Leonard Lyons was the master of the anecdote. For 40 years (1934-1974), the stories he uncovered—about Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, JFK and scores of others—regaled readers in his nationally syndicated column “The Lyons Den.” Now, just in time for Father’s Day, Lyons’ son, film and theater critic Jeffrey Lyons, has culled the best of these anecdotes in Stories My Father Told Me: Notes from “The Lyons Den."
In a recent interview, Lyons recalled his indefatigable father and his work:
How would you define the type of column your father wrote?
I don’t know that you could define it in one term. It wasn’t a gossip column. He never used the word “celebrity.” He would, and did, write about his sister Rosie in Brooklyn if she was newsworthy. He would never write about who was dating whom, and who’s expecting a baby. He didn’t write his column looking through a keyhole. He didn’t write rumors.
How did your father hone his writing skills to become a journalist?
He [started by] writing a column for the English-language page in the Jewish Daily Forward. It was on-the-job training. He was also a lawyer and that helped him enormously to get to the point; and, as Hemingway told my older brother when my brother asked him how he wrote a novel, “You pretend the words are being tattooed on your back; that way you’ll keep your sentences short.”
In the photographs in your book, you father is always impeccably tailored and groomed.
Yes, he loved to be dressed to the nines. He loved to show off the linings of his suits. He got a lot of suits made in Hong Kong, which cost a fraction of what they would have cost had they been made elsewhere. One night he and my mother were invited to the [Kennedy] White House and the invitation said, “decorations will be worn.” He wore the only decoration he ever won, the Spanish prize from PS 160.
What was his working routine?
He’d go out in the afternoon and then again in the evening to 13 different clubs and restaurants. He’d come home and decide what he’d want to run right away and what he wanted to save for later. Then he’d dictate his column over the phone. His column ran six days a week.
As a young man, did you go on rounds with your father? What was it like?
My [three] brothers and I would go out with him. You would walk into a restaurant and you’d see an actor, an athlete, a ball player. On any given night you could sit with DiMaggio at Toots Shor’s, and then go next door and sit with the Duke of Windsor, and sit with Gene Kelly at the Oak Room, and Marlene Dietrich at the Russian tea room. It was an amazing life.
What did you learn from working with him?
I learned to be well prepared. When I interviewed Antonio Banderas, I knew he had been an usher in the Malaga bullring. So I walk in not only humming the music they only play in the Malaga bullring but also doing the announcement they do, in Spanish. I had a friend for life.
My preparation for this interview uncovered an anecdote about you and [actor-writer] Ruth Gordon.
As Bette Davis said to me, “You’ve done your homework.” The night before I became a critic my father and I had dinner with Ruth Gordon. She was from New England. She said [heavy New England accent], “Sonny you start your career tamarra. Think twice before you shit on somebody else’s work.” And I think I always have.
What was it like, gathering all the material for this book?
I have the scrapbooks of my father’s columns from 40 years. I went through 40 rolls of Scotch tape repairing the columns. Over the years his secretary would type up all the anecdotes he’d printed and file them under the subject’s name. I pulled out the assembled collections of the anecdotes from over 90 people.
Then I discovered there were a lot of people who weren’t in the scrapbooks—Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Irving Berlin. So I had to go to index cards. I would see, “March 3, 1938, paragraph 9.” I’d go to [that date, that paragraph] to find a story about Tallulah Bankhead. My wife was in the country, so all during the summer it was just my father and me. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life professionally, as important to me as my work as a film critic, reviewer and show host.