Bill Honan, Villager editor who battled De Sapio, dies at 83

Bill Honan around 1970.  Courtesy Nancy Burton
Bill Honan around 1970. Courtesy Nancy Burton

BY ALBERT AMATEAU & LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  William H. Honan, a distinguished journalist who was editor of The Villager and an important force in the Reform movement’s toppling Carmine De Sapio from Democratic Party leadership, died Monday in Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut of cardiac arrest.

He was 83.

A correspondent and editor at The New York Times for 30 years, Bill Honan had also been an associate editor at Newsweek and an assistant editor at The New Yorker, according to his New York Times obituary.

But in a career that included several books and the management of Ed Koch’s early political campaigns, his time at The Villager from 1957 to 1960 stood out.

John W. Sutter, owner and publisher of The Villager from 1999 to 2013 and a friend of Honan’s, recalled that Bill said that The Villager was the most important job he ever had.

In a 2003 interview for the 70th anniversary issue of The Villager, Bill recalled how the paper turned away from the political path of least resistance (support for the De Sapio-led Tamawa Democratic club) and joined the reform movement that ended De Sapio’s reign.

The Villager’s publisher at the time, Merle Bryan Williamson, had inherited the paper from her sister, Isabel Bryan, a co-founder of the paper.

“She ran a Holiday Inn in Missouri and became The Villager publisher on sheer courage,” Honan said of Williamson.

In 1959, Honan convinced the assistant publisher, Jim Bledsoe, to back the reformers, led by Mayor Robert Wagner, former Governor Herbert Lehman and Eleanor Roosevelt. The Villager had never endorsed political candidates before.

“We went to Merle and told her what we wanted to do,” Honan said. “She was 85 years old but she was from Missouri where the Pendergast machine ran Kansas City. She said, ‘Well boys, you better do it right. If you don’t you’ll be stretched out in a church and people will be saying how natural you look.’ If her sister were still running the paper, it would never have happened,” Honan said.

A 2,500-word, full-page editorial on the paper’s back page detailed the case for the Reform candidates and against De Sapio. Essentially, the editorial stated, while De Sapio was trying to pass himself as a reformer, he was still an old-line machine politician, more interested in providing patronage jobs and Christmas turkeys to supporters than really addressing the community’s needs — not really a district leader but a “district dispenser” as The Villager put it.

“In its early days, The Villager never would have taken a position like that,” Honan noted in an article in The Villager’s 75th anniversary issue. “They were playing footsy with the powers that be. There were pages of notes at the old Grosvenor Hotel and about widows playing backgammon, and who won the backgammon game was considered news.

“Everybody said all the advertisers would desert us, we’re doing a terrible thing,” he recalled.

But the paper prospered.

Honan said a judge offered to bribe The Villager — in support for De Sapio the paper would be supplied with legal notices, like those found in the back of this newspaper.

“That was worth several thousand dollars a week — significant bucks,” Honan recalled.

De Sapio, in fact, won by what The Villager in its headline called a “Razor Margin,” 4,857 to 4,271. Yet, the paper correctly ascertained in its editorial that it was “the last hurrah” for Tammany and De Sapio, who lost in ’61, ’63 and ’65.

A note apologized to readers for lack of the paper’s prompt delivery due to a press breakdown and “the high-handed interference of political partisans.”

“Sheer courage” is an apt description of Honan himself. Committed since a teenager to nonviolence, he was drafted into the Army in the early 1950s during the Korean War, according to his daughter, Edith Honan.

“After submitting to a nine-hour interrogation, he was granted status as a conscientious objector,” she said. “The Draft Board did not take kindly to Gandhi-quoting atheists. Most of the CO’s who served with my dad were Seventh Day Adventists. But the military was not prepared for the kind of answers he gave: ‘Do you believe in a higher being?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would you name that higher being?’ ‘Myself.’

“My dad went through basic training as a CO armed with a billy club and trained as a medic, but the military transferred him to Fort Devens [Mass.] where he became editor of the post newspaper, the Fort Devens Dispatch. That was his start in journalism,” she said.

Anti-violence was an important aspect of Bill’s life, his daughter said.

“My dad and his brother, Park Honan, hitchhiked across the country when they were young to hear Albert Schweitzer speak at Aspen,” she said. “My dad wrote a lot about the antiwar movement and anti-violence.

“My dad told stories about his days at The Villager,” his daughter recalled. “He met Eleanor Roosevelt, who told him, ‘You’re the man who brought down Carmine De Sapio,’ and invited him to lunch. Walter Cronkite called him for an interview. It was a big deal,” she said.

During Honan’s tenure the ongoing big issue was fighting Robert Moses’ plan to build a major road through Washington Square Park and the community’s wish to close the park to traffic. The Villager published a front-page editorial. Thanks to the persistence of a united community and The Villager’s coverage and editorials, the road project was defeated and the park closed to cars.

Bill met his second wife, Nancy Burton, in 1970 when he was an editor on the Times’s Magazine desk and she was a “copyboy.” There were no “copygirls” at the Times in those days, she noted.

An earlier marriage, to Sally Trope, ended in divorce.

Burton not only would go on to marry Honan, but also to work at The Villager as a news and feature writer, a job that she loved.

“I was a college student in Boston at the time in a cooperative education program in which I would study three months and they would place me in a job for three months,” Nancy recalled.

“After I met Bill, we were inseparable for 44 years! I quickly transferred to N.Y.U. to the journalism program, and there happened to be an opening for a reporter at The Villager. I was able to both do reporting and pursue my B.A. degree, after which I went on to become a reporter in the New York bureau of the Associated Press.

“Bill was so loved by all!” she said. “His crusading spirit, humanity and compassion drew me to him, not to mention his disarming charm, grace and wit.

“Bill was a sailor, too,” she added. “He loved serving as captain at the helm at The Villager, guiding the paper forward with his awesome navigational skills.”

William Holmes Honan was born in Manhattan in May 1930. His father, William was a thoracic surgeon who died when Bill was five years old. His mother, Annette Neudecker, was a journalist. He earned a B.A. in history from Oberlin College and a master’s degree from the University of Virginia.

Among the books that he authored are “Visions of Infamy: The Untold Story of How Journalist Hector C. Bywater Devised the Plans that Led to Pearl Harbor,” and “Treasure Hunt: A New York Times Reporter Tracks the Quedlinburg Hoard.”

In addition to his daughter, a reporter for Reuters, and his wife of 37 years, Nancy Burton, he is survived by his sons, Bradley and Daniel, and two grandchildren. His brother, Park, a retired professor of English at Leeds University, England, also survives.

Carol Greitzer and James Lanigan, of the Village Independent Democrats club, beat De Sapio and his female running mate in the ’61 district leader race. Greitzer went on to be elected city councilmember.

“He was the one who really changed the nature of The Villager,” she said of Honan. “The paper had a lot of news about De Sapio’s people. And it had a lot on graduations and weddings, photos with short stories. The Village Voice was reporting on Democratic politics. He changed The Villager from a little society paper into a newspaper that reported the news. … I can still picture all those wedding and graduation photos.”