Steve Dunleavy, the hard-hitting, hard-drinking journalist who helped define The New York Post as a crime reporter, editor and premier columnist, died Monday at his home on Long Island. He was 81.
The cause was unknown.
“Steve Dunleavy was one of the greatest reporters of all time,” said Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Post.
“Whether competing with his own father in the famous Sydney, Australia, tabloid wars, or over the last 40 years in New York, Steve’s life story is littered with great scoops. He was much loved by both his colleagues and editors.”
“His passing is the end of a great era,” Murdoch added.
Over the course of his epic career, Dunleavy scored countless exclusives, including interviews with the mother of Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, and confessed “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo. The rapist also posed in the nude for Dunleavy, who had smuggled a camera into prison for the story.
If they made Steve Dunleavy up, nobody would believe it. From a New Yorker profile of him from the year 2000, the essence of Dunleavy journalism:
The turning point came in 1977, when Piers Ackerman, another Australian recruit, learned that Elvis Presley’s former bodyguards might be willing to talk about his drug use in return for money. A fee of a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars was agreed upon, and Dunleavy flew out to California for a series of tell-all interviews. In just two months, he produced “Elvis: What Happened?,” a three-hundred-page book packed with salacious details about Presley’s private life. Serialization of the book in the Star began the very day before Presley was found dead at Graceland. “The circulation went from two million to three million in a week,” Ian Rae, a Fox News executive who was then editor of the Star, recalled. “We never looked back.’’ Dunleavy’s book became a best-seller, but he received only a flat fee of thirty thousand dollars, which he put toward the purchase of the house in Lido Beach. He wasn’t bitter. “Mate, I’ve never had a bad day in journalism in my life,” he said. “You win, you get drunk because you won. You lose, you get drunk because you lost.”
Another famous Dunleavy story — this one told to me shortly after I joined the Post in 1998:
On one occasion that has passed into tabloid legend, a group of reporters had gathered at Elaine’s, the media hangout on Second Avenue at Eighty-eighth Street. “It was midwinter, and there was snow everywhere,” George Gordon, a former correspondent for the London Daily Mail, recalled recently. “There was a young Australian journalist who had brought along his fiancée, an attractive Norwegian shipping heiress. She and Dunleavy got into a conversation. Eventually, somebody said, ‘Let’s go to a bar across the street,’ and we all went over. When we got there, everybody in the bar had flocked to this huge picture window. They were watching Dunleavy and the fiancée humping in the snow, arses going up and down. As we were watching, a snowplow came up the street and ran over Dunleavy’s foot. By this time, the entire bar was in uproarious laughter. Dunleavy limped in and rolled down his sock to reveal this big blackened limb. He was so loaded that it didn’t matter, but as the night wore on even he said there was something wrong. We called an ambulance, and he checked into a local hospital. He’d broken his foot.” Antics like this didn’t impress everybody. When somebody relayed the story of Dunleavy’s fracture to Pete Hamill, he replied, “I hope it wasn’t his writing foot.”
My favorite time in all my career were the four years I spent working for the New York Post. I’m not even kidding. Steve Dunleavy was part of that. The outrageous fun of it all! He was always immaculately turned out, and often pickled, but unfailingly courteous and matey. Whatever you thought of his columns, you had to work to dislike him personally. He really liked people. But he was a drunk, for sure. One morning I was walking through the office, near his desk, and I saw a group of paramedics working on him. I freaked out, but was calmed down by a colleague. “It happens,” he told me, shrugging.
Turns out that Dunleavy would sometimes come sleep off a bender in the office, and would be discovered unconscious under his desk. Paramedics would be called. He would be revived. Life would go on. The New Yorker piece talks about that too.
It was terribly sad, no question … but it was also part of the legend of Steve Dunleavy.
Here’s a story somebody at the Post told me. During the Son of Sam days, back in ’77, Dunleavy got a tip that one of the killer’s victims had been taken to a particular hospital. He dashed over, and found that he was the first journalist on the scene. He put on a doctor’s white coat, and told the police guarding that hall not to let any reporters through, under any circumstances. Thus did Steve Dunleavy get an exclusive with the family, while the competition cooled its heels in the waiting room.
Like Keith Richards, he lived on booze and cigarettes, and you didn’t think anything could kill him. Sadly, that wasn’t true. What a guy. The world is now a much less interesting place.