Steve Dunleavy

1938 -    |    NSW, US    |    Reporter

Steve Dunleavy earned the term ‘legendary reporter’ through his whatever-it-takes, larger-than-life approach to journalism. His father was a photographer for the Sydney Sun in 1953 when Dunleavy joined the opposition tabloid Daily Mirror and punctured the tyres on his father’s car to get a scoop, setting the scene for a rambunctious, swashbuckling and hard-drinking career through Australia, Asia and America. He joined Rupert Murdoch as a foreign correspondent in 1967 and became the charismatic front-line crime reporter for the New York Post and, later, the TV program A Current Affair which introduced tabloid TV to America. Known as ‘Murdoch’s attack-dog’, he retired in 2008.

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Biography

Steve Dunleavy

By DERRYN HINCH

You know you’ve made it in New York when The New Yorker magazine runs a full-page photo of you and then devotes eleven pages to a profile.

That’s the good news. The bad news is when the chronicler, very early in the piece, writes: “He was smartly dressed, in a grey, three-piece suit, white monogrammed shirt with French cuffs, gold cufflinks, red silk tie, and shiny black shoes. His pallor was that of a rotting cod. His silver pompadour, which makes him resemble an ageing Elvis impersonator, shot from his crown in glorious defiance of taste and gravity.”

He could only have been writing about one person: Steve Dunleavy, the former Sydney Sun copy boy who took New York, and then America, by storm and became the best-known, or most notorious, door-kicker and conservative columnist for decades. On television, and especially in print in Murdoch’s National Star and New York Post, he became The Defender of the Cops no matter what they were accused of.

But Dunleavy was also a damn good reporter. Relentless, at times shameless, while totally believing that the ends justified the means. So if that meant posing as a cop, pretending to be a bereavement counsellor to get an interview with the family of one of Son of Sam’s murder victims – or even letting his own father’s tyres down when Dunleavy had moved to the Sydney Daily Mirror and his old man was a photographer on The Sun and competing on a story in the Blue Mountains – then so be it.

“I lost count of the number of times I posed as a cop, a public servant or a funeral director,” he told William Shawcross, who wrote the definitive biography of Rupert Murdoch, Dunleavy’s boss for more than forty years. “The Boss”, as Dunleavy always calls him, told The New Yorker: “He’s one of the hardest-working journalists I’ve ever seen. He absolutely lives for scoops and to get his name on them.”

Dunleavy joined the New York Post after Murdoch bought it from eccentric banking heiress Dorothy Schiff in 1976. Murdoch inherited a liberal and sober afternoon tabloid. It was dull and losing circulation while the racy Daily News was selling close to two million copies a day.

Murdoch gave the Post the Sydney and Fleet Street tabloid treatment and brought in a team of Aussies to transform the paper. “It was totally tribal,’ Murdoch told The New Yorker. “The blue collar workers, the Irish and the Italians, they all took the Daily News. The middle classes, the Jewish in particular, the school teachers, the Post was their paper.’ The new-look Post included headlines like ‘Boy Gulps Gas, Explodes’ and the infamous ‘Headless Body in Topless Bar’.

Dunleavy’s arrival at the Post coincided with the murderous reign of David Berkowitz, who dubbed himself Son of Sam and prowled the city with a .44-calibre revolver, killing six young women and wounding others. Jimmy Breslin, then writing for the Daily News, was considered to ‘own’ the story until Dunleavy arrived on the scene. The ‘Son of Sam’ had even written to Breslin as well as a mocking letter to police.

Dunleavy relished the story. It had everything: fear, murder, sex (one young woman and her boyfriend murdered in a lover’s lane). The Post’s new crime reporter had dozens of exclusives, some of them real, some of them beat-ups. It was then he posed as a bereavement counsellor to get an interview with the family of one victim. There was even a controversial Dunleavy front-page appeal to Son of Sam to give himself up – not to police but to Dunleavy and the Post.

Dunleavy had joined the Post after a stint with the News Limited bureau and United Press International, where he had worked on his arrival in New York in 1966 before joining the foreign staff of the Daily Mirror and The Australian as a casual. He had also been helping Murdoch set up the National Star, later simply called The Star, in opposition to the lucrative supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer.

Dunleavy was the Star’s news editor and, later, its senior columnist with rabid rightwing outbursts under the headline, ‘This I believe’. The early years were tough for The Star. Distribution was a nightmare and the paper lost millions. The Enquirer’s dictatorial owner, Genovese Pope, used to pay money for stories. Murdoch decided to pay more.

The breakthrough came in 1977. Piers Akerman, who would become another Murdoch editor, heard that Elvis Presley’s stoically tight-lipped former bodyguards, the Memphis Mafia, might be willing to talk about his rumoured life-threatening drug use in return for a chunk of money. Murdoch agreed to pay them the unheard-of amount of $125,000. Dunleavy flew to California for a series of damning, salacious interviews to be serialised in The Star and published as a paperback under the title Elvis: What happened? The Star started running the heavily promoted Elvis exclusive the day before the King was found dead from an overdose in his bathroom at Graceland. The Star’s circulation went from two million to three million in a week and the paper never looked back.

The book, authored by Dunleavy and Peter Brennan, became a bestseller. Dunleavy’s ex-wife Yvonne had made $2 million writing The Happy Hooker about Manhattan madam Xaviera Hollander. For his Elvis book, Dunleavy received a flat fee of $30,000.

But he wasn’t bitter or upset. He told New Yorker interviewer John Cassidy: “Mate, I’ve never had a bad day in journalism in my life. You win, you get drunk because you won. You lose, you get drunk because you lost.”

Actually, Dunleavy’s liquor consumption worried his mates at times and even Murdoch who, more than once, counselled him to stop drinking - especially after he got into an altercation while drunk at Des Moines Airport in Iowa and was arrested.

On another occasion, after a Dunleavy marathon on the vodka and tonics, an editorial assistant, on the early shift, walked through the newsroom and saw a murder scene in one of the cubicles. Two bodies. One, Dunleavy, was slumped face down on his desk. Another man’s legs protruded from under it. The shocked young woman ran back into the newsroom shouting, “There’s two men dead. Call 911.” When two firemen arrived and shook Dunleavy awake his first slurred words were, “Where’s the fire?” The second body belonged to another Australian journo, Mark Morris, visiting the Post on an exchange program.

On 11 August 1977, the day after David Berkowitz was finally arrested for the Son of Sam murders, the New York Post sold more than 800,000 copies—nearly double what it had been selling when Murdoch bought it. That day Dunleavy had a trademarked, sensational, gruesome interview with John Deil, who had survived a murder attempt six months earlier. Diel and his 26-year-old fiancée, Christine Freund, were shot as they sat in a parked car. Christine died.

Another Dunleavy scoop was an interview with the mother of Sirhan Sirhan, the man who assassinated Bobby Kennedy. There was the first interview with Cricket Keogh, one of the ‘boiler room girls’ who along with Mary Jo Kopechne partied with the lecherous Teddy Kennedy at Chappaquiddick before Mary Jo made the fatal mistake of getting into Kennedy’s car.

And then there was Waco when Dunleavy was the star of what TV critics called “trash TV” on Murdoch's new Fox Network. With no TV experience, he had become national reporter for the American version of Australia’s A Current Affair. At Mount Carmel, about 15 kilometres from Waco, Texas, a cult leader named David Koresh was holed up with followers of his Branch Davidian sect. On 28 February 1993 the United States ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) attempted to execute a search warrant on the property. In an exchange of gunfire four agents and six Davidians were killed.

It started a siege that lasted 51 days. Dunleavy was in the thick of it covering the story for television. He called David Koresh “the whacko in Waco”. On 19 April, the FBI stormed the complex. Seventy-six people, including 21 children and two pregnant women, along with Koresh, died in the siege’s violent finale.

Dunleavy’s road to New York was paved with journalistic and money-making intentions. In 1959, when so many young Australian journalists were heading for London, Dunleavy went to Asia. He went to the Philippines and then Hong Kong (to the South China Morning Post and China Mail) and then Tokyo to work on the US military publication Stars and Stripes. Then back to Hong Kong to the new Hong Kong Star.

Dunleavy and his mate Roger East then got involved in English-language newspapers in Milan, Athens and Madrid. East became one of the Australian journalists murdered by the Indonesians at the start of the East Timor invasion in 1975.

After a 55-year career in journalism, Dunleavy retired in October 2008 with a celebration attended by 400 colleagues and friends including Rupert Murdoch, Post editor-in-chief Col Allan, the New York Police Commissioner and the President of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

Journalist-turned-politician Derryn Hinch, long-time foreign correspondent competitor of Steve Dunleavy’s in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, had to include a chapter on “The Wild, Colonial Boy” in his memoir Human Headlines – My 50 Years in the Media. This profile is adapted from that chapter.

 

Steve Dunleavy in 1969. Courtesy of Fairfax.

 

Steve Dunleavy in 1977. Courtesy of Newscorp/Newspix.