Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jimmy Breslin, 1928-2017

We can debate who was America's greatest writer. But America's greatest newspaper writer was Jimmy Breslin.

There is no other choice. As with Babe Ruth, there was a way to do it before him, and after he made his mark, there were ways to do it that weren't his, all of them wrong.

He'd have been the first to tell you. He didn't believe in false bravado. He believed in honest bravado: "I'm the best person ever to have a column in this business. There's never been anybody in my league."

He was more than that. As much as anyone – not a word, fans of the late Ed Koch; shut up, Rudy Giuliani; put a sock in it, Donald Trump; sorry, Regis Philbin – Jimmy Breslin has been the voice of New York City.

James Earle Breslin was born on October 17, 1928 (some sources incorrectly had 1930) in Jamaica, Queens. He grew up in the adjoining neighborhood of Richmond Hill, in the Great Depression, and he and his sister Deirdre were raised by a single mother after their alcoholic father walked out on them.

He graduated from John Adams High School in Ozone Park, something my grandmother didn't do, having to drop out in her senior year because she was orphaned and had to go to work. Breslin was already working: In 1946, shortly after turning 16, he was hired by the Long Island Daily Press, a newspaper whose offices were in Queens. (It went out of business in 1977.)

He went to Long Island University in Brooklyn, but left without graduating in 1950. He returned to the Press, and became a reporter. He hung around Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, and found the bars/gin mills/watering holes where the necessary dramatis personae celebrated their victories and drowned their sorrows: Cops, crooks, lawyers.

More than that, he spoke to the people they pushed around. Guys who busted their asses doing jobs they hated. And he wrote about them, and championed them. And did it supremely well. Unlike them, he loved his job.

He was hired by the New York Journal-American as a sportswriter. He covered the New York Mets in their awful 1st season, 1962. In time for the 1963 season, his book about them came out, titled after a question that manager Casey Stengel asked: Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

The reaction to it got the attention of one of the best newspapers in the world, the New York Herald Tribune. They hired him as a regular columnist. He was 34 years old.

Shortly thereafter, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Breslin got on a plane to Dallas, and interviewed Dr. Malcolm Perry, who oversaw the failed attempt to save JFK at Parkland Hospital. And he interviewed Father Oscar Huber, the 70-year-old priest who performed the last rites. And he interviewed Vernon B. O'Neal, whose funeral home was contacted by the Secret Service for a casket.
It was 53 years and 4 months ago. With the passing of the writer, now they are all gone.

Breslin wrote his column, including describing the look of the room, and the people working in it, and the stricken President and his watching wife. He dictated it over the phone back to the Trib, and it appeared in the Sunday, November 24, 1963 edition under the title, "A Death in Emergency Room One."

Breslin flew back to Washington on Sunday, and found a new interview subject: Clifton Pollard, a gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery, who was preparing JFK's grave. He was being paid $3.01 an hour -- about $24 in today's money -- an extraordinary wage, given that he was a black man and that Arlington is in Virginia, a Southern State. But then, he was working for the federal government, and JFK had not only banned racial discrimination in federal government hiring, but ordered equal pay for blacks and whites.

Pollard called it an honor, not just because JFK was the President, but because of what kind of President he was. He was not invited to the funeral. It had nothing to do with him being black in the South. It was a Monday, and he had to go to work.

As an Army veteran of World War II, Pollard was entitled to burial at Arlington. In 1992, he died, and was buried about 100 feet from the Kennedy family plot.

Breslin may have been an Irish Catholic himself, and he may even have admired JFK, and the columns in question certainly show his admiration for Jackie. But the gravedigger, the priest, the mortician, even the highly-educated doctor... these were his people.

The image from the JFK funeral, 6 years before I was born, that sticks with me, is that of the Army bugler who played "Taps" at the end. His name was Keith Clark, and he botched one note. He insisted that it was just a mistake, not a result of any sadness he was feeling. I'm surprised Breslin didn't interview him. Maybe he tried, and the Army wouldn't let him. Clark died in 2002, and he is also buried at Arlington. His bugle is on display there.

*

By 1965, the Herald Tribune was losing cash by the bucket, in spite of being owned by John Hay "Jock" Whitney, a member of several prominent old-money families. That Summer, Breslin was sent to Vietnam to cover the war there, while his stablemate Dick Schaap was sent to Los Angeles to cover the Watts race riot.

Schaap would write in his memoir that he heard gunshots coming from several directions, and imagined that Breslin was probably not witnessing combat, but sitting in an officers' club, drinking with officers and getting their stories that way, safe and sound. Well, as the Tet Offensive proved in early 1968, Vietnam was one war where being away from the battlefield might not mean all that much.

The Trib folded in 1966, as did the Journal-American. So did the World-Telegram & Sun. They never recovered from the New York newspaper strike of late 1962 and early 1963. Nor did the New York Mirror, which published one last edition when the strike ended, and closed up shop.

The City was left with 3 papers: The New York Times (a broadsheet like the Trib, the Journal-American and the World-Telly), the Daily News (a tabloid like the Mirror), and the New York Post (also a tabloid).

Breslin stayed with the one remnant of the Trib, its Sunday supplment, which in 1968 became the weekly New York magazine. That year, he covered the Presidential campaign of New York's Senator, the late President's brother, Robert F. Kennedy. Breslin was only a few feet away from Bobby when he was shot.

In 1969, the most literary ticket in American history was formed. Norman Mailer ran for Mayor of New York, and as his running mate, for the office of City Council President (who would be next in line if something happened to the Mayor -- that title is now called "Public Advocate"), he chose Breslin. Mailer's campaign slogan could not be said in public in those days, but he came up with it anyway -- or, maybe, Breslin did: "No more bullshit." Part of their platform was that New York City would secede from New York State and become the 51st State. (Nobody seemed to agree on what the remainder of New York State would be called.) In a 5-man Democratic Primary, Mailer finished 4th. Despite being not as famous as Mailer at that point, Breslin got more votes than Mailer.

Breslin's investigative journalism led him to meet many organized crime figures, helping him to write The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight in 1969. The following year, Breslin was dining at The Suite, a restaurant owned by Henry Hill, the Lucchese crime family associate who was later played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Breslin had written an article about Hill's friend, Paul Vario (Paul Sorvino in the movie). And Jimmy "the Gent" Burke (Robert De Niro in the movie) came in and beat the crap out of him. He survived with only a concussion. (Burke and Vario both died in prison, Hill in witness protection. Breslin, older than Hill and Burke but not Vario, outlived all of them.)

*

In 1976, he published a book about how the system worked in the nation's favor in Watergate: How the Good Guys Finally Won. That year, New York newspapering changed forever. Rupert Murdoch, the brash right-wing Australian, bought the Post, and turned it from what it was, a hard-hitting paper favored by liberal intellectuals, especially Jewish ones, to a conservative rag that cared a lot for flashy headlines and not a damn for journalistic accuracy and ethics. In response, the Daily News shifted from center-right to center-left, and brought Breslin in.

On May 30, 1977, a letter showed up at Breslin's office at the Daily News Building on East 42nd Street. It was from a man claiming to be the Son of Sam, who had already pulled off 6 shootings, wounding 9 people, killing 5 of them and paralyzing another. It was full of lurid prose, and Breslin said, "This guy could take my job."

He conferred with the police, and they agreed with him that the letter should be published. After all, at the time, the Daily News had the highest circulation (most individual papers bought) of any newspaper in the country, over 2 million. (Today, with the high cost of ink and paper, and the Internet, both having rewritten the rules, the Times gets about 1.8 million, no other single-city paper in America gets even 700,000, and the Daily News and the Post both about 500,000.)

The Daily News did publish the letter, on Sunday, June 5, along with an editorial written by Breslin. Here's that front page:
After 2 more shootings -- totaling 13 victims, 6 dead, 1 paralyzed and 1 blinded -- the NYPD figured out the killer was David Berkowitz, a mailman with a Bronx route, living in neighboring Yonkers. Breslin and his former Trib teammate Schaap then collaborated on a novel based on the case, titled .44.

I saw the Son of Sam case play out on TV news, as a 7-year-old kid in Central Jersey. I wasn't reading the Daily News or any other paper's account of it. I first saw Breslin doing a commercial for Piels beer, filmed in a bar, probably in his beloved Queens, which he closed (the commercial, not the bar) by saying, "That's what I like about Piels: It's a good drinkin' beer!"

On December 8, 1980, at 10:50 PM, former Beatle John Lennon was shot and killed outside his home, the Dakota Apartments on Central Park West. He was pronounced dead at Roosevelt Hospital at 11:15. At 11:20, Breslin was in bed when he got a call about it. When he got to Roosevelt Hospital, he interviewed the cops who had arrested Mark David Chapman for the murder.

In 1981, his wife, whom he called "the former Rosemary Dattolico," died of cancer at age 50. A year later, he married Ronnie Eldridge, a City Councilwoman. He had 6 children, all Catholic like him. She had 3 children, all Jewish like her. "Everybody hated each other," he said. "It was beautiful."

In 1984, he broke the news that Bernhard Goetz, the "subway vigilante," had shot 4 of his victims in the back, proving that he'd gone beyond any understandable self-defense, and was, in fact, as much of a coward as the young men who tried to rob him.

In 1986, Breslin wrote that cops had used stun guns on jailed suspects, a major no-no. Then he blew open the Parking Violations Bureau scandal, dethroning 2 Borough Presidents, Stanley Friedman of The Bronx and Donald Manes of Queens. Friedman went to prison. Manes committed suicide before he could go to trial.

"Of course I would betray a friend for the biggest story of the year," Breslin said. Apparently, he would also have done it for the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, because he got it for his columns on the PVB scandal.

He thought he was the greatest city reporter ever, but he didn't let the Pulitzer go to his head. He still got up early, calling judges, politicians, cops, and other journalists, starting with a question: "What's doin'?" Eldridge explained, "He just keeps calling, until he has a column in his head. But then, he has to go see it." And, despite reporting from New York to Vietnam, from Dallas to Selma, Alabama, he never learned to drive.

*

Unfortunately, like his Daily News stablemate Dick Young, and his Chicago counterpart Mike Royko, he got crochety and conservative in his later years, taking his image as the voice of his city's common man too seriously.

In 1988, he left for New York Newsday, the paper covering Long Island and Queens. In 1990, an Asian-American woman working at the paper told him a column he'd written was sexist. He responded by hurling sexist and racist slurs at her. He was suspended for 2 weeks, and wrote an apology to the staff, saying, "I am no good and once again I can prove it."

On August 19, 1991, he hailed a cab and headed to Brooklyn to cover the Crown Heights riot. When his cab arrived, rioters pulled him out and beat him. He was left with only his underwear and his NYPD press card.

In 1994, he developed a brain aneurysm. He had to have surgery, a hole drilled into his head, to fix it. He had survived the Great Depression, an absent father, World War II (though he was too young for combat), McCarthyism, New York smog, the New York Mob, Vietnam, the Son of Sam, a lot of smoking, a lot of drinking, and charges that he had outlived a society in which racism and sexism were seen as okay. But he survived this, too, and wrote a book titled I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me.

His good friend and fellow Jamaica, Queens native, former Governor Mario Cuomo, father of the current Governor, Andrew Cuomo, once said, "Think of it: He still works every day. Writing, or thinking about writing, and he has done it for 60 years, nearly 22,000 days and nights, except for the short hiatus when doctors were forced to drill a hole in his head to let out of his congested brain some of his unused lines. Then he wrote a book about it!"

He left Newsday in 2004, to pursue other writing projects. He would return to the Daily News in 2011, and his columns showed that he remembered that it's liberals, not conservatives, that are for the little guy. He would eventually receive 4 Pulitzer Prizes. He wrote an exposé of the priestly-abuse scandal titled The Church That Forgot Christ, and biographies of racehorse trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, sportswriter Damon Runyon, and, most recently, baseball executive Branch Rickey.

He also wrote 2 books about Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor from 1994 to 2001. They were not complimentary. Giuliani first loved him, then hated him. The same was true of Ed Koch, Mayor from 1978 to 1989. Koch once told people he would give the eulogy at Breslin's funeral. People wondered whether that was a promise or a threat. Koch never got the chance to show them, because Breslin outlived him, too.

And, just as he'd covered the biggest story of the 20th Century, the JFK assassination, in his own way, so, too, did Breslin cover what is, so far, the biggest story of the 21st Century, writing a book titled American Lives: The Stories of the Men and Women Lost on September 11.

He introduced and closed Spike Lee's 1997 film Summer of Sam. He served as a consultant for another film based on life in New York in 1977, The Bronx Is Burning, and was interviewed for the DVD commentaries. In the film, he was very convincingly played by Michael Rispoli, better known as Jackie Aprile Sr. on The Sopranos.

*

In 2004, his daughter Rosemary, also a writer, died of a rare blood disease at age 47. In 2009, his other daughter, Kelly, a public relations executive, suffered a cardiac arrhythmia in a Manhattan restaurant and died at 44.

He died this morning, March 19, 2017, from pneumonia. He was 88. He was survived by his 2nd wife, Ronnie Eldridge; 4 sons, Kevin, James, Patrick and Christopher; a stepson, Daniel Eldridge; his sister, Deirdre Breslin; 12 grandchildren... and 5 Boroughs.

Pete Hamill, the Daily News veteran who perhaps inherits the title of greatest living New York newspaperman, said that the state of the country in his final days left him wanted to say more: "He was a bit addled by Trump. He knew Trump's father, because Trump's father was a Queens guy, and Jimmy was the poet laureate of Queens."

According to Hamill, Breslin saw Trump as the kind of guy from his old neighborhood who "is all mouth, and couldn't fight his way out of an empty lot."

Whatever was wrong with Breslin at the end, clearly, his brain was still working.

Hamill said, "It feels like 30 people just left the room."
Breslin would have agreed. As he once put it, "If you don't toot your own horn, there's no music." Jimmy Breslin could write the prose equivalent of a fox trot and make it sound like it belonged in Carnegie Hall.

He was a New York character. He was a real piece of work. There will never be another like him. We can be nicer. But in terms of writing like he did, the best we can do is come close.

Jimmy Breslin will never truly leave the room.

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