Ira Rosen didn’t really grow up in “60 Minutes.” His actual childhood and adolescence were spent in Queens; specifically, in Fresh Meadows.
But four years after he graduated from Cornell, an eager print journalist, there he was, being offered a plum television job as a producer. A job, as he writes in his 2021 memoir, “Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes,” that he nearly didn’t get because his mother told Don Hewitt, the show’s executive producer and one of the two explosive, powerful, gifted, terrifying (and terrifying abusive, it turns out) men behind its wild success, that her 26-year-old son didn’t need a new job because he already had one.
And certainly, as he makes clear, “60 Minutes” provided him with a very thorough, wide-ranging education.
Mr. Rosen will tell some of the many stories from his breezy, engaging, quick-read book at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on Thursday, October 14 (see below).
“I spent 25 years there, and 15 at ABC, at ‘Primetime Live’ and ‘20/20,’” he said. “I had the ultimate mentorship, working with Mike Wallace,” the other titanic man at “60 Minutes” and its public face. “Some of the stories in my book are heartbreaking, some are hilarious, and it is a great journey.
“Jacques Cousteau” — the explorer, oceanographer, and world-class big-liver — “said that if you live an interesting life, it is selfish to keep it to yourself,” Mr. Rosen said. “That’s a guiding principle of mine. If have done something interesting over the years, I want to share it.”
Mr. Rosen’s father, Leon Rosen, was born in Poland, where his name was Luzer Rosenbluth; he was hidden by a Catholic family during the Holocaust. The Nazis went into his town and told the non-Jews who lived there that they had 48 hours to do whatever they wanted to their Jewish neighbors. “During this two-day period, the neighbors killed most of the Jewish population,” Mr. Rosen wrote. But “the Chmura family risked their lives to hide my father for three years,” although they knew that execution likely would be the result of being caught. Nonetheless, they persisted. “The family chose the righteous path,” he said; that led to his lifelong — and perhaps surprising — optimism, Mr. Rosen said.
Leon Rosen’s parents did not survive, but his older sister, who started life as Faiga Rosenbluth and ended it as Fay Walker, did; unlike her brother, she hid in the woods and “lived on her wits,” her nephew said. Much later, the siblings wrote a book, “Hidden: A Sister and Brother in Nazi Poland.”
His mother, Ethel, was not a survivor, he added, but “the child of Russian immigrants who came over at the turn of the century. She grew up in the Bronx, and my parents met in an elevator there, near Tremont Avenue.”
“Jewishness always has been important to me,” Mr. Rosen said; he started his education in a yeshiva before moving to a public high school.
At the JCC, he’ll talk “about ‘60 Minutes,’ and about the people I met and the lessons in life that I learned,” he said.
Some of those life lessons are widely applicable, but others — probably the more compelling ones — are specific to journalism. “It’s amazing how long it takes to get somebody to go on camera,” he said.
One of his first jobs, when he was just two years out of college, was in the Detroit area, at the Oakland Press. “We were trying to find out who killed Jimmy Hoffa,” the powerful Teamsters leader who vanished in 1973 and whose disappearance, in Michigan, sparked nationwide stories, wild rumors, and elaborate fantasies. The case remains unsolved.
“In the book, I tell the story of how I knocked on the door of one of the capos of a Detroit crime family,” Mr. Rosen said. “I brought a hot pizza with me; it was half mushroom and half pepperoni.”
That was in 1987. “A very long time ago,” he said. He was young then.
“There’s a real urgency to hot pizza,” Mr. Rosen said. “He told me to go away, but I opened the box a little bit, and let out the smell. There’s something to the smell of hot pizza…”
The gangster let Mr. Rosen in, and they ate; then Mr. Rosen was shepherded out, but not before he’d been asked for his card. (Who knew gangsters are that formal? One of the many reasons to read this book.)
Later, they met in the car, and talked, with the radio on to cover the details of the rival gang he disclosed.
Was he scared? “I was too stupid to be scared,” Mr. Rosen said modestly.
There was a heated rivalry between two groups just then, he continued. Everyone knew where the head of the other group, a gangster called Tony Jack (and actually named Anthony Giacalone, logically enough) ate lunch, so one day Mr. Rosen “went there, and stationed my table close to him, and tried to listen to what he was saying.
“Mr. Giacalone did not like being overheard.
“I heard my name being paged,” he said. As the announcement requested, he went to the manager’s office, where he was told “Mr. Giacalone does not like anyone overhearing his conversations.” So when he went back to his table, trying to figure out what to do — investigative journalism is one thing, and a threat from a Mafioso is something else — “I went over and introduced myself to him as a reporter.
“He said ‘Go back and enjoy your lunch,’” Mr. Rosen reported. That turned out to be a hard thing to do. At least for him, lunch was over.
“It was a dangerous time in Detroit,” Mr. Rosen continued. “Bodies literally were turning up all over town. But I was probably too stupid — and too ambitious — to take a pause.”
He never did find out who killed Hoffa, but Mr. Rosen did uncover many stories. He covered John Gotti, the so-called Teflon Don who nonetheless died in prison; he worked to uncover corruption in Washington, told the story of the post-9/11 no-fly list, and wrote a book about Three Mile Island. He’s won Emmys and Peabodys and just about all the other awards that investigative journalists and TV news producers can get.
In his book, he also writes about the toxic culture that drove “60 Minutes,” the other side of its success; he touches on how abusive Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt were.
All of his stories would more than fill the time he has as the JCC U, but no matter which ones he decides to tell, this book makes clear, they will be entertaining.