1:35 pm Feb. 1, 2013
Ed Koch, the former three-term mayor of New York who died of gongestive heart failure this morning at the age of 88, will most likely be remembered first and foremost for his political skills and his identification with an era of redemption for New York City.
But Koch was also a prolific columnist, having contributed over the years to publications ranging from neighborhood newspapers to the hometown tabloids to the conservative magazine Newsmax.
Perhaps his most memorable journalistic undertaking was his 10-year stint as a movie reviewer for a chain of community weeklies that at the time included the Manhattan publications Our Town and West Side Spirit.
Tom Allon, a mayoral candidate and publisher of Manhattan Media (whose more recent owners announced just today that they have sold those papers), was working on a profile of Koch for West Side Spirit, of which he was editor at the time, back in late 1989 or early 1990. Asked how he was spending most of his time now that his career as mayor had come to an end, Koch told Allon that he went to the movies three times a week.
When Allon asked Koch shortly thereafter to write a movie column for West Side Spirit, Koch initially balked at the $50 weekly stipend Allon was offering him. But Allon convinced the other titles in the chain, Jimmy Finkelstein's News Communications Inc., which also included Dan's Papers, the Queens Tribune and the Bronx Press Review, to each kick in an additional $50 a piece, thus securing Koch's byline for the slightly more lucrative rate of $250 a week.
The column was a hit. HBO did a story about it, and Koch described it as being his favorite job during an interview with Johnny Carson, said Allon.
"It was really an everyman's review of whether or not a movie entertained him," Allon told Capital, recalling Koch's writing style.
After new investors acquired the papers in 2001, Koch's movie reviews were cut.
Years later, in 2009 and 2010, he would once again get to flex his film-criticsm muscles, this time for The Atlantic. But it wasn't all that long before Koch had landed a regular column in another Manhattan weekly.
In 2006, Adario Strange, then editor of New York Press, approached Koch about writing a general column on everything and anything he wanted to, recalled Jerry Portwood, Strange's managing editor at the time.
This time there was no haggling over money: Koch agreed to do it for free.
Back then the Press was owned by Avalon Equity Partners, which also published the prominent gay magazine Genre.
Avalon's founding partner, David Unger, tried to get Koch to address the topic of his sexuality in his column, said Portwood.
Unger made the pitch during a lunch at the Four Seasons for which Portwood was also in attendance. Sumner Redstone and Les Moonves were seated at nearby tables, said Portwood, and Liz Smith was there lunching with Barbara Walters, who came over to shake Koch's hand.
Koch told Unger and Portwood that he refused to talk about his personal life in the column.
Koch's writing, like his stumping, which never waned even as his sympathies and loyalties meandered back and forth across the proverbial aisle, was as likely to lionize George W. Bush as it was to advocate for gay rights.
"He always loved having a platform," said Portwood, who edited Koch at the Press. "We'd get letters from people asking why we were letting him pontificate on this or that."
The column came to an end, ironically, amid the 2007 sale of the Press to Allon's Manhattan media.
Koch had also written columns at different points for the New York Post and the Daily News.
He had broadcast bona fides too. There were his regular appearances on WCBS, his talk shows on Fox, WABC radio and Bloomberg Radio, and his frequent commentary for NY1 as one of the network's "Wise Guys."
"His remarks often sounded like pronouncements by an officeholder, proposing policy changes and oozing invective for political opponents and journalistic rivals," wrote Robert D. McFadden in his obituary on Koch for The New York Times, where Koch also had been published.
Most recently, Koch had been writing regularly for the website of Chris Ruddy's conservative monthly, Newsmax, under the rubric "New York Take." His final installment was published just weeks ago.
"He was writing right to the very end. It was amazing," said Ken Chandler, editor-in-chief of Newsmax.
"Although he was a New York City Democrat, he touched a chord with the Newsmax audience because of his direct, common-sense style of writing," said Chandler. "I think they liked his no-holds-barred views on everything. When you read Koch's column, you might not have agreed, but there was never any doubt where he stood on an issue."
During his time, Koch inspired at least one influential reporter to become a journalist.
“I wanted a career in politics," Deadline's Nikki Finke told The New York Observer earlier this month in a story about how she had worked for Koch in the mid-'70s. "I was a political science major and I wasn’t really thinking about journalism, but when I saw the way Ed and his staff would genuflect to journalists, I went, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ You know, the minute a journalist called him, he jumped on the phone.”
The epitaph on Koch's tombstone quotes the last words of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. In an eerie coincidence, Neil Barsky's documentary on Koch's mayorality hits theaters today.
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