By Dennis Duggan
Mike McAlary wrote almost every one of his columns as though he were going to be hit by a truck. That was a dictum set forth by Murray Kempton, one of McAlary’s idols. They were as different as night and day but they were bonded by their passion for newspapering.
I spent many days and many nights in McAlary’s company, the days were in New York Newsday’s city room on Third Avenue; the nights at the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street. “Mac” brought excitement to both places. In its headline over its obituary written December 26, 1998, the Times wrote: “Mike McAlary, 41, Columnist with Swagger to Match City’s.” He would have loved that line.
He died on Christmas Day of cancer. He was 41. A few months earlier in a heart-breaking scene in the New York Daily News City Room he acknowledged the cheers of his fellow reporters and said that he hoped he would live long enough to see his children grow up and to be able to, walk on the beach with them.
Tears flowed that day and last December 25th at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where, as the police he covered so well during his tempestuous career, would say: “He has left the firm.”
Charlie Sennett, who worked with McAlary at both the New York Post and the Daily News, recalled his days working alongside McAlary who the Times said was “the city’s dominant tabloid reporter of the last decade,” wrote this moving tribute to McAlary.
“So Mac is gone. I’ll never forget being a young cop reporter at the Post and the News and being able to claim him as a friend. “I’ll never forget the way he ran his finger down a small, black book of contacts and told you exactly which detective to call in Brooklyn for the story you were working on. I’ll never forget how he liked to sing at Elaine’s.”I’ll never forget his stamina.”
Sennett, now with the Boston Globe, recalled being up all night at a cops’ social club in Brooklyn and crashing at Mac’s place in Park Slope. “Kriegel (Daily News sports columnist Mark Kriegel) and I would be a mess sleeping on the floor or the couch and Mike would be up early reading the papers and making his calls.” Best of all, says Sennett, was when McAlary complimented you on a story. “The story rocked,” he would say. I know just how generous Mac was first hand. I covered the trial of John Wayne Bobbitt and his wife Lorena in a Virginia courtroom. She had cut off his penis after an argument. The day after the trial I got the only interview with her at a nail salon where she worked. She did my nails as we talked and at one point dug her little paring knife too deep into my cuticle. “Ouch,” I exclaimed.
In my lead, I wrote that I was luckier than her husband. My hotel phone rang that day. It was Mac on the phone laughing and telling me, “That really rocked!” But it was Mac’s cop reporting that began at New York Newsday that attracted attention. He was hired by the newspaper’s editor Don Forst who had first hired him to work as a high school sports reporter at the Boston Herald American in 1980.
“He had the fire,” Forst who is now editor of the Village Voice told me. “He had passion for his work and he had fun doing it,” said Forst who tried to convince McAlary to stay at the paper promising him that he would become a columnist. “That was the year we brought Jimmy Breslin over from the Daily News. Mac saw an opening at the News and went there to become a columnist. It was a swap.”
I hated to see McAlary leave the paper. He was a throwback to the earlier days of the two-fisted, hard drinking reporters of my era. I don’t think McAlary spent a day of his life in a health club running to nowhere. He was too busy soaking himself in the city’s brine and becoming the kind of breaking news writer who left the rest of us with our mouths hanging open.
When he left New York Newsday he wrote in his first book “Buddy Boys,” which was about police corruption in the 77th police precinct in Brooklyn, these words which I now treasure.
“It’s your town.
“They’re your streets.
“I’m just renting.
“All the best.
“Your Friend, Mike McAlary “3/7/88.”
In writing this tribute I talked to friends all over town including the many he made in the New York Police Department. He forged a special and rare relationship with people in law enforcement, many of whom are suspicious of most of us in the press.
I sat in Greg Lasak’s office on the third floor of the State Supreme Court Building on Queens Boulevard. I had seen Lasak at Mac’s funeral on Long Island on a dreary day when the rain came pouring out of the skies, soaking a lone bagpiper outside the church.
Besides Lasak, the number two man in Queens District Attorney Richard Brown’s office, there were former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and John Timony, now police commissioner in Philadelphia.
Abner Louima stood alongside one aisle of the church with the Rev. Al Sharpton. It was McAlary’s impassioned and exclusive accounts of Louima’s alleged torture in 1997 at the hands of cops in the 70th precinct in Brooklyn that won him the Pulitzer.
“In some ways,” said Mac, “this had been my biggest cop story. Almost like homering in my last at bat. It had changed the case, and it had changed the city somewhat. It had changed me a little, too.”
At the time he wrote the Louima stories he was dying of colon cancer of which he said; “The Cancer life, I have discovered, is not unlike waking up on death row.
“Ordinarily, I’m not bitter or even panicked. I’m fine so long as I don’t obsess too much on the possibility of never being a grandfather to my 12-year-old son’s kid or missing my 10-year old daughter’s wedding. or being unable to teach my 5-year old boy how to throw a curveball.”
He finished writing his first non-fiction book, “Sore Loser,” and was hard at work on the second book when he died. His friends are said to be working to complete that book.
I noticed a copy of “Sore Loser,” about a New York detective, in Greg Lasak’s bookcase. He pulled the book and opened it to show me the salutation Mac had written for him at a party in Elaine’s held shortly before his death. It read: “For Gregory, my special and gallant friend. “You have showed your humor and intelligence across the years. Your friend, Mick McAlary.” Lasak had been at the hospital just a week before Mac’s death. It was now a matter of time for the great reporter who was surrounded by his family and friends.
“He went into the shower and I said goodbye to him and he waved goodbye to me,” said Lasak who had presided over some of the most sensational trials in Queens County. On one wall is a drawing of him sitting alongside the bed of then Queens County President Donald R. Manes who later committed suicide in the wake of scandal in his office.
I asked Lasak what was it that had drawn McAlary to the cops and the cops to him. Cops, as former First Deputy Police Commissioner John Timoney said, don’t usually like reporters. “Most cops look down on newspaper reporters,” said Timoney, a tough cop from Ireland. “But they didn’t look down on him. I think it was his toughness. He wasn’t afraid to go into a bad neighborhood or call somebody a dog. And he looked like a cop himself.”
Lasak confirmed those remarks by Timoney adding that “He had an aura bout him. And he was trustworthy. He wouldn’t hurt you just for a story. Detectives took to him and they have to rely on their instincts in their work. He was the kind of guy who looked you in the eye and he never misled you.” “He was brash and he was cocky but under all that he was a sincere man who loved his work. Right up to the end he was breaking our onions. He was being Mike.” He was still being Mike when young Newsday reporter Al Baker went to see him in the hospital a few days before his death. Baker, who had worked with McAlary at the Daily News, admired the columnist for his round-the-clock work ethic, and for his smarts. “He was always saying to me, ‘C’mon, let’s go!” Baker recalls. “He had his computer hooked up to the Internet and he said ‘this makes you smarter.'”
At the hospital, Baker was told by Kriegel not to show emotion at Mac’s bedside. “Mac reached his hand out to me and said ‘I love you’ and then he whispered, ‘Go, be great.'”
Just being Mike.
Silurian News, May 1999