Columnist George Maksian Looks Back at Life Covering NYC Glitterati


By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — As a columnist for the New York Daily News, which used to be the newspaper with the largest circulation in America, George Maksian, for decades, covered the stars of film and television, and the networks and corporations which showcased them. At one point he also was regularly featured on a radio program. Despite putting in long hours every day, and even on weekends, Maksian made it a point never to be too busy to help his fellow Armenians.

Like many Armenians starting with little, he patiently worked his way up to success. Maksian was born in Manhattan, in the neighborhood then known as Hell’s Kitchen. His parents suffered greatly as a result of the Armenian Genocide, but were eventually reunited.

Maksian recalled, “My mother and father both came from a little village called Isabeg, which was part of the Palu district in the Ottoman Empire. My mother was 12 when she married my father.”

His father, two years the elder, was then sent to the US in 1909 to earn money. He was about 16 then. Maksian continued, “My mother fled during the chart [Genocide] and ended up somewhere in Russia — she did not remember the name of the town. One day, she was told her name was listed on the American Red Cross bulletin board and that there was a man in the US looking for her, in 1921. My mother then was able to come to the US. My father had joined the US army so he already was an American citizen, and my mother became a citizen by being the wife of one.”

Maksian’s father ran various grocery stores. Maksian pointed out that although it was a tough life, growing up in the Depression, at least the family had food because of the store. He said, “I had one brother and two sisters and we all helped out in the store after school.”

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His mother insisted they all speak Armenian at home, so that when the children began school, they did not know any English. Maksian still remembers his mother’s favorite expression — “Hayeren khosir vor chi mornas [Speak Armenian so you will not forget].” The Maksian siblings never belonged to any political organization, but went every Sunday to sing in the choir at St. Illuminator’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Maksian says, “I still know the hymns of the Badarak [Divine Liturgy]. I can sing along with the choir.”

After graduating Manhattan’s High School of Commerce, Maksian, wanting to develop his writing skills, obtained a job at the Daily News, where he was immediately hired as a copy boy at $18 a week, and worked his way up to becoming a general reporter and then a columnist. He was not only the only Armenian at the time, but also one of the few non-Irish, as the newspaper was owned by the staunch Irish Catholic Patterson family. Maksian said, “McCarthy, Murphy, Mulligan — I was the token Armenian on the editorial staff. Today, however, it’s diversified, with all nationalities. I don’t know why they accepted me. Maybe they just needed a copy boy, and it was the right time and the right place.” Maksian simultaneously continued his education, studying at City College and New York University.

When an opening appeared in the radio and television department, Maksian grabbed it. His column became syndicated by the Knight Ridder News Service, and thus it appeared in various cities throughout the US. His witty and biting style of writing allowed him to take advantage of all the excitement and shenanigans taking place at the time. Maksian happily related that “people like Johnny Carson and Howard Stern gave me so much material to write about. Carson would sneeze and my story would go onto page one. I began to write about Howard Stern before anybody else did — not that I admired him, but he had a great talent.” Maksian also held various editorial positions for the newspaper.

Sometimes, Maksian’s witty characterizations of people stuck, and turned into nicknames. For example, Bob Shannon, a WCBSFM disk jockey, owed the epithet “the Prince of Puns” to Maksian.

During one of the newspaper strikes, they decided to do a radio show using the reporters, including Maksian, and it was so successful that they continued the show after the strike ended. At first it was broadcast onWMCA, and later, on WOR. It was a roundtable discussion with reporters on the stories they covered, and Maksian would speak on the topic of his column that day.

Maksian explained a critical factor for his work: “I always tried to keep a distance from the celebrities and stars, so that you can be independent for what you say in the column…. Having a regular column, the networks and stations had to abide by you and service you, because you had another column to write. If you were a one-time writer, they could ignore you, but this way, you still have a voice in the paper. We got away with a lot of things that we wrote because of this.” Maksian gave one counter-example: “Barbara Walters was somebody that always ingratiated herself to the columnists. She would send you gifts, and little notes if you were out sick. So how can you say anything negative about her?”

Armenians were an exception, and Maksian got to know many famous ones. One favorite was William Saroyan. They met when Saroyan came to New York to do the introduction for an operatic version of My Heart’s in the Highlands for Channel 13 and PBS. Channel 13 announced that Saroyan was not doing any interviews or meeting the press, but when Maksian learned that Saroyan was staying at the Royalton Hotel, he decided to drop off a copy of his forthcoming article on the opera. At the hotel, the attendant insisted that he take the article directly to Saroyan’s room. When Maksian knocked, Saroyan, in his robe, answered the door, grabbed the column and shut the door in Maksian’s face. The next morning, when Maksian came to his office around 10 a.m., the receptionist, very excitedly, asked where he had been. Saroyan had come to see him. Maksian, therefore, called him up at the hotel, and they became pals. He arranged for the Daily News editor Ben Gross to interview him at the Balkan Armenian restaurant. Afterwards, whenever Saroyan came to town, he would call up Kevork (George’s Armenian name), and ask what was going on in the Armenian community.

Once Maksian brought Saroyan to an engagement party at the AGBU building. Maksian thought that Saroyan was torn between his Armenian background and being an American celebrity. He sadly noted that Saroyan once had said to him, “I know that the Armenians love me, but the Americans have forgotten me.”

Maksian never forgot Saroyan and was one of the organizers of a memorial tribute at the Diocese of the Armenian Church in New York on June 1, 1981 after Saroyan’s death. It was a star-studded event, with novelist Kurt Vonnegut, then-New York Mayor Edward I. Koch and even actor Danny Aiello (before he became a big film star) on the program alongside many prominent Armenians. Daily News journalist Don Singleton, who named his son Aram in honor of Saroyan, was among the speakers. The audience included widely-known personalities such as Henry Kissinger and Mike Wallace.

In general, not only did Maksian kept his distance from the stars, but he also occasionally criticized or even pilloried them with an acerbic tongue in his columns. Nonetheless, he avoided being sued or fired during his 44 years at the Daily News. Two people did attempt to get him fired. Maksian said in wonderment, “Though they can dish it out, the bigger they are, the less they can take it.” Frank Fields, the weatherman, was mad that Maksian panned the former’s daughter, who was trying out as a weather person for the station.

The second person to try to get him fired, Howard Cosell, was criticizing boxing as brutal, but told his audience that he was forced to cover a fight in Los Vegas as part of his contract. Maksian telephoned Cosell’s bosses at ABC, who said that Cosell’s contract allowed him to pass up on any assignment. Maksian printed this. Then, later the same year, when the sports Emmys were announced, Maksian wrote as the last line of his column something like, “No, Howard Cosell did not win an Emmy as clown of the year.” This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Cosell then wrote a four-page handwritten letter to the general editor of the paper, bashing Maksian. Maksian didn’t get fired or punished, but was just told to lay off Cosell. Cosell wrote about the incident in one of his books.

If Maksian kept his distance from the celebrities, he did not shy away from socializing with other reporters, editors and critics. This gave him a platform to promote other Armenians: “I was able to get them to write about our Armenian artists if I did not do so myself. Nona Balakian [the famous literary critic and editor at the New York Times] said I wish I could do what you do at the News.”

He helped both individuals and groups. Maksian was able to get the Antranig Dance Ensemble a two- page spread in the Sunday Daily News. He said, “We got a photographer to come and take pictures at rehearsal, and we used that to do the article in the Sunday magazine section. Three thousand seats sold out at Carnegie Hall because of that publicity. Publicity and promotion are the most important things for success. You have to obtain good reviews and initial exposure, and follow up on this.”

Maksian felt novelty is also important for attracting publicity. He gave the example of the annual Armenian Genocide commemorations, which need a new angle or something different to obtain more coverage. On the 75th anniversary of the Genocide, Maksian was on the publicity committee in New York and convinced the others to do a service at the Statue of Liberty to thank the US for opening its doors to Armenian immigrants. Seventy-five survivors went there, and presented the Ellis Island Museum with an Armenian silver chalice as a gift. Maksian said, “That event was covered by every television station and every newspaper in the area.”

On the other hand, when an important Armenian event does not get media coverage, Maksian encourages Armenians to speak out and protest, not just individually but collectively: “Our organizations should complain and bombard the New York Times and the rest of the press, so it does not just go by. You have to hit them in the pocketbook and say we won’t subscribe to the Times, or buy the products of the sponsors.” Part of the secret is also to take out advertisements every year in major newspapers like the Times on the Genocide in order to maintain a public presence and tell the Armenian story.

After Maksian retired from the Daily News, he went to Archbishop Khajag Barsamian of the Diocese and told him he wanted to do a show. This was incorporated into the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of St. Vartan Cathedral in 1993 and became a series of Friday night programs called “Live at the Diocese.”

The individual shows bore titles such as “A Night at the Opera,” or “A Little Lite [sic] Music.” Loren Toolajian, program director at WQXR hosted the first show, which had singers including Lucine Amara and Lili Chookasian as guests, and radio personality Mark Simone hosted the second show, as well as a later one. Harry Goz performed excerpts from “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Anita Darian and Kay Armen were also part of the first Simone program. At Maksian’s suggestion, Simone at the Christmas show recited “A Visit from St. Nicolas” (more popularly known by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas”), and changed the names of all the reindeer to Armenian ones.

Maksian, aside from organizing this series, found a unique way of publicizing it. By accident, in one sense, or, looked at in a different way, through the good fortune of his prior contacts, he ended up on the Howard Stern show. Maksian was delivering an item to a young Armenian girl who worked on the show but was also a member of his Diocesan organizing committee, when producer Gary Del’Abatte producer spotted him in the corridor and invited him on the air.

Stern was doing a telephone interview with comedian Richard Pryor. Maksian remembered, “It was going nowhere. Stern said to Pryor, ‘you are a comedy genius. Would you tell my listeners, Howard I love you?’ Pryor said, ‘I can’t say that. I don’t know you.’ Stern then said, ‘We’ve been talking for 15 minutes now, can’t you say it? Or at least how about I like you?’ Pryor said, ‘I still can’t do it.’”

When Maksian was brought on the show, he declared, “I have a confession: Howard, I love you!” This broke everybody up. Maksian remembers that a little later, “Howard started to read the names on my Diocesan program, which I happened to have had in my hand. He butchered their names. He asked, ‘Who are these people?’ I said, ‘The problem with you, Howard, is that you have no culture.’” This exchange ended up serving as good publicity for the Diocesan series, Maksian discovered.

The shows received rave reviews not only from Armenians, but from some prominent critics, such as Playbill Magazine columnist Harry Haun, classical music critic Bill Zakariasen and WOR broadcaster Arthur Schwartz. Haun praised Maksian as “an Armenian Ed Sullivan.”

NBC television newsman Edwin Newman and announcer Martin Bookspan, the “voice”of Lincoln Center, were among the audience members who sent Maksian notes of appreciation later.

While Maksian did not want to work fulltime any longer, he did want to occasionally write. He declared, “I don’t miss the deadlines or pressures, but I do miss the socializing and the outlet to express myself. Forty-four years — that was a lifetime, at the Daily News.” For a number of years, Maksian wrote articles for the Armenian Reporter on Armenian topics, until the newspaper changed hands.

People still ask Maksian to bring back “Live at the Diocese” and he usually replies, “I would be hard-pressed to bring together the talent of yesterday today. Where are the Arlene Francises, Charles Aznavours or Lucine Amaras?” He added, assessing the Armenian celebrity scene today, that though we have some people like Eric Bogosian, “I’m ashamed of the Kardashians. What have they done, after all?”

In general, Maksian feels the quality of television has declined: “Today’s sitcoms are aimed at juveniles, teenagers. They try to be as risqué as possible and tease the audience. It is not really very funny. And what about the British invasion of reality shows? Don’t we have any homegrown talent any more?”

Maksian hopes more young Armenians will work in newspapers and communications. He pointed out, “I had an influence at the Daily News, because I used it. Communications are so important. When an army takes over a government the first thing they do is take over the newspapers, radio and television. The printed word is still mightier than the sword. The things said on radio or TV, get lost eventually, but when they are printed, it hurts, and they remain.” He also hopes that more Armenians appear on Broadway, or at the Metropolitan Opera. Though such careers are difficult, persistence pays off.

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