A Fan’s Notes: An Interview with Journalist Bob Drury

Let’s go back to your reporting career chronologically — you moved on to another paper, right? The New York Daily News or Newsday? You started writing about crime. How did the transition from sports to crime take place? I loved your Elaine’s memoir in GQ years back, so a crime reporter saloon story or two would be great.

I did a few more years at the Post, covering the Giants and (mostly) college hoop before being promoted to columnist. Pretty incredible, seeing my little face-photo atop a column. Being able to spew an opinion on (just about) anything I wanted, although I hewed pretty closely to pro football and college basketball.

Attended four-five, maybe six Super Bowls (can’t recall exact number), and probably about as many NCAA tournaments. They were the best. When we weren’t covering games a coterie of reporters were always out playing ball. I remember Bryan Burwell had a pretty good handle, Jack Wilkinson of the New York Daily News breaking my nose (accidentally, I think) during a game in New Orleans, and guarding the Boston Globe‘s Leslie Visser — the only female who played. (She was game but lame on the court; easy defensive assignment.)

One year I got a great story. Someone in the stands at one of the quarter-final games had brought a radio, I happened to be next to him on the hot dog line at halftime, and he told me he was picking up the 107-year-old DePaul coach Ray Meyer on a short-wave signal. Turns out Meyer was miked by NBC for a documentary. I told the guy he could sit in my courtside press seat if I could borrow his radio for the second half. Deal.

DePaul had a powerhouse team that year — Mark Aguirre, Skip Dillard and a couple of other future pros — but they were in a close game with tiny St. Joe’s (Philly). Toward the end of the second half DePaul fell apart, and I could hear the players cursing the coach in the time-out huddles and, finally, dismissing him altogether to argue amongst themselves. Meyer had lost control of his team, and St. Joe’s upset them. Of course I wrote this.

But Meyer was known as a saintly old gent, and the next week Bryant Gumble, then with NBC Sports, held up my photograph on national television, said, “Boo Bob Drury”, and basically called me a liar. I was furious; so was Blackie Lisker. Back in New York that Monday, I called Meyer, who mumbled an apology to me — on tape!! — before his handlers got him off the phone. Then I called that little asswipe Gumbel at home and played him Meyer’s tape. The fucker couldn’t say anything except to keep stammering, “How did you get my home number?” Ha! naturally I wrote a column for the next day basically challenging him to a fist fight. And Lisker wrote a back-page editorial more or less doing the same. Tall Fun … although I suppose I’ll never be hired as a correspondent for his HBO sports show.

Anyway, my best friend Mike McAlary had moved on from the Post sports department, where he’d covered the Yankees, to New York Newsday, where he was covering crime. He kept urging me to do the same. But I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to leave sports. Plus, it was a big salary cut. I was a kid, a columnist, traveling the country for free, and making six figures.

In a kind of halfway move, I left the Post and joined the old Sport Magazine with a kind of tacit agreement that I would give them, say, a pure sports piece one month (profile of Digger Phelps, for instance) and be allowed to pick a sort-of-sporting story to write the next month (profile of the former light heavyweight champ Bob Foster, for instance, then a New Mexico homicide cop). At the same time I started doing some freelance crime stuff for the Daily News.

I liked the non-sports enough, and McAlary kept bugging me, so finally I applied to Newsday and was hired to work the Cop Shop down at Police Plaza (The Purple Palace), 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. I was not only right back working the hours I’d started in the newspaper business, but I took a 50k pay cut as well. No big deal, I guess, I still had enough money for whiskey.

The late ’80s were a great time to be a crime reporter. The height of the crack wars in NYC. Street villains with names like “Popeye” and “Fat Cat” and “Jughead”. Larry Davis wounded six cops during a Bronx shootout and went on the run for three weeks or so and I OWNED the story. I remember hanging out all night ’til dawn in his brother’s ghetto apartment. The brother swore he could convince Larry to surrender to me. He didn’t, but it scared the hell out of my editors when they didn’t hear from me for 24 hours in those pre-cell phone days. They finally got Larry and I showed up the first day of his trial in the Bronx. When I noticed that half the jury refused to take off their sunglasses I knew the Bronx DA would never get his attempted homicide rap. He didn’t, although Larry did go away. I was also the first reporter on the scene of the assassination of Officer Ed Byrnes, his head blown off in his squad car while guarding a witness in Queens who was set to testify against Fat Cat.

I guess we thought we were wild and cool. A bunch of us. McAlary (who went on to win a Pulitzer and with whom I had a falling out — he could be a selfish prick — before making up with him right before he died too young); Richie Esposito (now winning awards as ABC News’s Brian Ross’s investigative producer), Ellis Henican (still at Newsday writing a column as well as the “official” liberal foil at Fox News); Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer (now both at the New York Times — Dwyer won a Pulitzer, too, but Flynn was the better ball player). I still kept in touch with Harvey Araton, and when we both got nominated for Pulitzers we’d joke that we could only tell each other and no one else; it didn’t count unless you won.

Guys like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Don Forst — Newsday Editor in Chief — were our idols, and we had two crazy-nut city editors named Hap Hairston and John Cotter — both also died young — who were great, wonderful teachers. They hated each other. We used to hang at certain bars in the city. The Lion’s Head on Christopher Street in the village (since closed). You’ve probably heard the old Lion’s Head saw: “A place for writers with a drinking problem and drinkers with a writing problem.” Ryan McFadden’s on 42nd and 2nd across from the old Daily News building. One night in McFadden’s Cotter and I convinced Steve McFadden that Haiti was a vacationer’s paradise. We just wanted to fly down for the ousting of Baby Doc Duvalier, currently in progress, (Papa Doc being long dead), but McFadden had no clue. It was maybe five in the morning, we were all pretty oiled, and after stopping at McFadden’s apartment to pick up some tapes of the Wolfe Tones (don’t ask) we all took a cab to Kennedy and caught the first flight to Port Au Prince via Miami. McFadden was aghast. It was a war zone. When he sobered up he was so hungover and so pissed at us. But we ended up staying a week at the Hotel Oloffson — where Graham Greene wrote The Comedians — listening to the Wolfe Tones on the owner’s tape deck amid the gunfire, and had a pretty good time.

And, of course, there was Elaine’s — Elaine Kauffman, she loved reporters and cops. I had met her back when I was a kid sportswriter, maybe seven or eight years earlier. A literary agent owed me 11k — a lordly sum at the time for me; even today now that I think about it — and he was hosting an afternoon party at Elaine’s for another one of his clients. When I arrived at the door he was greeting people and handed me the check. I didn’t know anybody so I slinked over to a corner of the bar and ordered a beer. When I went to pay, and the bartender told me it was an open bar, I jacked him a two-spot tip. Three or four more beers later, three or four more $2 tips later, I notice that there’s this, er, zoftig women giving me the voodoo eye from a couple of bar stools down.

I stand up and start to say, “Hi. My name is …” and she holds a hand up and cuts me off.

“I know who the fuck you are. I saw Jay give you that check for eleven grand when you walked in and I’ve been watching you tip my bartender with every drink. My name’s Elaine, and your welcome in my place any fucking time.”

Years later, the first time McAlary and I walked in there together, she remembered my name and introduced me around to the regulars as “the guy that tips.”