It's an awkward moment, but it soon passes. George insists on being helpful; he knows a story on two brothers wouldn't be complete without a visit to the family home, and, of course, "You haven't met our mother," he says. "She's a formidable old lady. She's a part of this." So George leads the way into a nursing home near his old high school in Queens, signs in and wheels his 87-year-old mother, May, to a quiet place where she can talk. For 39 years May has struggled with multiple sclerosis, and now she sits in a white cardigan and saggy knee-high stockings. Her eyes are bright. George sits across a table from her, guiding May to remember her life and her dead husband.
When talk turns to Peter and George, she speaks of their writing and says George's is more her speed, although "it sometimes seems pointless." No, she hasn't read anything of Peter's lately. She says Peter was always a bad boy, never took school seriously. "But if you want a good friend, Peter's the one to turn to," May says, and at this George blinks. His face stays blank, as if he has heard this so often that it has become meaningless. But she isn't looking at him. She speaks as if he isn't there. "My love at the moment is Peter," she says.
It's not easy to find families like this anymore, not in newspapers anyway. The Vecseys are an ink-for-blood cliché. May was pregnant with George when she and Big George, the society editor and the sports editor, respectively, of the Long Island Press, helped organize the local chapter of the Newspaper Guild and took to the picket lines in 1938, braving billy clubs and marking the scabs. Journalism, Laura Vecsey says, is "the family disease," and its symptoms can be extreme. Once, while working for the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union and facing a stiff deadline at the Garden, Laura says, she asked Peter if a much-rumored trade was about to go through, and Peter wouldn't answer. Peter denies this, but he admits that he has no use for reporters who share scoops. "It's competition," he says. "I don't give it up." Two years ago, after Peter created a stir during the NBA Finals by questioning, in a radio interview, the heart of Seattle SuperSonics swingman Nate McMillan, Laura buried in her column a veiled but obvious slap at her uncle.
Big George would've been pleased. Newspapers became the family business when newspapers mattered most, and 50 years later the Vecseys are at the top of the profession, stirring things up, telling people in Queens and Manhattan—hell, the whole country—how to think. The New York Times! The New York Post! What could be better for a man who, after working seven days a week on two jobs at the Daily News and the Associated Press, would come home every morning with several papers, talking about Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon—a man who'd never finished college, a man whose confidence had been hollowed out by fear?
Once, Big George went into a candy store to buy a Baby Ruth bar. The clerk had only Tootsie Rolls. Big George punched him. His temper was legendary, but it grew out of weakness: Big George was a small man, an adopted kid saddled with the knowledge of a double desertion, first by his biological parents and then by his adoptive father. When he reached middle age, his childhood demons took the form of loan sharks and McCarthy-era informants. The entire house would hear him scream in his sleep because the bad guys were coming. Sometimes it was no dream.
But that was later. The early key to Big George was that he wasn't supposed to be a mere deskman working the rim, editing the stars' copy. No, he had always attacked books with the oasis thirst of a self-taught man; he stocked his shelves at home with Wolfe and Eugene O'Neill and read all the history he could lay his hands on. Unlike May, a magna cum laude graduate of the College of New Rochelle, Big George didn't have a college degree, but he was smart and had views and at 35 was the sports editor of the Press. Why shouldn't he have dreamed of running the sports department of a big New York paper someday?
But then came the '38 strike, and Big George was a devoted union man. Management offered him $5 extra per week to cross the picket line, and he refused; the guy who accepted, his assistant, ended up running the sports section of the Press and living in a big house. Big George was not rehired after the strike. He worked odd jobs, but newspapering is a nasty drug. In the early '40s he hooked on with the Daily News as a deskman, and for the rest of his career that's what he was, at the News and the AP in Manhattan. He wrote radio copy, edited stories and went home.
"He was one of the best newspapermen—and one of the best men—I knew," says Bill Gallo, the longtime cartoonist and former associate sports editor of the News. "He should've been sports editor of the News, but he got there too old. He would've made a hell of a sports editor. It was his kind of paper."
Little George, the oldest Vecsey child, got the full benefit of his parents' youthful energy and bookish interests, and he took the most direct shot of his mother's high-minded, Catholic ambition. She never worked again after he was born, for soon there were four more kids—Liz, Peter, Janet and Chris. But May remained the family's propelling force. "George was always her shining light," says Liz Vecsey Gembecki. "We were always told how bright he was, his IQ." All the kids were pushed to do better, be better, and when they disappointed Mom, she let them know it. Even now, George says, it scares him to see how much he is like May.
"He has very high standards, and he holds other people to them," Chris Vecsey says. "Pete—no matter what he says about players—isn't holding them to any standard. He's always looking for a good line. But George has a self-imposed integrity, like my mother, and at times it makes them hard to be with."