"...And Now Our Revels Are All Ended"
By Dennis Duggan
The late great Dennis
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
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
"I told him I would and soon I was
sitting in his car on my way to
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
I told him I might if he would tell some
of the backroom secrets of a life hobnobbing with the nation's most powerful
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
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
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
"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
A few days ago I dropped in McManus'
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!