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 Lion’s
There was nothing like it anywhere else
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
They came up from the New York Post then
They came to the head because as Pete
Hamill of the Post,
In his book "A Drinking Life,"
(Little, Brown &
"I don’t 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, Louie’s East behind the News, and Goff’s 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 Post’s
Pete Hamill demonstrate boxing moves -- he and a few other writers owned a
boxer -- and Pete boxed for tuition money in
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
That became the title of McAlary’s 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, I’m 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, I’ll 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 didn’t 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
It wouldn’t have been as popular though
if some of the most beautiful, talented and witty women in town didn’t make
the place a regular stop. There was the painter Anita Steckel, whose work was
recently shown in a
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, Pete’s 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
Malachy recalled bringing his mother
Angela (of "Angela’s Ashes" fame) to the Head. A young woman
"Do you talk to your plants Mrs. McCourt?,” the woman asked.
"No I don’t 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 men’s room at the Head had the "most literate, witty graffiti…but 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 Lion’s 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 Lion’s 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!"