Class of 1927
Leonard Lyons was a newspaper columnist whose anecdotes about the personalities who populated the worlds of theater, movies, art, politics and society were a fixture in The New York Post for 40 years. He was known as the world’s Number One Name Dropper and it was a title he wore proudly.
Who would you rather hear about, he would ask, my Uncle Max or someone famous? “The basic fact of newspaper life,” he said, “is that if any Uncle Max — unless it’s Beerbohm, Beaverbrook or Factor — breaks a leg, it never makes the news columns. But if the president has a sniffle — boom, front page.”
From May 20, 1934 until May 20, 1974, his column, “The Lyons Den,” presented snapshots of the cultural life of Lyons’s era. At one time, it was syndicated to more than 100 newspapers with a total circulation of 15 million readers. Lyons traveled frequently, reporting from his destinations rather than relying on handouts from press agents, and his output was prolific. For 40 years, he wrote 1,000 words a day, six days a week, producing more than 12,000 columns. His wife, Sylvia, who often accompanied him on his trips, made frequent appearances in his column.
He was born Leonard Sucher on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Sept. 10, 1906, the son of a Romanian tailor. Lyons went to the High School of Commerce, where one of his classmates might have been the first celebrity he got to know. It was Lou Gehrig, who would become the legendary first baseman of the New York Yankees. Lyons studied accounting at City College at night and went on to be part of the first class to graduate from the St. John's University School of Law. He practiced law for five years, during which he started a weekly column, “East of Broadway,” for the English-language page of the Jewish Daily Forward. He also began compiling the material that would provide the fodder for his future columns: anecdotes about the people he covered.
When The Post, seeking to compete with Walter Winchell’s column in The New York Daily Mirror, was looking for a Broadway columnist, Lyons beat out some 500 applicants. A Post editor suggested he change his last name from Sucher to Lyons so that his name was alliterative, like Winchell's. Ironically, it was Winchell himself — then a friend, later the subject of one of the few feuds ever engaged in by Lyons — who suggested that the column be called “The Lyons Den.”
Winchell was known for his acidic pen, his eye for scandal and his neologisms (couples “middle-aisled” it, then were “infanticipating” before things went “pfft” and they “Reno-vated” — but Lyons was a gentler sort. He genuinely admired most of the people he covered and cultivated friendships with such notables as Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The many highlights of his career include being invited to the Kennedy White House as well as to the royal wedding of Grace Kelly in Monaco. Carl Sandburg is reported to have said: “Imagine how much richer American history would have been had there been a Leonard Lyons in Lincoln’s time.”
Lyons was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, received an honorary degree from Wilberforce University, and, on the centennial of his birth, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg issued a proclamation in his name. His son Jeffrey, a veteran television and movie critic, and Jeffrey’s son Ben, also a movie critic, still use the name “Lyons Den” in their own work. “Stories My Father Told Me: Notes from the Lyons Den,” a memoir by Jeffrey Lyons, was published in 2011.
Lyons died on Oct. 7, 1976, at the age of 70. At his funeral, Mayor John V. Lindsay, who had presented the columnist with a bronze medal when Lyons was ending his career, told some 1,000 attendees, “In a business of sharks, Leonard Lyons was a prince.”