In the Lyons’ den
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Thursday in Tenafly

In the Lyons’ den

Jeffrey Lyons tells stories at the Kaplen JCC about his father, himself, and everybody else

Jeffrey Lyons recently released his second book about his father, columnist Leonard Lyons.
Jeffrey Lyons recently released his second book about his father, columnist Leonard Lyons.

Jeffrey Lyons knows just about everybody – and he’ll talk about many of the people he has known at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on Thursday, June 3, at 10:30 a.m.

Everybody he knows has to be qualified a bit, of course. Everybody means everybody who was anybody — everybody famous as a politician, a performer, or a baseball player from the 1940s until just about now. So that’s not absolutely everybody in the world — but it’s a lot of people.

So when Jeffrey Lyons, himself a film critic, columnist, storyteller, writer, radio personality, occasional actor, and sort-of bullfighter, drops the names of people he’s met through his famous father, columnist Leonard Lyons, and his mother, Sylvia Schoenberger — who was not famous but could keep up with her husband in speed, wit, and breadth of knowledge — you as a listener are charmed. Listening to someone who knew personalities as varied as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe DiMaggio, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dali, Christine Jorgensen, and Zsa Zsa, Eva, and Magda Gabor is its own special treat.

Not to mention the painter Marc Chagall, “who came for kosher food every Friday night during the war.” Because yes, “I grew up in a kosher home,” Mr. Lyons said. And his parents, like the children of Eastern European Jews and the parents of thoroughly American parents, spoke Yiddish to each other when they didn’t want their kids to understand them.

Mr. Lyons recently wrote “What a Time It Was: Leonard Lyons and the Golden Age of New York Nightlife,” the second of two books of his father’s stories. He told some of them on Thursday, June 2, at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Mr. Lyons and his three brothers grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in the Beresford, the stately twin-towered early 20th-century building across the street from the American Museum of Natural History that always causes first-time visitors’ jaws to drop. Their father made his way to that apartment through very hard work.

Leonard Lyons was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1906. “His father was a Romanian tailor who died when my father was 11,” Mr. Lyons said. “He ran away from Fresh Air Fund camps twice. He wanted to be in the city.”

Leonard Lyons became a lawyer; he eventually left his firm when it tried to move him to Puerto Rico. “He was talking to the Duke of Windsor, and he said, ‘I had met my future wife, the woman of my dreams, and they wanted to transfer me, and I didn’t want to go.’ And the duke,” who famously gave up his place as heir apparent to the British throne to marry a divorcee, “said, ‘You left your dream job for a woman? Fancy that!’

“Of course, that was before we knew what an anti-Semite the Duke of Windsor was, and how much he admired Hitler,” Mr. Lyons added.

Mr. Lyons “went with the First Army Corps to Berchtesgaden,” where Hitler had his country house. “After urinating on the rug and on the concrete swastikas outside, he scooped up a silver tray, a telephone, and a doorknob. He gave the doorknob to Jenny Grossinger,” the owner of the huge Catskills hotel that bore her family name — “who put it on the door to the world’s biggest kosher dining room. The tray had the initials AH and an eagle and swastika on it. My parents made sure that they’d serve the most cholesterol-laden food on it. One day a guest came and said, ‘Those are my initials. I claim that tray.’

“My parents didn’t give it to him — it was Alfred Hitchcock.

“And I have the telephone,” Mr. Lyons added.

Leonard Lyons, who began as a columnist with the Jewish Forward, wrote his most well-know column, the Lyons’ Den, from 1934 to 1974, “during the golden age of Broadway,” his son said. His schedule was brutal. “He wrote six days a week, 1,000 words a day. There were 11 newspapers in New York then,” so competition was fierce. Mr. Lyons wrote for three newspapers, one after the other; his most famous stint was at the New York Post, which was then politically liberal and aesthetically far more attractive than it is today.

“My father would get up at 12:30 in the afternoon. He wouldn’t read his own column, because it was full of typos. He would have breakfast, and then go to the first of the 13 restaurants and clubs he’d be at every day — places like 21, Toots Schor, Sardi’s.

He was not a gossip columnist, like Walter Winchell was. He didn’t write about who was dating who. His column was anecdotes. He told stories.

“And then he’d go down to the Post’s office, to call his sources and put the column together. And at 6 he’d go home, and make the rounds of the rest of the 13 other restaurants and nightclubs.

“P.J. Clarke’s always would be the last place that he’d go. He’d come home at 1 o’clock, and the stories had to be dictated to the city desk for that night’s paper. That took up to two hours. And then he’d work at a magazine article. My brothers and I would be starting to get up for school by then.”

In 1944, this photograph of the Stork Club ran in Life magazine. Leonard Lyons, at left at the center table, sits in a group that includes the club’s owner, Sherman Billingsley. Orson Welles, in pinstripes, apparently biting a cigar, is at the front left table.
In 1944, this photograph of the Stork Club ran in Life magazine. Leonard Lyons, at left at the center table, sits in a group that includes the club’s owner, Sherman Billingsley. Orson Welles, in pinstripes, apparently biting a cigar, is at the front left table.

Jeffrey Lyons, the third of four sons, was born in 1944. “I’m not a baby boomer,” he said. “I’m a war baby.” His memories include a tour of the White House led by its occupants, Harry and Bess Truman. “My parents stayed at the White House on the last night that the Trumans were there, the last night of his administration,” he said.

Jeffrey Lyons’ “life was changed forever in 1956, when I went to Spain for the first time, he said. That was the first time he saw a bullfight. Mr. Lyons learned Spanish, and became deeply enmeshed in the bullfighting world, becoming close with many of its heroes.

His other passion, he added, is baseball; he and his brothers have written three books about it.

He and his son, Ben, who has taken on the family business, telling stories about famous people, also have written a book together.

Here’s another one of his stories:

“Eleanor Roosevelt did not like Secret Service protection,” Mr. Lyons said. “One day, she was in New York, unaccompanied. She took the subway — imagine someone in her position doing that today! — and a sailor and his girlfriend got on.

“After about two stops, when they both stared at her, the sailor said, ‘Do you know, you look a lot like Eleanor Roosevelt?’

“‘I am Eleanor Roosevelt,’” the first lady said, and she talked to them about foreign policy until they got off, 10 stops later. (The train was a local.)

“When they got off at 14th street, the sailor looked back at Mrs. Roosevelt, and he said, ‘Not only do you look like her, you do a great imitation of her, too.’”


Who: Jeffrey Lyons

What: Will talk about his new book about his father, Leonard Lyons

Where: At the JCC on the Palisades, 411 E. Clinton Avenue in Tenafly

When: On Thursday, June 2, at 10:30 a.m.

For more information: Call Kathy Graff at (201) 408-1454 or email her at kgraff@jccotp.org

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