Ken Dooley (Lee Howard)
Ken Dooley (Submitted)
Old Lyme — Ken Dooley's daughters were on a severely underfunded girls' softball team back in the 1980s. The girls lacked uniforms, and the field they played on was a mess.
"Everything in Old Lyme was for the boys," Dooley said. "We lost second base when the tide came in."
Not getting any backing from the town, Dooley decided to write a musical as a fundraiser for the team. He dubbed it "Darn Yankees," based on the storyline of "The Music Man" and including songs admittedly stolen from several leading musicals, with new words by Dooley.
The musical proved so popular that even Gov. Ella T. Grasso, an Old Lyme resident then undergoing chemotherapy treatments for a cancer that would kill her a few months later, attended the show. Toward the end of the performance she attended, one of the actors threw a ball into the audience, where it plopped onto Grasso's lap as the packed house gasped and clapped.
"Everyone thought it was planned, but it was a total accident," Dooley said in an interview at Muddy Waters Cafe in New London earlier this month.
This is just one of the endless entertaining and informative stories, of both local and national scope, that the 90-year-old Dooley has compiled into a a 547-page book telling tales of his extraordinary and wide-ranging life that started as a journalist and hit its pinnacle as a film producer and business executive.
Dooley, now living much of the year in Savannah, Ga., but lately staying with a brother in Rhode Island, was a confidante of the late Boston Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach, whom he directed in a documentary that traced how he helped put together 11 world championships in a 13-year period and with whom he wrote the book "MBA: Management by Auerbach." He most recently has been working on another Celtics-inspired film, titled "White to Black," with NBA Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Sam Jones that addressed the history of racial discrimination early Black professional basketball players experienced.
This project may have been jeopardized by Russell's death last month, Dooley said. But if anyone could put a film together on that era it would be Dooley, who was privy to much insider information as a confidante of Auerbach and a friend of several other Celtics players from the early days of NBA integration.
In this book, he has insider dope on how the Celtics came to be the first NBA team to draft a Black player, thanks to Auerbach's insistence. It was a story that Auerbach swore Dooley to secrecy, but which he allowed the author to tell upon his death, and there are facinating details involving how integral to the early NBA's success the Harlem Globetrotters were and how Globetrotters team owner Abe Saperstein used all his cunning to hold onto top Black talent.
"He was not a good guy," Dooley said of Saperstein.
But there are many stories in "Dooley Noted" about guys both good and bad and somewhere in between. Many are notable people, sometimes encountered in southeastern Connecticut, but quite a few are local folks who made an impact on his life or, as with the case of the Mayflower Madam, a connection to a celebrated story in the news.
So it was one summer in the 1970s when Sydney Biddle Barrows walked into Dooley's office to introduce herself as a summer intern at the Bureau of Business Practice in Waterford, where Dooley was working as editorial director. Dooley didn't give the meeting much thought until many years later when Barrows, whose family traced its heritage to the 1620 arrival in America of The Mayflower, would be arrested and convicted in a multimillion-dollar prostitution scheme that allegedly involved some of the most higher-powered men in New York City.
The book also tells of Dooley being told while lunching in the 1960s at the Griswold Inn in Essex to vacate his table because Frank Sinatra and his new wife Mia Farrow were coming on their honeymoon. Dooley refused to leave, but was finally forced out upon the removal of his table by two burly waiters. He scowled at Sinatra on his way out.
Similarly, he was at the critically acclaimed Restaurant du Village in Chester one day in the non-smoking section when "60 Minutes" newsman Morley Safer strolled in with a group that sat down in the same section and immediately began lighting up. Dooley politely leaned over and reminded Safer he was in the non-smoking section but got no response.
"Ken, do you know who that is?" said a restaurant employee Dooley asked to intervene.
"I recognize Morley Safer," Dooley said. "But he has to respect the smoking rules like everyone else."
Needless to say, this was another battle Dooley lost as he was forced to leave. Turned out Safer was part owner of the restaurant, he said.
Some of his brushes with celebrity were more direct, such as the time he worked on a Coast Guard film project with author George Plimpton, a man he admired who is best-known for the book and movie "Paper Lion." As usual, Dooley's penchant for the truth got him in trouble as he challenged Plimpton's love for the Kennedys by pointing out that Bobby Kennedy had once hugged both the infamous red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy and the equally infamous Roy Cohn, McCarthy's chief counsel as he tried to ruin the reputation of various suspected communists.
"Never happened," Plimpton said, offering to put up $1,000 to Dooley's $100 if he could turn up film proof.
Dooley took the bet, and made contact with a person he knew who specialized in stock footage. Dooley soon had the video in his hands, and arranged to show it that night at the Mystic Motor Inn bar without Plimpton's prior knowledge.
"He didn't say a word," Dooley recalled.
But that night, he found a $1,000 check under his hotel room door. It was a check he never cashed, yet Plimpton would refuse talk to him again, even after Dooley apologized.
Another humorous celebrity encounter involved Academy Award-winning actress Katharine Hepburn, who lived in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook. Dooley, who had been involved in local theater for some time as a producer who helped to revive the Ivoryton Playhouse, had offered to put on a play written by Hepburn's niece, Katharine Houghton (who appeared in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner)," at the Essex theater, and Hepburn was scheduled to be in attendance.
The elderly actress, recovering from a recent broken ankle, showed up a day early to check out her seat, and Dooley ushered her to front row, center.
"This won't do at all," Hepburn said.
She wanted to be stage left near the exit so she could get in and out quickly if she needed to. Hepburn then issued orders that gave Dooley the exclusive job of escorting her to the seat precisely one minute before curtain time.
"Geez, I practically saluted," Dooley smiled.
Dooley has a million other stories, including brushes with Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Lee Iaccoca and Andy Rooney, little sketches of friends and bits and pieces about his career and personal life. Perhaps none is more affecting than the story of the tennis group he played with for 15 years and the friendships they formed.
Dooley's latest project besides his "White to Black" film is a book he's writing with Bill Middendorf, the former Secretary of the Navy and former Ambassador to the Netherlands. They previously collaborated on a book about the "new" Cold War.
What keeps Dooley going into his 90s? The next story, of course.
As he says in the forward to his book, "I have written for newspapers, books, pulp magazines, stage, screen and radio. My favorite story is the one I am currently writing."
Dooley is giving all income from his book to nonprofits. To get a signed copy, visit KenDooley.org. The book is also available on Amazon.com.
IF YOU GO
Who: Ken Dooley, author of “Dooley Noted”
What: Book signing event
When: 2 p.m. Aug. 26
Where: Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, 2 Library Lane, Old Lyme