Thursday, November 2, 2017

Requiem For An Old-School Pol; James J. Tayoun, 1930-2017

By Ralph Cipriano

He was, at various stages of his long life, a Daily News sports writer, a restauranteur, a state representative, a City Councilman, a felon, a newspaper editor, a raconteur, always a true character, and above all else, an old-school politician.

Jimmy Tayoun died yesterday at 87, after collapsing in front of his home, and apparently suffering a heart attack.

As a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I visited Tayoun back in 1993, when he was a guest at the Federal Correctional Institute, Schuylkill, in Minersville, PA. It's a sleepy minimum security prison located on a foggy mountaintop where the deer run free, about a 2 1/2 hour drive northwest of the city. At the time, Tayoun was doing 40 months after he got nailed by the feds for paying and taking bribes.

There was a basic honesty about Tayoun that shown through his prison whites, and his circumstances.

"OK, I'm not going to say I'm innocent," he told me. "I'm obviously guilty. I pleaded guilty and I'm here." Tayoun told me how the prosecutors got him to plead guilty. They did it by showing him the indictment they planned to file against his wife.

Tayoun demonstrated how he stuck out his two arms, as if voluntarily agreeing to be handcuffed. "You got me," is what he told the feds.

I remember being impressed by how Tayoun handled prison. He didn't sulk or mope, and he didn't look back. Instead, as proprietor of the Middle East restaurant in Old City, a place that featured belly dancers, Tayoun put his restaurant knowledge to work, taking over the prison kitchen where they paid him 40 cents an hour.

"I'm top dog," he explained. He also found the time to write two books, while pecking away at an old IBM electric typewriter.

The first of his jailhouse classics -- "Going to Prison?" -- was a slim pinstriped volume that Tayoun billed as a "practical guide for the first offender." It was filled with down-to-earth advice such as make sure you pack an extra toothbrush, get your dental work done before you go to jail, and don't forget to bring along an extra pair of slippers.

He also wrote a political novel about a fictional Philadelphia City Councilman, Joe Jowdy, a flamboyant workaholic who was being chased by the feds. Only in Jimmy's version, the councilman beat the rap.

The editors at the Inquirer were so amused by the idea of Tayoun the novelist that they agreed to run a chapter of his unpublished novel in the Inquirer Sunday magazine. Back when they had a Sunday magazine. This was after Tayoun got out of jail.

When I called Jimmy to give him the good news, I told him that the editors were willing to pay him more than $1,000 for his literary efforts.

Without missing a beat, Tayoun shot back, "Ten percent of it is yours."

I said, Jimmy, isn't this the kind of behavior that got you in trouble?

He just laughed.

When I stopped by to see Tayoun at his house on South Broad Street, I was amazed at how many times his phone rang, and how many of his former constituents would call asking for help or advice. He wasn't in office anymore, but he serviced every one of those calls like he was still running for reelection.

One night, after I got fired by the Inky, Tayoun took me out for dinner in South Philly, and then we wound up at the Triangle Tavern, where we watched some truly bad amateur acts, and met a string of local characters who stood in line to talk to Jimmy.

By the end of the night, I was exhausted and ready to pack it in. Tayoun, however, only seemed to draw more energy from every bad act, and every character that stopped by his table.

In prison, Tayoun had outlined to me his plans to start a weekly newspaper that would cater to politicians. The people who paid for ads in his newspaper would get favorable press, he explained; the ones that didn't pay would get bad press, or even worse, ignored.

When I got out, I marveled how Jimmy got his "Public Record" up and running. And then I watched him screw over the Inquirer by getting his pals in City Hall to publish all their paid public notices in the Public Record, rather than our city's daily newspaper of record.

It was classic Jimmy in action. He was always twisting arms and cutting deals, but he was so unpredictable, he could flip on you in a second.

True to his ethnic roots, he would have made a fine tribal leader in Lebanon, the homeland of his ancestors, where maybe he would have had his own militia. "You don't buy Tayoun," his fellow politicians used to gripe about Jimmy, "you rent him."

But reporters were drawn to him because he was blunt and colorful.

How could you not love a guy who used to bill himself as the City Council's "camel jockey?" A candidate who used to print two shades of campaign posters; a lighter-skinned version of himself for Center City, and a tanned version for African-American wards.

When I was writing a book about Vince Fumo, a book that will be published next month, Tayoun gave me a fun interview filled with frank assessments of Vince, and his predecessor in office, Buddy Cianfrani.

When I asked Jimmy if he wanted me to call him back, and read him all his quotes, like many other button-down types I interviewed for the book insisted on doing, Tayoun just sneered, as if such a courtesy wasn't necessary for somebody who always shot from the hip.

How refreshing.

Give me an old-school back-slapping, happy warrior-type politician like Tayoun any day, even with their corruption, over the modern pale version, such as an empty suit like Michael Nutter. Or our current joyless left-wing mayor, who spends his nights drinking alone, and his days complaining about how he can't get anything done.

Rest in peace, Jimmy.


  1. Give me an old-school back-slapping, happy warrior-type politician like Tayoun any day, even with their corruption, over the modern pale version, such as an empty suit like Michael Nutter. Or our current joyless left-wing mayor, who spends his nights drinking alone, and his days complaining about how he can't get anything done.

    That paragraph sums it awsome...

  2. Jimmy was a stand up guy!

  3. Threatening one's wife or family to coerce a plea is a long running scheme of the feds. Glad Jimmy did well for himself after being incarcerated, instead of what the feds really want to see happen to defendants, to be cast by the wayside never to be heard or seen again, to destroy the human spirit,to humiliate and shame.

    He will live on forever in countless retellings of pols gone awry articles by the Inky, which is a favorite of the publication to parade any elected official through the mud for any given reason at any given time. Not sure if even death would separate a politician from the bondage of disgrace heaped upon them by the Inky.


  4. It's the Scarlet Letter all over again.

  5. IIRC Jimmy Tayoun had some choice comments about the Abscam investigation. The Feds didn't come after him, he said, because "I can smell a phony Arab from a mile away."

  6. Ralph,
    You are a good writer. I bitch sometimes in the comments but I hope you know your work is appreciated. I wrote a couple blogs for some websites and it took me 3 hours, I know the work that goes in to them.


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