I was just out of college, painting houses for a living, and one day when an outdoor job was rained out I went home, put on the TV and saw Steve Dunleavy on Good Morning America, promoting his book “Elvis: What Happened?”
It was just days after the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll died, and this tell-all book was jumping off the shelves. But Dunleavy was determined to make it jump even faster.
Who’s this crazy guy? I thought as he shamelessly waved his book in front of the camera, got into an argument with Geraldo Rivera and seemed as pompous as his pompadour.
Wrong impression. I found that out a few weeks later when I quit painting houses and landed a job as a copyboy at the New York Post, where Dunleavy ruled.
He’d bound into the newsroom each day like a frisky hound, a smile on his face, a carnation in his lapel, rubbing his hands as he sat down, eager to take the First Amendment out for a little joy ride.
“Any messages?” he’d ask the desk assistant. “Irate readers, angry politicians, enraged husbands?”
We spoke for the first time when he asked me to get him a ham sandwich. He was on the phone with a reporter, totally preoccupied with whatever story was happening, so he just dug all the cash from his wallet and handed it to me.
Forty or fifty bucks, for a ham sandwich. Steve never worried much about money, or maybe this was a test, to see if I’d bring him the right change.
Which I did. Maybe that’s one reason I eventually got a tryout as a reporter. I was young, I was green, and I made a mistake in the early going, for which Executive Editor Roger Wood was ready to fire my ass. Steve stepped in.
“It was my fault, Roger,” he said, and just like that, my job was saved.
He took a bullet for me. After that, I was willing to dive on grenades for the guy, as were so many of us at The Post.
Turns out my previous working history came in handy, because sometimes a tabloid story can call for a little bit of a paint job, if not a total whitewash.
Like a political story I was assigned to write, a hatchet job on a candidate the Post hated. Steve punched up my story on his computer, read the first few paragraphs and turned to me.
“Tut-tut, mate,” he scolded, “you’re trying to be fair.”
And there was a crazy night at Jimmy Day’s in the Village, where a bunch of us from the paper were drinking into the wee hours when suddenly the plate glass window right behind us shattered.
A bullet? What else could it be? Dunleavy rose like a general from his bar stool.
“Let’s go after him!” he cried, and off Steve marched off into the night, while the rest of us marched in place in the bar.
He was funny, he was smart, he was loyal, he was brave, and he was one of a kind. He had a substantial TV career but a print guy is always a print guy, and that’s how I’ll always remember Steve Dunleavy.
And who knows? Could be that right now, he’s up there asking Elvis: What happened?