Collecting the columnist
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.