Bill O'Reilly's South Florida Roots
In defense of Bill O’Reilly, we can say without fear of contradiction that never once during his brief association with our magazines in the early 1970s was he ever accused of sexual harassment. In truth, we had no female employees to harass, but even if we had, in those days it would more likely have been aggressive women harassing him, than the other way around. He was a charming, intelligent, good-looking young dude.
We use the word “association” in terms of O’Reilly because he was not an employee. For a brief time he freelanced for Miami Magazine, which we owned in 1972. He walked in unannounced to the Coconut Grove office and told our editor, Gaeton Fonzi, that he was our new film critic. Fonzi liked his brash style and took him on, probably for our usual freelance fee: nothing. O’Reilly’s time in Miami was brief, but long enough that he and Fonzi remained in touch for years. O’Reilly was teaching at Monsignor Edward Pace High School. We also had the impression, although it is not confirmed on his internet biography, that he was doing grad work at the University of Miami.
We only met him a few times and were surprised one night a few years ago when he mentioned us on his broadcast. He was coming to Palm Beach for an event, and we were a media sponsor. The man he really knew was Fonzi, with whom he kept in touch from his various stops along the way to national prominence. Fonzi got a note from him in Denver where he said the problem with being on TV is that he couldn’t even go to a dirty movie anymore. We might add that the Bill O’Reilly of those days hardly seemed like the moralizing conservative he degenerated into when he made the big time.
It was a stop in Dallas that reconnected O’Reilly and Fonzi in an interesting way. We had sold Miami Magazine in 1975, and Fonzi had gone to work for Congress in the reopened investigation of the President Kennedy assassination. In Dallas, O’Reilly was a rising star and took an interest in the assassination. He was following Fonzi’s work, which became increasingly dramatic when Fonzi discovered a link between Lee Harvey Oswald and a high-ranking CIA officer—a man very active in the anti-Castro movement in South Florida.
In 1977 Fonzi learned that a man named George de Mohrenschildt, who had been close to Oswald in Dallas, was visiting in the Palm Beach area. We now know de Mohrenschildt was a CIA operative who appears to have been Oswald’s “handler.” Fonzi wanted to reach him. Through the Palm Beach Social Register (in our office) he found the address of the family at whose Manalapan home de Mohrenschildt was staying.
He wasn’t home when Fonzi showed up the same day, but Fonzi left his card. When de Mohrenschildt returned and saw the card, he went upstairs and blew his brains out. That afternoon an excited O’Reilly called from Dallas and said he was flying in the next morning to cover the story. He wanted to know where Fonzi would be and Fonzi said to reach him at the magazine. That was our magazine office.
In retrospect, it is obvious de Mohrenschildt was tormented by the guilt of having been indirectly involved in the death of a president. He had been threatening suicide for some time. O’Reilly was in Dallas when it happened. The importance is that in his 2012 book, Killing Kennedy, O’Reilly wrote that he was at the Manalapan home and heard the gunshot when the man killed himself.
Fonzi was dead by the time O’Reilly published that claim, but his wife Marie, who never liked O’Reilly, was very much alive. Furious, she produced a tape of the phone call O’Reilly had made from Dallas. It attracted national attention and became just one more in a series of criticisms of O’Reilly’s tendency to enlarge his role by distorting events he covered, and misstatements about important subjects in his books. The respected columnist George Will excoriated him, writing that “his vast carelessness pollutes history.”
Fonzi remained friendly with O’Reilly for the rest of his life. He actually helped O’Reilly make contact with a TV executive in New York in 1980—the beginning of his rise as a cable news star. Fonzi admired O’Reilly’s success, but was disappointed in his work at Fox News, which he considered corrupt. He summed it up: “Bill took the money.”
We don’t know how much of the harassment stuff is true. Maybe there is some exaggeration, but obviously not on O’Reilly’s part. It may turn out taking the money was not a bad idea. It looks like he may need it.