"...And Now Our Revels Are All Ended"


By Dennis Duggan



                       The late great Dennis Duggan.






Carmine DeSapio, kingmaker and the last boss of Tammany Hall was said to have had the muscle to name the Democratic candidate for president.



By Dennis Duggan


For three glorious decades starting in 1966, the Lion's Head in the West Village was a throwback to the old-time gin mills where politicians and reporters mingled, swapping stories with the pols hoping to get benign treatment along the road and reporters hoping to get tips that would lead them to an exclusive story in the next day's paper.

The air was thick with smoke and loud with sound, boisterous Irish songs from the Clancy brothers, Liam, Paddy and Tommy just back from a gig at Carnegie Hall, and the loud defamation of all things Republican by Democratic reformers from the Village Independent Democrats plotting the downfall of West Village Boss Carmine DeSapio whose power was so great that he was once put on the cover of Time Magazine as the country's foremost boss who handpicked the dyspeptic Averill Harriman as governor of New York.

The "Head" as it was known was where then Mayor David Dinkins came to toast my sixtieth birthday, and it was there that Boston sportswriter and poet and wannabe politican George Kimball pulled out his artificial eye and told a startled Mayor John Lindsay to "watch my drink."

It was, as Pete Hamill wrote in "A Drinking Life" "a great, good place," adding that "I don't think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers politicians and folksingers bound together in the leveling democracy of drink."

It was owned and run by an ex-cop named Wes Joice whose name now hangs on a traffic sign -"Wes Joice Corner" at Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue South. Joice was a taciturn man with a gorgeous wife and bright children who presided over the often raucous activities while sipping a cup of coffee.

It was here that I met the McCourt brothers Frank and Malachy and the late Joe Flaherty who managed what McCourt called the "quixotic" campaign of Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin. One night Mailer in a drunken mood railed at his own backers with curses and Sidney Zion of the New York Times called Breslin at home and told him that Mailer had gone off the rails.

"I'm running with Ezra Pound," Breslin moaned.

The pols showed up most often during their own campaigns. Bella Abzug who yelled through a microphone at her husband for falling asleep during one of her speeches was a regular attended by political pundit Doug Ireland who wrote the "Mayoral Cantata," four songs about pols like Herman Badillo, Robert Wagner and Lindsay, putting the irreverent lyrics to tunes from West Side Story and other familiar musicals..

When Ireland decided come as he said at the bar one night "out of the closet," a burly lefty longshoreman named John Bergin and friend laughed and snorted at the overweight Ireland: "Closet. What closet? You came out of Manhattan Storage and Warehouse!"

The repartee was fast and furious something like the dialogue in the 1930's film "Front Page" starring Cary Grant as an editor and his star writer Rosalind Russell who spoke in rat-a-tat-tat sentences.

The author Dermot McEvoy recalls a night when seaman and poet and one of the Head"s bartenders Paul Schiffman went to the hospital for a heart bypass.

"A regular came in and asked "where"s Paul?'" recalls McEvoy.

"He"s in St.Vincent's."

"Oh," said the regular, "St Bart's is much nicer this time of the year."

But in 1996 the laughter died out and the Head gave way to a bar called the Kettle of Fish which is still up and running. But it will never be what the Head was, a place where as Hamill said, "Lose your job? Betrayed by your wife? Throw up on your shoes.? Great: have a drink on us."

By that time I had turned my back on the drink and the smoking along with a lot of other people including Hamill. The music didn't sound as great as it once did and the women along with myself grew older.

And now with the ban on smoking and the change in drinking habits among reporters and politicians alike, such places as the Head and, in the 1970's, "Jimmy's" which replaced the shuttered Toots Shor's on West 52nd Street for a minute or two.

The Head may be recalled as the last of the old-time gin mills that brought together the men and women who made the news and the men and the women who reported the news they made.

There is that Great Pretender Elaine's in Upper Manhattan but it was always more of a celebrity place than a down--to-earth joint like the Head. The clientele is mostly boldface names that show up in the gossip columns with too much regularity to be spontaneous.

With the Head gone I wandered around for a few years in a vacuum. Where does a reformed drinker and teller of tall tales go for kicks.

Then one day I bumped into Pat Cunningham at a St. Patrick's Day parade He was propelling himself up Fifth Avenue in his mechanized wheelchair. We talked for a bit and Cunningham, the last of a long line of Irish clubhouse politicians and leader of the Bronx wing of the Democratic party succeeding Ed Flynn, told me he was hosting a radio show and would I like to come on and be heard.

"I told him I would and soon I was sitting in his car on my way to Westchester where I talked for an hour or so about the political scene. I did it a few more times and one day Cunningham's secretary, the estimable Marie Falco called and said her boss wanted to invite me to a luncheon at an Italian restaurant and that I would be joining Carmine DeSapio, now in his nineties, former Congressman, the irrepressible Mario Biaggi, the Rev. Louis Gigante of the Bronx, whose brother Vincent was often pictured as a crazy man strolling the Village in his nightgown, Jim McManus a legendary political leader on the West Side of Manhattan and other familiar names from the city's past.

Would I? You bet, I said, pleased at having been admitted into even the outer circle of the political giants that I would soon be swapping stories with.

But why me, I wondered?

I soon found out. Cunningham, who died in December of 2002 of heart disease and cancer,and was buried from St. Patrick's cathedral, asked me one day if I would like to write a book about him.

I told him I might if he would tell some of the backroom secrets of a life hobnobbing with the nation's most powerful politicians.

Cunningham really wanted to explain how he had wound up in jail in 1982, found guilty of evading $14,000 in federal income taxes. He was fined $5,000 and disbarred and served one year of a three-and-half-year sentence.

The book never got written but Cunningham still invited me to the monthly luncheons and at long last fulfilled my hopes of meeting face to face with DeSapio, called "the Bishop" for his stern demeanor, who no longer wore the dark glasses that gave him a sinister backroom dealing look. A simple procedure had cured his eye condition and now he wore plain glasses that made him look more like a backroom clerk than a big-time boss. He went to jail in 1971 convicted in Federal court of conspiracy to bribe the then New York City water commissioner and of extorting contracts from Con Edison.

I call them the Boys of Yesteryear and two of them , DeSapio this year, and Cunningham two years ago, have since died and the rest of us are aging, living still in the present tense.

But I continiue to talk to Biaggi, a man who stood up for the Irish when noone else in Congress would and who helped me with contacts when I went to North Ireland to write about the ongoing "troubles."

"You know what you have here, one of the regulars told me once. The indicted and the soon-to-be indicted."

He was wrong. In September Louis Gigante retired as a parish priest and builder of affordable housing for 3,000 families in the Bronx. He is 72.

A few days ago I dropped in McManus' clubhouse off Ninth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. He is running an active campaign for Carlos Manzano for Manhattan Borough President and he is as sharp as a tack and full of inside political stories.

ME? I'm still banging away and trying to avoid what Murray Kempton called the "ashbins of history." Life is good and every so often I meet for breakfast with Timmy Lee, a former New York Post newspaperman, and his pal Time photographer Bill Powers and Hamill, too when he isn't writing still another book.

Hurrah for all of us!


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