Two Loves - A SHOWMAN’S EDUCATION - Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire

Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire (2006)


Chapter 2. Two Loves

THE PORT CHESTER HIGH GRADUATION CEREMONY in June 1919 paid homage to the sacrifices of the Great War. Many of the forty-one seniors presented a pageant entitled “The Torch,” in which students played The Captive Nations and The Allied Nations. As the Three Fates swirled and danced, Mother Earth fought Strife and Greed. In the end, Democracy defeated the Forces of Evil.

Ed played the role of Strife, which was as close as he was to get to his dream of taking part in the war. Armistice had been signed eight months earlier. Instead of facing the trenches of Europe, as had the boys who graduated a year earlier, he received varsity letters for basketball and baseball. In the final class assembly he led the school choir in a rousing rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and in the graduation ceremony he gave a speech about the importance of continuing to conserve even after the war.

The Port Chester Daily Item reported, “He delivered his address with a natural ease that served to make his words all the more impressive and called for extended applause when he had finished.” It would be the only printed account of Sullivan onstage that described him as having “natural ease.”

And he may have written the article himself. The piece had no byline, and on June 24 the paper had added a new name to its masthead: Edward V. Sullivan. Two days before graduation, the seventeen-year-old was hired full-time for $10 a week. One of his father’s brothers, most likely Florence the New York attorney, had offered to put Ed through college. But Ed turned him down. School had never interested him, and besides, the high school graduate already had his dream job, sports reporter.

The Item proudly displayed its rock-ribbed Republicanism. “Splendid Record of Republican Town Administration” was a characteristic headline. Denouncing what it called the misguided leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was a routine exercise on its editorial page. The paper reflected the Victorian morality of 1919, with a raft of stories like “Commission to Force Women Bathers to Wear Stockings.” (“Young women bathers at Oakland Beach who have been in the habit of showing off their physical charms by parading stockingless through the park … may be deprived of that privilege.”) In addition to covering local events, the Item reported the personal, with a steady stream of articles like “Wife Won’t See Hubby” (“says the sight of him nauseates her”), “Wifey Acted As Her Own Detective” (because her husband was “mushing it up” with another lady), and “Wife Confesses to Kissing Another.”

Item publisher Tom Blain got his money’s worth from Ed, turning him into a newspaper jack-of-all-trades. Aside from his sports beat, the cub reporter covered weddings, fires, courts, social events, and funerals, and also handled layout and other production chores. “I never worked so hard before or since,” Sullivan recalled.

The paper didn’t give its three staff reporters bylines, so it’s not known who covered what, but the sports section was clearly Ed’s. A month after he went full-time, a burst of energy infused the Item’s sports section. He launched a new column, In the Realm of Sport, and expanded coverage of boxing and tennis. In some of Ed’s pieces he adopted an approach that was like nothing else in the Item. Instead of blocks of text he wrote short clips of pithy opinion, a layout style then fashionable in the New York papers:

“Slim” Kelly played a fine game for the Electrics at the hot corner. “Slim” is rapidly developing in to a crack third-sacker.

The Abendroth-P.R. Mallory game was a fine exhibition of baseball as it ain’t.

Of course we realize the teams had an off day. They always have.

If you stand on your head while reading the league standings, the Abendroth team is leading the league.

Well, so long!

When readers disagreed with Ed’s firmly opinionated reports, the young reporter always stood ready for a fight. He ignited a major fracas with his coverage of an exhibition game between the Philadelphia Athletics, a professional team, and a Port Chester semipro squad. He opined that the Athletics made “a laughingstock” out of the Port Chester team by using their third-string catcher. It may have been true, but the editor soon got a phone call from an irate reader demanding an apology. Sullivan was biased, the caller claimed, because he played catcher for a competing local team, a Catholic squad called the Saxers.

Ed refused to apologize. He told his editor that his opinion came from his baseball expertise, not his team affiliation. Blain, exasperated with his young reporter, snorted, “Oh, you Irish!” Complicating the situation, the caller was W.L. Ward, a local hardware store owner and prominent Republican booster—not a man Blain wanted to offend. Reluctantly, the editor called back Ward and told him no apology was forthcoming. “Good for him,” said Ward. “Tell him always to stick to his guns if he’s right.” Ed was impressed with what he saw as Ward’s largesse. As he put it, “Even to a young Democrat, Mr. Ward’s support of my position was impressive proof of his genuine bigness.” Sullivan arranged a match between the two local teams as a way of settling the dispute.

Although Ed was on his way up at the Item, garnering a raise to $12 a week, a larger world beckoned. In the fall of 1920 he learned of an opening for a sports reporter at the Hartford Post. Without hesitation he made the trip to Connecticut to apply and was hired that day—at $50 a week. He was overjoyed at the job offer. The Sullivan family, however, had a heated discussion as to whether he should take the position. His mother and Helen saw it as a great opportunity but Ed’s father said he should remain in Port Chester. Yet Ed himself felt no doubt about taking the job. Before he left, the town of Port Chester threw its departing celebrity a grand going-away party, presenting him with an engraved watch. The Item, in reporting his departure, boasted that he had “built up its sports page from a humble beginning to a place where it was on a par with the best in the country.”

Sullivan never wrote a single story for the Post. He arrived in Hartford the week before Christmas, and two days later the employees learned the bad news: the paper had been sold and everyone was losing their jobs. Ed had two weeks severance pay in his pocket and no idea what to do. Embarrassed at what he saw as his failure, he devised a plan to keep the paper’s closing a secret from his family. He rented a cheap room in a Hartford boarding house and found a stock boy’s job in the basement of a department store. When he went home on the weekends he used his severance pay to be a big man about town, as if he were still the Post’s sports reporter. Underneath the façade he was terrified and kept hoping something would turn up.

Luck shined on him. A former colleague at the Item, Jack Lawrence, had found work at the New York Evening Mail. He wrote Ed a reference letter, which Ed sent to the Mail’s management. Just a few weeks after the Post folded he received a letter from Sam Murphy, one of the Mail’s sports editors. The New York paper hired Sullivan to cover high school and college sports. If the job offer in Hartford had been a major opportunity, landing the big city post was a minor miracle. Ed went home to Port Chester to trumpet his accomplishment.

Just before he began working in New York, his mother said to him, “I read about the Hartford paper failing, Edward. Since Christmas I’ve been praying for you.”

Ed was nineteen years old when he reported for duty at the Evening Mail’s offices in lower Manhattan in early 1921. New York City, a far different burg than the one his family had fled years earlier, now cantered at a markedly faster clip. In 1917 the city had boasted of an important benchmark: for the first time, its streets were crowded with more motor vehicles (one hundred fourteen thousand) than horses (one hundred eight thousand). As the financial hub of the country that had turned the tide in the Great War, the city strode with a pronounced spring in its step; New York now stood shoulder to shoulder with world capitols like London and Paris. And it was an easy town in which to be naughty; after Prohibition went into effect in January 1920, the city’s drinking establishments more than doubled in number. Gentlemen—and now even ladies—could quench their thirst almost anywhere. Speakeasies were illegal, of course, and the Ladies Temperance Union warned of the demon rum, but that merely added an extra thrill to hoisting a cocktail.

Ed’s reporting work in Port Chester had hardly prepared him for what he was about to attempt. While the Port Chester Daily Item still considered a carriage crash front-page news, the Evening Mail’s front page was a riot of national and international news, with more than twenty headlines crowding page one: Wall Street, Broadway, American and European politics, crime and corruption, the arts, women aviators—all the world, or so it seemed, was contained in its pages. In January, Ed’s first month, Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor contributed a piece to the Mail’s entertainment section: “I predict a year’s run for pictures on Broadway, so confident am I of the character and drawing power of the picture of the future.” That same month the paper opined, with more optimism than accuracy, that “No Occupation Bars Women Now” (“Girls Today May Be Steamboat Captain, Bank Director, Steel ‘Man’—and No One Will Say Her Nay”). American mores were changing, and the Mail was keeping track. “Ban on Petting Parties? No! Chorus Columbia Men” (“Petting parties are only successful if played with a ‘20th-century girl,’ a Columbia man declared”).

Ed was overwhelmed. At the Item he had turned in handwritten articles, but the composing room at the Mail quickly let him know this wouldn’t pass muster. One of Sullivan’s editors, Jack Jackowitz, demanded that the new hire learn how to type. So Ed found an unused typewriter and spent hours copying editorials from The New York Times, hunting and pecking with two fingers.

Typing was the least of what he had to learn. His writing at the Item had been plucky, often tongue-in-cheek and flavored with unabashed hometown vinegar. But for the Mail Ed attempted to write in what he thought was a more sophisticated style, resulting in some frozen prose. On January 13, his column, College Sports, Notes and Gossip, displayed his unease:

“The Columbia Spectator directs attention to the fact that although the army athletic authorities are correct in stating that although no monetary advantages accrue to the athletes who enroll at the academy, that very fact that football stars are allowed to play another four seasons of varsity ball after entering West Point is sufficient inducement for a great number of collegiate luminaries.”

As Ed struggled through January it was unclear as to whether he would succeed at the Mail. An editor suggested that reporting might not be the career for him. When he was assigned to cover the annual Westminster dog show at Madison Square Garden in early February, he immediately assumed it was an effort by one of his editors to embarrass him. The assignment could be his last, he worried—he knew nothing about dog breeds.

At the show, he overheard a little girl ask her mother, “How do they wash their faces with all those wrinkles?” Inspired by this simplistic question, Sullivan decided to drop his attempt at big city sophistication—which clearly wasn’t working—and have fun with the piece. He wrote:

“The truth of the matter is that the harassed dogs have been patted and petted to death, and now, tired and exhausted, big dogs and little dogs alike are not above grabbing off a surreptitious nap at each and every opportunity.… The fond caresses of the visiting proletariat have undermined the morale of the defenseless bologna-questers.”

A theme emerged in this piece that would run throughout Ed’s newspaper work for years to come: he resented the affluent. He saw himself as distinctly apart from them, and took every opportunity to poke fun at the moneyed classes. There were two groups of people at the Madison Square Garden event, he explained, and it was easy to tell them apart.

“The former class converse knowingly of the days when Hector was a pup, assume Rolls Royce grins, and park their patrician selves within the sacred precincts of the rings. The latter class gets nailed for life memberships in every dog society in the world and buys cartons of dog biscuits at the behest of total strangers.”

As he went home that night after turning in the piece, he began to worry. “I became more and more terrified as I imagined what the sophisticated New York sportswriters would think when they picked up this piece of whimsy,” he said.

On the way to work the next morning he bought the Mail, and, reading the paper on the train, was amazed to see that the story had been given prominent play. It was spread across two columns—a first for him. The nineteen-year-old reporter was mesmerized by the success of his article. Rather than complete his trip downtown, he kept riding the train uptown and downtown, repeatedly reading his piece as he traveled in a circuit. He felt an almost overwhelming urge to point out the story to a fellow train rider. If there was a single moment when he felt he had “made it” in the big city, this was it.

The lesson he learned, he later explained, was that he would fail if he tried to be sophisticated. The only approach that would work for him was the one that came naturally. Ed had to be Ed; any other strategy was bound for failure. In truth his writing style would soon adopt every bit of the 25-cent sophistication of his fellow New York sports reporters. But he recounted this anecdote in the 1950s, when his decidedly unsophisticated television persona was under fire from critics, and anecdotes like this seemed to justify his unadorned stage manner.

That May he wrote his first front-page story, covering a collegiate boat race between Princeton, Columbia, and Penn State on the Harlem River: “The challenge was met with a quick acceleration of the Columbia stroke, and from that [sic] on the two boats fought it out stroke for stoke, while the crowds went wild.” Throughout 1921 Ed inched his way up the Mail’s masthead, getting promoted to cover professional golf and tennis in addition to college sports. By the end of the year his writing had regained the cheeky humor of his Port Chester reports. Covering swimmer Helen Wainwright, who had just broken four world records in the 500-yard freestyle, he observed her at lunch. His goal, he wrote, was to discover what makes a champion. “Miss Wainwright ordered a club sandwich, a piece of watermelon, a large slice of lemon meringue pie, ice cream and a glass of milk, and after stowing that away the youngster started on a box of chocolates. Of such stuff are champions made.”

With his promotion Sullivan earned $75 a week, a handsome salary in the early 1920s when a furnished room in Manhattan rented for well under $50 a month. He had lived at home in his early Mail days, but with his raise he rented an apartment in midtown, on West 48th Street, over a bar called Duffy’s Tavern. Equipped with a place of his own, he dipped a tentative toe into the swirling waters of Manhattan nightlife. At first, the Port Chester boy was ill at ease, yet he soon found a tour guide. The Mail’s boxing editor managed a fighter named Johnny Dundee, then a top featherweight contender, and he introduced him to Ed. The twenty-seven-year-old boxer, born Giuseppe Carrora in Sicily, had fought professionally since age seventeen. He won the junior lightweight title in 1921 and the featherweight title in 1923. He would later be inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame and become such a revered ring hero that Angelo Mirena, Muhammad Ali’s lead trainer, legally changed his surname to Dundee in Johnny’s honor.

Ed and Johnny became fast friends. As a celebrity athlete, Dundee had entrée to the city’s most exclusive haunts. The boxer took Ed under his wing, introducing him to major figures in many walks of life. In the late 1930s Sullivan recalled how Dundee had shown him around, and how Ed “died a thousand deaths every time he met a celebrity, but didn’t want to let on.”

Now that Ed was a New York fellow he wanted to look like one, and he spent every penny of his Mail salary to do so. He outfitted himself in high-quality hand-tailored suits and shirts; photos from the period show him to be nattily attired, with his hair slicked back, often sporting a fedora. One of the Mail’s advertisers was the Durant motorcar company, which must have caught Ed’s eye; he was soon motoring around town in his own Durant roadster. As a young man he was ruddily handsome, with wavy auburn hair and strong blue eyes, his masculine mien reflecting the glow of his Port Chester athleticism.

On weekends he drove home to date his Port Chester sweetheart, Alma Burnes, but during the week he pursued the young women he met in New York’s nightclubs. The Mail referred to these female speakeasy habitués as “flappers”; in the 1890s the term referred to a young prostitute, but by the 1920s it had come to mean any girl with a thin, boyish figure and an informal manner. The flappers lived up to their reputation for flouting convention. The practice of young women frequenting drinking establishments by themselves was new, and frowned upon by many. Worse, many of the flappers wore dresses with hemlines a full twelve inches above the ground and visibly used cosmetics, and some even smoked in public.

Ed’s favorite nightspot was the Silver Slipper, on West 48th Street, a roaring upscale speakeasy not far from his apartment. He was there almost every night, cigarette and drink in hand. His Port Chester shyness long gone, he was now an avid socializer, a natural glad-hander who conversed with anyone and everyone. One of those he became friends with was Joe Moore, a top speed skater who would compete in the 1924 Olympics, and later become a press agent who worked with Ed.

More than lighting up his nights, the Slipper and other Broadway speakeasies introduced Ed to show business. He sat in jam-packed audiences as dozens of New York’s biggest acts strutted and twirled, like dancer Ruby Keeler, who later high-stepped in a raft of Busby Berkeley musicals, and Van and Schenk, a vaudeville comedy-music duo who crooned “All She’d Say Was ‘Umh Hum.’ ” Ed described the Slipper as the “hottest of the ‘hot’ spots when the heat was turned on … [full of] sporty, informal rendezvous with semi-nude chorines nodding to big shots, half-hidden by pitchers of fizzing champagne.… Where Ruby Keeler, with a gold chain … did a tap dance that was later to intrigue Al Jolson.”

Ed spent many late evenings enjoying the comedy-music-dance act of Clayton, Jackson, and Durante. The trio didn’t limit their antics to the stage; instead, they hurled themselves around the club in rough, exuberantly riotous routines. Ed became good friends with one of the trio, tap dancer Lou Clayton, who by one account was a “soft shoe man, tough guy, gambler, and with the ladies, a gentleman.” Sullivan and Clayton sometimes stayed out all night, completing their nocturnal revelries with a round of golf as the sun came up.

The Evening Mail continued to assign the young reporter an ever-widening area of coverage. During 1921 and 1922 Ed churned out four or five articles a week, and by 1923 he earned sports reporter-at-large status, writing tartly trenchant accounts of horse races, swim meets, and tennis matches—he dubbed court ace Helen Wills “little poker face” for her ability to baffle opponents. He also garnered sought-after professional boxing and baseball assignments. He brought the immediacy of the ring into his pieces, as in his report of the Pal Moore-Frankie Jerome bout at Madison Square Garden:

“Moore, who is reported to be a Klu [sic] Klux, was in rare form last night, and his laughable antics redeemed the show from being an utter failure. Pal slapped at Jerome from every angle of the landscape, and when he wasn’t slapping the Bronx youngster all over the ring he kept the crowd roaring by jigging. The combination was too much for Jerome and, although he did his best to land a damaging punch, Moore made him look ridiculous.

“Jerome, time and again, swung viciously at the dancing, tantalizing figure in front of him, only to miss and zigzag around in a semicircle, when Moore deftly stepped out of range. Every time Jerome missed—and he missed plenty—Moore would cuff him dizzy with an open-glove slap that for all their lightness enabled the southerner to pile up an enormous advantage.”

Ed often used a sly humor in his pieces, as in his explanation of “the razzberry,” the characteristic form of booing used in New York sporting events:

“Slipping the gentle razzberry is America’s most expressive indoor sport. The razzberry, one of this country’s best beloved vegetables, conveys a distinct thought to the razzberr-ee and the value of this thought is measured by the tone, displacement, and volume of the gentle razz.… [One evening at Madison Square Garden] all was silent as the announcement cut its way through the smoke clouds hanging over the ring and mounted into the galleries, but ere the echoes of Joe’s voice had died away the gentle razz began to pervade the summer air. Louder and louder it grew until the whole Garden was rocking to its tune.”

In the spring of 1923 the Mail paid Sullivan a career-boosting compliment, placing his photo above his column on a weekly basis. His headshot portrayed him as dapper in a coat and tie, gazing out with a determined mug into the middle distance. Ed Sullivan was now a known personality, a sports expert, a wise guy whose dictums were agreed with or disparaged in barroom banter. The twenty-one-year-old reporter’s coverage kept growing in color and humor, as in his profile of boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston:

“Down and out a hundred times, busted at one time or other in every State in the Union, wealthy beyond the wildest dreams at intervals, but always game, the Boy Bandit’s fantastic career has ceased to startle the crowd who have been sunburned under the bulge of the great White Way.

“Daniel Webster would have liked Jimmy a lot had he known him. For James Joy breathes, sleeps, and eats most of the glowing adjectives that the elder Webster corralled for our convenience.

“Words are Jimmy’s pet diet. All advertising men, believers in publicity, like to dabble with ’em; in fact, they have to. Johnston, greatest publicity man the modern world has ever produced, not only dabbles with syllables. He makes them sit up and beg, and his finished products are evidence complete that Jimmy learned more than a little of human nature in his nomadic tours of the world.

“King Tut received a lot of publicity when they trumped his coffin with a spade, but if the Bronx word juggler had been on the job we’d have learned more about Tut in one story than we gleaned from a batch of star correspondence in a month of overtime labor. In fact, Jimmy could have written better stuff sitting behind a ‘mill’ in his publicity bureau in the West Forties than was cabled by the writers on the spot.”

During Ed’s many long nights spent watching cabaret acts at the Silver Slipper, he became friendly with the club’s owners, a trio of syndicate crime figures named Owney Madden, Frankie Marlow, and Bill Duffy. The syndicate plowed some of its enormous profits from illegal liquor sales into business interests in horse racing and boxing. Marlow owned ponies and oversaw the management of two fighters, and Duffy had an interest in boxer Primo Camera, a lumbering mountain of a man who would briefly hold the heavyweight title. According to Broadway scuttlebutt, these syndicate figures saw benefit in socializing with sports reporters, expecting it to improve coverage of their investments in pugilists and racehorses.

The trio of mobsters welcomed the Mail’s young sports reporter. “At the club, we used to sit at Frankie Marlow’s own table,” Ed said. “Bill Duffy would join us.” One evening as Ed chatted with Duffy and Marlow at the Slipper, they were joined by Larry Fay, a racketeer and taxi fleet operator who wanted to enter the burgeoning speakeasy business. “Fay had just bought the Rendezvous from Marlow and Duffy and apparently he hadn’t paid up,” Sullivan said. “I heard Marlow call him over—remember, this guy Fay was pretty tough himself—and Marlow said to him, ‘Just a reminder, Larry, I gotta get the dough by Monday or you’ll find your ears lopped off.’

“That’s how friendly I was with those guys. I got to overhear a conversation like that. I remember that line about lopping off the ears.…”

Ed’s friendship with vaudeville dancer Lou Clayton often brought him to Club Durant, a speakeasy on West 58th Street. Soon after Jimmy Durante opened the club in early 1923, it became one of the city’s most notorious nightspots. Because Durante and Clayton were close friends, the soft-shoe man was present most nights. With his tough demeanor, Clayton was given the task of checking the patrons’ guns, storing them on ice (he considered it a good hiding spot) until they left. The intimate club, seating one hundred thirty-five and decked out with black velvet walls, stayed open until 7 A.M., and was a popular hangout for mobsters, whose business was flourishing with Prohibition. One small-time hood told Durante that he had “brought some sunshine into the lives of the mob.”

Club Durant catered to big spenders: the entrance fee was a hefty $4 and a gallon of illegal wine fetched $25. Its orchestra played until dawn, and, noted one patron, “There are winsome girlies, too, who run true to cabaret type in conformation, appointment and program.” The club’s star was Durante himself, especially when he performed his wildly physical routine called “Wood.” As the band vamped brassy honky-tonk music, Durante mugged through a song and dance routine that entailed smashing every wooden item on stage. At the act’s climax, with the band screaming full bore, he tore apart a piano piece by piece and threw it into the orchestra (the musicians ducked artfully). The audience roared and laughed and demanded more as Durante dismembered the instrument. Ed, sitting in the audience sometime around 3 A.M. drinking illegal spirits, was so impressed he would book the act decades later.

The high point of the reporter’s career in 1923 was his September interview with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, then in New York for a title bout. The pugilist was America’s idol that fall. Boxing was an ascendant sport in the 1920s and “The Manassas Mauler” led the way. His 1921 match against George Carpentier had boasted the first $1-million gate, and Dempsey was now the country’s highest paid athlete. His fabled “long count” match against Gene Tunney in 1927 would be one of the decade’s signature events. Having knocked down Tunney, Dempsey stood over him instead of returning to his corner, delaying the referee’s count; those few extra seconds allowed Tunney to recover, after which he went on to win. Whether Dempsey would have won had he quickly returned to his corner was debated endlessly in barrooms across the country.

For Sullivan, who idolized sports figures (an idolization that continued throughout his life), meeting the champion was like being ushered into the presence of a Greek god. Even more heart-fluttering, Dempsey greeted the young reporter in his room at the Alamac Hotel, and invited Ed to join him for breakfast. “When I knocked at Dempsey’s door, he opened it himself—and I remember how big he looked,” Ed recalled. “He seemed to fill the doorway. He was wearing a loud striped bathrobe and he was smiling.” As they sat eating breakfast, the two men found common ground apart from the reporter—athlete interview. Sullivan, noticing a grapefruit packed in a bowl of ice, noted that he had never seen it served that way—he had never eaten in a restaurant in his youth. Dempsey one-upped him in terms of a humble background. The boxer said he had never seen grapefruit at all as a kid.

Simpatico established, Sullivan and Dempsey would consider themselves friends from then on, staying in touch through the years. Toward the end of their lives they often had lunch together on Saturdays at Dempsey’s Broadway restaurant, talking about old times.

In October 1923, Ed’s reporting career took a hard turn to the left. The New York Call, the city’s socialist newspaper, was revamping its format. Its new name was the New York Leader, and its self-proclaimed goal was to be “more than a propaganda organ. To be a REAL newspaper.” Its meager sports section, limited to desultory coverage of baseball and boxing, was being expanded to cover all major sports. It needed an editor to oversee its new sports staff of six contributors. Ed, at age twenty-two, saw the job as a chance for advancement.

If moving from the Port Chester Daily Item to the New York Evening Mail had been a journey to a different world, Ed’s jump to the Leader required a still more fantastic voyage. The paper had so vigorously opposed U.S. involvement in World War I that it was prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Its offices were raided and wrecked during the “Red Scare” of 1919, a government campaign to harass suspected communists prompted by the recent Bolshevik overthrow of Russia. Later, the Leader published articles supportive of Sacco and Venzetti, the Italian radicals whose politically charged trial and subsequent conviction stirred controversy throughout the 1920s.

Although the paper’s leftist sympathies were wide in scope—it published a sex education column by Margaret Sanger that included her writings about birth control—its chief focus was the burgeoning organized labor movement. The Leader provided detailed coverage of labor—management battles, with headlines like “Printers Win 44-Hour Week” and “Alabama National Guard Set Serious Precedent in Suppressing Miners.” Its hero was socialist labor organizer Eugene V. Debs (“Eugene V. Debs, former political prisoner of the United States government, would not leave San Francisco until he had visited Tom Mooney in his prison cell in San Quentin.”). The paper published a weekly listing of all the socialist meetings in New York, and also espoused brotherhood with its communist compatriots overseas, with stories like “Russian Workmen Made Sharers in Prosperity.” The Leader’s publisher, Norman Thomas, would be the Socialist Party presidential candidate from 1928 to 1948, and would help launch the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Ed, as the Leader’s sports editor, was also its top sports columnist. His column, East Side—West Side, All Around the Town, covered any sports topic he found interesting. For his debut piece on October 1 he wrote his own version of a workers’ solidarity piece, skewering racetracks and baseball stadiums for overcharging the common man. Baseball teams, he pointed out, haul in great sums from their fans—up to $1 million in the recent season, by his count—yet the best seats for the upcoming World Series tickets were set at the unconscionably high price of $6 a seat. “Instead of acknowledging the fans’ support throughout the season by a reduction in current baseball admission prices the judge boosted them, evidently using reverse English to arrive at his decision,” Ed opined. “It’s a great old world.”

A few days later he wrote about how the Ku Klux Klan had influenced a southern sporting event, the Klan being a favorite target of the Leader. He began his piece with a reference to a black boxer named Battling Siki, who was originally from Senegal, Africa:

“Battling Siki, the Senegalese dark horse, can’t speak English fluently, but if he could, he probably would express himself somewhat after this fashion: ‘Any Irishman who risks a world’s title down below the Mason-Dixon line of Kukluxland is about as crazy as any colored boy who risks one against an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day.’ Yesterday’s near-riot in Columbus, Ga., precipitated by the Mike McTigue—Young Stribling championship go, can be traced directly to the Ku Klux clan [sic]. McTigue, an Irish Catholic, managed by Joe Jacobs, a Jew, has as much chance of getting an even break in Georgia as the well-known snowball has of enduring the scorching blasts of Dante’s Inferno.”

After his first week, though, Ed’s Leader writing turned largely apolitical, however much the newsprint around him trumpeted the international proletariat. His move to the Leader seemed less a reflection of his politics than a desire to step up a career rung, less about the working class than about one individual worker. Although he advanced from reporter to editor, he covered sports much as he had at the Mail, offering sharply opinionated reports of everything from horse racing to the upcoming Olympics. He touted Illinois sophomore Red Grange as one of the great football halfbacks, lauded Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne’s competitive spirit—“Army never got over the shock of Notre Dame’s cocksuredness”—and plugged his friends, speed skater Joe Moore, on his way to the Olympics, and boxer Johnny Dundee, now featherweight champion. When he was wrong, which was not infrequent, he poked fun at himself. Covering the 1923 World Series, he forecast a Giants victory over the Yankees by four games to two; instead it was the Yankees, propelled by Babe Ruth, who won by that very score. Ed acknowledged his strikeout by adding a drawing to his column showing a group of men looking quizzically at a newspaper, with the caption, “Yes, We Picked the Giants!”

But Ed’s newfound editorial status proved ill-starred. On November 13, less than six weeks after launching with its new name, the Leader suspended publication. Organized labor and socialist groups had pooled $100,000 to revamp the newspaper but increased costs quickly devoured the investment. “It seemed in every way right to suspend the Leader while it is solvent rather than try to continue at a financial hazard a paper of greatly reduced size,” announced one of its worker-managers. That may have made sound business sense but it didn’t change the fact that its entire staff, including its sports editor, was now unemployed.

His newspaper contacts came in handy. The Evening Mail, which Ed had left to work for the Leader, threw him a lifeline, hiring him to cover winter sports in Florida. It was a plum job. He had canvassed the New York area covering sporting events but this was his first travel assignment. And covering baseball’s spring training was an added perk. Sullivan headed south sometime after the first of the year, 1924.

This door, however, closed even faster than the Leader. On January 25, publishing mogul F.A. Munsey bought the Evening Mail for a price rumored to be in excess of $2 million, planning to incorporate the paper into one of his existing dailies. In the shuffle, Ed lost his assignment and found himself stranded in Florida.

He was not only unemployed but nearly broke. Living the high life in Manhattan hadn’t entailed a savings plan. A golf pro named Tommy Armour loaned him $50 and referred him to famed sportswriter Grantland Rice (who wrote the oft-quoted aphorism “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”). Rice helped Ed get a job as a publicist for a golf course at Ormond Beach, Florida, a career detour that taught him a skill he often used later in life, event organizing. He gained his first experience as an event producer by putting together exhibition golf tournaments, which he promoted with minor publicity stunts.

He supplemented his salary by writing freelance sports stories for the Associated Press and United Press International, and that winter Ed spotted a potential big scoop. Leading financier George F. Baker was traveling south in a private railcar to play golf with industrialist John D. Rockefeller, who owned a mansion in Ormond Beach. Ed checked with some New York dailies: Would they buy a story about the famous tycoons playing golf? That Ed had just finished a stint on a socialist newspaper didn’t deter him from covering Rockefeller, the very embodiment of capitalism. Finding interest, he gathered details about Baker and Rockefeller’s golf game and wrote his story. But he ran into an obstacle when his employer, the manager of the Hotel Ormond, refused to allow him to send it, fearing the piece might offend the two men. Ed began maneuvering to get his piece published. “When you are broke you become inventive,” he said.

He suggested to his boss that the Hotel Ormond offer its services to the train car that Baker had traveled on. The manager liked the idea, and Ed volunteered to present the offer himself. Once there, he convinced the railroad manager to read his story, having him initial it to show his agreement that it contained nothing offensive. Ed’s employer, seeing the initials, agreed to let him send his story, which became a major sale for the reporter. The story was presumably the one in The New York Times on March 28, 1924 detailing a Rockefeller golf game in Ormond Beach. The glowing three-paragraph piece carried no byline and didn’t mention the businessman’s partner that day, yet one day earlier the paper had reported that George Baker was headed south for business meetings. As Ed later told it, Rockefeller himself sent the reporter “a very human note,” shortly after the article ran, explaining that Baker had won hole by hole, yet the industrialist was victorious in the final score. The letter may have been Ed’s embellishment of the story—he claimed he didn’t keep it—yet it’s true that after decades of distrusting the press, late in life Rockefeller actively courted reporters, especially adoring ones.

At any rate, Florida held little appeal for Sullivan. After a few months in the sun he eagerly sought another sports-reporting berth. Between April 1924 and early 1925, he worked at three newspapers, hopping from one to the next, searching for what he had at the Mail and the Leader: a high-profile job covering a smorgasbord of sports. In April he took a job at the Philadelphia Public Ledger, a staid daily that mixed national news with voluminous coverage of local debutantes. But as at each of his three short-lived posts, the Ledger gave him no byline. In May, publisher Frederick Enright launched a new evening paper, the New York Bulletin, a Democratic broadsheet. Ed jumped at the chance to move back to New York, yet before he was established at the Bulletin he found an opening at the New York World.

Established by Joseph Pulitzer in 1883, the World was a big, prosperous daily with offices throughout the United States and Europe—just the sort of publication an ambitious newsman would desire. World sports editor George Daley, however, proved to be a minor tyrant and Ed chafed under his supervision, calling him a perfectionist. Even worse, Daley covered all the choice events himself. The reporter kept looking for an ideal position.

Sometime in the fall of 1924 he took a sportswriting job at the New York Morning Telegraph, a racing sheet that whispered insider’s tips about that afternoon’s track action, and whose front page covered the careers of hot ponies. For a reporter fluent in all the major sports, the Telegraph offered a much smaller world. The paper, as described by famed New York chronicler O.O. McIntyre, was “a barney refuge for the journalistically forlorn,” which “harbored a dozen white-hair paragraphers.” Still, it did deliver Sullivan from George Daley’s clutches. From his tenure at the tip sheet he developed a passion for horse racing, and throughout his life spent many afternoons at the tracks; when he became wealthy later in life he bought his own racehorse. But the Telegraph didn’t provide enough to hold him.

Finally, in early 1925 he ran into a casual friend, Will Gould, a sports cartoonist for the New York Evening Graphic, who told him of the paper’s plans for a Saturday sports magazine. Gould recommended Sullivan write articles for the new insert. Ed jumped at the opportunity. At age twenty-three he was, astonishingly, starting his eighth newspaper job—and the most unusual. Launched in September 1924, the Graphic was a screaming two-fisted tabloid, dispensing with all journalistic rules except the inviolable precept that tawdry sensationalism draws readers. Yellow journalism had never been quite so yellow. The Graphic influenced Ed in numerous ways, the first of these being that it allowed him to meet someone who moved him profoundly.

When Ed met Olympic swimming star Sybil Bauer while covering a meet in 1925, it was love at first sight. Perhaps it was her winsome smile, or the sight of her in a swimsuit, but whatever the case, suddenly, even the fact that she lived half a country away didn’t matter.

By the mid 1920s Bauer was something of a national celebrity. In 1921 she won her first Amateur Athletic Union backstroke championship, a title she claimed every year until 1926. In 1922 she became the first woman to break a men’s record, besting Stubby Kruger’s 440-yard backstroke record by four seconds. (The meet in Bermuda was not officially sanctioned so her performance was never formally recognized.) By the time she qualified for the 1924 Olympics, Bauer held world records at every backstroke distance. That year in Paris she won Olympic gold with ease, flashing through the 100-meter backstroke four full seconds faster than the silver medalist. She would eventually set twenty-three world records in swimming.

For all her competitive prowess, Sybil was easygoing, gentle, and upbeat. She wasn’t classically pretty—her features were blunt—yet she possessed a swimmer’s svelte form. When Ed and the twenty-one-year-old swimmer met, he wasn’t the only one to swoon: the young Olympic star also found the sports reporter quite charming. Because the two lived in different parts of the country it was an unlikely romance; Sybil was a student at Northwestern University in Chicago, where she had grown up, and Ed lived in New York. But that proved no obstacle for Sullivan, and he pursued Sybil with a passion.

The romance blossomed. Sybil’s swimming career brought her to the East Coast at times, and Ed made the trip to Chicago when he could. Several months after meeting, the two were quite serious about each other. In an unusual gesture, Ed even brought Sybil home to Port Chester to meet his family. Once established in New York he had rarely gone back, preferring to keep his distance from his father, if not from Port Chester itself. However, the trip home with Sybil proved a major success. Everyone in the Sullivan family liked her enormously.

The romance, while growing, remained a long-distance relationship, with Sybil attending college in Chicago and pursuing her swimming career while Ed remained immersed in his life as a New York sports reporter. He continued burning the candle at both ends, covering athletics during the day and nightclubbing virtually every night of the week.

Sybil appeared to have everything—athletic prowess, renown, winning charm—yet her life took an unexpected turn in early 1926. While being honored in a parade in St. Augustine, Florida, after winning an AAU swimming championship in February, Sybil suffered a momentary dizziness and fell from a slow-moving touring car. Though she suffered no major injuries, it soon became evident that her dizziness was symptomatic of a very real health problem. One newspaper attributed her fall to a nervous breakdown caused by the strain of her vigorous athletic training—the idea of a prominent female athlete was resisted by many. The real cause, however, was far more serious, and Sybil’s health began to deteriorate, precipitously. Sometime in the next several months her family was told that she had cancer. The champion swimmer, in peak physical shape just months before, was now gravely ill.

In New York, Ed stayed in touch with Sybil while maintaining both his vigorous work and night lives. One of his favorite Manhattan nightclubs was the Casa Lopez, an upscale speakeasy owned by famed bandleader Vincent Lopez. Socializing at the club one evening in early October, Sullivan spotted a young woman at the next table he described as a “very stunning brunette youngster.” He asked the Casa Lopez’s publicity man, Joe Russell, to arrange an introduction.

Her name was Sylvia Weinstein. Elegantly dressed, the twenty-two-year-old possessed almost movie star good looks, with a trim figure, high cheekbones, and dark hair that complemented her pretty dark eyes. Her family was distinctly upper crust; her father, Julius Weinstein, a first-generation émigré from Lithuania, had made a considerable fortune in New York real estate.

When Ed sat down at her table the attraction soon became mutual. Their conversation turned, naturally, to sports, and Ed asked Sylvia if she liked tennis. “Of course I said I loved it. Ed was very attractive,” she recalled. Ed brought up boxing and it turned out that, yes, Sylvia was also enthusiastic about attending boxing matches. Over the course of the evening’s animated chat, Ed asked Sylvia for not one but two dates. The answer to both was yes. They made a date to attend tennis star Suzanne Lenglen’s match at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, October 9, and they also planned to see the Harry Wills—Jack Sharkey prizefight at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn on Tuesday, October 12.

Both events had an element of glamour. French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, a dazzling player and star of the 1920 Olympics, was the first female tennis pro to wear an outfit that afforded a generous view of her calf—stirring a mild scandal. Her Madison Square Garden match that Saturday, attended by thirteen thousand fans, was the start of her first tour as a professional. Upon arriving in New York to launch the tour, she had hiked up her skirt for reporters and announced she had come to America to make a whole lot of money.

The prizefight between Harry Wills, known as the “Brown Panther,” and Jack Sharkey was a precursor to a title bout, with the winner earning a shot at champion Gene Tunney. (Wills, a black man, had signed a contract in the early 1920s to face then-champion Jack Dempsey, but New York’s governor canceled the bout, fearing a race riot after the fight.) Ebbets Field was crammed with forty thousand fans, and in the high-octane economy of New York in the 1920s plenty of high rollers were sprinkled among the crowd. The evening was Sylvia’s first at a boxing match, and she did her best to enjoy it.

Although pugilism held little interest for her, she felt quite intrigued by her date. At age twenty-five, he was in his element at events like these. As a well-known sports reporter he was part of the party, a major fellow who knew the inside scoop. He likely had good seats, and plenty of opportunities for glad-handing with important personages—which he never failed to do. With his tailored suit and easy familiarity with everybody who was a somebody, he cut an attractive figure. If his goal was to impress his date, the two events were the perfect venue.

Sullivan’s first love, Sybil Bauer, an Olympic gold medalist in the 1924 games. (International Swimming Hall of Fame)

In Chicago, Sybil’s health showed no sign of improvement. At the end of October her condition took a turn for the worse and she entered the hospital. In November, Ed made a trip to see her, after which the couple made a major announcement. Ed had proposed, Sybil had accepted, and the two were now engaged. The wedding was set for June. Due to Sybil’s celebrity status the engagement was a minor national news item, reported in papers across the country. Ed, perennially short on money, borrowed enough from his older sister Helen to buy a diamond engagement ring at Black, Starr and Frost, an elegant high-end jeweler.

Or, Helen may have insisted that Ed take the money. Given Sybil’s ill health, his proposal may have been as much a gesture of sympathy as love. Decades later, Ed’s daughter Betty recalled that his sisters Mercedes and Helen urged Ed to propose because they knew Sybil was dying. The sisters were fond of her and apparently saw the proposal as fulfilling her last wish. “From what I understand he was sort of pushed into that by Helen and Mercedes,” Betty said.

After proposing, Ed returned to New York as Sybil’s condition continued to worsen. In late January, he again made the trip to Chicago, likely knowing that this was his last visit. As his fiancée died on January 31 he was sitting by her bedside, along with her two brothers, her sister, and her parents. The Bauer family gave Ed back his ring, and he returned to New York. Sybil Bauer’s untimely death was a far bigger news story than had been her engagement, and was splashed on the front page of many newspapers, with Ed mentioned as her bridegroom-to-be. Her pallbearers were six well-known swimmers, including 1924 Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller (who later played Tarzan in a string of B movies). Some editorialists pointed to Sybil’s illness as proof that women shouldn’t be allowed to compete in athletics, but, noted one swimming organization in its obituary, “her life had contradicted those claims.”

In 1967, Sybil was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The organization asked Ed, then famous, to record a voiceover to accompany Sybil’s photo in its museum. In the recording, he summarized her athletic achievements, adding, “Sybil, a girl from Chicago, was a very attractive girl. Most of us sports-casters had a crush on her. I know I did. Sybil really belongs in the Swimming Hall of Fame.” Claiming he had a crush on her like all the boys was quite an understatement for the fiancé who held Sybil’s hand on her deathbed. Ed seemed to have a need to exorcise her from his history, and after her death he never again made reference to her. In the early 1950s, after he became a major television star, he was interviewed constantly about his life history, yet never once mentioned his former fiancée. Even when he detailed his life story in a multipart series for the New York Post he included not one word of Sybil. Perhaps the episode was too grief inducing, or perhaps he simply preferred to keep it to himself. Like his father, he was a man who rarely spoke of his inner feelings, even to those closest to him.

Back in New York, Ed was not alone in his loss. Sylvia had become his steady date. Not that there was anything steady about the stormy sea of the Ed-Sylvia romance. The two were together as often as they decided to break things off. They would meet for a dinner date, or go out to a nightclub, only to call it quits by the end of the evening. But Ed couldn’t stay away, and a few days later he would call and say, “I can’t stand it anymore.” The farewell dinners became a routine element of their relationship. “Afterward we would say ‘Meet you for another good-bye party in two weeks,’ ” Sylvia recalled.

The chief problem, or so it seemed, was their religious backgrounds. For Sylvia, it was one thing to accept a date with an attractive Catholic boy she had met in the intoxicating atmosphere of the Casa Lopez; it was another to tell her family she was dating a gentile. “I guess Ed was the first Christian boy I ever really knew,” Sylvia said. When some months later she informed her family that she had a steady boyfriend, she told them his name was Ed Solomon. After her brother heard he wrote for the Graphic, he said, “Oh, you mean Ed Sullivan, not Solomon.”

Sylvia described herself as coming from a “regular Marjorie Morningstar world,” a reference to the Herman Wouk novel about an affluent Jewish girl in the 1930s who disobeys her family’s wishes to pursue her own desires and date a gentile. Her family, however, was not particularly observant, going to temple only on High Holy days, and despite her reluctance to acknowledge dating Ed, they seemed to have no serious objection. Sylvia later contradicted her reference to Marjorie Morningstar, saying, “I can honestly say that there was very little opposition from my family.” And according to Ed’s grandson, Rob Precht, the Weinsteins were happy to see Sylvia date Ed. “Her family was thrilled,” he said. “He was a man about town, a go-getter, attractive, an all-American sports guy. They liked him.”

However accepting Sylvia’s family felt about Ed, their attitude met its equal and opposite reaction in Ed’s family. The Sullivans were unequivocally opposed to him dating a Jewish girl. That he would marry Sylvia was not in the realm of possibility, in their view. Ed, bowing to the supposed immovable obstacle of their different religious backgrounds, kept insisting to Sylvia that their relationship could never work out. Then he would once again tell her he couldn’t see her anymore.

Still, nothing could keep them apart. Their chemistry worked. Sylvia, warm and easygoing, understanding, a good conversationalist; Ed, ambitious, moody, sometimes hot-tempered, yet exceptionally fond of her. Sylvia knew how to let Ed be Ed, how to take his moods with a grain of salt. She was also, like his mother, encouraging. She believed in him. He was always on the lookout, for the next job, the next hand to shake, the next opportunity. She knew he was headed somewhere, and she allowed him to take the lead. Ed was very much in charge, and Sylvia was happy to go along.

And they both loved to go out. For the two of them, the New York nightclub was like a second living room. Ed made the rounds practically every evening and Sylvia often accompanied him. She took pleasure in dressing with great style, and Ed himself was invariably nattily attired. Sylvia favored elegant dresses and her date usually wore a double-breasted jacket topped with a fedora; so dashing a figure did he cut that in the early 1930s Adam Hats ask him to pose for a newspaper ad. They made an attractive couple, Sylvia with her dark good looks and Ed still ruddily handsome from his days as a Port Chester athlete. The two sat and socialized in various expensive speakeasies on most nights, Ed with his cigarette and drink, Sylvia sipping a cocktail. Throughout the evening they greeted passersby and chatted with Ed’s many acquaintances and friends; after years of knocking around newspapers and nightclubs, he seemed to know most of the city.

So, as soon as they called the whole thing off, it was back on again. The romance between Ed and Sylvia—intermittent and mercurial at one level—was as steady and predictable as the train schedule at Grand Central Station.