A plaque for a columnist on a bench that he’d love


By Lincoln Anderson

With memories of their late friend Newsday columnist Dennis Duggan — and of the glad times they shared together at his favorite bar, the legendary Lion’s Head Tavern — a group of about 25 people gathered at Abingdon Square last Sunday afternoon to dedicate a bench plaque in Duggan’s honor. Many of them were journalists. In their 30s in the late 1960s and early ’70s, they, like Duggan, had called The Head home.

Among them were author Frank McCourt and columnists Clyde Haberman, Jim Dwyer and Ellis Henican.

Standing on the bench along with Jack Deacy, a former Daily News columnist and Giuliani administration spokesperson, Mary Elizabeth Pendl, Duggan’s longtime companion, said Duggan had a few specific wants when he traveled, and one was a bench on which to read his beloved books.

“There were two things Dennis always would look for before checking into a hotel: One was a bakery and one was a bench to read — after that he would check into the hotel,” she said. “Reading plaques on benches was one of his favorite pastimes — in London particularly, but also in Central Park. So, I thought what better spot than a bench?”

Lyric sheets of “Wild Mountain Thyme” a.k.a. “Will You Go, Lassie, Go?,” the traditional Irish song, Duggan’s favorite, were then handed out and they all sang along.

Duggan died in April 2006 at 78. Originally from Detroit, he fell passionately in love with New York City. He was president of the Silurians, the oldest press club in America. His friends remembered him for his generosity of spirit, his upbeat spirit and his humor.

“I knew him well and admired his work,” said Haberman, The New York Times columnist, before the plaque dedication. “Too many columnists don’t go out on the street. Dennis did. Beat reporting infused his work. He really went out more than anyone I knew.”

Henican said Duggan really helped him when he was starting out. He eventually took over the subway column beat that Duggan had covered.

“I was like the youngest columnist at Newsday and he was the oldest,” he said. “He’s the genuine article, totally unpretentious. He was completely without jealousy.”

John Mullane, a former Post reporter and night city editor, said Duggan, the late Murray Kempton and Haberman represent the best in column writing.

“A lot of columnists go to sleep,” he said. “These guys don’t go to sleep.”

Looking around the group, Mullane commented, “No Hamills, a little surprising.”

Pete Hamill had been invited, but was in Mexico, and since he never got the invitation, his brother Dennis didn’t hear about it, either, said Timothy Lee, a lifetime friend of Pete Hamill’s. The group gathered at Lee’s apartment at 25 Fifth Ave. after the ceremony.

Memories of the epic Lion’s Head nights have not faded.

“I’m the only survivor of the opening of the Lion’s Head,” said McCourt. “Since the Lion’s Head closed, I don’t know where else to go. … I was a teacher and they were all in the newspaper business,” he recalled. “I had to get up in the morning and face adolescents. I used to suffer — I said, ‘Why didn’t I become a journalist?’ In the long run, teaching kept me sober. If I had become a newspaperman, I might have succumbed.”

Added Deacy, “Dennis loved New York. He loved the people. He loved journalism. He loved to talk and go out to the bar — what people did before health clubs — we went to bars.”

Frequently the carousing and conversation continued at an after-hours joint in the South Village named Freddy’s, where Duggan was wont to spontaneously burst out singing show-tune lyrics.

“Thank God, he didn’t know all the words,” Deacy said. But eventually Duggan decided to quit drinking.

“And then he just stopped on a dime,” Dency said. “I think it saved his life. He had a lot of good mornings after that.”