Remembering A Crusading Journalist: Sidney Zion
by Gary Rosenblatt
Sidney Zion, the larger-than-life journalist who died last week at
the age of 75, caused a highly embarrassing moment for me some years
ago, but I still smile in recalling it.
To first set the scene, keep in mind that Sidney was the epitome of
the old school, "Get me rewrite, sweetheart" reporter: loud,
opinionated, gruff, cigar-chomping, drink-in-hand, fedora-wearing and
impatient. Also, smart, well informed, thoughtful, a great
storyteller and, deep down, a tender spirit who ranked on but loved
his fellow Jews more than anything.
I was a huge admirer of Sidney, his no-holds-barred writing and
passionate approach to life, and he was one of the first people I
approached to write for The Jewish Week when I came to the paper 16 years ago.
He agreed, and wrote a monthly column for us in those early days. It
was during that time that he insisted we meet for drinks at the bar
at the Yale Club (his alma mater) one summer evening. When we walked
in together, the room was crowded and noisy, but everyone stopped to
greet Sidney heartily, and he responded in kind. (A real-life version
of Norm making his entrance in "Cheers.")
With his arm around my shoulders, Sidney marched me to the bar and
announced, "The usual for me," before turning to me and asking,
"What'll it be?"
When I meekly replied, "a ginger ale," he looked at me incredulously
a moment before bellowing, "a ginger ale? And you call yourself a journalist?"
There was silence for a moment before the room filled with laughter.
But I had learned to accept Sidney as a colorful maverick who pulled
no punches (though he no doubt threw a few), and I enjoyed just being
We first met almost 25 years ago when, after reading and being deeply
impressed with the range and style of a newly published collection of
his columns and essays called "Read All About It! The Collected
Adventures of a Maverick Reporter," I called Sidney and asked if we
could meet. He graciously accepted, and I took the train up from
Baltimore (where I was editing the Baltimore Jewish Times) to spend a
long afternoon with him in his Upper West Side apartment. Ostensibly,
I interviewed him, but more precisely I listened to him hold court on
a wide variety of issues, from his affection for underdogs like
Revisionist heroes Ben Hecht and Peter Bergson, Israeli "tough guys"
Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, and Jewish gangsters (especially
Meyer Lansky) to his corresponding contempt for the Establishment,
including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Supreme Court and American
Jewish defense organizations.
Only a few months before we met, Sidney's 18-year-old daughter,
Libby, died during an emergency room visit to New York Hospital, and
he had already begun a relentless legal battle that lasted years and
resulted in sweeping reforms regarding hospital resident working
conditions. It was that chapter of his life that headlined the obits
for Sidney in the local papers last week, but I think he would have
preferred being remembered equally for the enterprising reporting he
did throughout his long career, especially when it came to defending
Israel and needling American Jews about what he consider their
enduring inferiority complex about being accepted.
"They're so shreklich, so afraid," he told me. "That fear in them is
always there. Always. It's terrible. They worry about anti-Semitism.
They worry about what the goyim will think of them. Maybe Jews really
believe they're not as good as the next guy. But I sure as hell don't
feel that way. Jews shouldn't be scared anymore. Never scared. They
should be mad."
Sidney was mad about so many things, but that's because he believed
in the pursuit of the truth and had no tolerance for those who compromised.
In a remarkable journalism career that didn't start until he was 29
(having first been a trial lawyer and assistant U.S. attorney for New
Jersey), he was a fixture here, working for The New York Times, Daily
News, New York Post and New York Magazine. It was Sidney who in 1971
revealed that Daniel Ellsberg, a hero to those who opposed the
Vietnam War, was the source of the leak of the Pentagon Papers,
making Sidney an outcast to the press. But he dismissed angry
colleagues as jealous hypocrites and insisted he was only doing his
job, shedding light on a hot story.
Among his most memorable pieces were a lengthy 1979 critique of the
Supreme Court under Chief Justice Burger, a 20,000-word,
behind-the-scenes story in 1978 on the Camp David peace accords (both
written for the New York Times Magazine) and a 1983 "political obit"
of Menachem Begin in Harper's, which appeared shortly before the
prime minister resigned. That piece was a tribute to Begin as a
microcosm of the Jew in the 20th century, an outcast, but, above all,
He was a source of support when I came to this newspaper, warning me
not to let vocal critics sway my instincts on what to cover. And he
was there when I called on him, like the time I asked him to speak to
a journalism class I was teaching at Stern College for Women some
years ago. I'll never forget the look on some of the students' faces
when Sidney told a few of his stories about encounters with the likes
of Izzy Schwarzberg, a gangster Sidney had known well, not bothering
to censor his colorful language.
"Did I scare the hell out of 'em?" he later asked in his raspy voice.
For all his toughness, Sidney was a family man and shul-goer, and I
would see him from time to time at weekday services, saying Kaddish
for his wife, Elsa, who died in 2005.
The novelist E.L. Doctorow said it best when he once praised Sidney
for having "a brassy confidence in his instinct for truth, a zest for
scoundrels and a happy ability to go everywhere and talk to anyone."
I am saddened by Sidney's death, but comforted in reading his son
Jed's comment that his father lived "better than anyone I know" and
"never did anything he didn't want to do.
"It's sad," he said, speaking for himself and his brother, Adam. "But
he had a damn good run."
Indeed he did, and I raise my glass (of ginger ale) to one of my
heroes, an authentic crusader the likes of whom we may never see again.
How He Got That Story
By Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
August 12, 2009
This article appeared in the January 15, 1983 edition of The Nation.
Read All About It!: The Collected Adventures of a Maverick Reporter
By Sidney Zion
Sidney Zion is a friend of mine, and I can't be sure whether my
affection for him has perverted my judgment of his book. In real
life, he is lots of fun; he is also maddening, contentious, brassy
and opinionated. If there were such a thing as aggreeable
offensiveness, Sidney Zion would own it.
Read All About It! (and I hope you do) is a collection of pieces
published (Zion tells you all about how) and unpublished (Zion tells
you all about why) about the Supreme Court and criminal justice,
partisan politics and political conventions, sports, pop music, the
Middle East and Jewish gangsters. Nobody could dislike a man who is
consistently interesting on so broad a range of subjects, though a
lot of people do. Most of all, though, Zion writes about reporting,
his abiding passion: "A press card," Zion says, "unlike a lawyer's
license or anything else provided a front row seat to the lively
doings of the world; it was an entree to everything, including the
shadows. And when you got the story, you didn't go home and tell your
wife and friends, you printed it, right out there for all to read,
under your own byline. What could be better than that?"
Zion is at his most engaging when he writes about the editors and
publishers whom it is his pleasure to tickle and torment. He is never
loath to name names--the names in this case being those of editors
who cause most writers to tremble, for which reason Read All About
It! should be read by anyone remotely interested in journalism.
Zion was the guy who blew the whistle on Daniel Ellsberg. He found
out (read all about it) who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The Times's
Neal Sheehan and, although he was a reporter without a paper to
report to, lost no time in telling the world about it via radio and
television. This may not strike you as adorable--it made Zion quite
unpopular in liberal circles for a while--but he had his reasons.
Some of these may seem vain and self-serving, but they're certainly
not mealy-mouthed: "In answer to one of the innumerable questions as
to why I went after the story, I said, 'To satisfy my ego.' There was
truth to it--if no ego, what's a byline for? but I was stupid to say
it....I looked like a scoundrel." On the other hand, "What the hell
is a reporter doing asking another reporter why he broke one of the
big stories of the time?"
As for Jewish gangsters: Well, Zion prefers not to have Jews come in
the shape of victims, even if the alternative is for them to be con
men. Such troublesome questions as how many nice Jewish kids became
victims of drugs peddled by mobsters, for instance Zion doesn't
address. Nor did these questions vex me in more than a subliminal way
until long after I'd read his romantic profiles of Meyer Lansky and
Izzy Schwartzberger -- which may say something about my moral laxity,
but which also says something about Zion's style, so vivid, so (I
knew I couldn't avoid the cliche for long) Runyonesque. Here's Schwartzberger:
"Why did I become a criminal, was I crazy? Yes. I'm a psychopath, I'm
an egomaniac, what are you talking about? You mean I shoulda gone
straight? Go away!
"I need action...Where I grew up on the Lower East Side you either
became a judge or went to the electric chair. I'm the happy medium."
As for the Middle East: If you own rigid opinions on this subject,
Zion is likely to drive you crazy. He believes that "there is and has
been a Palestinian nation since 1946...that nation, is now the
Kingdom of Jordan." He also asks us to believe that when she was
editor of The Times's OpEd page, Charlotte Curtis ("an old friend")
"had fallen for the Palestinian line plain for all to see. She was
running what I called the Fatah page of the Times." So naturally he
decided "to set her up, old friend or not." He took his
Palestine-is-Jordan piece directly to publisher Punch Sulzberger, who
ran it. Take it or leave it.
As for pop music: I yield to no one in my devotion to Frank Sinatra.
I love him completely and forever until I die, and I don't care whom
he does or does not hang out with. But I don't make the leap Zion
does (in what he prides himself is one of the most controversial
pieces ever published in The New York Times Magazine), which is that
rock music was hyped and sold to kids who would otherwise be
listening to Lena Home and Lady Day, Cole Porter and Rodgers and
Hart. I'm not entirely sure Zion knows the difference between the
Beatles and The Who, and his case has holes in it big enough for
Basie's band to swing through--but, like everything he writes, it's
fun to read. And, like everything he writes, the central argument
can't be dismissed out of hand.
Freedom of the press is, in many ways, what Read All About It! is
about: if you're going to have a free press, you're going to have big
mouths like Zion. If he makes you mad, he also restores your faith in
the possibility of honorable people honorably disagreeing. One
doesn't feel small or querulous when one disagrees with Zion, and
that is a measure of his expansiveness and generosity.