By: John Consoli
WHEN A REVIEW copy of It’s Alive: How America’s Oldest Newspaper Cheated Death and Why It Matters arrived at our office, I offered out loud that it looked like a provocative book.
One of my colleagues wondered how provocative a book written by an editor who is still working for the paper he’s writing about could be.
Legitimate question, I agreed. Those “authorized” histories of newspapers more often than not turn out to be nothing more than glorified puff pieces.
In this case, however, our expectations were wrong.
First of all, It’s Alive, a 24-year history of the New York Post, (1972-1996) written by now-executive editor Steven Cuozzo, and published by Times Books, was not “authorized” by past or current Post owners.
Cuozzo signed the book deal in January 1993, when it seemed imminent that the Post was ready to go out of business.
Described by Cuozzo as an “anecdotal memoir” not intended to be a definitive history of the Post, the book certainly brought back many memories for me.
Cuozzo joined the Post as a copy boy in 1972. I joined E&P in 1976, the same year Rupert Murdoch acquired the newspaper from Dorothy Schiff. I covered many ofthe things Cuozzo writes about. But his candid insights about the internal workings of the Post made my trip down memory lane much more enjoyable the second time around.
Throughout the book, Cuozzo makes no bones about it ? he loves the New York Post. But the same cannot always be said for some of the bosses and co-workers he met along the way.
This is a book any veteran journalist would enjoy because they can probably substitute some of Cuozzo’s memories at the Post for those they have of their own newspapers. Some things are unique to certain newspapers, others are universal.
Ironically, early in the book, Cuozzo covers the years when the Post was owned by Rupert Murdoch (1976-1988) and it has come to pass that Murdoch is once again Cuozzo’s boss at the paper.
The book is filled with Cuozzo’s observations from the time he joined the Post in 1972. Reading them gives one a sense of just how far the newspaper business, and society in general, has come ? and just how much it has remained unchanged.
The later chapters, which cover Peter Kalikow’s departure as owner and the battle between Steven Hoffenberg and Abe Hirschfeld to take control of the Post, had me absolutely belly laughing. While E&P did cover all the events surrounding the Post’s near demise, Cuozzo brings to light what happened behind the scenes and it is fodder for a sitcom.
Cuozzo, after graduating with an English degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was advised by his college “mentor” Peter Shaw to contact then-Post assistant managing editor Al Ellenberg to inquire about a job as a copy boy.
As Cuozzo writes it, Ellenberg told him the Post had a quota system. He could not initially hire Cuozzo, he said, because “I had to hire a Chinaman.” Cuozzo was finally hired in December 1972 at $115 a week. During his first few days on the job, a colleague told him, “There’s a training program but it doesn’t matter because there’s going to be a strike in three months and Dolly’s going to close the paper.”
The strike never materialized, but the incident shows how rumors about the Post’s demise or shutdown were in vogue even 25 years ago.
Some Cuozzo insights about Dolly Schiff’s Post: “Large areas of Dolly’s Post seemed reserved for certain ethnic groups. The newsroom staff was mostly Jewish, with an unofficial quota of three black reporters; the support staff were almost all Italian.”
Cuozzo also offers some memories of his co-workers at the Post under Murdoch.
“The Murdoch men were a motley crew. There was features editor Arnold Earnshaw, a gruff, bearded, beer-bellied gnome.
“Diane Reid, his executive assitant, never forget her first sight of him.
“I asked for Mr. Earnshaw. I walk into this room with the river behind it. And sitting behind the desk, with his feet up on it, is this whale, sound asleep and snoring.
“Mr. Earnshaw? This was supposed to be an interview. He wakes up and says, ‘All right young lady, get out your notebook and pen and get to work.'”
About Steve Dunleavy, who began as a reporter, was made metro editor, left when Murdoch bought Fox Channel 5 to work on A Current Affair and then returned to his present position of Post columnist, Cuozzo said: “Steve brought to the job of news-gathering a fire rare in modern print journalism.”
Dunleavy, he said, “lived to beat the enemy to the story.”
A case in point can be seen in a story Cuozzo relates that was remembered by Jerry Nachman, who served as Post editor during the Kalikow years but who was with CBS Channel 2 in New York when he first met Dunleavy.
It was in 1977, during the shooting spree by the Son of Sam killer. Stacy Moskowitz was killed that night and her boyfriend, Robert Violante, was blinded by a gunshot. Violante was being treated at the hospital when Nachman arrived.
Cuozzo tells the story: “Dunleavy, in a doctor’s smock, wrangled his way into Violante’s hospital room as a ‘bereavement counselor,’ which naturally enabled him to score an exclusive interview with the grief-stricken family.
“Nachman, reporting for Channel 2, arrived at the hospital and prevailed on the Violante father to share a photo of his son.
“I didn’t know who Dunleavy was,” Nachman recalls to Cuozzo. “As Violante’s father starts to show me the picture, Dunleavy, in his hospital outfit, puts his hand over it and says, ‘That won’t be necessary.’ Later on, this guy comes over to me and says, ‘Sorry mate, that was professional, not personal.’ “
By then, Nachman realized he had been scammed.
Cuozzo’s recounting of Post arch rival, the New York Daily News, is decidedly one-sided, although he does offer much insight into what the Post people were doing and thinking behind the scenes in reaction to each Daily News move.
Some now well-known names in journalism also pop up as Post employees from time to time. One of those being Anna Quinlin, who later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize at the New York Times. Quinlin, back in the late 1970s, was one of Neil Travis’ assistants in gathering information for the Post’s gossip Page 6.
Cuozzo discovered that there would be life at the Post after Murdoch.
Among his observations of the Kalikow years: The Post under Kalikow became more of an “American-looking” product. Kalikow, according to Cuozzo, seemed to want to emulate the New York Times, once suggesting that the Post sectionalize so it would be easier to read.
Cuozzo also slips in a dig or two about Kalikow’s lack of knowledge about newspapers. He described how Kalikow liked to watch the paper being laid out.
“Wouldn’t that headline look better slanted?” Kalikow asked one day.
“Italics, Peter?” responded the layout editor.
“Yeah, italics,” Kalikow parroted.
To Kalikow’s credit, Cuozzo writes, he hired Jack Newfield, who once wrote that Kalikow was one of New York City’s worst landlords.
Cuozzo also writes that Kalikow disdained the Murdoch years of the Post, but had an “affection” for the Schiff years.
She’d come by for lunch and Kalikow even hired Schiff’s star columnist Pete Hamill, who was not a favorite of Murdoch.
Commenting on Kalikow’s naming of Jane Amsterdam as editor, Cuozzo said, he hoped to change the Post’s image by hiring “a chic New York female, identified with a glossy, sophisticated, award-winning business magazine.” She had joined the Post from manhattan inc.
Commenting further about his thoughts at the time, Cuozzo writes that he, Lou Colasuonno (later to be named editor), Dick Belsky, and Marc Kalech (currently managing editor/news) were “schooled in street smart Murdochian journalism faced working for a magazine lady who meant to move the Post upscale.”
The Post, under Kalikow, had reduced its annual losses to $5 million, “a fration of the losses under Murdoch.”
In addressing the staff in 1988, Kalikow is quoted by Cuozzo as saying, “I’ve got five hundred million dollars. I could lose five million a year, and at that rate, it’ll still stake me one hundred years to go broke.”
Four years and $130 million later, Kalikow would file for bankruptcy and be forced to give up the Post.
Following the disasterous introduction of the Sunday New York Post in 1989, Amsterdam is fired and replaced by Nachman, who Cuozzo recalls is married to Nancy Cook, daughter of Stanton Cook, chairman of the Tribune Co., then owner of the Post’s archrival New York Daily News.
“Nachman’s media omnipresence brought the paper respect on the outside,” Cuozzo writes, “But inside, it was a different story.”
He recounts with much detail, Nachman’s feuding with then-managing editor John Cotter.
“Fatso’s on TV again,” Cotter would say behind the back of Nachman, a physically imposing man.
Nachman, in turn, would call Cotter on the carpet for his “long, liquid lunches.”
“Nachman’s celebrity notwithstanding, that winter (1990) the paper showed unmistakable signs of trouble,” Cuozzo writes. “Empty jobs went unfilled and ads were thinner than ever.”
Just when things were gloomiest, however, Daily News workers went on strike. Once again the Post had its life extended.
Cuozzo recounts much of the next year or so as it appeared in newspaper stories at the time: Robert Maxwell’s acquisition of the Daily News, Maxwell’s untimely death, and Kalikow’s financial problems which led to his having to give up the paper.
This is where the book becomes really fun to read. Fact is truly funnier than any fiction could be, as evidenced in Chapters 13, 14 and 15.
As Cuozzo describes it, it became “carnival time” at the New York Post.
Steven Hoffenberg was the man who came forward to “save” the paper in the wake of Kalikow’s financial troubles.
When Kalikow heard his offer to keep the paper alive, he broke out the cigars. But as Cuozzo recalls, “two floors below, reporters were running a Nexus computer search.” They began “laughing hysterically” at what they found ? but it was no laughing matter. Hoffenberg had civil suits against him in 20 states. His Towers Financial Corp. was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for fraud.
But Hoffenberg said he’d put $2.5 million of Towers funds to cover the paper’s accounts receivable and promised to make the paper profitable.
Early on under Hoffenberg management, Post editor Colasuonno jumped ship, joining the rival Daily News.
Hoffenberg broke the news to the Post’s editorial managers, butchering his name in the process when he told them that “Castellano” had gone to the Daily News.”
First, according to Cuozzo, Hoffenberg suggested they have Colasuonno arrested. The editors looked perplexed. Hoffenberg reasoned that Colasuonno might still have a company car and the newspaper would report it stolen.
With that thought passed, Hoffenberg turned to the other business at hand.
“Who wants the job? I got a feeling three guys wanna be editor. You, you and you.”
As Cuozzo describes it, “It was like a scene from The Godfather.”
“Someone asked, ‘Do you have enough money to run the paper?’ Hoffenberg turned to the lawyer.
“Mr. Rosoff, do I have enought money?” Mr. Rosoff noded.
“Let’s go tell everybody,” Hoffenberg said.
Hoffenberg named business editor Gerald Bray as editor of the paper, jumping him up over all the top editors. But only a few weeks into his tenure, Hoffenberg announced he was thinking of naming Pete Hamill editor.
Cuozzo recalls how late night was Hoffenberg’s favorite time.
“He ordered in Chinese food and rode an MSG high. He prowled the halls. He dropped in on the reputed Bonanno family captain of the circulation department, and mingled with union drivers who tossed around crisp $100 bills.”
Cuozzo also remembers the time when Hoffenberg wanted to change a front-page banner head. It
read: “Birth of a Salesman” and referred to President
Editor’s “anecdotal memoir” of his 24 years at the New York Post is fodder for a sitcom Clinton’s speech warning of tax hikes to cover budget deficits.
“That stinks,” Hoffenberg reportedly said. “We gotta say, the cocksucker is gonna bleed us. Say that. The cocksucker is gonna bleed us dry.”
The headline was changed, but not to that.
Then there was the time when Hamill was signing his contract to become editor. Hoffenberg interrupted him to say, “Hey, Pete, you went out with Jackie O? (Referring to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.) What was she like? Was she hot?”
Then things really got wild when Hoffenberg one day called Cuozzo to tell him some “good news.” He had gotten a partner for the Post ? Abe Hirschfeld, described by Cuozzo as “builder, political nuisance candidate and the instigator of bizzare lawsuits.”
Among Hirschfeld’s suggestions to Hamill: run more photos of girls on the front page and run poetry written by his wife on Page 3.
Hoffenberg and Hirschfeld soon became enemies and both tried to acquire the paper. Hoffenberg was seen as lesser of two evils by the editors and staffers, but the creditors of Kalikow wanted Hirschfeld.
With Hirschfeld temporarily in control, he brought in Wilbur Tatum, owner of the Amsterdam News, a black weekly, and announced that Tatum would be replacing Hamill as the new editor of the Post. He also said he was firing 300 people, nearly half the Post staff.
Gerald Bray, the paper’s executive editor, refused and Hirschfeld told him to resign. He did.
He eventually fired all the top editors, only to rehire them the next day.
The paper was in chaos. Cuozzo writes that managing editor Kalech came up with a plan to “demonize Hirschfeld and Tatum throughout the paper. I wondered if we could go to jail for libel. Then I looked around the newsroom. People were giving interviews and photocopying clips. It was going to be tough to put out any kind of paper.”
But they did put out the paper the next day. The infamous issue with Post founder Alexander Hamilton on the front page shedding a tear. The paper was filled with stories ripping apart Hirschfeld, Kalikow and others and asking the public for help in saving the paper.
All this was done without the knowledge of Hirschfeld.
When the delivery trucks left the loading docks, Kalech and Cuozzo embraced. Cuozzo called Bray at home.
“You won’t believe what we’ve done. I don’t believe it.”
The edition made national news. Hirschfeld unbelievably went on TV stating that it was all his idea.
“Great, brilliant. I think I’m in the caliber of Einstein. I am elated. Never in the history of the world did a man have ten pages of a newspaper devoted to him,” Hirschfeld said.
That edition of the newspaper and another one the next day led to New York Governor Mario Cuomo getting involved in an attempt to find a buyer to keep the paper alive.
While the search was going on, a “white knight” emerged ? former owner Rupert Murdoch. He wanted to again own the newspaper, but was prevented by federal cross-ownership rules since he already owned the local TV station, Channel 5.
Seeing that the newspaper had no chance of survival unless it granted Murdoch an exception of the rules, the government bent and Murdoch was allowed to acquire the newspaper, which he still owns.
In the aftermath, Cuozzo writes, “One night my wife and I watched from our apartment terrace overlooking First Avenue as a Post delivery truck dropped off the first edition at a newsstand down the block.
“When I see that,” his wife Jane said, “I still have trouble believing it. All that craziness when Kalikow went bankrupt ? did it really happen? Was it a dream?”
?(Steve Cuozzo credits New York Post managing editor Marc Kalech with initiating the idea in 1993 to trash Post suitor Abe Hirschfeld.) [Photo & Caption]
?(New York Post exec (first three from left) Peter Faris, Pete Hamill and Gerald Bray address the staff during the 1993 newsroom crisis.) [Photo & Caption]