The newspaper column has joined the phone booth, the hotel room key, and carbon paper as an item of unplanned obsolescence. One of its final practitioners, Jimmy Breslin, died last week of pneumonia at the age of 88. To the end, he remained deliberately out of style, rumpled in wardrobe, aggressive in delivery, an ever-ready raconteur, deflator of pretensions, and defender of the working stiff.
The Bronx Bombers were not for this Queens-born boy: the Mets, he proclaimed, are “the team for the cab driver who gets held up and the guy who loses out on a promotion because he didn’t maneuver himself to lunch with the boss enough. It is the team for every guy who has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work for short money on a job he does not like. The Yankees? Who does well enough to root for them, Laurance Rockefeller?”
Not for him the A-list celebs, the traditional story, the customary lead sentence. He always went for the unexpected. When President Kennedy was assassinated, for example, he didn’t go to the widow, the children, the cabinet, senators, congressmen, the Joint Chiefs. He interviewed the gravedigger—Hamlet redivivus, 300 years later.
And not for him the full name James Earle Breslin. On his baptismal certificate, OK, but for a byline? Jimmy would do just fine.
It had been Jimmy from the day he dropped out of Long Island University and started boucing around city newspapers, first as a copyboy, then as a sportswriter for Hearst’s now-defunct Journal-American (“A paper where you couldn’t believe the weather report”), then as a general columnist for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune.
Though he assumed a professional scowl and started many an argument in bars favored by journalists, he loved the work. “A job on a newapaper,” he was to note, “is a special thing. Every day you take something that you found out about, and you put it down and in a matter of hours it becomes a product. Not just a product like a can or something. It is a personal product that people, a lot of people, take the time to sit down and read.”
A lot of people took the time to read him in the Daily News, Long Island Newsday, and New York, where he helped establish the New Journalism—a novelistic approach to the news and those who made it. People also took time to watch him when he joined Norman Mailer’s quixotic bid to become mayor of New York in 1969. Breslin ran for president of the City Council, wondering aloud why he wasn’t at the top of the ticket. The two men campaigned on the slogan “No More Bullshit,” but as it turned out they were mountebanks themselves, and the public wasn’t buying.
After their crushing defeat, Mailer returned to egomaniacal exercises in fiction and nonfiction, and a chastened Breslin returned to the scene he knew best—the streets of the city. Between, during, and around columns, he helped the cops track down the notorious “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz in the seventies and exposed the corruption eating away at Mayor Ed Koch’s administration in the eighties. In his spare time, Jimmy made excursions into the clothbound world of the novel (The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight), biography (Damon Runyon: A Life), and social commentary (The Church that Forgot Christ). But none of the books had the bite of the Big Apple.
A total urbanite, Jimmy had never learned how to drive—he was raised by a single mother who earned a meager salary as a social worker, and drank to excess. The Breslins couldn’t afford a car. But this wheel-less liability turned out to be his greatest asset. He went everywhere on foot or by public transportation, chatting up pedestrians, shopkeepers, cops, fellow passengers—anyone who would give him an ear and a mouth. He made the rhythms of their replies into a kind of municipal jazz that only he could record.
All along he was a festival of contradictions—Jimmy frequently published a list of people he wasn’t talking to, boasted that “there’s nobody in my league”—and then apologized in print to a woman he had insulted, “I am no good and once again I can prove it.”
In fact he was good, sui generis from Day One, a gifted and empathetic reporter who understood his neighbors far better than the J-School graduates who dreamed of a Pulitzer Prize but misplaced their humanity along the way. Jimmy, in fact, won a Pulitzer in 1986 for columns “which consistently champion the ordinary citizen.” The recognition embarrassed him; he was afraid the folks would now stop talking to the big shot. Not a chance. He continued to hide his intelligence behind a mask of urban patois, but if it deceived the interviewees it failed to con his colleagues. New York writer Jack Newfield spoke for all of us when he defined Breslin as “an intellectual disguised as a barroom primitive.”
There were fewer barrooms in Jimmy’s life after he stopped drinking in the eighties. He could tell a joke with the best of the standup comics; yet an aura of melancholia never quite left him after his wife and their two daughters succumbed to devastating ilnesses. He married again in 1982, to Ronnie Eldridge, a feminist politician who was his equal in argument and wit. But ill health dogged him as well: he suffered from a brain aneurism in 1994 and quit writing a regular column a dozen years ago when the deadlines proved too exhausting.
That didn’t stop him from giving advice to young reporters. Too many of them regarded him as an admirable antique, a souvenir of different times and a different news business. Different indeed, but for writers trying to make their marks in an overcrowded field, his counsel remains as valid as the day he spoke them to an earlier generation: “You climb the stairs. All the stories are at the top of the stairs.”
Photo by David Shankbone