I still remember picking up the New York Post in the days when it was a better paper and reading the widely syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons reporting in The Lyons Den on his rounds yielding colorful stories about the famous. I would occasionally see him at night club openings, although the days of the elite Stork Club and El Morocco, where he reigned, were before my time. Lyons was certainly the prime celebrity chronicler of his day.
His son Jeffrey, renowned critic, author and conductor of his movie preview classes, is justly proud of his dad and his accomplishments, as illustrated by Jeffrey’s previous book, “Stories My father Told Me” (See Search under Special Reports for my review). Now he has written a new volume “What a Time It Was!” subtitled “Leonard Lyons and the Golden Age of New York Nightlife” (Abbeville Press). It is packed with an encyclopedic number of more stories about the celebrities he encountered on his beat, an array of movie and theater stars, politicians, presidents, royalty—you name it.
Putting it together was obviously a massive and dedicated job. Jeffrey Lyons has laced the book with his own takes on and introductions to the stories that he has culled from the total of 12,479 columns that his father wrote between 1934 and 1974. Since there was a limit of what could be provided in the first book, there was plenty from which to choose for this volume. And undoubtedly there is more from where those came from.
After a laudatory forward by critic Rex Reed and a tribute by Jeffrey to his dad and his work ethic, the book begins with a section pegged to the scenes that once flourished. There are stories Lyons reported from El Morocco, the original Lindy’s, The Copacabana, The Stork Club and The Waldorf Astoria with its Empire Room entertainment. Sardi’s is still flourishing, but not like the old days of frequent opening night parties when theater folk gathered and waited nervously for the reviews.
The book then shifts into individual chapters about the famous whom Lyons wrote about. It is important to note that Lyons was not a bithcy gossip columnist, unlike others who wrote then and do now. His stock in trade was enjoyable anecdotes, not who was sleeping with whom.
The titles of the various parts indicate how Lyons (son) organized the book: “They Had Faces Then” (dealing with movie stars); “They Made the Movies” (producers and directors); “Their Pens Were Mightier” (writers); “Larger Than Life” (top names in the world); “You Dirty Rats” (gangsters); “‘Make ‘Em Laugh’” (funnymen); “Put Up Your Dukes” (boxers); “Play Ball!” (baseball) and “‘If Music Be the Food of Love’” (music notables).
There is no need to read in sequence. You can open to any part and enjoy items from The Lyons Den. Example from Woody Allen: “Discussing his draft status, he [Allen] said: “I’m classified ‘4H’—in the event of a war, I am a hostage.”
Fred Allen about Milton Berle: “If ego were acid, Berle would have consumed himself long ago.”
Don’t get the idea that it is all pithy comments. There are many extended anecdotes about situations involving the famous and influential. Read them for yourself. You’ll also find the book sprinkled with fascinating photos. And underlying the whole book is a heartwarming impression of a strong father-son bond. Reviewed March 27, 2016.