The Australian publisher had just officially shaken hands with Dorothy Schiff, owner of the New York Post, on a deal to buy Dolly's struggling afternoon tabloid paper. Murdoch, then only in his mid-40s, already owned newspapers in San Antonio and had earlier in the year launched his supermarket tabloid, The National Star. Now, he was about to become a major player in U.S. media.
Within a matter of weeks, though even Murdoch didn't know it that night at "21," he would also buy New York Magazine, the Village Voice and what was then New West. Both Time and Newsweek would put him on their covers the same week (one portraying him as King Kong atop the Empire State Building, the other as a "killer bee" buzzing with menace), as media watchers on Madison Avenue, in Washington and elsewhere tut-tutted and wagged their heads.
Was Murdoch a good thing? Had he overextended himself? Was he a genuine threat or only a lot of Aussie noise? And just who the hell was he?
I'd been working for Rupert since midsummer of 1974, first as editor of the weekly Star as its gossip columnist, under a pseudonym, and later in other roles including that of vice chairman of his then-small U.S. company. KRM, as we knew him (his full name is Keith Rupert Murdoch), ran a lean ship. He didn't believe in elaborate and expensive layers of authority. And, except for broadcast properties in his native Australia, he was still very much a newspaperman, a press lord if you will, with his Adelaide and Sydney and Fleet Street publications, and now with his increasingly serious status as a U.S. publisher.
I'd worked for such canny business executives as Tom Murphy and Don Pels and Dan Burke of Capital Cities. And for such instinctive creative people as Clay Felker and John Fairchild. I'd never seen the combination of skills which Rupert brought to the table. In those days, you could still barge into his office with some problem or idea and be received, listened to, and perhaps then chucked out. Most days, no need to make an appointment. Just call ahead to his secretary, Dot, to be sure he was in the building.
Access was important but it was only a part of what made him unique. No other executive I'd yet known could simultaneously juggle so many disparate aspects of the business. In a single, brief chat, Rupert might interrupt to discuss newsprint tonnages with a caller from Helsinki; scale a front-page photo of Princess Grace for the Star; critique a headline as dull; instruct his bankers to sell kroner and buy Swiss francs; wonder if I had friends at a Boston supermarket chain reluctant to allow Star racks at its checkouts because we'd ridiculed Ted Kennedy in a recent issue; and caution me against drinking at Costello's, where the reporters drank and brawled.
On the evening in question 23 years ago when I arrived at "21," there was a lively debate in progress as to whether the news of Murdoch's acquisition of the Post would be on Page One of the next day's New York Times and, if it was, would it be above or below the fold. Bets were placed. KRM, as I recall, felt the Times was too snobby to put an item about him and Dolly's proletarian Post anywhere above the fold. The paper of record might not even deign to place the item on the front page.
After dinner and much celebrating, we descended to the ground floor bar for a nightcap we didn't need, where we encountered Hugh Carey, then the governor, drinking with Tip O'Neill, then Speaker of the House. We had a drink with them. Then, "come on," someone said, perhaps me, "let's go to Elaine's." Outside on 52nd Street, free-lance limos hoping for customers idled at the curb. Steve Dunleavy chatted up a couple of drivers, haggling over the fee. "Nah," said Rupert, "get us four or five cabs. It'll be half the price."
"Boss," said Dunleavy in justifiable exasperation, "you just bought the New York Post! For once, let it be limos!"
So it was limos. And when we first drove south to Times Square to get the early editions of the Times, there it was on Page One: "Murdoch buys the Post."
It was well after midnight when we got uptown and Elaine's was emptying out. Elaine herself came hurrying toward us, weaving between tables.
"You bleeping did it!" she shouted. "You bleeping bought the Post."
Drinks were brought. "Breakfast," someone sensible said, "that's what's needed." But the chef was gone, the kitchen closed.
"Never mind," Elaine said. "I'll make eggs."
Half an hour later perhaps a dozen of us, Rupert and the survivors, were tucked into scrambled eggs and rashers of bacon and hot breads and steaming cups of black coffee. It must have been near 6 when we left. Not daylight yet. Cabs rolled up and one or two at a time, men got in, shouted a last goodnight, and rolled away. I can't remember what Rupert said to me or anyone as he left. All I know is, I waved off a cab, and walked home, two miles along Second Avenue to 48th Street.
I knew that something had changed in my life. That nothing would ever again be quite the same. Nor would this great city. Or the business we were all in. I wasn't sure if all the changes would be for the better. Who makes such judgments? I pondered all this and more as I walked and as the sun came up.
Everyone knows now who Murdoch is. And something of how he operates, running movie studios; beaming TV programs into mainland China; creating a fourth network; publishing books and putting out newspapers and magazines; helping to elect or topple politicians; hiring and firing and acquiring; spending billions; feuding with this one and that; naming his sons Lachlan and James and his daughter Elisabeth to positions of ever-growing importance within the empire.
What I remember were those early days. Those were the sweet times.
Rupert hired me while we swam. We'd talked over lunch and then gone into the ocean off East Hampton to haggle over money and, as we bobbed up and down out beyond the surf, he asked mildly, "Do you have sharks in America?" Sure, I said, usually well off-shore. Why? "I thought I just saw one behind you."
I accepted his most generous salary offer on the spot and we got out of the water.
When the takeover of New York Magazine was being played out, Rupert's Fifth Avenue apartment was where we met evenings and weekends. We tried to hire Harold Hayes to run New West, wanted Mike Kramer to take over the Voice (Jack Newfield led a protest march over that, not wanting a strong editor). During the week, the action moved to Rupert's office at 730 Third Ave. Clay Felker, of course, was at the heart of the discussions. His own board, restive over rising costs and with Felker either unwilling or unable to control it, was selling the company out from under Clay. Kay Graham of the Washington Post-Newsweek company, was battling on Felker's behalf and against the board, and at one point telling Murdoch by phone of Clay's anguish at the prospect of losing the magazine he'd created.
"Don't do that to this boy," went her emotional appeal. When Rupert hung up he repeated to a handful of us what she'd said, looking quizzical. "That 'boy,' as she calls him, is five years older than I am."
A final stab was made at keeping Clay as editor following a sale to Rupert. Both agreed it wouldn't work. Clay wanted his way; Rupert wanted his. "If he walks," I asked, "who'll edit the magazine?"
"You will," said Murdoch. And a week later, I was.
One of the awkward things about a weekly magazine is that people expect you to put it out every week. That first Monday morning was something. Dick Reeves asked the courts for an injunction to block us from using his cover story in the coming issue. Rolodexes were stolen or sabotaged. People lined up to resign, wanting to do it to my face. One pleasant young woman smiled, handed me a small package, and left. Inside I found a one-line note: "[Bleep] you, Brady." Other writers, who'd battled with Clay, called to offer their services. I actually hired a man from the Times who never showed up, having suffered a nervous breakdown over the rash thing he'd just done. Late that night, pretty beat and heading home, I was accosted by one of the writers who asked, "Do you have any coke?" No, I didn't, I said, and kept going. Then I stopped and turned. "Why would you think I had coke?" "I dunno," he said, "you looked like the sort who might."
Those days you weren't quite sure if that were a compliment or an accusation.
Later, at the New York Post, it got to be even more fun. Rupert's boys moved in: Old Blue Rinse, The Wing Commander, Roger Wood, who'd worked for Beaverbrook and affected a wool shawl on chilly days; sports editor Jerry Lisker, called Blackie, who claimed to have played in the NFL and to be part Native American; Dunleavy, who once punctured tires on his father's car when father and son worked on rival Sydney papers and were on the same story; and Ray Kerrison, the best horse writer ever, who went to early Mass every morning. Jimmy Wechsler, the editor under Dolly Schiff and a true New York liberal, stayed on for a time, known behind his back as "the red peril." Murray Kempton rode his bike into the building every day. One election night he went off drinking with some of the younger men in the city room. Didn't return for two days. "What happened, Murray?" I asked.
"Never believe the legend that Australians do not abandon their wounded. They do."
Dunleavy was around, of course, and after a night's carouse during a New York blizzard, found himself outside Elaine's at 3 in the morning, where he rested in a snow bank, only to have his foot run over by a passing vehicle. Informed that Steve was in the hospital with multiple fractures, Pete Hamill, no fan of Dunleavy's, remarked pleasantly, "I hope it's his writing foot."
I was with Rupert nine years and did everything -- wrote, edited, published, made speeches, sold ads, recruited Peter Diamandis, hosted cocktail parties, peddled circulation. I even put Rupert in a novel, a roman a clef called, "The Press Lord." And to protect my ass, gave him an early set of galleys. "People will say this is you, Rupert, but you'll know it isn't." I don't think he ever bothered to read it. Though he did tell me long after that Dolly Schiff, who loved to stir the pot, told him: "Rupert, you've got to read Brady's book. We're all in it."
I know how big he is now and how important. And that's fine. But you can't repeat the way we were back then, when the outfit was small and fierce and struggling for everything and battling the Establishment. And how much fun we had.