"The puzzlement [&] terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has seen it knows, that it is over." Jimmy Breslin, 1965 pic.twitter.com/xzLAbTgb6I
— Joshua Zeitz (@JoshuaMZeitz) March 20, 2017
Jimmy Breslin describing a white cop observing an "old black woman with mud on her shoes" singing "we are not afraid," Montgomery, AL 1965. https://t.co/dNZMmFBHm6
— Joshua Zeitz (@JoshuaMZeitz) March 20, 2017
Jimmy Breslin was one of my NYC role models, when I was growing up. (The others that I remember were Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm.) The man was a storyteller, and a fighter. He knew that every businessman and most politicians were pathological liars (at least to themselves). He knew that even the worst tragedies were threaded with a vein of humor, and that even the funniest story had an undertone of tragedy. Most of all, he never truckled.
Kevin Cullen, in the Boston Globe, remembers “the greatest newspaper columnist ever”:
… Seven years ago, they had a big thing for Breslin at NYU in Greenwich Village. It was a cross between an Irish wake and “This Is Your Life” and we were all shocked that Breslin would actually venture out at night and go downtown and listen to people tell him how wonderful he is.
But Ronnie got him to go and he sat in a big puffy easy chair on a stage at NYU and rolled his eyes as everybody got up and told stories and suggested he was a nice person.
Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist, recalled the day that Breslin and his Daily News editor Sharon Rosenhause were screaming at each other in the newsroom. When Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, he stood up in the newsroom and announced, “This award actually belongs to Sharon Rosenhause, but I’m not speaking to her.”
Michael Daly, a columnist at the Daily News, remembered how Breslin took a taxi to cover the riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 1991. Breslin never learned to drive. “Why would I?” he used to say. “I can get a taxi anywhere.” The taxi got torched, Breslin got beat up, and he wrote columns sympathetic to the people of Crown Heights, because he knew what it was like to be poor and ignored.
Dan Barry, a columnist at The Times who grew up reading and admiring Breslin, told of how when he was diagnosed with cancer, Breslin, who barely knew him, showed up at his side and walked with him across Manhattan and into Sloan-Kettering.
“He gave me the gift of distraction,” Dan Barry said.
And that was Breslin, to his core. He distracted us, from apathy. He made us care…
From the Washington Post:
Jimmy Breslin, long the gruff and rumpled king of streetwise New York newspaper columnists, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose muscular, unadorned prose pummeled the venal, deflated the pompous and gave voice to ordinary city-dwellers for decades, died March 19 at his home in Manhattan. He was 88…
For an “unlettered bum,” as Mr. Breslin called himself, he left an estimable legacy of published work, including 16 books, seven of them novels, plus two anthologies of his columns. What set him apart as a writer was the inimitable style of his journalism across the last great decades of ink-on-paper news, in the 1960s for the old New York Herald Tribune and later for the Daily News and the city pages of Long Island-based Newsday, where his final regular column appeared in 2004…
Born Oct. 17, 1928, in Queens, James Earl Breslin was about 6 when his father, an alcoholic piano player, abandoned the family. His mother, who became a welfare worker, was given to drunken spells of depression, he said. He recalled that as a child, he once wrested away a pistol she was holding to her head.
He began his career on the copy boys’ bench at the old Long Island Press and worked his way up without a college degree, covering news and sports for several papers in the decade before the hapless 1962 New York Mets came along, like a gift.
His humorous book on the team’s 120-loss inaugural season (“Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”) was a love song to historic baseball ineptitude. And it brought him to the attention of John Hay Whitney, publisher of the Herald Tribune, whose sister, Joan Whitney Payson, was the Mets majority owner.
Hired as a columnist to help liven up the broadsheet Trib, Mr. Breslin filed one of his best-remembered pieces in 1963. Covering the Kennedy funeral, he recounted the slain president’s burial through the lens of Clifton Pollard, an African American backhoe operator at Arlington National Cemetery who said of digging Kennedy’s resting place, “You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”
Mr. Breslin called his enterprising technique “the Gravedigger Theory of news coverage,” and it became his signature approach to column-writing…
One of my prized pieces of NYC memorabilia is campaign sticker from Norman Mailer/Jimmy Breslin's 1969 election run. pic.twitter.com/l2hZAWUCtV
— Jeremy Olshan (@jolshan) March 20, 2017
I was thirteen that summer, and my mom (who was a big Norman Mailer fan, for all the worst reasons) actually worked on that brief campaign. Which meant that *I* had to stay home and baby-sit my four-year-old siblings on the afternoon both Breslin and Mailer showed up at the Bronx office for a grip’n’grin, and she got to shake hands with her idol. It puzzled her that Mr. Mailer didn’t seem to be taking his campaign very seriously, because she just knew that making NYC the fifty-first state was both righteous and doable. It outraged her that ‘Jimmy’ not only didn’t seem to be taking it seriously, he didn’t seem to be giving his ‘superior’ his due, either…
My friend George, who handles tables at the Copacabana night club, probably had it right all along. One night in May, when I was trying to cut down on the wrangling at home, I told my wife I’d take her to see Tom Jones, the Welsh singer who was playing the Copa. I had a table for the midnight show. But at 11 I was still in this rattrap Reform Democratic-clubhouse one flight up from Amsterdam Avenue someplace, and I was telling everybody about my personal brilliance and great ability to save the city from doom. I was talking about myself so much that there was going to be no Copa that night. My wife, mad as hell, left the room and went downstairs to a phone booth and called George at the Copa to cancel the table.
“Mrs. Breslin,” George said, “tell your husband to stop being a politician and come back and be a playboy. It’s more fun.”
Which it is. After Norman Mailer and I finished seven weeks of a mayoralty campaign adjudged unlikely, I still came away nervous and depressed by what I had seen of my city. I saw a sprawling, disjointed place which did not understand itself and was decaying physically and spiritually, decaying with these terrible little fires of rage flickering in the decay. Rage which, with heat and humidity and crowding and misery and misunderstanding and misused or misunderstood authority, could turn the city into a horror on any night soon. On top of the city was an almost unworkable form of government and a set of casually unknowing, unfeeling, uncaring men and institutions. The absence of communications in a city which is the communications center of the world is so bad that you are almost forced to believe the condition of the city is terminal. There is an awesome, incredible pool of talent and caring and humor in the people on the streets in the city. It is true: the New Yorker talks a little faster and walks a little faster and thinks a little faster than people in any other city in the world. The chances for survival and greatness should be very good. But I saw nothing in the city of New York which told me this pool of ability either has been recognized or is being directed. I saw nothing which really told me that the city will not be a charred, stagnant place with a night-time population of 4 million or so some very few short years from now….
At the bar one night a couple of weeks after the primary, I looked up from a drink and saw my face and Norman’s face floating across the screen on the NBC First Tuesday show. It is a network thing, and they did a 20-minute look at our campaign. The show reinforced my opinion that Norman and I had some of the most terrific lows in the history of anything that ever took place in this city. And, perhaps, a couple of highs that could be recognized as time passes a bit. Like maybe colleges for years will be using the things Norman Mailer was saying out in the streets…
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) March 20, 2017