The Multifaceted Life of Jimmy Tayoun

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COUNCILMAN JAMES TAYOUN (1930-2017)

BY TONY WEST
My acquaintance with Jimmy Tayoun began in 1983. I was editing the Observer, a biweekly trade newspaper with a line of insider political coverage for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Tayoun was a two-term incumbent city councilman for the 1st District, engaged with a challenger in a fierce Democratic primary race. (South Philadelphia politics in that era was famed for its colorful factions, rivalries, betrayals and grudges.)

That’s when I learned Tayoun could chew gum and whistle at the same time.

He called me up out of the blue and asked if he could show me an article he had written about his race. This was an odd request. But our newspaper didn’t use bylines and kept our writers and sources confidential. Besides, as a liquor licensee, he was a subscriber to my trade coverage (the liquor industry) as well as my political coverage. I said he could come in.

And he did … bringing in a crisp, informative, balanced piece of work that eyed both sides of the campaign with dispassionate clarity. It was excellent work, and it was free. I published it.

In that moment, I saw that Jimmy was different from the ordinary pols I dealt with. He was all in as a politician, for sure; but he was equally all in as a journalist. He loved both fields and balked at norms that said you must be chiefly one thing or another.

Twenty-three years later, I began to work as a political editor again, this time under Tayoun as my boss. We had both been through a lot in those intervening years, both led complicated lives. Along this journey, I came to see Jimmy in the round. Indeed, it took a holistic understanding of his personality to work with him. He was a man of strong beliefs and principles – but you absolutely could not put him in a box.

There was Jimmy the journalist, in print and on radio. Jimmy the nightclub impresario, who brought a dead city to life. Jimmy the political contender, who thrilled to the drumbeat of campaigns. Jimmy the public servant, who devoted himself to helping every person who came with a need or an ask. Jimmy the unionist, who backed labor’s causes to the end. Jimmy the veteran, who gave back to his fellows in service. Jimmy the man of faith, a rock for the church he was born into. Jimmy the family man, head of a huge clan. Jimmy the man of his own people, an Arab Christian community now in far-flung diaspora. Jimmy the sailor, whose chief solace was his shore home and his fishing boat. Jimmy the photographer, a compulsive lifelong snapshot-taker. And Jimmy the talker.

You couldn’t just deal with one part of Jimmy Tayoun. Whether you realized it or not, you were always dealing with a whole man, made up of many parts.

A Journalist First and Last

Tayoun started in the working world as a newspaperman, and a newspaperman he died.

AS A YOUNG soldier, Jimmy Tayoun enjoyed a chance to meet with Debbie Reynolds…

He graduated from the Temple University journalism school – in time for the Korean War. He was drafted – and wound up working in military newspapers until after the war. He served in several publications around the region, including a stint as sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He started a Lebanese American national newspaper which he later sold.

As a politician, Tayoun always treated reporters like colleagues. Like many office-holders, he loved coverage; but it went further with him. He was fond of feeding reporters the headlines for their stories, for instance; and they worked.

Decades later, having reached retirement age, Tayoun returned to his roots. He hosted a talk-radio show in the late 1990s.

In 1999, he launched his own tabloid publication, the Philadelphia Public Record. Weekly tabloids were still a success story at that time, so it seemed like a conventional scheme, perhaps.

But nothing Tayoun did was ever conventional. He ran the paper his way, to suit his varied tastes and to unite his varied connections. He broke all the rules of journalism in the 1990s, by defiantly modeling himself after the journalism of his youth. It didn’t go after a predetermined niche; instead, it created a niche for itself.

…HE WOUND UP, however, with Dolores Tayoun.

As it turned out, this “old man’s paper” has survived, in an age when print newspapers are either going extinct or are threatened species. It has always paid its way. You are reading it today. So Jimmy was right, while many other publishers who went by the book were wrong.

Bring on the Belly-dancers

Tayoun’s parents ran a small restaurant catering to a small Lebanese neighborhood near the Italian Market. In the 1950s, following tradition, he spent more time in the family business, eventually taking it over with his brother Eddie Tayoun. It flourished.

Jimmy’s newspaper instincts transferred well to that of restaurant host. He had a gift for publicity and boundless self-confidence. Once, he hired a camel to stand outside his Middle East restaurant, which he brashly moved from South Philadelphia to (gasp!) Old City in 1969.

Old City then was not Olde City now. It was a stagnant, moldering, former downtown in one of America’s duller big cities. Its nightlife consisted of Bookbinder’s, where old folks in suits ate rich, overpriced seafood.

The new Middle East sparked an entertainment explosion in Old City. Its cavernous five-story building on Chestnut Street hosted private party rooms, performance spaces, a comedy club. Its Middle Eastern music and belly-dancers were the hottest new scene in a city that Playboy and hippies had scarcely touched. It was the talk of the town.

Others followed – a trickle at first, then a torrent. By 1979, the nearby Khyber Pass was featuring edgy local rock bands. By 1989, galleries were springing up on a business strip once devoted to restaurant supplies.

In the mid-’90s, the restaurant closed. Tayoun was not in a position to manage it, so the family sold the property. But the seed had been sown. Today, Olde City has become a major engine of Philadelphia’s nightlife industry, drawing big revenue from locals and tourists alike.

Philly’s hipsters owe a debt to Jimmy.

Church Politics Opened the Door

It was impossible to know Tayoun without knowing how devoted he was to his church and his people – which are one and the same.

The Tayouns belong to the Maronite Catholic Rite. Based in Lebanon, they are an ancient Arab Christian community. Cosmopolitan by nature, they are drawn to international trade and emigration. But among their own, they are loyal to and protective of each other – a healthy habit in the Middle East (the region, not the restaurant), as all can see who follow the news today.

Belonging to a then-tiny minority early taught Tayoun how to deal with others of different ethnic backgrounds – a skill that paid off well in the rest of his life.

JIMMY TAYOUN was a devoted family man.

There are hundreds of Tayouns sprawled across two hemispheres, and Jimmy is a family hero to them. He made seven trips to Lebanon and Israel, reinforcing his familial and cultural ties – and also familiarizing himself with the complexities of Levantine life and politics.

St. Maron’s Church at 10th & Ellsworth Streets was the heart of the Lebanese community. Tayoun worked for it all his life, funding some of its programs in secret.

It was Jimmy’s devotion to St. Maron’s Church that turned Jimmy onto politics, some say.

As his daughter, Nora Truscello, tells it, at the same time Tayoun opened the Old City restaurant, he was involved in a serious confrontation with his own priest at St. Maron’s. “The priest was stealing money from the parish and my father caught onto it,” Truscello related. “The priest retaliated by banging the restaurant to city officials.” Restaurants are vulnerable to a host of complaints to City authorities.

“My father was ticked off because he wasn’t getting help from elected officials. So he decided to run against them,” said Truscello.

In the end, that priest was excommunicated, according to Truscello. So Jimmy won that round.

Throughout his life, Tayoun dwelt regularly on the teachings of his church and guided his actions in the world by them.

Jimmy married Dolores, a fellow Maronite. Together, they brought six children into the world, five of whom survived: Nora, Jamile, Yasmine, David, Adele and Paul. There are many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

All Tayoun’s children grew up working in the restaurant. Dirty work, necessary work. “There was none of this ‘You’re the boss’s kids,’” Truscello recalled. “And no age limits. His attitude was anybody could do anything if they only tried.”

As a busy father, he was seldom at home. “He gave us no more attention than he would to a total stranger,” said Truscello. “But he gave us no less either – 100% if you needed something.”

Through sweet times and bitter, Jimmy and Dolores remained in love. They were partners in politics, partners in faith, partners in family. Everyone who truly knew Jimmy knows Dolores as well. She retired from a fruitful career at the Pennsylvania Lottery.

Jimmy Tayoun’s Running Game

Tayoun first ran for office, for state representative, as a Republican. That was normal in South Philadelphia in those days; it was traditionally Republican.

He got creamed the first time out, in 1967. He didn’t have the connections yet, and connections were all when time came to count votes in South Philly in the 1960s. He was still living in Chestnut Hill, although voting out of his restaurant.

Tayoun adjusted. He moved back to S. Broad Street, where his family has lived ever since. He ran as a Democrat in 1969 and won by a narrow margin. He lost his seat in 1970 by a narrow margin, won it back by a narrow margin in 1972.

“I’M IN TUNE WITH JIM TAYOUN” – a classic campaign button.

Along the way, he learned South Philly politics. Key was taking over the 1st Ward Democratic Committee. Not an easy task, given an unending series of powerful foes: Congressman Tom Foglietta (first R, then D-Phila.), State Sens. Buddy Cianfrani and Vincent Fumo, and IBEW leader John Dougherty.

In this messy school, Tayoun mastered Philadelphia street politics to a high level. Observers have noted that he may be the greatest ward leader of all time, both for his canny grasp of electoral mechanics and for his fanatical commitment to constituent service. 24/7, he was at it, at no charge.

It was a talent he took with him when he was elected to City Council for the 1st District in 1975. He served in that district until 1984, when he resigned for an unsuccessful run for Congress. Back again in 1987, he won a fourth term.

Along the way, Tayoun burnished a reputation for political advice that endured long after he left office.

Congressman Bob Brady (D-Phila.) met Tayoun 40 years ago, when Tayoun was a councilman and Brady was City Council’s sergeant at arms under Council President George Schwartz.

“When I ran for 34th Ward leader, Jimmy told me to do it and gave me tips,” Brady recounted. “When I ran for Democratic Party chair, Jimmy nominated me. When I ran for Congress, Jimmy said, ‘Do it, do it!’”

Politics can be bruising, however. Tayoun was always ready to mix it up, old school. His florid confrontations in City Council were legendary.

“A long, lively chapter in Philadelphia politics has come to a close,” said Council President Darrell Clarke. “Jimmy Tayoun was sharp, occasionally bruising, definitely flawed, and never boring. He certainly had a heart full of love for this city. I will miss running into him – wincing and feeling warm all at once — as he slaps me on the back and says, ‘You’re doing good, Darrell.’

“I like to joke sometimes that Council used to be less boring. When I do, I see Jimmy on the chamber floor, mixing it up with Fran Rafferty and John Street. God forbid we ever go back to that time, but it’s an era I feel lucky to have personally witnessed.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, also a ward leader, said, “Jimmy was the common man’s political genius. My father was my political mentor, but when we needed help with something, we called Jimmy. He will remain an abiding influence on my commitment to second chances.”

Even more than doing politics, Jimmy loved to teach politics.

The influence of Tayoun’s political wisdom and counsel transcended party lines and ideological divides. Marc Stier, of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, commented, “It was impossible to walk away from a conversation without liking him or learning something from him.”

“He was a politician’s politician. They came to him all the time for advice, even from other states,” remarked his son-in-law Anthony Truscello.

Public Service Was His Mission

Tayoun was everywhere in his district in those days. “He kept an office at Democratic City Committee,” recalled Brady. Like his legendary predecessor Congressman Bill Barrett (D-Phila.), he held office hours in the district five nights a week, when any constituent who needed him could consult with him. Seasoned hands say they have never seen a councilman who was more hands-on with his constituents.

They were a hardscrabble lot for the most part. Society Hill aside, the 1st Councilmanic District of 1975-1990 was mostly populated by beleaguered blue-collar people in a deindustrializing city. These people were awash. They were often broke, sick, unschooled, addicted, criminal, hopeless.

Tayoun devoted his life to his walking wounded. He was rarely home at night because he was always on the job, helping his constituents. He rescued drug overdosers from abandoned factories in Kensington. He soothed conflicts between rival mobsters in South Philly. He coped with the problems of a poor city fallen on hard times.

Today’s City Council members would do well to use Councilman Tayoun as a benchmark for their own constituent service.

Observers have commented that Tayoun was the most-talented ward leader and the most-talented district councilman in recent history, when it comes to mastery of this demanding field.

“He was always for the underdog,” noted Councilwoman and Ward Leader Jannie Blackwell (3rd Dist.).

“He always was a great supporter and offered important words of encouragement while I served as a State Representative and later as a Councilman,” remarked Councilman Kenyatta Johnson (2nd Dist.). “He also emphasized the importance of doing constituent services, stressing that anything outside the district wasn’t as important as serving the people who put you into office.

“My grandmother always talked about how when he served as a councilman, he would do great constituent services for the people who lived in the Martin Luther King housing project. He was also the councilman when Dr. King visited that housing project, where my family grew up at.”

Tayoun drew no distinction between his public service and his home life. “There were always strangers in our house at Christmas, with gifts wrapped for them,” Truscello related.

Life of Work, Love of Labor

Although Tayoun graduated from college, he identified strongly with the blue-collar world of Philadelphia. He took hard work for granted, but he wanted working people to be able to lead a good life and take care of their families.

As a result, he was loyal to organized labor. In his youth, he even served as shop steward for a union of restaurant employees.

Throughout his political career, he supported labor’s causes. As a young journalist, he was a union member. As a publisher, he placed the health of Philadelphia’s labor movement at the core of his mission.

JIMMY at leisure, sheik-like, contemplating the song of the sirens beside the sea.

Life Began down the Shore

If you only saw Tayoun in town, you didn’t know the full Jimmy.

He loved shore life. Perhaps it was the call of his seafaring Phoenician ancestors. In 1975, he bought a bayside house in Atlantic City that is still in the family. Most summer weekends he spent there with his family and the usual continuous flow of visitors. The family largely lived there all summer.

It was all about the water. Jimmy was a competent captain who owned a small fishing boat and spent as much time as possible at sea. He was a strong swimmer as well, who took delight in diving off his dock into the bay to the end of his days.

Tools of His Trade

The Tayoun clan is devoted to picture-taking. It was a habit that served him well in publicity. As a restaurant promoter, a politician and a newspaperman, he took great pride in a well-planned photo-op.

And then there was the telephone. The only time Tayoun’s phone wasn’t ringing was when he was calling out himself. Back in the landline era, his children joked that the home phone was another sibling – and his favorite! When cellphones became the norm, his became a constant presence for others in his company.

Planning for his funeral, Truscello thought about burying him with a brand new cellphone, fully charged.

After the funeral, Brady smiled and said, “He died the way he hung up on the phone – suddenly.”

Tempestuous by nature, Tayoun was quick to swing into action, quick to stand up in a fight – and quick to forgive. He lived for the future, not the past.

“He was a great man,” mused Brady. “A pure Damon Runyan character. He didn’t suffer fools gladly but he had a big heart.

“I’m sure he’s up there right now, having a fight with Buddy Cianfrani.”

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One Response to The Multifaceted Life of Jimmy Tayoun

  1. A fitting tribute to a great man.

    It was a great honor to know Jimmy

    There was always a challenge to our discussions.
    He supported the struggles of the underdog as I do, as well.
    Hezbollah and Palestinian issues were difficult waters to navigate.
    For a Zionist to call this man a mensch is not difficult. R.I.P.

    jason brando
    November 13, 2017 at 2:30 am

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