Many media types cherish the vision of their work as a moral struggle: journalists battling evildoers – and their publicists – to bring dark truths to light. If the miscreant in question was rich or celebrated or notorious enough, that publicist was likely to be John Scanlon, who died May 4 of an apparent heart attack at the age of 66, after a career of defending unpopular figures from the ravages of the press. But a funny thing happened over a few decades of combat: Scanlon’s closest friends turned out to be journalists.
This may be why his funeral last Tuesday at St. John the Divine, while it included a few token clients, was conspicuously packed with media heavyweights. There was Nora Ephron, Nick Pileggi, Howard Stringer, Graydon Carter, and Ken Auletta, among many others who counted themselves among Scanlon’s friends.
Peter Jennings, in an affectionate eulogy celebrating the P.R. man’s wit, capacity for pleasure, and loyalty, recalled that Scanlon “insisted we be friends – it was John’s way.” Pete Hamill acknowledged Scanlon’s propensity for rascally clients: “Yes, he enjoyed the company of rogues,” 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.” Poet Seamus Heaney admired Scanlon’s “Whitmanesque inclusiveness.” He was a “giver and a sustainer,” Heaney said, whose generosity of spirit “lifted all boats.” Even, apparently, Leona Helmsley’s.
Perhaps the surest sign that Scanlon had passed on was the sight of his most recent high-profile client, Bob Kerrey, at the center of the biggest story of the last month, standing alone, virtually ignored by the swarm of journalists. Scanlon would never have allowed such a thing to happen – even at a funeral.