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Roar of the Lion's Head!
By Dennis Duggan
The literary lions, left to right, Dennis Duggan, Judy Joice, Pete Hamill and Frank McCourt at Barnes & Noble's special tribute to the Lion's Head.
By Dennis Duggan
For thirty glorious years the Lionís Head in Greenwich Village was the cityís premier watering hole for editors, reporters, columnists, copyreaders, and photographers from the cityís mainstream newspapers and the weekly Village Voice whose office nestled against the Christopher Street pub.
There was nothing like it anywhere else in New York or in any other city for that matter. Newspapermen and women who fought bare-knuckled over stories for their respective papers by day, stood shoulder to shoulder at the long, wooden bar by night, cracking wise, singing Irish war songs, and crowing over their latest exclusive in that dayís newspapers.
They were the core of a crowd that included famous names from the worlds of literature, politics, music, and art, people like playwright Lanford Wilson, and writers like Norman Mailer, Nick Tosches, David Markson and Frederick Exley. They streamed into the welcoming saloon-- the preferred word for the "Head" as the regulars called it -- thanks to a song sung by Frank Sinatra called "Saloon" and sung best by Albany author William Kennedy, a Sinatraphile.
They came up from the New York Post then on South Street, and down from the New York Daily News then on East 42nd Street, the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times, and Newsday, all from around Times Square, and from the Voice.
They came to the head because as Pete Hamill of the Post, Newsday, New York Newsday and the News wrote, it was "Great, Good Place."
In his book "A Drinking Life," (Little, Brown & Co.) Hamill wrote this about the head:
"I donít think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians and folksingers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink."
While each of the newspapers had their "own" pubs, The Post Mortem for the Post, the Artist & Writers at the back door of the Tribune, Louieís East behind the News, and Goffís across the street from the Times, the head became a common ground gathering place, a kind ofNew England village green, where bylines met bylines in the flesh.
In one corner you could watch the Postís Pete Hamill demonstrate boxing moves -- he and a few other writers owned a boxer -- and Pete boxed for tuition money in Mexico where he studied for a time. In another, there was Vic Ziegel, now a Daily News sports columnist, interviewing Don King, the fight promoter, and Jerry Cooney, another Great White Hope who couldnít live up to the hype.
The Head became an extension of the city rooms of the papers. Newsday knew I could be reached there if a story was breaking and I was needed. Sportswriter Larry Merchant brought his portable type writer with him some nights and typed his story at a table in the back room sometimes against the sound of the Clancy Brothers singing a rousing version of "The Leaving of Liverpool," or Frank McCourt standing up and singing about his Irish mother "far from home," asking him to "send all you can" (here his listeners would leave dollar bills) or even Dave Amram playing his French horn while singer Jerry Jeff Walker sang about a man named "Bojangles."
You never knew what would happen on any given night at the head, a half block up from the Stonewall and next door to the "55," then owned by jazz buff Bradley Cunningham. The only visible trace of the head which folded in 1996 is a sign on a traffic pole put up by the city which reads: "Wes Joice Corner." Joice a taciturn former cop was one of the founding partners of the place along with first, Leon Seidel, a community activist, and then, Al Koblin and later, Mike Reardon.
But for the price of a few drinks, you could be treated to a concert by the bands that dropped in from time to time like the Dubliners, an impromptu word riff by Joe Flaherty then writing for the Village Voice and later the author of several novels, a lecture about the Irish opera tenor John McCormack by a partisan, or one of the newspaper adventures of Steve Dunleavy of the Post.
And always, there were the men and women of the press, still living up to their reputations as hard-boiled, hard drinking and often profane and sacrilegious people who would kill for a scoop.
It was at the Head, for instance, that I first heard of a corruption scandal in the 77th precinct in Brooklyn. I took that overheard tip to New York Newsday and city editor John Cotter where I was then a city columnist, and in no time at all Mike McAlary and Bob Drury had the story first about a bunch of rogue cops who called themselves "Buddy Boys."
That became the title of McAlaryís first book and when it was published there was a party at the Head attended by several of the Buddy Boys, two of whom committed suicide.
McAlary went on to win a Pulitzer and he signed his book, "To Dennis. This is your city, these are your streets, Iím just renting."
In March where I went to cover the Sean (Puffy) Combs trial for gun possession and attempted bribery, I sat one row in front of John Miller, former Deputy Police Commissioner under William Bratton, who often came to the Head.
Miller, now with ABC-TV, told me that he was envious of the book covers on the wall of the Head. "I told Wes (Joice) that most of the books seemed to be written by newspaper people. I asked him if he would put a cover of my book when I wrote it on that wall.
"Wes looked at me and shook his head," Miller recalls. "John," he said, "you are a television reporter. If you even read a book, Iíll put its cover up there."
The wit could be cruel or funny at the Head. Flaherty, a onetime longshoreman who went for an interview with Village Voice publisher Dan Wolf carrying his hook (he later became campaign manager for Norman Mailer when he ran for mayor) claimed that Cardinal Spellman had died of a "poisoned altar boy."
It didnít matter who you were, how high or low, you had to be able to stand up to the verbal assaults that took place day and night. When Mayor John Lindsay came to the Head one Ash Wednesday, George Kimball (now with the Boston Globe) anointed him on the forehead with ashes taken from an ashtray.
The Head was a home away from home for many of its regulars. "I called one night from Florida where I was covering spring training for the Mets and the Yankees, just to hear a New York voice," Ziegel said. The bartender would turn the phone over to Doug Ireland, the political writer and later manager for one of Bella Abzugís campaigns, or John Bergen, a dock worker built like an icebox with a raspy voice developed on the streets of Brooklyn.
It wouldnít have been as popular though if some of the most beautiful, talented and witty women in town didnít make the place a regular stop. There was the painter Anita Steckel, whose work was recently shown in a Soho art gallery, and whose drawings were hung in the back room alongside a big wooden table. One of them featured a building with a phallic symbol at the top and if you read Edward Hoaglandís latest book titled "Compass" you will read about his affair with Steckel.
But affairs were as common as quips at the Head. Sometimes they had a La Ronde quality -- that was the French film which had loves getting on and off a carousel and changing partners. Some late nights the affairs were celebrated publicly in the back room, or in a storage room under the bar.
Women poets, writers, newspaperwomen, actresses (Jessica Lange worked there as a waitress) came to the Head for the talk as well as the action. Hamill, was watched closely because he had romanced some big names including Jackie Kennedy and Shirley ("Out On a Limb") MacLaine. When he broke up with the dance/actress and MacLaine was writing a new book I asked John Hamill, Peteís brother what she was going to call it. "Further out on a Limb," he quipped.
The reporters at the Head mingled with offbeat priests like Father Peter Jacobs who opened his own bar on Restaurant Row on West 46th right next door to the Front Page where Sidney Zion, formerly of the Times and now with the Post, and liberal nuns held forth each night. Like Kennedy and Hamill, who wrote a book "Why Sinatra Matters," Zion was a Sinatra follower. You could hear only Sinatra records on his jukebox. When the head shuttered its doors the Times ran a story, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," quoting the brothers McCourt, Malachy and Frank on the place.
Malachy recalled bringing his mother Angela (of "Angelas Ashes" fame) to the Head. A young woman professor from Wales joined the party and lectured a bewildered Angela on life saying that all things have life, including rocks, trees and plants.
"Do you talk to your plants Mrs. McCourt?", the woman asked.
"No I donít replied Angela. I live alone."
It was from their mother that the McCourts were given the gift of wit even though Angela once described her sons saying, "they are a crucifixion to me."
Frank McCourt, who met his wife there, told a paper that the menís room at the Head had the "most literate, witty graffitiÖbut when they heard Bobby Kennedy was coming, they cleaned it up."
He recalled one of the erased lines that read: "My mother made me a homosexual."
Under it was written, "If I sent her some wool, would she make me one too?"
On the door of Room Nine at City Hall where the press gathers each day to cover the goings-on at City Hall there is a sign that read " R.I.P. "It lists all the nine New York newspapers that bit the dust including the World Telegram, the Journal American, the Daily Mirror (where I worked as a copyboy way back when) and New York Newsday which died the year before the Head.)
They ought to put the Lionís Head on that door, too. It was as much a part of the lives of the reporters like Normand Poirier, Gene Grove, Tommy Topor, Bill Hoffman, Warren Berry, Cynthia Fagin, Claudia Dreifus, Sheila McKenna, Michael Daley, Jim Dwyer, Pat Owens, Ken McKenna, Michael McGovern, and all the other members of the daily press who, like coal miners, go out onto the streets each day to try and dig up the nuggets that turn into headlines.
I miss each and every one of them, even the ones who beat me out on stories. I miss people like Ace Gillen who delivered the very best line about the Head when he said, "The Lionís Head is a place where the Jews drink like the Irish and the Irish write like the Jews."
And, as the poet, sea captain and bartender at the Head, Paul Schiffman, often told me, "Live forever, kid!"