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Fantasy has nothing on Citizen Mort

MORTIMER ZUCKERMAN, property developer and press baron, worth maybe dollars 400m, is one of the richest in the country. Any day now - any minute now - barring a plague of frogs, Zuckerman will take over ownership of the Daily News, New York's 'hometown paper', as it bills itself. This will give Zuckerman - if he can revive the half-dead dog of a tabloid - serious power. It will make him New York Man for the Nineties. It will also make him the subject of even more fecund speculation, because at 55 the Canadian-born Zuckerman, slight, dark, handsome, variously described as narcissistic, wilful, obsessive, is already the subject of plenty of gossip. He is known as the Z Man, or 'Mogul Lite - less filling, tastes OK', or 'Citizen Mort'.

Zuckerman collects houses - a triplex on Fifth Avenue, a town house in Georgetown, the ski lodge in Aspen - and women. He is New York's most eligible bachelor. At least once a week you meet a woman who has met Zuckerman. Hmmm, she will say, now here is a guy who is rich, smart, single and says he's dying to get married and have a kid] In New York City, this is the stuff of legend.

In fact, Zuckerman is ripe to be Not the Donald Trump of the Nineties. Zuckerman is Woody Allen to Trump's Sly Stallone. Zuckerman has the kind of brains - and pretensions - the Donald had contempt for. Instead of a tacky palace in Palm Beach, there is the elegant house in East Hampton; instead of Ivana, Gloria. Steinem, that is. Until recently, New York's most famous feminist was Zuckerman's main squeeze.

Last November, Zuckerman beat out Conrad Black and others in a bid for the Daily News. Once the US's biggest-selling newspaper, the 73-year-old tabloid nearly went under twice, first when the Chicago Tribune Company tried to bust its powerful unions (which countered with a massive strike), then when Robert Maxwell drove it to bankruptcy, just before, as one wit put it, 'jumping ship'. The Daily News is a tired tabloid whose readers - white blue-collar working people - have long gone to the suburbs, leaving behind a mass of 'a-literates': people who get their information primarily from radio and television.

As a New York institution none the less, the paper that once personified the gritty city still has enormous cachet and, potentially, huge clout as a launching pad and political platform. If Zuckerman can make it work he will be the newest tough guy on the block, the newest immigrant to make it big, he will acquire what the media critic Ed Diamond calls 'the power of a street-smart genius - another of those enduring myths of the old New York.'

Although Mort Zuckerman became a US citizen in 1977, like an interesting number of press barons, he is an outsider in several ways. His parents were Russian Jews who settled in suburban Montreal, a city which, run by a deadly combination of Calvinist Scots and pre-revolutionary French, was hidebound, provincial and anti-Semitic. He was raised in a family of women. He was a small, skinny boy, a news junkie, a nerd - at 13 he subscribed to the New York Times - who was educated at McGill University, where there was a tight Jewish quota. With a couple of law degrees and an MBA, he started work at an old Boston real-estate firm where this upstart Jew, as he was seen, made a lot of money quickly.

Mort Zuckerman used his money to finance his fantasies. First he bought the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly, a cherished literary and political journal; then US News and World Report, the third-ranked news weekly behind Time and Newsweek. Here he installed himself as editor-in-chief and pundit in residence. He began flying to Moscow to hang out with Gorby, to China to tell us how it really was. A liberal, he became a Bush Republican, then got fed up with Bush. Soon he was pontificating on every television chat show: Mort the mogul became Mort the commentator. Controversy followed him. There were allegations of fraud and malevolent scheming over the Atlantic deal and the suits and countersuits that ensued made national news.

For a while Harry Evans, the former editor of the Sunday Times, was Zuckerman's editorial director; Evans has been rumoured as a possible editor for the Daily News. Evans is Zuckerman's guru, he says, 'the greatest newspaper man I've ever known'.

One way and another, as a result of Zuckerman's reign at the two publications, both got bigger and better and this fuelled his ambition. For a Jew from a suburban Montreal ghetto, there had only ever been one capital, and so in the early Eighties, when Zuckerman arrived in New York, he had come home.

He had houses and planes, now he could get the women - actresses, writers, women famous for being famous: Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington (remember her?), Diane von Furstenburg, Gloria Steinem, who, after the affair, described him in her book as a monster of self-obsession.

A sports fanatic, he got to play on the team, too; in this case the Sag Harbor (Long Island) baseball team made up of media stars and literati, the kind of people Zuckerman wanted to run with.

He cashed in on the Eighties real estate boom and got even richer, but then came the 'shadow' thing. Zuckerman planned to build on the four acres he'd bought at the edge of Central Park, but found himself the focus of a vitriolic attack. His building would 'cast a shadow on Central Park', said the protestors. How could this upstart who said he adored the city violate our sacred public space, they said. Trouble was, 'they' were the great and nearly great, the kind of people Zuckerman aspired to to know; Jackie Onassis, for instance, and Henry Kissinger.

The attacks on Zuckerman were legion. In some of the glib assaults he was called the 'Jewish Gatsby' or 'the Edmund Hillary of social climbing' and you could see a faint smudge of anti-Semitism, at a time when anti- Semitism is on the rise in New York.

And there were people who expressed disgust that this real estate-nik should dare 'buy' himself into the 'honourable profession of journalism'. Maybe all this is a sign that after the greedy, exuberant, outrageous Eighties, people are turning inward, setting the style for the Boring Nineties, as Tom Wolfe has called them.

If Mort Zuckerman revives the Daily News, however, his attackers will turn sycophant. If he makes it work, he will have a real platform as a public figure. In a sense what Zuckerman really is is a throwback to a time when immigrant Jewish moguls who made it big liked to buy culture or good works, and pretty soon the institutions they built became part of the mainstream of New York and the upstart moguls became men of respect. 'My sister,' Zuckerman says, 'who is a psychologist, tells me that my life is better than my fantasies.'

(Photograph omitted)