Volume 79, Number 9 | August 5 - 11, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Photo by Brett C Vermilyea

Sidney Zion at his Upper West Side home two years ago.

Sidney Zion, writer, iconoclast…Rabelais reborn

By Jerry Tallmer

In the pitch black 3 o’clock in the morning of June 5, 1968, after I’d been up most of the previous 24 hours putting together and writing a backgrounder on the Valerie Solanas who had shot Andy Warhol the day before, the telephone rang. It was Sid Zion. “You better get your ass out of bed and go down to the paper,” he said. “Bobby Kennedy’s just been shot, out in Los Angeles.”

This was printer’s-ink Sidney talking — Sidney the newspaperman [who at that moment had no newspaper of his own to write the story in.]

There were — and are, to this minute — a large number of other Sidney Zions, well befitting Sidney’s own large, joyous, explosive physical self. There is Sidney the lawyer, Sidney the reporter, Sidney the columnist, Sidney the sometime magazine editor, Sidney the novelist, Sidney the Roy Cohn autobiographer, Sidney the diehard New York Giants football nut, Sidney the jazz and Sinatra and Tony Bennett and any other uncrapped-up-music nut, Sidney the enthusiast of good food and good drink, Sidney the restaurateur (as owner/host of, briefly, in the early 1980s, Broadway Joe’s on 46th St.’s Restaurant Row), Sidney the smoke-wreathed scorner of the Smoke Fascists, Sidney the man-about-town habitué of Gallagher’s, Elaine’s, the Players’ Club, the Yale Club, etc., Sidney the possessor of a fine eye for female grace in any form, Sidney the to-the-death partisan of embattled Israel, Sidney the equal-opportunity pomposity piercer, Sidney the anecdotalist, Sidney the inside-story truth-teller — and, of course, Sidney Zion, husband, father, grandfather, widower, bitter-end crusader for medical and hospital reform.         
* * *

That’s how a piece of mine began in Thrive magazine a couple of years ago, when dead was the last word one would ever apply to Sid Zion, my amazing friend for the more than 45 years since we first met on the old, wondrous Dorothy Schiff New York Post. But now Sidney is gone, at 75, this past Sunday afternoon, August 2, 2009. So, if I may, here are a few other bits and pieces from that portrait in Thrive:

To Sidney, a story was a story, and…[the irony] was that Robert F. Kennedy — under whom the pre-journalistic Sidney Zion had worked, as a young lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s Office back in New Jersey — was one of the people in this world Sid Zion most feared and detested. The further irony is that when, in 1971, three years after that assassination in Los Angeles, Sidney had a huge scoop on his hands and, again, nowhere to break it.

“I’m home, and Libby is 5 years old,” Sid said during a recent evening of interview and recollection — Libby, the redheaded daughter of Elsa and Sidney Zion, restless, gifted Libby who would go into New York Hospital with a fever one night in 1984, when she was 18, and be dead, there in the hospital, by morning. “I go to Gallagher’s, and everybody is talking about who could it be that leaked that Pentagon [Papers] stuff? I get a big list of possible names from the Washington Post, eliminate the faux guys, and center on a couple of Jews.” In the center of that center: Daniel Ellsberg. “I come home and say: ‘I’ve got the biggest story, but nobody wants to hear it.’ And Libby says: ‘I’ll hear it, Daddy.’ And Elsa says: ‘Why don’t you call up Barry Gray?’ ”

So he did, and on Barry Gray’s radio show Sid spills his scoop to all the world — and the sky falls down… . “Blacklisted for six years because I broke a true story. So all those years I had to go back and practice law.”

What finally breached the ban was in the New York Times Magazine…Sid’s June 1981 j’accuse on how disk jockey Alan Freed and the record companies and rock and roll and other noises have been destroying [America’s jazz and pop heritage — one of the most provocative pieces the Times Mag has ever printed, and the one that drew the most mail...]

[The one great plus that came out of] the cruelly indecisive 1995 trial in the wrongful-death case of Zion v. New York Hospital…is the enforced reduction — the “Libby Zion Law” — of the sleepless working hours of interns and residents at hospitals in New York State. …

Sidney E. Zion….was born in Passaic, New Jersey, November 14, 1933; he shares November 14 as a birthday with Mamie Eisenhower, Prince Charles and, guess who, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy… . Elsa — half Irish, half German and a dab of Scottish — was a graduate of Bard College. “She knew all about writers, from Bard. The first thing she ever said to me was: ‘Thank God, you’re not a writer… .’ ”

  * * *

So now they are gone, all three. And Sid and I can stop quarreling about Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama, both of whom Sidney hated (as enemies of the Jews).

Water under the bridge, Sidney. Though I will hear your booming, iconoclastic comment all my days, you have left me bereft, and Frances, who adored you, far more than bereft. Sail on, great friend. Happy landings.

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