From the pulpit of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings surveyed the hushed crowd that had gathered at the May 8 memorial service for public-relations man John Scanlon. “Take a look around you this morning, and you will see the depth and the breadth of John’s connections.” Those who followed Mr. Jennings’ suggestion spied a cross-section of the city’s media and power elite that the bushy-haired and bearded Mr. Scanlon–the man who contained crises for 60 Minutes , Jesse Jackson, Ivana Trump and, most recently, Bob Kerrey–had cultivated and, in many cases, befriended as one of the city’s most beguiling spin artists. There among the cathedral’s unforgiving wooden pews were attorney David Boies, Sony chief executive Howard Stringer, Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter, real-estate siblings Beth and William Rudin, Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, New Yorker writer Ken Auletta and actor James Earl Jones.
“John collected friends, as we all know, with more vigor than he collected furniture,” Mr. Jennings said, getting a knowing laugh from the crowd. And on this breezy Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Scanlon’s friends and family had gathered to, as Mr. Jennings said, “luxuriate, even wallow in the life we shared.” And in a crisp, warm and often humorous way that Mr. Scanlon would have appreciated, Mr. Jennings, journalists John Leo and Pete Hamill, Mr. Scanlon’s younger brother Michael Scanlon, singer Judy Collins and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney celebrated their pal as a scamp and even a rogue, but most of all as a man who adored his family and friends, his treasured books and all things Irish.
The speakers did not ignore Mr. Scanlon’s often controversial aura–it was on behalf of his client Brown & Williamson that he gave The Wall Street Journal a 500-page dossier on tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, filled with allegations that turned out to be flimsily sourced or just plain untrue–so much as explain it in rich literary terms. “Yes, he also enjoyed the company of rogues,” Mr. Hamill said. “And the reason we all know–he was a rogue himself. He enjoyed, as we used to say, taking the mickey out of people who were too rigidly ideological or too gorgeously self-adoring. He understood and accepted the presence of sin in human life and the inevitability of human folly,” Mr. Hamill continued, “and as a result insisted on celebration as the beginning of forgiveness.”
Many of Mr. Scanlon’s friends were concerned about his comfort in his last moments, when he died, at 66, of an apparent heart attack at his Manhattan home on May 4. Mr. Jennings assured them that “John did not die alone.” One of Mr. Scanlon’s partners, former New York Post and Daily News editor Lou Colasuonno, had gone to Mr. Scanlon’s Upper West Side apartment, he said, and “John was there on the couch–he always had to have a couch–with Yeats and Wilde and Joyce and … Shakespeare and Mozart.” Mr. Jennings also recounted that, in a storage room, Mr. Colasuonno “found the definitive statement of John’s priorities: Beneath the boxes of books and the other stuff that had accumulated over the years, there was a state-of-the-art treadmill, layered in dust.” The crowd exploded in a big laugh. Mr. Jennings also told them about a 125-question quiz that Mr. Scanlon gave to prospective employees circa 1979. The questions included “Where are Boss Tweed and Joey Gallo buried?” (answer: Green-wood Cemetery) and “Where exactly does Jim Brady’s column appear?” This last question drew a bigger laugh than the treadmill line.
Recalling Mr. Scanlon’s love of Irish culture, Mr. Jennings remembered the party that Mr. Scanlon threw to celebrate the publication of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: 550-1990 . “I’m not quite sure who paid for it, but John gave the party,” Mr. Jennings said. “And as we sat there late into the night, listening to … all the Seamuses and Scanlon sing and recite Irish poems, I actually thought John had already gone to heaven.”
Mr. Leo recalled Mr. Scanlon’s numerous phone calls to journalists, “in which he tried to extract as much information as he could …. John wanted to know what you knew,” he said. “When he said ‘What’s new?’, he really wanted you to pour it all out. If you said ‘Nothing much’ or ‘Same old,’ this sigh would come over the phone,” Mr. Leo remembered. “You had failed the test. You were not grabbing life by the throat like Scanlon wanted you to.”
In addition to being a voracious reader of books, Mr. Leo remembered that his friend was also an avid “signer” of books. “Now this was an unusual hobby for someone who never wrote a book,” Mr. Leo said. “But he was really dedicated.” Indeed, he said, about five years ago, at the Writers and Artists Softball Game in the Hamptons where Mr. Scanlon usually provided commentary, he could be found signing copies of Robert Sam Anson’s latest book. “I said, ‘Scanlon, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Well, for $24.95, I think they all deserve a little piece of Bob.’” Mr. Leo also remembered the time Mr. Scanlon signed his copy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason : “Hey John, Get a load of this. Signed, Manny.”
Mr. Scanlon’s sense of humor survived even in the darkest of times, Mr. Leo recalled. Once, after blacking out in a restaurant, Mr. Scanlon was put on a stretcher and wheeled out to an ambulance. As he made his exit, a stricken but conscious Mr. Scanlon told a couple awaiting a table: “Don’t order the pasta.”
Michael Scanlon, a writer and a teacher, remembered the time their high-school newspaper printed a picture of Mr. Scanlon, who played halfback on the football team, scoring a touchdown under the headline: “Special Delivery Scanlon Scores Touchdown.” Michael said that, back then, he was impressed by his younger brother’s big splash in the paper, but later in life he began to wonder: “Is it possible that Johnny himself planted that [nickname] in the head of the writer?”
Later, Ms. Collins would offer a song in Mr. Scanlon’s honor, and Mr. Heaney would read a couple of his poems–including “Bogland” – to send off his pal. And Mr. Hamill imagined Mr. Scanlon singing the lyrics of an old Clancy Brothers wake song called “Isn’t It Grand, Boys?” which they used to sing together.
“I see him now at a giant table,” Mr. Hamill said, with a group that included “Dante Alighieri and Boss Tweed, Baudelaire … Meade Esposito and Niccoló Machiavelli and Lenny Bruce … three friends from high school, a guy he met in the elevator of the Condé Nast building and at least three unindicted co-conspirators.” Getting a big laugh, Mr. Hamill added that “Scanlon absolutely preferred the company of people destined for hell over the people destined for heaven. But he’s bringing them all together somewhere. And I see him,” he continued, “and they’re singing the words that … I’ll never be able to hear again without thinking of him, my wonderful friend Scanlon: ‘Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry, and always remember the longer you live, the sooner you bloody well die.’”