Jimmy Breslin, 1928–2017: He Knew How to Play This Game

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Breslin in 1969, a cannonball of a columnist. Photo: AP

Here’s how you know that Jimmy Breslin was the truest, purest kind of New Yorker: Over decades of work on newspapers, running around against a daily deadline and chasing stories day and night, he never learned to drive. He did it all on foot and by token. “It’s news reporting,” he once said, “and that consists of using your two feet. The only lesson, then, that you could give people is how to climb stairs, because there are no stories on the first floor. Anything you’re looking for is four and five flights up.”

Breslin, who died this morning at 88, found as many of those stories as anyone in six decades as a reporter and columnist. And although “reporter and columnist” begins to get to his essence, it elides a huge distinction. In the 1950s, the only columnists who went out and climbed the stairs were gossip hounds like Walter Winchell. Political columnists tended to sit in their offices and then write about what they’d read in the Times. Often (as a colleague from the early days of New York Magazine, Tom Wolfe, has noted), a great reporter got a column as a reward for long service and promptly went to sleep on the job.

Breslin had indeed been a great reporter in his early days on the New York Journal-American, which he described as “a paper where, believe me, ya couldn’t even believe the weather report.” He’d written a hugely entertaining little book about the awfulness of the ’62 Mets, called Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, that caught the eye of the folks at the New York Herald Tribune. He got hired there in May 1963, and did indeed become a five-day-a-week columnist. And then, instead of rocking back in his chair to crank out the punditry, he hit the streets. After his daily rounds, he’d come into the office around 4 p.m., facing a 5:30 deadline, barely getting started as his colleagues were starting to pack up and head for the bar car en route to Westport. As Wolfe wrote in 1972:

“When he sat down at his typewriter he hunched himself over into a shape like a bowling ball. He would start drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes until vapor started drifting off his body. He looked like a bowling ball fueled with liquid oxygen. Thus fired up, he would start typing. I’ve never seen a man who could write so well against a daily deadline.”

His ability to push right up to press time scared the hell out of his editors — the late Sheldon Zalaznick, who first worked with him at the Trib, described the daily process as “absolutely heart-stopping” — but he always made it, delivering a few pages that were covered with scribbled revisions.

What emerged from the blue miasma over his desk sounded like nothing anybody else ever wrote. He was often compared with Damon Runyon, and they shared a certain clipped tough-guy patois, but Breslin was funnier and more politically engaged, the hilarious writing just barely concealing a splenetic rage. He was a crusader with a sense of humor, a warrior who won by taking the piss out of everyone at any turn. But he could also be understated and amazingly delicate. The most famous column he ever wrote ran the day after President Kennedy’s death in 1963. When everyone else was writing about Jackie and the kids, or Lyndon Johnson, or the relations with the Soviets, or Lee Harvey Oswald, Breslin went out to Arlington National Cemetery and interviewed Clifton Pollard, the man who’d come into work on a Sunday to dig the president’s grave. (A cliché approach now, perhaps, but it was revolutionary then.) That column is taught in journalism schools, the first best example of zagging when everyone else zigs, looking for a singular human moment when the rest of the pack is picking at the same worked-over narrative.

Around the time Breslin was hired at the Tribune, two editors named James Bellows and Clay Felker were revamping the paper’s Sunday magazine, aiming to make it into a showplace for the best newspaper writing in town. They renamed it New York, and Wolfe and Breslin were among the first writers they brought on. Five years later, after the Trib had tipped over dead, Felker relaunched the magazine as a standalone weekly. Breslin wrote and wrote for him, a torrent of good stuff about blue-collar New York and Irish-American New York and crooked public officials. The tribal climate of New York, where races and classes were constantly clashing, continually fed him material. And within a year, Breslin was not only writing long and extraordinarily well about politics, but found himself inadvertently campaigning for public office.

It was the spring of 1969, and Mayor John Lindsay was preparing to run for reelection despite relatively weak support and a general public sense that his idealistic administration, despite good intentions, wasn’t getting things done. Somehow — well, let Breslin write it. From New York, May 5, 1969:

The first phone call on Monday morning was at seven o’clock.

“He’s asleep,” I heard my wife mumble.

“Wake him up?” she mumbled.

She kicked me and I reached over for the phone.

“Somebody named Joe Ferris,” she said. “He needs your correct voting registration for the petitions. What petitions?”

I sat up in bed, with the phone in one hand and my head against the wall and my eyes closed.

What petitions?” my wife said again.

I knew what petitions Joe Ferris was talking about. I knew about them, but I never thought it would come to the point of an early morning phone call about them. You see, when it started, I was only in this thing for pleasant conversation with nice people. “Hello,” I said to Joe Ferris. I was afraid he would send cold waves through the phone.

“I’ve got to be at the printer with the petitions this morning,” Joe Ferris said. “So what I need is the exact way your name and address appears on the voting rolls. We don’t want to have any petitions thrown out on a technicality. Because they’re going to be looking for mistakes. Particularly when they see how much support you and Norman are going to get. That’s all I’ve been hearing around town. You and Norman. I think you’ve got a tremendous chance.”

“I’ll get the information and call you back,” I said to Joe Ferris. He gave me his phone number and I told him I was writing it down, but I wasn’t. Maybe if I forgot his number and never called him back, he wouldn’t bother to call me anymore.

What petitions?” my wife said when I hung up.“Nothing,” I said. I put my face in the pillow. Well, to tell you what happened. I really don’t know what happened, but I was in a place called the Abbey Tavern on Third Avenue and 26th Street at four o’clock one afternoon, when it was empty and I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody I didn’t know, and Jack Newfield came in. Jack Newfield is a political writer. He writes for the Village Voice and Life magazine and he does books and we got to know and like each other during the Bobby Kennedy campaigns last spring. Anyway, I’m having coffee with Jack Newfield and he says, “Did you hear me on the radio the other night? I endorsed you. I endorsed Norman Mailer for mayor and you for president of the City Council in the Democratic primary.” I did two things. I laughed. Then I sipped the coffee. While I did it, I was saying to myself, “Why is Mailer on the top of the ticket?”

And a couple of days later, I had lunch in Limerick’s, on Second Avenue and 32nd Street, and here was Newfield and Gloria Steinem, and she likes me and I like her, and Peter Maas, and he is all right with me, too, and we got to talking some more and they kept saying Norman Mailer and I should run in the Democratic primary and finally I said, “Has anybody talked to Norman?”

“No, not recently,” Gloria said.

“Give me a dime,” I said.

“I Run to Win,” the story was titled, and it is possibly the funniest piece of political writing you’ll ever read, proceeding from the gimlet-eyed why-am-I-doing-this moment above to, by the end, flat-out glad-handed campaigning. He spent the summer doing just that in New York’s pages, filing antic columns like the one in which he posits that John Lindsay, Waspy and suave and six feet five, was physically incompatible with the office, which had been held for a century almost exclusively by stumpy little “ethnic” guys in the Fiorello La Guardia vein. It was called “Is Lindsay Too Tall to Be Mayor?,” and if you want to improve your afternoon, click through and read those two ageless stories right now.

The Mailer-Breslin campaign — they operated as a conjoint slate — ran on a secession platform, saying that New York City ought to become the 51st state and retain the name “New York.” (The rest of the state, Breslin said, could be called “Buffalo.”) They wanted all city services decentralized down to the neighborhood level. Sundays would be completely car- and even elevator-free, to encourage walking and mingling. “Kiss Off the Boredom of the Democratic Machine!” read the handbills they gave out. Their campaign buttons said, “The other guys are the joke.” Breslin came in fifth in a field of six in the Democratic primary, taking 10 percent of the vote. (Charlie Rangel came in sixth.) “I am mortified,” he said, “to have taken part in a process that required bars to be closed,” as they were on Election Day back then.

He quit New York after just a few years, after conflict with Felker and a growing distaste for the magazine’s white-collar view of the world, and went back to newspapers. At the Daily News, he once again found himself not only covering events but also a part of them. As the Son of Sam serial-killing case played out in the summer of 1977, who did the killer write his madman letter to? Breslin himself. (“Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood … ”) From there, he went from fame to legend. Seventeen books, including a Damon Runyon biography in 1991 and a memoir of his own recovery after risky surgery to repair a brain aneurysm in 1994. A long-running column in Newsday that ended in 2004 (ignominiously, with a blown call of the election for John Kerry). He married twice, successfully: His first wife, Rosemary, died in 1981, and his second, the activist and former city councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge, survives him. The 18th book — its subject unnamed (he wouldn’t say more than “let’s see how it comes out”) — was in the typewriter at his death.

Jimmy Breslin, 1928–2017: He Knew How to Play This Game