Obituary: Jimmy Breslin
Award-winning New York columnist and author who ushered in ‘New Journalism’
Jimmy Breslin in New York in 1970. Photograph: Michael Evans/The New York Times
Jimmy Breslin conducts an interview during the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park in New York, October 14th, 2011. Photograph: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Jimmy Breslin at his home in New York, June 17th, 1999. Photograph: Librado Romero/The New York Times
Jimmy Breslin, the New York City newspaper columnist and best-selling author who levelled the powerful and elevated the powerless for more than 50 years with brick-hard words and a jagged-glass wit, has died aged 88.
With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers. Here, for example, is how he described Clifton Pollard, the man who dug President John F Kennedy’s grave, in a celebrated column from 1963 that sent legions of journalists to find their “gravedigger”:
“Pollard is forty-two. He is a slim man with a moustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honour to dig the grave.”
Here is how, in one of the columns that won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, he focused on a single man, David Camacho, to humanise the AIDS epidemic, which was widely misunderstood at the time:
“He had two good weeks in July and then the fever returned and he was back in the hospital for half of last August. He got out again and returned to Eighth Street. The date this time doesn’t count. By now, he measured nothing around him. Week, month, day, night, summer heat, fall chill, the colour of the sky, the sound of the street, clothes, music, lights, wealth dwindled in meaning.”
And here is how he described what motivated Breslin the writer: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
Poetic and profane, softhearted and unforgiving, Breslin inspired every emotion but indifference; letters from outraged readers gladdened his heart. He often went after his own, from Irish-Americans with “shopping-centre faces” who had forgotten their hardscrabble roots to the Roman Catholic Church, whose sex scandals prompted him to write an angry book called The Church that Forgot Christ,” published in 2004. It ends with a cheeky vow to start a new church that would demand more low-income housing and better posture.
Love or loathe him, none could deny Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. He often explained that he merely applied a sports writer’s visual sensibility to the news columns. Avoid the scrum of journalists gathered around the winner, he would advise, and go directly to the loser’s locker. This is how you find your gravedigger.
“So you go to a big thing like this presidential assassination,” he said in an extended interview with the New York Times in 2006. “Well, you’re looking for the dressing room, that’s all. And I did. I went there automatic.”
Early on, Breslin developed the persona of the hard-drinking, dark-humoured Everyman from Queens, so consumed by life’s injustices and his six children that he barely had time to comb his wild black mane. While this persona shared a beer with the truth, Breslin also admired Dostoyevsky, swam every day, hadn’t had a drink in more than 30 years, wrote a shelf-full of books, and adhered to a demanding work ethic that required his presence in the moment, from a civil rights march in Alabama to a “perp walk” in Brooklyn – no matter that he never learned to drive.
The real Jimmy Breslin was so elusive that even Breslin could not find him. “There have been many Jimmy Breslins because of all the people I identified with so much, turning me into them, or them into me, that I can’t explain one Jimmy Breslin,” he once wrote.
Sometimes he presented himself as a regular guy who churned out words for pay; other times he became the megalomaniacal stylist – “JB Number One,” he called himself – who was dogged by pale imitators with Irish surnames. On occasion he would wake up other reporters with telephone calls to say, simply, “I’m big.”
He cut long-standing ties over small slights, often published an annual list of “the people I’m not talking to this year,” and rarely hesitated to target powerful friends, depending on his depth of outrage and the number of hours until deadline. He would occasionally refer to those who had fallen out of his favour only by their initials.
After concluding that Gov. Hugh L Carey of New York had become too enamoured of fine living, for example, Breslin rechristened his old pal Society Carey, a nickname that stuck like gum on a handmade shoe. But when someone he knew was sick, whether a beloved daughter or the switchboard operator at work, Breslin would be at the bedside, offering his comforting gift of almost vaudevillian distraction.
A man whose preferred manner of discourse was a yell, Breslin could be unkind, even vicious. In 1990, for example, he was suspended by his employer, Newsday, for a racist rant about a female Asian-American reporter who had dared to criticise one of his columns as sexist.
At the same time, Breslin was unmatched in his attention to the poor and disenfranchised. If there is one hero in the Breslin canon, it is the single black mother, far removed from power, trying to make it through the week.
According to his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, Breslin became so upset by what he had witnessed in the streets of the city, streets he knew as well as anyone, that he often needed time to recover after writing his column. “Bad news puts him to bed,” she said.
Breslin came honestly to his empathy and distrust. Born James Earle Breslin on October 17th, 1928, he grew up in the Richmond Hill section of Queens. When Jimmy was six, his father, James, a musician, deserted the family, leaving him to share an apartment with an emotionally distant mother, Frances – a supervisor in the East Harlem office of the city’s welfare department who drank – as well as a younger sister, a grandmother and various aunts and uncles.
Many decades later, after Breslin had become famous, his father, destitute in Miami, came back into his life “like heavy snow through a broken window,” he would write. He paid for his father’s medical bills and sent him a telegram that said, “Next time kill yourself.” When his father died, in 1974, he paid for the cremation and said: “Good. That’s over.”
Breslin found early escape in newspapers. As a boy, he would spread the broadsheet pages across the floor and imagine himself on a Pullman car, filing stories from baseball ports of call: Chicago, St Louis, Pittsburgh. Then The Long Island Press, in Jamaica, Queens, hired him as a copy boy in the late 1940s. High school took longer than necessary, and college received only a passing nod; his life centred on deadlines and ink.
After getting a job as a sports writer for the New York Journal-American, Breslin wrote a freshly funny book about the first season of the hapless New York Mets, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? It persuaded John Hay Whitney, the publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, to hire him as a news columnist in 1963.
Soon Breslin was counted among the writers credited with inventing “New Journalism,” in which novelistic techniques are used to inject immediacy and narrative tension into the news. (Breslin, an admirer of sports writers such as Jimmy Cannon and Frank Graham, scoffed at this supposed contribution, saying that he and others had merely introduced Dickens-like storytelling to a new generation.)
Unleashed, Breslin issued regular dispatches that changed the craft of column writing, said journalist and author Pete Hamill, a former colleague. “It seemed so new and original,” Hamill said. “It was a very, very important moment in New York journalism, and in national journalism.”
Breslin wrote about President Kennedy’s gravedigger, the sentencing of the union gangster Anthony Provenzano, the assassination of Malcolm X, and a stable of New York characters real and loosely based on reality, including the Mafia boss Un Occhio, the arsonist Marvin the Torch, the bookie Fat Thomas and Klein the lawyer. But Breslin’s greatest character was himself: the outer-borough boulevardier of bilious persuasion, often chaperoned by his superhumanly patient first wife, “the former Rosemary Dattolico. ”
“Jimmy invented himself,” said Donald H Forst, a prominent New York newspaper editor who died in 2014 and first worked with Breslin at the Herald Tribune. “He was irascible, extremely talented and very, very hard-working. And he understood what news was.”
Over the years, Breslin would leave daily newspapers in search of better pay. In 1969, for example, he resigned from the New York Post after writing his first novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a best-selling satire about the Mafia that was later made into a forgettable movie. But he repeatedly succumbed to the sirens of daily journalism, first at the Daily News, then at New York Newsday, then at Newsday on Long Island, then back to the Daily News.
“Once you get back in the newspapers, it’s like heroin,” Breslin told the Times. “You’re there. That’s all.”
Breslin always seemed to be “there.” He became one of the first staff writers at New York magazine. In 1968, he was nearby when Robert F Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. In 1969, he ran for city council president on a wacky, wildly unsuccessful ticket that included Norman Mailer for mayor. (Their contention that New York City should become the 51st state found little traction.) In 1986, he broke the story of how the Queens borough president, Donald R Manes, had been implicated in a payoff swindle involving city officials; two months later, Manes committed suicide.
And in 1977, most famously, Breslin received a chilling letter from the serial killer known as Son of Sam, who, by that point, had killed five young people in New York and wounded several others with a .44-caliber revolver. “P.S.: JB, Please inform all the detectives working the case that I wish them the best of luck,” the killer wrote.
Breslin published the note with an appeal for Son of Sam to surrender, but the killer, David Berkowitz, struck twice more before being captured. The New Yorker magazine accused Breslin of exploiting the moment and feeding the killer’s ego. But he countered that he had published the letter at the suggestion of detectives, who thought it could encourage the killer to write another note that might bear clearer fingerprints.
Breslin won nearly every award known to the newspaper business, and also distinguished himself as a critically acclaimed author. He wrote novels, including World Without End, Amen (1973), a transcontinental love story set against the Troubles in Belfast, and Table Money (1986), about a Queens housewife freeing herself from her husband, an alcoholic sandhog.
He wrote biographies of Damon Runyon and Branch Rickey. He wrote The Good Rat (2008), in which he used the saga of two New York police detectives working as Mafia hit men to share his funny, hard-earned insights into mob culture.
Perhaps the quintessential Breslin book was The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, published in 2002, in which he focused on the death of an unauthorised Mexican worker at a flawed construction site in Brooklyn to rail against the shoddy building practices, political cowardice and racism of his beloved city.
Trial and tragedy accompanied his many triumphs. In 1981, Breslin’s first wife, Rosemary, died of cancer; she was 50. In 2004, his elder daughter, Rosemary, a writer, died of a rare blood disease; she was 47. In 2009, his other daughter, Kelly, died after collapsing in a Manhattan restaurant; she was 44. At these times, friends say, words failed even Jimmy Breslin.
But Breslin always returned to the distraction and urgency of writing. In 1982, he married Eldridge in a Catholic-Jewish union that, with his six children and her three, provided rich column material. (“Everybody hated each other,” he told the Times. “It was beautiful.”) In 1994, he underwent surgery for a brain aneurysm that threatened what he called his “billion-dollar memory,” an experience that led to a memoir, published in 1996, called I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me.
“Think of it: He still works every day,” former GovMario M Cuomo, a close friend, wrote in remarks prepared for a 2009 celebration of Breslin. “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!”
In 2004, Breslin resigned from his three-columns-a-week job at Newsday to pursue other writing projects. But in 2011, he briefly returned to the Daily News to write a weekly column, in which he revisited old mob acquaintances, reflected on the plight of job-seekers and denounced the deaths of the young in wars waged by the old.
It was as though he could not help himself. Telling the stories of others, he once wrote, allowed him to suppress his feelings about his own story – including, say, a father’s abandonment.
“I replaced my feelings with what I felt were the feelings of others, and that changed with each thing I went to, so I was about 67 people in my life,” he wrote.
Telling stories was how Breslin communicated. In 1994, just as he was about to undergo brain surgery, he told a nurse about Bo Gee, a small, thirsty man who sold Chinese-language newspapers in the bars and restaurants of the East Side. Between drinks, the man would call out the two headlines that sold the most papers.
One was “War!” Breslin told the nurse. And the other: “Big Guy Dies. ”
In addition to his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, a former city councilwoman from Manhattan, Breslin is survived by his four sons, Kevin, James, Patrick and Christopher; a stepson, Daniel Eldridge; two stepdaughters, Emily and Lucy Eldridge; a sister, Deirdre Breslin; and 12 grandchildren.
New York Times syndicate