I loved Nora Ephron as a writer, and I was very sorry when she died last year. I had always dreamed about meeting her and becoming really good friends, and now that was never going to happen. Plus, I just liked to read anything and everything she wrote, and now that was over too. So I was glad to hear that she left behind a new play called Lucky Guy, which opened this week in New York. And I was even more fascinated to hear that it's about Mike McAlary, the late columnist for the New York Daily News. It meant that we would have had at least one thing to talk about.
A lot of people have a lot of memories about Mike McAlary, but to me he will always be the creep who once accused a lesbian rape victim of lying about being raped. That created a pretty dicey moment in gay-straight relations back when those relations were pretty dicey already. And because I was a gay columnist for New York Newsday at the time, I got mixed up in it. So I can't wait to see how Ephron handles that story in her play. And yes, I'm sure it's in the play. It has to be. It almost destroyed McAlary's career. And it might have destroyed mine too.
To understand the story you have to understand that Mike McAlary was this hard-charging newspaper guy, pounding out stories about crooked cops and the lowlifes who made New York such a zoo back in the crack era. To McAlary, reporting was all about police sources, all about leaks. He used to hang out at this swanky place called Elaine's with top cops like Police Chief William Bratton and Bratton's boy-wonder spokesman, John Miller -- the same John Miller who went on to become a big TV news star. McAlary's power came from access to guys like Miller. People told him things.
And then one day his addiction to scoops and controversy, instead of to fact checking, bit him in the ass.
In the spring of 1994, a black lesbian went to the cops saying that she had been raped in broad daylight in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. A few days later McAlary ran a column under the blazing headline "Rape Hoax the Real Crime." According to McAlary the victim's claim was a "lie," an "invention," a "hoax." He said a police source told him that the woman had invented her "outrageous story" because she wanted to "make a good speech" at an upcoming rally about violence against lesbians. Basically McAlary was saying that a lesbian lied about being raped for political purposes. He called her story a "crime against all women." Pretty hot stuff, even for a tough guy like Mike McAlary.
The column lit a fuse. New York was still reeling from the Tawana Brawley hoax, which had happened a few years earlier, and people saw a race angle, not to mention a feminist angle. Then there was the gay angle. It was the peak of the AIDS crisis, and violence against lesbians and gay men was at an all-time high. So gay groups went nuts. People said that the victim was being "raped a second time." It was shaping up to be a Spike Lee movie, not a Nora Ephron romantic comedy.
There was just one problem: The woman wasn't lying. Right after McAlary's column ran, the cops announced that they had found semen on her body and in her clothes. A detective told another reporter point-blank, '"The woman is telling the truth."
Naturally everybody wanted to know what the hell McAlary thought he was doing, and who was leaking him lies that could tear the city apart. Commissioner Bratton apologized for the possibility that someone in his department might have been the source, and he ordered an internal investigation to find out.
Then, two weeks later, McAlary struck again. In a new column he repeated his claim that the rape victim was a liar and announced that the semen report was a mistake. It turned out that it wasn't.
At the same time an odd thing happened. Commissioner Bratton called off his investigation into the identify of the leaker. People suspected that Bratton had gotten cold feet because the leaker was somebody close to Bratton himself. Suspicion swirled around a couple of Bratton buddies, including department spokesman John Miller.
Over at New York Newsday I was the newly minted gay columnist, and I thought that McAlary's charges reeked of the kind of blatant homophobia that it was my job to go after. So I called John Miller to see what I could dig up. At first Miller couldn't wait to get me off the phone, but when I mentioned that people suspected that he was the leaker, he finally got angry. Not at me, but at his buddy Mike McAlary. Referring to McAlary, he blurted out:
I mean, the next stop must be censorship, which in Mike's case might be a positive thing. I mean, what the hell do you do with him? He called me after the first column, you know, kind of saying, "Can you lock this thing down? Can you bail me out? Can you this? Can you that?" I'm like, "Mike, what the fuck is the matter with you?"
I was blown away. Mike McAlary was calling a lesbian rape victim a liar in public, sounding confident enough to drag her through the mud and plunge the city into another Tawana Brawley nightmare. But in private he was begging his cop friend to "bail him out" and "lock this thing down." That was dynamite. I wrote a column quoting John Miller. And that's when things got weird.
The next day reporters cornered Miller at a news conference. They asked about my column and whether it was true that McAlary had begged for Miller's help about the rape story. And incredibly, Miller denied it, in essence calling me a liar.
"I actually didn't say any of those things to him," Miller said, referring to me. "I don't know where he got that or how he extrapolated it from the conversation I had with him."
That was pretty serious. So serious that it could have gotten me fired. Misquoting someone is the primal sin of journalism, and I was relatively new at New York Newsday. I was also the first openly gay columnist, and Newsday had taken a lot of heat for hiring me in the first place. Plenty of people would have been glad to see me go. Miller, on the other hand, was a stand-up guy whose entire job was based on his credibility with the press.
But I was not too worried. I knew something nobody else knew. Namely, I had taped my phone call with Miller. I did that sometimes when interviewing officials -- after identifying myself as a reporter, of course -- mainly because I'm not the fastest typist on the block, and I like to get my quotations right.
I played the tape for my bosses at New York Newsday, and sure enough, there was John Miller saying exactly what I had quoted him as saying, word for word. You could kind of hear a collective sigh of relief.
When news got out that I had a tape, I started getting calls from TV reporters asking for copies. So that night there was John Miller on TV, calling me a liar, followed by audiotape of him saying precisely what I said he had said. With subtitles across the bottom, just in case you couldn't hear that well.
The next day Miller called me to apologize. I don't know whether Bratton ordered him to do it, or whether it was his idea, but he seemed sincere. Of course, I accepted his apology. I figured that if he didn't get fired himself, he was going places. And he proved me right a few years later when he hiked into Afghanistan and interviewed Osama bin Laden. I didn't want to be on the wrong side of a guy like that.
Mike McAlary was not so lucky. He had pissed off half of New York, gays took him for a first-class homophobe, and cops took him for a chump. His credibility was shattered, and his career went down the tubes for several years. Oh, and the rape victim sued him for $12 million. I remember because her lawyer used my testimony.
But The Daily News didn't fire him, and he scored a major comeback a few years later when some sicko cops tortured a guy named Abner Louima and Mike McAlary broke the story. They gave him the Pulitzer Prize for that. I guess the Pulitzer committee was able to overlook the earlier thing about the lesbian.
Anyway, now it turns out that Nora Ephron wrote a play about him before she died. Like I said, I wish Nora Ephron had been a close friend. If she had been, I definitely would have told her my Mike McAlary story. Maybe she would have liked it enough to put it in her play. Actually, probably not, but it still would have been fun to hang out with her.
Levitt, Leonard. "Park Rape Case: Whose Hoax?" NYPD Confidential. 23 May 1994.
Levitt, Leonard. "Advice for Miller." NYPD Confidential. 30 May 1994.
Levitt, Leonard. NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2009.
Garbus, Martin. Tough Talk: How I Fought for Writers, Comics, Bigots, and the American Way. New York: Crown, 1998.