There was, as Pete Hamill said to me, something maimed in him, something that was, despite the rock-hard certainty of his politics, shaky, even vulnerable. You could sense it when you talked to him. He had a strange, almost withering personal style. In the chalk-stripe suits he favored, he looked stiff, and he spoke in a tremulous voice that seemed to come from somewhere deep in the recesses of his body. The words came slowly, almost painfully, as if he were squeezing them out one by one.
Still, despite his personal quirks, women often found him charming and attractive. Arianna Huffington, who used to meet him for breakfast or lunch when she was in New York, says he was appealing because he had an extraordinary capacity for intimacy. "He didn't have that American tendency to put a good face on everything. He found it much easier to talk about himself, to talk about the bad things, the private things, than most Americans do. And because he would tell me what was really going on, I could tell him everything, too."
Though Breindel spent the last year of his life as an executive with News Corp., he continued to write his column for the Post and continued to ply his political influence. But his final twelve months produced two strange and significant mysteries. The first is why he wasn't taking better care of himself. Though he had stopped smoking for a while, he'd begun again in earnest, returning to his habit of inhaling so deeply with each drag that it was as if he were trying to consume the entire cigarette in one puff.
Jack Newfield says that on several occasions, he went to see Breindel and found him in his office, curled up on the couch, sick. He and other friends tried, without success, to get him to lay off the cigarettes, see a doctor, and generally pay attention to his health. Some of Breindel's friends believe he knew he was going to die. That's why, they say, he began neglecting his health and started seeing his assistant.
The other mystery is what, exactly, he died from. There were reports of lymphoma, various other kinds of cancer, and a heart attack. Lally Weymouth says he suffered a massive hemorrhage while being treated for a liver ailment. Spokesmen at New York Hospital, however, declined to give any further information. They were, I was told, under pressure to keep quiet. Given Breindel's history of intravenous drug use, the obvious speculation centers on hepatitis C. It's widespread among IV-drug users and particularly insidious; it can hide in the liver undetected for years, all the while destroying the organ.
Less mysterious is the question of his legacy, which really should be broken into two categories: as a columnist-ideologue and as a kind of cultural-social figure. As a columnist, his two truly memorable moments were the pieces he wrote excoriating Mayor Dinkins over the Korean-deli boycott -- when no one else seemed to care -- and his pieces about the riots in Crown Heights. Even John Podhoretz, a lifelong friend who replaced him at the Post, realizes a little legend-building has been going on. "Since his death, there's been some rewriting of history concerning how famous, how influential, and how powerful he was."
Breindel's legacy as a cultural figure may ultimately be more interesting. "I think his life is rich with meaning for our generation," says Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, who was two years behind Breindel at Harvard. "We missed the war to save the world, and we even missed the civil-rights movement. We didn't get our chance to be heroic. We were left with the table scraps. But Eric, at least, was determined to make those scraps the most nourishing and the most useful meal he could."
Breindel died around lunchtime on a Saturday, and on that Sunday, the New York Times ran a rather bizarre obituary. It failed to mention that he had ever been married. And it also failed to note that as a young, promising aide to Senator Moynihan, he had been arrested for buying heroin. In the newspaper of record, in the city where he was an important figure, Breindel's history had effectively been rewritten, sanitized.
The people at the Times who were involved in putting the obit together claim their memories are a little hazy and imply that some things just slipped through the cracks. However, it is clear that Breindel's death was important enough for columnist and former executive editor Abe Rosenthal to call the reporter working on the obit and give him Lally Weymouth's phone number. But perhaps a detailed account of who leaned on whom, or who pulled what strings, is beside the point, anyway. What really matters is that even after he was dead, Breindel was still able to exert his influence. In the end, he was in death as he was in life: supremely connected.