It was an unusual Monday in many ways. Thirty years ago today, I started work at the supermarket celebrity tabloid called Star Magazine. I was supposed to have gone to work at WOR Radio, at the time the number one radio station in the country, but that had gotten postponed a month. I’d already left Gannett newspapers. So Star was something to do until the WOR job began.
It was my first job where the office itself was in Manhattan, at 730 Third Avenue. Arriving, I was given a desk among a crowd of Australian reporters; the magazine’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, had planned to start a new daily newspaper in New York, and when that fell through, he assigned a lot of his imported writers to the Star.
Come noontime I heard, in charming Aussie accent, “Care to get a bite, mate?” Off we went, to Costello’s, an establishment once popular among the city’s literary set — James Thurber had done cartoons in the wet plaster of the walls with his finger decades before, and they were still there — and now the hangout of the tabloid press. I soon learned that the midday meal was taken in liquid form and in some quantity. We staggered back to the office, where it seemed others had been similarly nourished. I do not remember much of that afternoon.
On the way home — a terrible two-hour ride in the stinking smoker on the stinking diesel train to Brewster — I read the just-released Playboy interview with John Lennon. I’d never had much of an opinion one way or the other, but after reading the interview I decided I liked the guy.
Little did I know. Little did anyone, except a chubby, delusional non-entity from Hawaii.
It was not until I got up the next morning to catch the 6 a.m. train back to Manhattan that I heard: John Lennon had been shot to death outside the famous Dakota apartment building the night before.
The Star was now a completely different place. Reporters were dispatched all over the city, to police headquarters, to Central Park West (where the Dakota is), and to low places where for a few thousand dollars the unlisted Lennon-Yoko telephone number could be purchased. (This was done, though the purpose was not to get an interview but instead to prevent one: a reporter with the National Enquirer, a competitor, had arranged an interview with Yoko Ono, by claiming to be from a respectable British daily paper. The Star paid for the phone number so as to be able to call Yoko and tell her that the reporter was really from the Enquirer, which would be publishing on its front page a picture of John dead on the slab. Yes, the tabloids have paid spies in each other’s newsrooms, which is how we knew all this. The ploy worked — the interview got canceled.)
The story that was unfolding was too weird for words, even tabloid words where all grandmothers are “spunky” and all sick children are “brave”: a total nutjob named Mark David Chapman had read The Catcher in the Rye and this had led him to conclude that he should come to New York and kill John Lennon.
Several months later, I would be in the courtroom, this time as a reporter for WOR Radio, when Mark David Chapman stood before the judge, changed his plea to “guilty” and began to read from his favorite book. Chapman had what reporters sometimes call “the look” — a strange expression that in New York had most recently been seen on the face of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” murderer. It is an odd, beatific, almost glowing expression that makes sane people shiver.
Almost a year after that first eventful day at the Star, I interviewed Elliot Mintz, who was the publicist for Yoko Ono. He accented — puzzlingly, I thought — that it was a good thing that it was John instead of Yoko who got killed, because Yoko got by without John better than John could have gotten along without Yoko. The interview was so odd and rambling that we decided not to put it on the air.
But by then the country and indeed the world might have been forgiven for thinking that there was nothing too odd, too weird, to be believed. It had been a very shocking year.
Less than four months after Lennon’s killing, an assassin’s bullet would find newly elected President Ronald Reagan; the assassin, John W. Hinckley Jr., seemed to believe that his action would gain for him the affections of actress Jodie Foster. Six weeks after that, a wild-eyed Turkish fellow named Mehmet Ali Hagca would shoot Pope John Paul II four times as the Pope blessed the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. Several months after that, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was shot to death by multiple Moslem fundamentalist assassins in Cairo.
Two weeks after that, I would cover the strange and frightening Brinks armored-car robbery in nearby Nyack, New York, in which something calling itself the Black Liberation Army and some retreads from the old Weather Underground robbed a Brinks truck, stealing more than a million-and-a-half dollars and killing two policemen and a Brinks guard.
We haven’t had a year like that since.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.