UNLIKE STAR REPORTERS, newspaper editors toil behind the scenes, rarely commanding the spotlight. But for James “Hap” Hairston ’71 (right) stardom has arrived—11 years after his untimely passing. Hairston’s life and work are portrayed in the late Nora Ephron’s final work, Lucky Guy. The play was produced on Broadway starring Tom Hanks as the controversial tabloid columnist Mike McAlary.
As editor of The New York Daily News, Hairston guided McAlary on the Abner Louima police brutality story that captured a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1998. Lucky Guy ended its limited engagement July 3. Courtney B. Vance, who portrays Hairston, won a Tony Award for best featured actor.
Hairston, an American Civilization graduate, is remembered by his classmate Riley K. Temple ’71, trustee emeritus: “He was quick, witty, and had a wicked twinkle in his eye. Quite puckish, he was.”
Launching his journalism career as an intern in the photography department of Easton’s The Express, Hairston moved up to become a reporter, assistant news editor, and city editor, the first African American news executive in the paper’s history.
Advancing his career eastward and upward at the Bergen Record (N.J.) and The New York Daily News, Hairston guided many reporters and played a key role in the tabloid newspaper wars of the 1980s portrayed in Lucky Guy. He oversaw the city desk when Long Island Newsday launched its New York edition. He captured three Pulitzer Prizes during his career and even played a nonspeaking role as an editor in The Paper, the 1994 film directed by Ron Howard.
For Hairston’s widow, Sheryl Zacharia, a New York sculptor, seeing Lucky Guy was bittersweet. “I think [Hap] would have been happy with Courtney Vance as he was a big Law & Order fan. The whole experience of being honored this way, he would have loved,” says Zacharia, who adds that the role although factually correct is missing his incredible quirky personality.
“The funniest scene is right out of Hap’s mouth,” says Zacharia, who explains that Ephron interviewed her husband several times during her research for the script. “The scene, sadly, was when [Hairston and McAlary] were both in the hospital and in a lot of pain after surgeries and both had morphine drips. They decided to use their pumps simultaneously and get high together; you know they were drinking buddies. It was hilarious and very well acted. They were always finding the humor in things! It got the biggest laughs in the play.”
Hairston died Dec. 21, 2002, of an apparent heart attack in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he was caring for his ailing mother, Ruth. He had struggled with poor health since an earlier heart attack in 1996. McAlary died of colon cancer in 1998.