One Lucky Guy
The life and times of New York columnist Mike McAlary take center stage in a Broadway hit that brings back some wild memories for former classmates
August 8, 2013
By Mark Sullivan
In the Tony-nominated play Lucky Guy, Tom Hanks portrays Mike McAlary ’79 as a swaggering, ambitious tabloid reporter for whom the standard rules do not apply. In Nora Ephron’s play set against the backdrop of New York City’s tabloid wars of the mid-1980s, McAlary stays out all night chasing scoops, uncovers two major police scandals, and jumps from Newsday to The Daily News, then to The Post and back to The News. There, he faces a scandal of his own, survives a horrific car accident, wins a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and then dies of cancer at age 41. It sounds like tabloid sensationalism, but it’s all true. And none of it is surprising to anyone who knew McAlary at Syracuse in the late 1970s when he attended the Newhouse School, worked at The Daily Orange, and told everyone he wanted to move to New York and become a big city columnist. “Most of us who were in school at that time wanted to be Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein,” says Jim Naughton ’79, of The Washington Post investigative reporters who broke the Watergate scandal. “But Mac wanted to be Jimmy Breslin.” Breslin was the longtime columnist for The New York Daily News, whom McAlary ended up replacing when Breslin jumped to New York Newsday. “That’s what he aspired to and he did it,” says Naughton, who as The Daily Orange editor-in-chief hired McAlary as sports editor.
That Daily Orange staff produced three Pulitzer Prize winners (McAlary, Maura McEnaney ’79, and Mike Stanton ’79), the authors of numerous books, and one editor who gave up journalism to write movie scores. But McAlary, who died in 1998, is the only one whose life has been turned into a Broadway play. “There were so many talented people on that staff, but it’s pretty clear now that Mike had the best combination of talent and ambition of any of them,” says Tom Coffey ’80, who worked with McAlary at the DO and is now an editor at The New York Times and author of three novels. “Even then he had the ability to get sources to talk to him and he had great instincts for what people wanted to read.”
In Lucky Guy, McAlary’s character uses the full gamut of reporter’s tricks to get the stories he wants. He bullies, badgers, and charms. At SU, that lucky guy personality was very much in evidence. Tim Wendel ’78, the author of seven books, recalls sitting in the DO office one day when McAlary showed up looking for tickets to comedian Steve Martin’s appearance at Hendricks Chapel that night. Wendel did not have tickets, but McAlary was undeterred. “Let’s sneak in,” he suggested to Wendel and the two headed over to Hendricks for the performance. “We made it into Hendricks using press passes, but security stopped us just outside the offices of Hillel and two doors away from Martin’s dressing room.” McAlary pulled Wendel into the Hillel offices where they donned yarmulkes and walked confidently past security and into Martin’s dressing room. “Martin was at a table putting on his stage makeup and saw our reflections in the mirror,” Wendel says. “He looked us over for a few seconds and then said, ‘You guys aren’t Jewish.’ We ended up talking to him for 20 minutes and then went inside and saw the show. It was a great night.”
Indeed, McAlary had no problem bending the rules. As editor of the Summer Orange, the weekly version of the DO that was published in June, July, and August, McAlary and the staff would take turns driving to the printer in an old red Ford Econoline van owned by the paper. Once the paper was printed, McAlary would commandeer the van as his own recreational vehicle. One weekend Mac strapped several canoes to the top of the van and took it to nearby Green Lakes State Park. While filling the gas tank for the return trip back to campus, he encountered George Meusel, the DO business manager and the guy in charge of paying the bills. Others may have panicked at being busted, but Mac smiled and waved and then on Monday morning showed up at Meusel’s office and turned in the gas receipts for the weekend. “He must have put 10,000 miles on the van that summer,” Coffey recalls. “It was never the same after that.”
In Ephron’s play, McAlary and another reporter get into a brawl one night arguing about who’s the better reporter. It was not Mac’s first bar room brawl. During his time at SU, McAlary was a regular at The Orange, a dingy bar on South Crouse Avenue, where townies and students would congregate. “Even back then, Mike was cultivating his ‘man of the people’ persona,” Naughton says. One night in spring 1977 after a few tequilas, a brawl broke out and McAlary and several other combatants were arrested. When the arresting officer asked for his name, McAlary, more of a wise guy than a lucky guy that night, told the cop his name was Gary Gilmore, the murderer who had been executed before a firing squad a few months earlier. The next morning McAlary was brought into court before Judge Richard Sardino who took one look at the docket and bellowed out, “Who the hell arrested Gary Gilmore last night?” McAlary approached the bench and said, “I’m sorry your honor. Last night I was so intoxicated, I thought I was Gary Gilmore, but I’m not and I apologize.” Sardino, a notorious no-nonsense jurist especially when it came to SU students, laughed and let McAlary go. “Mike did have the ability to turn on the charm and show his choir boy side when he needed to,” recalls Howard Mansfield ’79, the managing editor of The Daily Orange, who has gone on to write numerous books. “As much as he could drive you crazy, it was hard to stay mad at him.”
As a student, McAlary lived off campus in a ramshackle saltbox house not far from the Brewster Boland dorm complex. “The houses served as temporary residences for rats and students,” recalls Claudia Hutton ’79, who lived nearby. “The houses all looked the same and more than once after a night at The Orange, Mike and his roommates would have trouble recognizing which house was theirs.” So to make sure the house was easy to find, McAlary’s roommate created a four-foot paper mache phallic symbol, which they hung from their second-floor balcony. “It became a landmark,” Hutton says. “We would use it to give directions to our house.”
McAlary’s antics occasionally caused problems for his friends. McEnaney recalls waitressing in the student center one day when McAlary came to visit and after a few drinks broke a wine glass over his head. “The manager made it clear I had to get him out of there right away. Sometimes it was like he was John Belushi,” she recalls. “He was crazy and funny and when you were with him you wanted to go along for the ride.”
Joel Stashenko ’83, who ran the DO sports department with McAlary, says even in college it was clear that McAlary had a presence. “He drew people to him,” Stashenko says. “He had this outsized personality that thrived in certain settings. He was impulsive and emotional, but was somehow able to get away with it.”
While the two worked together at the school paper, McAlary had a dispute with Mansfield and quit in a huff. The sports department was in the midst of a major project and Stashenko had to scramble and work all night to make the deadline. “When you think about it, everything Mike did in college, he did again when he got to New York, except in Manhattan he got paid a lot of money for it,” Stashenko says.
When McAlary got to New York, he embraced the Manhattan scene, becoming a regular at Elaine’s (the now shuttered restaurant on Manhattan’s East Side that was a clubhouse of sorts for writers and athletes) and cultivated friendships with singer Paul Simon and now New York governor Andrew Cuomo. (McAlary was a groomsman at Cuomo’s wedding.)
But he always had time for his old classmates. “Michael was very devoted to his college friends,” McEnaney says. When McAlary was at The Daily News, the girlfriend of a former DO editor was involved in a car accident. “The editor called Mike because he knew Mike could get someone to run the license plates on the car that hit her,” McEnaney says. “They hadn’t spoken for years, but Mike did it with no questions asked.”
McEnaney, Naughton, Wendel, Coffey, and about a dozen other of McAlary’s former classmates went to see Lucky Guy in early May and afterward spent a few hours at Sardi’s restaurant talking about the play and telling stories. It was an emotional, hilarious night. “When Mike died, we never got to have a wake for him, so years later it felt like we finally got to do it,” McEnaney says. “We all grew up together at Syracuse and those bonds are still really strong. When I think about my time with Michael and all those other people, I’m so grateful for it. That was the first time in my life I was with so many people who wanted something bigger. It was inspiring to me then, and it still inspires me now.”
Mark Sullivan ’79 was a classmate of McAlary’s and is currently president and editorial director of Formula 4 Media.
Some of Mike McAlary’s former SU classmates and colleagues at The Daily Orange gather outside The Broadhurst Theatre after attending a performance of Lucky Guy in May. Pictured (from left) are Walecia Konrad ’81, Maura McEnaney ’79, Tom Coffey ’80, Tim Wendel ’78, Jacqui Salmon ’79, Dave Bauder ’81, Jim Naughton ’79, and Kevin Haynes ’79.
Photo courtesy of Mark Sullivan