Their names recall a bygone era in New York City — Sardi’s, the Stork Club, El Morrocco and “21.”
Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s those nightclubs were where movie stars, writers, politicians and athletes went to see and be seen.
For 40 years New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons covered that scene for his popular syndicated column, The Lyons Den.
Now in his second book dedicated to his father, “What a Time It Was: Leonard Lyons and the Golden Age of New York Nightlife,” three-time Emmy-award winning film critic Jeffrey Lyons has compiled more of his father’s columns and anecdotes that recall the movers and shakers of that time.
“I owe the fact that I speak fluent Spanish to Ernest Hemingway,” Lyons said. “He taught me how to fire a gun and took me to Jai Li games.”
“What a Time It Was” reads like a Who’s Who of the last century’s most famous and infamous. From the Roosevelts to Harry Truman to Lucky Luciano and just about every Hollywood legend from Orson Welles to Grace Kelly, the senior Lyons was privy to their stories, jokes and private lives.
In fact Lyons recalled how once when his father took a vacation, his column was covered by guest columnists that included luminaries like Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Margaret Bourke-White and Jimmy Durante.
“I read the Dali column and couldn’t understand any of it,” Lyons said. “But Durante wrote that he had considered being a boxer and said he had two knockouts, one in the ring and the other one at home.”
Another story Lyons learned through his father’s column concerned President Lyndon Johnson, who was a naval officer during World War II.
“He had taken some home movies and was flying back to Pearl Harbor when he realized that he had forgotten his camera,” Lyons said. “He asked the pilot to wait and ran to get it, by the time he got back the plane had taken off because his superior officer had taken his seat. The plane was shot down.”
Another more humorous story involved Lyons’ mother, father and a certain movie star.
“One night someone told my mother that they had spotted my father and Marlene Dietrich drinking tea at 3 in the morning at Lindy’s Restaurant,” Lyons recalled. “My mother said, ‘that’s alright, that place is famous for its cheesecake.'”
This was the world Jeffrey Lyons grew up in, meeting legends like Joe DiMaggio, Sophia Loren and the Duke of Windsor. It certainly groomed him for his own 43-year career as a reporter, film and theater critic.
“He knew everybody and the column was the key to everything,” Lyons said. “It’s permiated down to several generations now.”
In fact, the Lyons legacy is now in its third generation, as Jeffrey Lyons’ son, Ben Lyons is carrying on the family business, anchoring and reporting for ESPN radio in Los Angeles.
“It’s a legacy for my father,” Lyons said. “I’m very proud of this one. It’s 250 people who were newsworthy, but now you have to explain who many of these people were.”
“I hope younger people read it,” he said. “I wish someone taught a class called ‘stuff you have to know,’ because you should know who Groucho Marx was, who James Dean and Greta Garbo were. It’s part of pop culture.”
When Jeffrey Lyons is not working in New York City, he and his family own a summer house in Orient.
“What a Time It Was: Leonard Lyons and the Golden Age of New York Nightlife” is now in stores and on Amazon.com. Jeffrey Lyons’ first book about his father’s columns, “Stories My Father Told Me: Notes from the Lyons Den” is also available in stores and on Amazon.com.
On Friday, October 30, at 7 p.m. the Shelter Island Library Community Room will be transformed into a nightclub where Jeffrey Lyons will discuss “What a Time It Was! Leonard Lyons and the Golden Age of New York Nightlife.” Refreshments will be served. RSVP at (631) 749-0042. The Shelter Island Library is located at 37 N. Ferry Road on Shelter Island.