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Len Levitt, longtime Newsday columnist and investigative reporter, dead at 79

By Robert Brodsky and Anthony M. DeStefano

Updated May 18, 2020 5:34 PM

Longtime Newsday columnist and investigative reporter Len Levitt
Credit: Newsday File

Leonard Levitt, a muckraking investigative journalist and columnist who spent decades chronicling the operations of the NYPD for Newsday, rankling commissioners while uncovering corruption and mismanagement, died Monday after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 79.

Levitt, who had a knack for getting newsmakers to spill their secrets, was part of a cadre of police reporters who would hang out in the backroom of Elaine's, the Upper East Side restaurant and bar, chatting up sources for scoops that he would quickly write in "The Shack," the fabled press room at One Police Plaza.

His weekly Newsday column, "One Police Plaza," frequently put him in the crosshairs of NYPD brass who tried — unsuccessfully — to limit his access. But Levitt, who also wrote six books, was steadfast, usually finding a way to get the story.

Former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, who ran the department from 1994 to 1996 and again from 2014 to 2016, described Levitt as the last of an old breed of police reporters who came of age in the crime-ridden 1980s.

"Lenny followed the stories where the stories took him," Bratton said Monday.

Richard Esposito, a former New York Newsday city editor and now the NYPD's deputy commissioner for public information, said Levitt “epitomizes the tenacity, the grit and integrity that is Newsday.”

Levitt, who grew up in Woodmere, was the only child of Benjamin Levitt, who ran an export business, and Celia Levitt, who taught at Hunter College.

While at Dartmouth College, where he earned a bachelor's degree, Levitt was roommates with Peter Gina, who introduced him to his sister, Susan Gina. A friendship between Levitt and Gina later evolved to a romance that would last nearly five decades.

The couple married in 1974 and had two children, Jennifer Levitt, 37, a high school English teacher from Manhattan, and Michael Levitt, 35, an account director at an advertising agency who lives in Port Washington. The family settled in Stamford, Connecticut.

"We shared a lot of adventures together and had two great kids," said Susan Levitt. "It's been a great life."

Jennifer Levitt said her father always made time for his children, from whitewater-rafting trips down the Salmon River in Colorado to Mets games and fierce debates over politics and teaching.

"I'll miss everything," she said. "He was loving and caring and always took the time to talk about the little things."

After college, Levitt — inspired by President John F. Kennedy's call to service — joined the Peace Corps, where he would serve two years as a teacher in Tanzania. Levitt's first book, "An African Season," would chronicle that experience.

Levitt returned home and obtained a master's degree from Columbia Journalism School. He worked for the Detroit News, Associated Press, Time Magazine, as an investigations editor at the New York Post and had two stints at New York Newsday, one primarily as an investigative reporter and later as a columnist.

"Leonard was an amazing investigative reporter who had an impressive career," said Richard Galant of Huntington, Levitt's editor at New York Newsday for five years. "He was a natural conversationalist and was skilled at drawing you in."

Levitt was a prolific author, writing or editing true crime stories on Charles E. Friedgood, the former Great Neck heart surgeon convicted in 1976 of killing his sickly wife with a lethal overdose of a painkiller; and on civil rights activist Richard X. Clark, one of the leaders in the Attica prison riot.

Levitt received the 2005 nonfiction Edgar Award for "Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder," which explored the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley. Michael Skakel, a member of the Kennedy clan, was convicted in 2002 of killing Moxley, his childhood neighbor. The conviction was vacated by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2018.

Levitt's reporting on the power brokers, backroom deals and cover-ups within City Hall and the NYPD — from the torturing of Abner Louima to the shooting death of the unarmed Amadou Diallo — made Levitt a feared presence among department leaders. Many of those stories became part of his 2009 book, "NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force."

Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly was so angered about a Levitt column that he once traveled to Newsday's Melville offices to call for the reporter's job, according to John Miller, the department's deputy commissioner overseeing counterterrorism.

"Lenny was part reporter, part gossip columnist and part avenger and managed to do it all together later in his career," Miller said. "I don't think there was the equivalent of NYPD Confidential anywhere else."

Levitt's annual "Night Before Christmas" columns became a popular must-read. The fictionalized accounts imagined Bratton, Kelly and other top department leaders and politicians walking up snowy Fifth Avenue ruminating about their problems, egos and city politics.

Levitt retired from Newsday in 2005 but continued to write the weekly "NYPD Confidential" column on his website through the end of 2019, as well as a weekly column for amNewYork.

Levitt is survived by his wife and two children; a daughter-in-law, Christina; and a 2-year-old granddaughter, Amaia.

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