limited horizons. A newsman’s ultimate ambition in Sydney was to get to London and work on Fleet Street. Dunleavy was realistic, though, and knew that few of those heading for Fleet Street actually cracked the job market there.

So he decided to try working his way to London via a less obvious method — the English language newspapers in Asia. Like a cat, he landed on his feet wherever he dropped. First Manila, then to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. On to Tokyo, where he was the boxing writer for the Asahi Morning News. He cofounded the Spanish Daily News (now the Daily Iberian) in Madrid and moved on to London and stints at UPI and as a correspondent for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. He “fooled around” in the Bahamas for a while, then decided to try for New York. He landed December 28th, 1966, with seven dollars in his pocket and lived in coffee shops for a week until he ran into some Australian friends and got work with UPI, and then as correspondent for the Sydney Daily Mirror, which Murdoch had acquired. After Murdoch took over London’s News of the World (circulation 5 million plus) in late 1968, Steve shifted to Murdoch’s News Limited bureau in New York. Steve worshiped Murdoch as a “newsman’s newsman” and when Murdoch started the National Star in 1974 (by this time Murdoch had moved to New York), he jumped at the chance to be its news editor. Steve began to make a name for himself there, writing from-the-hip conservative columns, but it wasn’t until 1977, after Murdoch took over the New York Post and Dunleavy embarked on his sensationalist coverage of the Son of Sam case, that the byline “By Steve Dunleavy” began to become an epithet spilling from the lips of offended members of New York’s journalism colony. Dunleavy flies in the face of the current journalistic trend — the cautious respectability that’s so desired by the giant newspaper chains — and is a real throwback to the yellow journalism invented in America in the 1890s. The fact that he makes himself a star in the process is irrelevant. Steve hurls himself at a story with the ferocity of an unleashed Doberman and damn the consequences. That’s rare enough anywhere. The guy is a one-man subculture.

Round one went to Steve. He’s well known as a jouster, and he’d been apprehensive about being profiled in these pages and had said so over the phone.

“I know you’ll do a job on me, mate,” he had said.

“I’m a reporter,” I replied. “I write what I find.”

He chewed that over for a while — the latter being his usual sort of semi-oily, sidestepping answer when he’s after a subject who isn’t especially keen about being a subject — and finally gave up.

“Awright, mate. Let’s meet for a drink twenty minutes from now at Costello’s. God bless you.”

Costello’s is heavy drinking ground in Manhattan: obviously Steve wanted to size me up, to see if I was some kind of liberal knee-jerk hatchet man, to see if I could drink, to see if I were worth punching out in one of his celebrated brawls.

Costello’s is on East 44th Street, just a shot glass’ throw away from the Daily News on 42nd and from Murdoch’s News Limited empire around the corner on Third Avenue. Costello’s is a real newspaperman’s bar, one of the last of them, a dark and comfortable haven, a crossroads where American and British and Australian journalists can be with their own. And can put the drinks on their tabs. One remaining hangout for a dying breed: the subculture of crisis journalists — the mercenaries who parachute with portable typewriters on their backs into the world’s hot spots. Television competition has caused newspaper management to cut back on the padded expense accounts, but the mercenaries are still around, and Steve Dunleavy is one of the last international mercenary superstars. And Costello’s is still their unofficial club.

At ten minutes past one on this rainy Friday afternoon, though, Costello’s is choked with “tourists,” which is what the regulars call nonnewspaper people. Costello’s has gotten too famous.

I’m a few minutes early and run into an Australian journalist I know from a previous “crisis” story.

“Jesus Christ, mate, what’re you doing here?” he greets me. “This’s not Rolling Stone territory.”

“Oh,” I say, “a little story on Steve Dunleavy and …” he cuts me off with a laugh so loud that the tourists edge away from us. “Bloody Christ, all right, let me buy you a drink.”

Pints in hand, we lean against the worn wooden sideboard. My Australian friend nods toward a clipping taped to the wall behind me; the headline reads: “The Worst Waiter in New York” (the story, about a wisecracking waiter at Costello’s who heaps abuse on the customers, was written by Yvonne Dunleavy, Steve’s ex-wife). My friend points at the third word in the headline and says, “If you changed one letter in that word, you’d have the right headline for your story on Steve.”

The great man himself chooses that moment to sweep in, simultaneously greeting a dozen regulars and swirling off his blue trench coat and Irish rain hat. The regulars instinctively gather around him. Clearly, this man is the star here. In the space of a minute he answers a half-dozen questions.

What is the status of the Daily Sun (Rupert Murdoch’s proposed new New York daily, to star Steve as city editor)? Will it publish? Talks started today with the drivers’ and mailers’ unions, Steve says. What is Steve doing? Finishing his novel, says Steve. Where is Madame_____? Oh, he’s off to Bermuda, says Steve.

Steve finally faces me. “So you’re young Chet.” He eyes the glass in my hand. “Let me get you a Heineken. The draft’s not very good here.”

We retire to the sideboard, underneath his ex-wife’s article. “She a relative of yours?” I ask. “Ha,” he says. “After she got rich when she cowrote The Happy Hooker, she tossed me out. Just kidding, mate. So what’re you after, eh? Why me?”

We study each other. I see a handsome, sharp-featured, obviously self-confident man of forty-three years, dressed carefully: blue pin-stripe suit, understated cuff links. His attitude of self-assurance says that he’s seen about all there is to see, from Sydney to Tokyo to Milan to New York.

Along the way, his career has prospered courtesy of Son of Sam, exclusives with Robert Vesco and Carmine “Godfather” Galante and sensationalist material about Fidel Castro, Keith Stroup and other luminaries who have suffered the sting of Steve Dunleavy’s typewriter.

Dunleavy claims his phone was tapped by unknown elements after he successfully wooed a woman on Ted Kennedy’s staff to get the Chappaquiddick story and after he cowrote a book called Those Wild, Wild Kennedy Boys, which had the Kennedys hopping in and out of bed with a variety of very interesting women. Steve says the Kennedys were also upset that he didn’t bother telling the staff woman he was doing a story as they held hands over candlelight and champagne (he defends himself: “She knew I was a reporter”). He says the Kennedys were further exacerbated when they learned he possessed a juicy photograph that wasn’t intended to be in general circulation. The photograph was never published.

Nor were the nude photographs of Albert DeSalvo (the accused Boston Strangler) that Steve got when he smuggled a camera into the Massachusetts state prison while he was getting the first interview anyone got with DeSalvo. (Steve wanted DeSalvo to emulate Burt Reynolds’ nude centerfold. DeSalvo was reluctant at first, Steve said, “because DeSalvo wanted everyone to think he had a big chopper, and his was only average size.”)

Dunleavy, ever the thorn in Teddy Kennedy’s side, swam the channel at Chappaquiddick to dispute Teddy’s claim that the channel was full of killer riptide currents. It was an easy swim, Steve reported. Another time, he flew from New York to Athens purely on the strength of a rumor that Teddy was there. Dunleavy surmised, correctly, that the purpose of Teddy’s visit was to negotiate a better property settlement for Jackie.

This boy Steve gets around, is what I mean. He once punched out an off-duty cop and beat the assault charge. Tales of his pugilistic and amatory skills are legendary in bars on three continents.

And there’s his current reputation among Manhattan liberals as the very embodiment of everything that’s wrong with Rupert Murdoch’s killer bee invasion of U.S. journalism and Murdoch’s ownership of the New York Post, the Village Voice, New York, New West, the Star, San Antonio’s Express-News and other interests. To liberals, Dunleavy is the chief killer bee. Some say he would off his own grandmother to get a story. Me, I don’t know what to say — to his repeated question of “Why me in Rolling Stone?”

“Well, Steve,” I manage to reply in Costello’s, “I-ah, I just thought, you know, that you were the last of the flamboyant newsmen, the Errol Flynn of Fleet Street and — “

“Ha! Errol Flynn. Your editor tells you, ‘Okay, Errol Flynn, give me a rewrite on this’ and you have to say ‘yes sir.‘ So much for Errol Flynn.”

“Yeah,” I say, “but you can’t deny you’ve built up quite a reputation. I was talking the other night to a guy who worked with you in Hong Kong, and he says you’re one of the world’s great investigative reporters.”

“Oh well,” he says as he takes one of my cigarettes. “Where do you get your Dunhills? Best cigarette in the world. Mate! Two more Heinekens over here, please. But — I’m no more special than any other reporter. I keep after it because I don’t like to be beaten. Not necessarily that I want to beat others; it’s just that I don’t want to be beaten. Luck has a lot to do with it. And hard work. It took me twelve months of telephoning to get to Robert Vesco. That’s hard work. And luck — jeez, after 400 phone calls for a five-graph story, a chick calls me up and says, ‘I’m Son of Sam’s former girlfriend. Do you want his letters he wrote me?’ ” Steve shakes his head, as if to indicate the utter perfidy of the World Out There.

“But people I talk to do make news. I interviewed Teddy Kennedy six days before Chappaquiddick. I interviewed Peter Finch two hours before he died. I warned Albert DeSalvo about those two guys who later killed him. I did the last interview with Sharon Tate. How old did you say you were? When’s your birthday, young Chet?” He laughs and takes a long pull from his beer. “Best beer in the world, Heineken. Mother’s milk.” He drains his Heineken. “Let’s go over to the Star. I have to finish my column.”

And as we slog through the rain, Steve finally wins round one. He turns to me and asks, “Over there at Rolling Stone with your liberal viewpoint, do you have a union?” He is enormously pleased when I say no. “I thought not. The old liberal ploy: everyone is management, eh?” He laughs all the way to the Star‘s offices. (Dunleavy, I later learn, is not only antiunion but nonunion as well.)

At 730 Third Avenue, home of Murdoch’s Star and foreign news bureaus, Steve is a celebrity. The security guard at the door greets him: “You’re lookin’ good, Mr. Steve.” In the Star‘s editorial bullpen, the staffers gather around him, perhaps as a welcome diversion from their nonstop search for celebrity gossip (“Elvis Family Secrets,” “New-Look Dolly Parton’s Romantic Second Honeymoon”) and UFO sightings. Steve used to be news editor of the Star before moving over to the Post. For a while he wrote two columns for the Star, one under a pseudonym. His own column was slugged “Steve Dunleavy: The Man They Call Mr. Blood & Guts.” Now he just drops in once a week to inject the Star with the Dunleavy wisdom. The Star sells more than 3 million copies a week, and Steve has received as many as 8,000 letters for a single column.

He professes — and really does seem to believe in — absolute faith in working-class values and old-fashioned patriotism. He epitomizes the Star‘s formula of mild sex, exposé, prayer and healthy doses of celebrity gossip. One of his most famous columns came during the Rolling Stones’ 1975 American tour. Steve lambasted them for being immoral foreign plunderers who not only were corrupting the youth of America but draining U.S. cash reserves as well. I was traveling with the Stones at the time and showed the column to them. They were completely baffled at first, then highly amused.

At the Star, Dunleavy appropriates half of editor Ivor Key’s office to write his weekly column. Steve tosses me next week’s Star. “You’ll like this column,” he says. “Remember General Loan? The Vietnamese who executed the terrorist? Now they’re trying to throw him out of the U.S. Read this.”

I start reading. The headline reads: “Steve Dunleavy Says: He Must Be Allowed to Stay.” Steve grabs a phone off Key’s desk and calls California.

I read on: “In 1968, when the bearded bums of our campuses were losing what brave American boys were winning on the battlefield, the streets of Saigon were sticky with blood. Terrorists in the pay of Russian and Chinese puppeteers were blowing up babies in the city and the air was fractured with the screams of the dying.” Great stuff. Steve at his best.

Steve, on the phone, is asking, “Did the homosexuals go into the schools by invitation?” He is writing next week’s column, which will be headlined: “This ‘Gay’ Heresy Is a Threat to Schools.”

I read on: “The anti-communists, who had known war in their country since they were infants, fought back with every corpuscle in their bodies. One of them was a guy called Nguyen Ngoc Loan.”

Steve, on the phone: “Can prostitutes teach in schools in California — someone who turns a few tricks on Saturday but is okay the rest of the week?”

I read on: “General Loan was battling terrorists…. The general caught one of them carrying a pistol … Outraged that vermin were taking over his country and were raping it, he drew his pistol and shot the terrorist in the head.”

Steve, on the phone: “Not gonna hang fags in the public square, right?”

I read on: “… the picture shocked the world and liberals leaped all over it. You see, the Jane Fondas of this world thought it was good to support murdering communists but bad to shoot them.”

Steve on the phone: “Well, I’m a Christian myself.”

Ivor Key reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out a stack of Steve’s bar tabs at Costello’s and waves them at me: a stack two inches thick.

I read on: Steve traces General Loan’s life after he had a leg blown off in ‘nam and came to Virginia and started a restaurant after Vietnam fell. Then the U.S. government decided to deport him as a war criminal. Ever vigilant, Steve unearthed a precedent: Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and then lived out the rest of his life in California. Concludes Steve: “It is curious that we apply gentler standards to our former enemies than we do to our allies.” I found it hard to argue with him there. Steve is closer to the heartbeat of America than his Manhattan critics want to admit.

He winds up his phone call. “The name is D-U-N-L-E-A-V-Y.”

He jumps across the room to a gray Royal 440 manual typewriter and begins hammering out his column. “How about a Dunhill, young Chet?”

Key, who is working on next week’s gossip column, interrupts Steve to ask him who all “Elvis was fucking.” Steve names several women and as a footnote adds, “Ivor, don’t write fucking. Write romancing instead.” Indeed.

The New York Post is altogether another world from the Star. To start with, there’s the Post building. A nothing gray structure in a weird sort of Manhattan nonneighborhood. Way the hell downtown on the Lower East Side, right on the waterfront in the shadows of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. You don’t want to be walking around down there at night. Even in the daytime there’s not much going on, except for a steady, antlike procession of pressmen and reporters marching back and forth from the Post to a low, grimy building on South Street that’s identified only by a dingy sign that says Bar 100. Better known as Mutchie’s Bar, it was immortalized in print by Jimmy Breslin back in the early Sixties. Now Breslin’s a celebrity at the Daily News and Steve has become the resident star at Mutchie’s. Besides the Post regulars at Mutchie’s, the place is frequented by a lot of guys that you probably shouldn’t ask them what their job is.

Mutchie’s embodies Steve’s downtown persona, just as Costello’s embodies his uptown one.

Dunleavy told me he likes bars like Mutchie’s and similar bars in Brooklyn and Queens because “the guys there can at least carry on a conversation. In Midtown, they can’t. All they can talk about is who’s fuckin’ who, who took a punch at who.”

On a gray Friday at one o’clock, I stand at the bar at Mutchie’s, nursing a Heineken and waiting for Steve and regarding the bar itself. I surmise this bar was once probably shining wood, maybe a hundred years ago. Now it’s so encrusted with this impermeable sort of film from decades of spilled beer and cigarette ashes and liquor residue that you can’t even tell if it’s wood. A sign offers Heineken, Michelob, Swan, Kool-Aid. There are half a dozen pressmen slugging down their midday beers and ordering beers to go. Mutchie’s is the only bar I’ve ever seen that keeps these quart cardboard containers for takeout draft beer. Very thoughtful.

I hear a chorus of “Hi, Steve”s coming from the Post crowd and there is Dunleavy, rubbing his forehead and moaning to John the barkeep: “Oh Christ, John, gimme a Heineken. I hadda get drunk last night to get rid of Wednesday’s hangover.” He turns to me: “John had me over to dinner at his place Wednesday and he had twelve courses of food and fourteen of liquor.”

He drains his beer and signals for another. “Well, boyo, how are ya? You figured out yet why a story on me?”

“Yeah,” I lie. “It’s just an excuse to write about crime and sex. Plus, it keeps me outta the office.”

“Oh.” Steve, as a fellow journalist, can understand that.

All this time, Mutchie’s black porter has been trying to carry a bunch of empty beer cases outside to stack on the sidewalk. His name is Bald Jack and it’s impossible to tell how old he is. Every time he takes one step forward, he suddenly weaves backward or starts listing seriously to port or starboard. He’s tacking back and forth across the floor like a sailboat out of control. He mumbles to himself in some kind of private Bald Jack voodoo, and when he finally gets to the door, he pauses, weaving, and hurls some ferocious chants at it before heaving himself through. The whole thing takes about seven minutes. When Bald Jack regains the interior of Mutchie’s, Dunleavy greets him by name and starts sparring and jabbing with him. Bald Jack’s face lights up with genuine joy. Steve is gentle with him, as gentle as one would be with a baby or a very old person whose memory is gone.

“Hey, John,” Steve says, “Bald Jack’s doing a great job. You oughtta give him a raise.” Bald Jack smiles at that until the recognition winks out in his eyes and he shuffles off to the back room.

“Time to go to work,” Steve says. It is the first time I’ve heard him sound so subdued. “Steve,” I try to cheer him up, “let me buy you one for the road. You can give me some tips on Cuba. I’m going there on a story next month.”

“Okay. Listen, kid, you’re gonna love Cuba. Wonderful people down there. I interviewed Fidel at three in the morning, both of us bombed out of our skulls. They still remember me in Cuba. I went around demanding capitalist wine and they just loved that. The New York Times and the wire services were there too and I beat them every day because I was able to phone my stories out right away and they couldn’t seem to get the switchboard operator to cooperate. I had the fucking switchboard calling me to see if I needed another New York call. Those other guys didn’t know I was buying flowers and presents for the switchboard operator. You got to remember the little things.”

While Steve goes off to work — besides the Star column, he’s working six days a week as night metro editor at the Post — I talk to two Guild members at the Post. The night before, I’d been out for a few drinks with an Australian writer who idolizes Steve.

“Steve’s a great man,” he’d told me at Eamonn Doran’s, another Aussie watering hole in Manhattan. “Steve’s a real fighter, not like some barroom brawlers. He knows how to fight. The first time I met him in New York, he took on two Mafia guys and got beat up, but he kept fighting because he always believes in the underdog. That shows in his Star column. British journalists here bitch about it, but they haven’t got the balls to do it. Steve’s a man’s man and a woman’s man.”

This afternoon at the Post, though, the two Guild members, who happen to be women, do not seem to think of Steve as a woman’s man or as much of anything else.

“If you had manufactured a symbol of what Rupert Murdoch prizes in journalism,” one says, “you couldn’t top Steve. He out-Breslins Breslin with his supermacho tell-it-like-it-is clichés. Steve is a cliché. When Rupert bought the Post, he announced that American journalists were lazy and sloppy. Then he brought Steve in and said, ‘This is what I want in the Post.‘ Then Steve went on the Siegel show [a local TV talk show] and said all we [Guild members] did was sit around and drink coffee and bitch.”

“And there was Rigby,” says the other woman. “Rigby [Paul Rigby, the Post‘s Australian editorial cartoonist] is a friend of Steve’s and Rigby was doing these outrageous cartoons. Very offensive. Racist and sexist. He did this one on Andrew Young as part of the Amos and Andy show. We petitioned Rupert; we had sixty signatures.”

She continues: “Steve was very offended that I was putting everyone up to this, going up against the Boss, which is what he calls Rupert. So the next day, Steve engineered a meeting with me and Rigby at 5 p.m. in the city room and we had a long shouting match. I charged Rigby that he portrayed women as two extremes: hookers or chicks. He said, ‘There is no in-between; my wife said so.’ Steve and Rigby believe in drinking and screwing women and believe that women who don’t like it are sick.”

She shakes her head in frustration as she seeks words to describe Steve. “He’s an … extremely hardworking scoundrel. He’s like Pat Moynihan, an up-from-the-streets brawler with a voracious appetite for everything. But without Moynihan’s intellect or respect for women. How anyone can work so hard and be so superficial is just amazing.

“He can be charming, though.” She says it almost wistfully.

If you want to know what it’s like to work at the New York Post, consider this: one evening I went down to the Post‘s shabby city room — it resembles the inside of an ashtray — to watch Steve at work as night metro editor: Steve in his shirt sleeves with his finger on the pulse of New York City. His police and fire radios were screaming at him. He dispatched reporters around the city to each hot spot, all the while chain-smoking cigarettes and chain-drinking black coffee from paper cups. He was fairly bristling with electricity as he yelled to an assistant, “Get me the London Daily Mail!” Steve recited the phone number from memory. A reporter came back from a fire scene: “Not much, Steve. The worst casualty was a burned leg.”

“I don’t care,” Steve snapped. “Find out what caused that fire!”

I positioned myself at a nearby gray metal desk — “try to be inconspicuous,” Steve had instructed me — and tried to be inconspicuous while observing the master at work in his native habitat. Within minutes, copy boys began delivering copies of each edition of the Post to me, hot off the presses, and asking me if I needed anything. I knew staff turnover at the Post had been fairly high since the Aussie takeover, but I didn’t realize it was this high.

A subeditor of some kind wandered by and asked me if I knew where to find Sid Vicious. “Try calling _____ _____,” I said. “He should know where Sid is.”

“Great. Thanks, pal. Say, what are you working on?” “Er, ah, ah, — a … special project for Steve.”

“Okay. Say, you haven’t been here too long, have you?”

“Uh, no. This’s my first day, actually.”

“Great. Well, keep it up, kid.”

Rupert Murdoch strolled through, examining his city room with a lordly air. Apparently I passed inspection, since he didn’t say anything. I almost felt I’d been hired.

Now, I’m not saying that any yahoo can walk in off the street and become a Post reporter. They probably have to ask you first.

“The cost of producing modern city newspapers and the rivalry between them tend to make their managements increasingly concerned with circulation and revenue. This is reflected in some emphasis upon the sensational, the human interest story, crime, sex and sport.” — Information Sheet on the Australian Press, the Australian Press Consulate

That’s not a bad approximation of Murdoch’s philosophy of journalism and Dunleavy’s execution of journalism. Times editor A.M. Rosenthal has denounced Murdoch as “a bad element, practicing mean, ugly, violent journalism. He’s dirtied American journalism.” But in fact, both the Daily News and the Post usually beat the Times in metro coverage. The Times may have five correspondents in Tehran, but they’ve got nobody in the Bronx. From reading the Times, you would never know that the area right around the Times building is full of worse human flotsam and jetsam than even William Burroughs could imagine.

A.M. Rosenthal’s bitterness — as well as the bitterness of much of New York’s journalism community — undoubtedly dates back to Son of Sam.

Son of Sam! Now there was a story. A madman on the loose in the world’s news capital. Terrorizing all of Gotham. Terrorizing everyone but Steve Dunleavy of the Post and Jimmy Breslin of the Daily News. Dunleavy and Breslin should still get down on their knees every night and thank God for bringing Son of Sam to them when they needed him.

Son of Sam got both of them out of the bars and back onto the streets to do some real reporting. Son of Sam established Steve as a force to be reckoned with, and it shot the Post‘s circulation way the hell up. Breslin, who was undoubtedly one of New York’s greatest columnists, had gotten a trifle lazy and was writing all these columns about characters in bars in Queens; characters on the order of Three-Eye Johnny or Mick the Squint. You know the type. A few unkind persons in Manhattan’s newspaper bars even began to insinuate that Breslin was just sitting around in bars in Queens and making up all these guys.

Son of Sam was real enough, though. A certified Grade-A lunatic stalking New York City with a .44-caliber pistol and knocking off young people left and right. Tailor-made for Breslin’s street-smart brand of reporting and for Steve’s outraged, oh-my-God appeal to the basic common denominator. The New York Times, with its usual appalled manner — rather like that of a Park Avenue dowager having to scoop up her poodle’s poop right there on Park Avenue while Truman Capote or somebody might pull up in a limo and observe the disgusting spectacle — tried to pretend that Son of Sam was really no more important than, say, the Kurdish rebellion.

But the News and the Post fought daily over Sam. They were actually proud of him. This was high-quality crime, worthy of New York tabloid journalism. Adrenalin wasn’t just flowing, it was fucking pumping in news rooms. Dunleavy and Breslin were locked in a bitter struggle. Which one could produce the day’s best Son of Sam story? Which might actually persuade him to surrender or even — praise God — capture him?

Breslin took the early lead. Son of Sam himself wrote a letter to Breslin. Breslin said Son of Sam was a better writer than most reporters in New York. How’d ya like that, Dunleavy?

Steve didn’t like it. Steve geared up for a major offensive. In a major victory, he stiff-armed Breslin. When Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante were shot by Son of Sam, Steve arrived at Kings County Hospital with the victims’ parents. This was at four in the morning. When I say he arrived with the parents, I mean just that. Breslin was staggered. Steve managed to shepherd the Moskowitz and Violante families off into an anteroom and “protect” them from the press, even thoughtfully shoving a TV camera crew out of the room. Steve emerged with his scoop, a long story, for which he wrote this preface:

“For 13 1/2 hours a Post reporter stood at the side of four courageous people in a painful and often stirring vigil — praying, talking about God and swearing at an unknown madman who has launched a guerrilla war against the young and beautiful of this city. This vigil bound together Jerry and Neysa Moskowitz, who are Jewish, with Pat and Teresa Violante, an Italian Catholic family. Never before has this reporter seen such pain, strength and old-fashioned guts.”

And Steve had seen plenty of it. Breslin was very irritated about that incident and indeed treats it with uncharacteristic vitriol in .44, the Son of Sam novel he cowrote. Dunleavy followed up his “13 1/2-hour vigil” with a front-page appeal to Son of Sam to give himself up. To the Post, not the police.

Breslin gave that letter an angry kick to the groin in his book and even had a Murdoch-like publisher deciding that a Dunleavy-like reporter should fabricate a Son of Sam-like letter written to Dunleavy. Breslin does not like Steve.

Breslin was unfortunately vacationing on Long Island when Son of Sam finally was caught, so there was Steve ahead of him again.

Steve also managed to procure a packet of love letters that David Berkowitz, the accused Son of Sam, had written to his girlfriend. Those letters appeared on the front page of the Post with a Berkowitz byline and the blazing headline, “How I Became a Mass Killer.” Even Rupert conceded later that the Post had gone a little overboard with that one.

But with Son of Sam supposedly put away, the town was still in a state of turmoil. The New Yorker blasted away at Breslin and Dunleavy for “irresponsible” journalism. Breslin blasted back. Dunleavy felt the New Yorker was beneath contempt: “Look, all I have to say about the New Yorker is that, when we had the big blackout, the New Yorker covered it by writing about Diana Vreeland having to dine by candlelight. That’s all you have to say.”

Dunleavy appeared on a talk show on WCBS-TV and allowed a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union to berate him for a while about his role in the Son of Sam coverage before he finally got mad: “If it was up to you bunch of bums, the guy’d still be running around with a gun in his hand.” The moderator cut him off right there.

Steve is magnanimous toward Breslin now that they are the two Son of Sam experts emeritus. “I don’t think Breslin hates me,” he says. “Son of Sam was good for both of us … Breslin’s good. I can match him on the street when it comes to street-smart reporting, but when it comes to the final product … I have nothing but respect for him. He’s the best. He’s also the only funny newspaper writer left, him and Erma Bombeck.”

(I called Breslin to see what he thought about Steve and Son of Sam. His response: “What the hell’s that got to do with anything? I don’t remember anything about it. I don’t even remember the goddamn book.”)

Son of Sam has one other legacy that may not be as kind to Steve. Steve and Rupert, among others at the Post, will likely be subpoenaed to an upcoming bribery trial. In December 1977, the Post ran a front-page picture, with a “Sam Sleeps” banner headline, of Berkowitz asleep in his hospital room. It turned out the Post got the picture from a freelance writer, James Mitteager, who is now charged with having bribed a hospital guard to take the picture.

For five and a half hours, a Rolling Stone reporter sat at the side of a courageous man in a spirited and often stirring vigil — drinking, talking about Nelson Rockefeller and swearing at the forces at loose in the world that have launched a guerrilla war against this brave man’s brand of journalism. This vigil bound together Steve Dunleavy, a pioneering, conservative, people’s champion journalist from Australia, with yours truly, a quasi-leftist, protoconservative scribe from Texas. Never before has this reporter seen such drinking, strength and old-fashioned bullshitting. This is that story.

As usual, I’m at the bar early and Steve is late. Tonight the bar is Elaine’s, his up-uptown saloon, the chichi-drinking trough for Manhattan’s elite-elite. Christ, I think to myself as I sip a Heineken after elbowing my way through the furs and suedes to get even standing room at the bar, this fucking guy has more favorite bars than I have bad debts. How the hell has he kept his liver intact after thirty years of this? All of a sudden my reverie is interrupted by Elaine herself, who’s paging Mr. Flippo! “Mr. Dunleavy calling!” Heads turn at that, I promise you. Even Pete Hamill, the Daily News columnist, cranes his neck. I modestly acknowledge that I am, in fact, Mr. Flippo, and take the call: Steve will be late. So what the fuck else is new. Another Heineken, please.

Dunleavy finally breezes in: “Hiya, kiddo.” He accepts a big kiss from Elaine, who leads us to a favored table past Hamill’s table.

“Steve,” I say, once we’ve been seated, “you said to be sure to find some enemies of yours. Here’s one for you. Keith Stroup not only calls you a ‘scumbag’ and the type of reporter who should be barred from even skinflicks, but he also claims you deliberately misrepresented yourself to him when you did that Post interview with him. [The heat generated by Stroup’s printed remarks about drug use in the White House is one reason Stroup is leaving as head of NORML.] He claims you said you were from the London Sun and were just doing a little piece comparing European and American drug laws and that after you shut your notebook, you led him into small talk about drugs in Washington. What about it?”

He sneers, a danger sign that means Stroup is about to get the full Dunleavy treatment.

Well. To be honest about it, I suppose he could deduce that I misrepresented myself — I said I worked for the Murdoch organization, which prints the London Sun. Which is true. I did not necessarily say the story would appear in the Post.

“Is that ethical?” I ask as our Heinekens arrive. Steve takes a long pull from his before answering. “Ahh — I’d say it’s not untruthful. I’m sure there’re a lot of people who’d find a lot to be desired with the ethics of it. It’s a bit like a cop, though — however you arrest your murderer; it can be done many ways. Same as a reporter. As long as it’s factual. That’s the thing. I don’t think Stroup would ever say that I lied.”

“In points of ethics, though, where should the line be drawn?”

“Well, I’m not a great respecter of ‘off the record.’ Politicians want you to float what they want done. I would never, never break national security or endanger a person’s life. Never. Now, I’ve stolen pictures and that sort of stuff, but so have a lot of guys. But, touch wood, of all the countries I’ve worked in, I’ve never ever been sued. Never.”

He touches wood, loudly enough to bring a waiter for another round. “Well, Steve,” I say, “that’s all well and good, but one thing that really bothers me is your seeming tendency to endorse checkbook journalism. How about it?”

“If a person has a story to tell, if a person was in jail in Russia and has a story to tell, I can’t see any difference in us bidding for that story on a competitive basis. Just like book publishing: Doris Day wants to tell her story; it goes up for auction.”

“Yeah, but what if everybody started doing that? You’d be out of business.”

“Oh, no! In Australia and England we have full-scale, buy-up journalism — what you call checkbook journalism — and yet it doesn’t happen every day. It happens with the Great Train Robbery, say, where you know every cent you spend will come back in terms of circulation. Now, Son of Sam was not a buy-up. It’s only when a person has the story here and doesn’t have the ear of the authorities — that’s buy-up. When I was doing the Manson case, talk about buy-up journalism, I was walking around with $10,000 in cash in my jeans. Got a great story. Went out to Death Valley and talked to all the family. I bought Squeaky Fromme; I don’t remember what I paid her. Now in England, I couldn’t have used what she told me. That’s why America has been very good to me journalistically. I was trained in the old school of journalism but then found myself in a country without the restrictions I had in Australia or England. I was like a kid in a candy store. I get a lot of satisfaction out of the desk job now — getting these young kids to thinking the way I do. Taking chances, covering the false alarms. You hear of a jumper on the police radio, you don’t wait for confirmation — that means he’s already jumped. Get there quick — maybe you’ll make it there ten seconds before the death!”

I help myself to one of his cigarettes for a change. “How did you get to the Son of Sam victims’ parents before most reporters even knew there’d been another Son of Sam shooting?”

Dunleavy leans back and drains his beer and looks very self-satisfied. “Ah, well. It was a bit like how I did get to Vesco: I stayed on it. The Son of Sam stuff — I’d only been assigned to it after Breslin had been well involved with it and had scored several coups. I had a lot of catching up to do. So I got very close to the cops — the New York City cops are the best in the world and believe me I’ve seen them all — and I wasn’t buttering them up. You can’t buy them or impress them. I just physically hung around a lot. About three minutes after the Moskowitz and Violante shootings I got a phone call from a cop. I was at a party at Rigby’s and I’d left the phone number with a cop. The phone call just said there’s been a shooting, a few details.

“I gambled. I knew there’d been a lot of shots fired and I gambled there’d probably been a head wound. The nearest hospital to the shooting was Coney Island but I knew Coney Island wasn’t really equipped to deal with head wounds. Most of the reporters headed for Coney Island. I gambled that they’d be taken to Kings County Hospital and I grabbed the parents just as they were going in. If they’d just been winged, just shot in the arm, they’d have been taken to Coney Island but I gambled on Kings County and I was right.”

Steve lowers his voice and leans toward me conspiratorily. “Tell me, what did those Guild women say about me?” I tell him.

He nods as if he’s known it all along. “There are … a … few things I would like to reply to the so-called Guild, rather, to the so-called old staff. When I went down there as a reporter, the first thing I said to the Boss was that I didn’t want to join the Guild because it was a bit hypocritical. He said, ‘You have to, you get no special privileges.’ Well, not only did I get no special privileges — for about six weeks I was left off the schedule. I didn’t even appear on the news list. To the point where the Boss got the impression I wasn’t writing. They had a real hard-on against me. They spiked my stories, they put up parodies of my stories on the board. I would never do that to a newcomer.”

Dunleavy is really steamed up and we soon have the waiter running back and forth with fresh beers.

He continues: “On the Siegel show, I said there were a lot of people at the Post who mistook integrity for hard work. There was a certain insensitivity about that remark in that it belittled their professionalism. What I was referring to was their motivation: they were more interested in making their overtime than in making a paper. When I first went down there — I’ve been active many, many years in New York, bouncing the joints, and there were people there I’d never seen. They had a Devil’s Triangle — it went from the Post to their apartments in the Village to the Lion’s Head [a bar in the Village]. They didn’t know the city. They talked about integrity. I said, ‘Don’t tell me about integrity. How many notches you got in your gun? How many shoot-outs you been in! I never saw your notches.’ They wanted an intellectual paper. They said, ‘Oh, Murdoch’s gonna put tits and ass in the Post.‘ I said, ‘Oh for Christ’s sake, don’t you think Murdoch knows his market? This is a middle-class paper. Murdoch himself is a bit of a prude.“‘

“Steve,” I ask, “do you believe what you write, especially in the Star?”

He is serious: ‘I’ve surprised some of my reasonably close friends by saying damn right I believe it. I wouldn’t write it if I didn’t. I have very strong feelings about patriotism, about what liberal governments have done to the cities of this country and to the defense of this country. I’m an unashamed conservative. Quite obviously, I’m not a William Buckley conservative in my writing and my lifestyle. I kinda like to think of myself as a very middle-class kinda guy who feels strongly that the middle class is being pissed all over by the elite of government in both parties and by the elite monster called bureaucracy.”

“What about the future, now that Steve Dunleavy has pretty much run through every job in journalism?”

He laughs: ‘I’m automatically precluded from a lot of things from having the reputation of being a fairly loyal admirer of Murdoch and being an outspoken one. A lot of people in the media know that I can see through them, through all their bullshit and their bloody unfairness. Times and News, never happen for me. What I would like to do is apply what I’ve learned to books.”

“What about regrets, about the big ones that got away?”

“Oh, yeah. Howard Hughes. Oh Christ, how I tried to get Hughes, I can’t tell you. Mao Tse-Tung. Juan Peron. A few Golden Oldies I always thought I’d get to. I regret that I’m not working as a reporter on this Rockefeller thing. Time to go, boyo.” I reach for the check, but Steve grabs it first. “This will prove,” he says, “that you’re on the take.”

Even though Steve couldn’t report the Rockefeller story, that didn’t prevent him from directing the Post‘s offensive, and the Post did pretty well at it (nice screaming headlines like “The Woman Who Tried to Save Rocky’s Life”). A couple of days later Steve called to tell me he’d be on Stanley Siegel’s TV talk show to be interrogated about his role in coverage of the Rockefeller case.

Siegel loves to bait people. Opposite Steve, he had lined up a dean from the Columbia journalism school, figuring that the dean would rail against the sensationalist Post. Siegel deplored the Post‘s tasteless treatment of a great man’s death. Steve sneered and defended the people’s right to know, etc. Siegel turned to the dean. The dean agreed with everything Steve had said. Siegel was appalled.

Steve lit up a cigarette and smiled, a smile of sweet vindication. The hell with Fleet Street. The street kid from Sydney had conquered the news capital of the world.

In This Article: Coverwall, media, Steve Dunleavy


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