Col­lect­ing the colum­nist

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

For three decades af­ter Leonard Lyons started writ­ing his syn­di­cated col­umn in for the New York Post in 1934, many peo­ple sa­vored what he had to tell them about the great and fa­mous in the Lyons Den. He seemed to know ev­ery­one and had the knack of cap­tur­ing their per­sonae in prose, giv­ing great en­joy­ment to mil­lions who some­how felt just a lit­tle bit closer to the giants of their age.

Some things get even bet­ter with time, though, and so it is a great plea­sure in our scandalrid­den pop­u­lar cul­ture, rife with nasty gos­sip, to re­visit this se­lec­tion from Lyons’ col­umns an­no­tated by his son, Jef­frey Lyons, as well-known to tele­vi­sion view­ers to­day as his fa­ther was to news­pa­per read­ers back then.

All these years later and with a fam­ily of his own, this proud son still can­not get over the ex­tra­or­di­nary re­la­tion­ships his fa­ther man­aged to forge with ti- tanic fig­ures who be­came fam­ily friends:

“My fa­ther knew EV­ERY­ONE! . . .Our home movies, for ex­am­ple, had the usual scenes of my fam­ily sled­ding down snowy hills in Cen­tral Park, toss­ing a foot­ball or base­ball, and long-dead rel­a­tives mug­ging for the silent cam­era.

But these 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, Jose Fer­rer, Ge­orge Bernard Shaw and Lau­rence Olivier . . . No­bel Prize Win­ner Dr. Ralph Bunche, com­poser Harold Arlen and Phil Sil­vers.”

How right he is still to rub his eyes as he re­mem­bers such comity be­tween colum­nist and sub­jects, not only be­cause it is a re­mark­able tes­ti­mony to his fa­ther’s qual­i­ties, but also be­cause such a thing is lit­er­ally in­con­ceiv­able in our own time, when such re­la­tion­ships in­evitably are more ad­ver­sar­ial than ami­able.

This is what makes re­mem­ber­ing Leonard Lyons some­thing more than a jolly trip down Mem­ory Lane, although this book surely is that as well. What he pre­sented in his col­umns was the essence of the per­son be­ing re­ported on, and so even when one comes upon the oc­ca­sional sole­cism or in­ac­cu­racy, it mat­ters less be­cause the por­traits as a whole ring true. He showed the peo­ple them­selves rather than their pub­lic face — his son tells us that “un­like his ri­vals, never once did he use the word ‘celebrity.’ He ab­horred it.” That ab­hor­rence shows in his abil­ity to cap­ture in rel­a­tively few words the in­nate qual­i­ties that made these peo­ple who they were and let them achieve what they did.

Lyons was a lawyer by train­ing, and an­other kind of colum­nist might have used that knowl­edge to steer just clear of li­bel law while still man­ag­ing to re­veal plenty and insin­u­ate more.

But that was not him. His fas­tid­i­ous­ness en­sured that his col­umns were in the best of taste while achiev­ing a fun­da­men­tally true por­trait.

Af­ter all, even if pruri­ence is a nat­u­ral trait in many — too many, one might say — of the au­di­ence out there, do writ­ers about pub­lic fig­ures nec­es­sar­ily have to pan­der to it? Is it in the best in­ter­ests not merely of those sub­jects, but of so­ci­ety it­self — the broader cul­ture, if you will — to play to these baser in­stincts?

Lyons’ col­umns have the great virtue of mak­ing us pon­der such ques­tions, re­mind­ing us of a kinder, gen­tler time than our own age, in which “gotcha” seems to be the pre­vail­ing mode when it comes to fig­ures pub­lic and even some­times pri­vate. Jef­frey Lyons tells us that when Nor­man Mailer stabbed his wife, he called Leonard Lyons as both lawyer and colum­nist.

Who would dare do such a thing to­day? You can bet Lyons knew all about his sub­jects’ foibles; he cer­tainly was no fool. But in the end, are they the most im­por­tant things about the peo­ple, even if they are, mo­men­tar­ily some­times, the most at­ten­tion-get­ting?

Jef­frey Lyons tells us that his fa­ther was born Leonard Sucher and adopted Lyons as his nom de plume. It was a good one, cer­tainly, be­cause it gave him that per­fect ti­tle, the Lyons Den, for his col­umn.

But in an­other way, his birth name was per­fect for him, too: In Ger­man it means seeker. And seek he did for all those decades, but his se­cret was in know­ing that just be­cause you find out a lot, that doesn’t mean you have to share every­thing. In that he was kind but, more im­por­tant, wise.

Martin Ru­bin reg­u­larly re­views books for the Wall Street Jour­nal.

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