By the time Eric Breindel’s flag-draped coffin was wheeled out of the Park Avenue Synagogue and into a waiting hearse on a dreary, rain-soaked morning last March, there was little doubt that this was exactly the kind of grand, high-voltage funeral he would have wanted. The crowd of mourners was a robust cross-section of the city’s reigning aristocracy: politicians and journalists, moguls and socialites, novelists and Wall Streeters. Barricades closed 87th Street to all traffic except the limousines. The NYPD even provided a full-dress color guard.
Inside the synagogue’s ornate, vaguely Moorish sanctuary, the mood was somber but chatty. Topic A was the star wattage of the event. Who, except a handful of insiders, could have guessed that the editorial-page editor of the New York Post, the raucous, partisan, journalistically flimsy New York Post, would attract a crowd like this?
Under different circumstances, the mix would have made for a terrific party. Oscar de la Renta, Carl Bernstein, Roger Ailes, Barbara Walters, Charlie Rose, Lucianne Goldberg, Larry Tisch, Dominick Dunne, Mort Zuckerman. And if all the pomp and celebrity weren’t enough to give the impression that this was the New York equivalent of a state funeral, there was the endless parade of estimable speakers: Rupert Murdoch, Pat Moynihan, Al D’Amato, George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Ed Koch, Henry Kissinger. A statement from Benjamin Netanyahu was read by Israel’s U.N. ambassador.
But this was more than just a showy cavalcade of power. There was real drama and pathos. The emotion expressed by these armor-plated tough guys was breathtaking. Giuliani, looking right at Breindel’s family when he spoke, was on the verge of tears. Everyone talked about loyalty and bravery and character. “Who else in this city,” a visibly shaken Murdoch asked the crowd, “could bring together so many people from so many walks of life and so many ideological camps?” Moynihan, who had been one of Breindel’s professors at Harvard, said he’d “taught Eric for two years and learned from him for twenty.”
Breindel died of liver failure on March 7 last year, after six days in New York Hospital. He was only 42. While his health had been a chronic problem since his late teens – he took terrible care of himself and lived on burgers, fries, and unfiltered Camels – his death was an enormous shock to his friends and colleagues.
In the front row of the 72-year-old synagogue, with its majestic three-story stained-glass dome, sat his frail, aging parents, Holocaust survivors now forced to bury their young son. Norman Podhoretz, the pioneering neocon who’d been one of Breindel’s mentors for more than two decades, quaked when he spoke. “I am tempted to rant like Jeremiah or Job at the injustice of it, and to demand an accounting by God,” he said, “for breaking all our hearts by shortening Eric Breindel’s days on this earth.”
Bobby Kennedy Jr., a classmate at Harvard and the London School of Economics, poignantly remembered their school days. Eric unshaven in a black leather jacket. Eric as a socialist. Eric competing for the affections of a girl. Kennedy also talked about loyalty. “I come from a family that puts a high premium on that virtue,” he said. “When my brother Michael died over Christmas, one of the first voices on my answering machine was Eric’s. His message was simple: ‘Tell me where I have to be and when.’ “
All of the speakers, even the pols, kept to the imposed three-to-four-minute time limit. Except Marty Peretz. Distraught over the loss of his friend and unhappy about sharing the moment, the Harvard professor and owner of The New Republic went on for nearly half an hour. When he finished, people were literally fleeing. Pete Hamill whispered to Post columnist Jack Newfield, “Marty Peretz can empty a synagogue faster than a PLO bomb threat.”
“The funeral,” says Newfield today, “was like a strange competition among Eric’s mentors.”
And then there were the women. In attendance were his ex-wife, ex-lover, and girlfriend. The ex-wife was journalist Tamar Jacoby (Someone Else’s House), who hadn’t spoken to him in nearly ten years. The ex-lover was Lally Weymouth, the Washington Post heiress and columnist. They were together for almost a decade but split a little more than a year before his death. And the girlfriend during his last twelve months was Nancy Bacher, who was his assistant at the Post.
“I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” says a friend of Weymouth’s. “The ex-wife is trying to quietly just blend in, the girlfriend is down in the front in tears, and in the meantime, Lally’s playing what they call in Mexico la viuda oficiale, the official widow.”
And so, by the time the two-and-a-half-hour service was over and everyone was filing out onto 87th Street – as the police academy’s bagpipe corps stood in the rain playing “America the Beautiful” – everyone knew this event would be talked about for years. “It was,” says Pete Hamill, “one of the most astonishing New York funerals I’ve ever been to.”
Breindel’s canonization did not stop with the funeral. Both the New York City Council and the State Legislature passed formal resolutions honoring him. Murdoch’s News Corp. has established the Eric Breindel Memorial Foundation, with an initial grant of $250,000. The foundation will give out an annual $10,000 journalism prize, called – what else? – the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism. And HarperCollins (Murdoch’s publishing house) has just released A Passion for Truth, a collection of Breindel’s columns with a foreword by Senator Moynihan.
“Conservatism in America over the past twenty years has been a holy war,” says Peter Kaplan, editor of the New York Observer and a close Breindel friend since college. “And just like it was with the old left, these people are very passionate; they’re all true believers, in each other and in their ideas. I’m sure New York Times editorial-page editor Howell Raines will have a perfectly nice funeral, but it won’t be like that. Eric stood for something.”
But ideological camaraderie explains only part of Breindel’s unique status. The Eric Breindel who was eulogized as a statesman last March was a New York phenomenon, a product of the alchemy between the city’s political and social worlds. He was, in his way, a prince of the city, an extraordinarily gifted New York operator; a kind of Roy Cohn figure without the meanness.
It’s true that Breindel was among the brightest in a class of extremely bright stars at Harvard; that many of his classmates believed he would one day be secretary of State; and that, because of his obsession with communism and the Holocaust, he was a source of great satisfaction to his political and intellectual elders. But it was his skill at maneuvering among New York’s powerful that elevated him beyond the level of columnist and editorial writer. It was the Post’s role in city politics, along with his uninhibited willingness to become friends with the people he wrote about, that enabled Breindel to become an impact player.
New York was the perfect place for Breindel to indulge his two passions: influencing public policy and getting close to powerful people. “Look,” says Norman Podhoretz, whose new book, ironically, is titled Ex-Friends, “he liked having influence, and he liked knowing people. He had a taste for that and a talent for satisfying it in a way I never did. There were many places I was not welcome because my views were unpopular. But the sort of people who held it violently against me did not hold it against him.”
As a writer, Breindel was unexceptional, producing mostly the joyless prose of an ideologue. And as an ideologue, he was more effective working the back channels than he was at publicly taking issues and ideas into new territory. But Breindel understood power in a way few people do. He recognized early in his life that personality is more important than ideology. It’s all about proximity and access. If you have someone’s ear, you can make things happen.
Breindel began his lifelong courtship of the powerful at Harvard. Developing relationships with professors like Moynihan and Peretz or intellectuals like Podhoretz was no accident. Nor were his friendships with kids of famous people like the Kennedys. He was drawn to people who could teach him, help get him published, or advance his career.
The turning point in his effort to gain entrance to the city’s rarefied social world was his relationship with Lally Weymouth. She provided the boost that got him up and over the wall. Once they became a couple, he would have intimate contact not only with local pols but with national and international leaders as well. The lines between his work and his social life didn’t blur; they disappeared. A small dinner party at their East Side apartment might include Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, or Benjamin Netanyahu.
“And of course, we were all friendly with the Kissingers,” says Podhoretz, “and no statesman would come through New York without seeing the Kissingers. And Eric was always invited.”
It was a sophisticated twist on the old cliché “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” In fact, in Breindel’s case it was both: It was what he knew and who he could tell it to. He was not only able to charm important people with his intellectual gifts but absolutely determined to do it.
In the process, Breindel gave up most of the trappings of an ordinary life. In the late eighties, NewsAmerica decided to spotlight several of its rising young stars by featuring them in the company’s annual report. Breindel was one of those chosen to be profiled. The photographer sent to take his picture needed two photos – one at work and one at play. But Breindel didn’t play. He had no hobbies. Desperate, he finally remembered that he had once spent a summer in Europe reviewing roller coasters for a travel guide. He took the photographer to Coney Island and had him take his picture riding the Cyclone.
While Breindel’s power base was the right-wing, pro-Israel, anti-communist, Rupert Murdoch nexus, neither his influence nor his orbit was limited to it. “Obviously, we didn’t agree on a lot of issues, and he worked for a newspaper that consistently beat me to death,” says Mario Cuomo. “But we had a terrific personal relationship. If you’re an insider, there’s nothing more valuable than knowledge. I loved talking to Eric because I always felt I was learning something or at the very least testing something I already knew.”
Breindel was at his most persuasive behind closed doors, and never more so than during the 1993 mayor’s race. He played a pivotal role in the election of Rudolph Giuliani that has never been reported. Though David Dinkins had not had a successful term, Giuliani, who’d never held elective office, remained a tough sell. In a close race, which this was, the Post could be crucial. But Rupert Murdoch wanted the paper to endorse George Marlin, the poorly known Conservative Party candidate, who had no chance of winning. “Murdoch hated Giuliani,” says a former high-level member of the Dinkins administration. “He hated him because of the role he played as a U.S. Attorney in prosecuting his Wall Street friends like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.”
Breindel, however, believed that endorsing Marlin was a huge mistake. In an election where the ideological lines were so clearly drawn and the results could even have an impact on urban policy nationally, Breindel couldn’t let the paper blow it. The Post’s obvious choice was Giuliani. But Breindel needed to convince the boss, a daunting task under any circumstances – and at the time, Breindel was battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Frail and weakened by the ravages of chemotherapy, Breindel flew to New York from the Boston hospital where he was being treated to try to broker a meeting. He was convinced that if he could get the two men together, Giuliani would turn Murdoch around. Breindel made an impassioned plea. Finally, a meeting took place at the Post. Much as Breindel hoped it would, the sit-down changed Murdoch’s mind. The Post would endorse Giuliani. Quickly, the paper went to work as only it can, relentlessly promoting its candidate and dumping on his opponent with huge, often hyperventilating headlines and specious stories in its news pages as well as on its editorial page.
Just like their first battle, the election turned on only a handful of votes. But this time, Giuliani was the winner. It was a triumphant moment for the Post. Breindel’s effort was, of course, something the new mayor would never forget; Giuliani was in the hospital, at Breindel’s bedside, the morning he died.
Despite his soaring New York success, however, the last thing Breindel would have expected – given his unmistakable early promise – was that he’d have to settle for a career as an editorial writer for a tabloid newspaper. The defining moment of his life, the episode that gives his story its tragic-heroic arc, occurred when he was 27. In the early months of 1983, after receiving a high-level security clearance from the FBI, Breindel went to work as Senator Moynihan’s aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee. For someone interested in a career in government, it was a dream job. But on May 16, only eight weeks after he started, Breindel was arrested in the parking lot of a Washington, D.C., motel for buying five bags of heroin from an undercover cop. Two and a half grams for $150. The arrest report said he had tracks on his arms. He was a junkie.
It was, of course, a big story at the time. The coverage portrayed him as a “golden youth” – Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard Law School graduate, doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics – who had squandered his promise. In a reference to Breindel’s background, Time wrote that the bust had “Brideshead Revisited overtones.” The prodigy had fallen. Hard. Moynihan immediately asked for his resignation. Realistically, a career in government was now out of the question. He had been publicly shamed. In a plea agreement, he got a year’s probation.
After a period of rehabilitation, for his body, his psyche, and his reputation, Breindel signed on at the Post’s editorial page in 1986. And immediately, he came out shooting bullets. Homeless people, poor people, gay people, the mentally ill, single mothers. All were subjected to Breindel’s uncharitable lashings. There were never even subtle shadings in his writing that indicated he was someone who knew what it was like to stumble, to give in to temptation, or simply to suffer from some common human failing. Given his own frailties, even some of his friends had trouble with this.
Indeed, as Breindel became an impact player in the Murdoch organization, in political circles, and among Manhattan’s social set, Breindel-haters sprouted in New York and Washington. For some, it was simply a matter of style. They saw Breindel as unctuous, obsequious, willing to do whatever it took to ingratiate himself with the right people. But many on the left found his stiff-necked conservatism deeply hypocritical in light of his own rather stunning personal weaknesses.
“I found him fascinating as a character,” says Pete Hamill. “Here’s a guy who got busted on a heroin charge and was rescued by people who showed a certain amount of compassion, and maybe even pity, at the moment and helped him through it. But he couldn’t find it in himself to have pity or compassion for anybody else, for some poor junkie lying in a hallway. It just didn’t extend that way.”
Breindel grew up a child of privilege, in a spacious apartment on Gramercy Park. His parents were refugees from Hitler’s Europe, and his mother had been a prisoner in a concentration camp. Once settled here, his father eventually became chief of obstetrics at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center. Breindel went to Horace Mann and Exeter and enjoyed all of the luxuries that were part of a Jewish, upper-middle-class Manhattan family’s life in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. There was the country club in Scarsdale, and yearly trips to Europe.
Despite the material comforts, Breindel already had a fairly dark, complicated view of the world by the time he was a teenager. The critical factor in shaping his outlook was his parents’ experiences. He would always believe that the world was a place where terrible things could happen, and often did, to large numbers of people. He didn’t move through life with a dark cloud over him, nor was he particularly pessimistic. He just believed, based on what he knew, that vigilance was the best posture.
Breindel’s life was the sum of his obsessions, and chief among them – quite naturally, given his background – was the fate of the Jews. It was the locus from which all of his other political positions flowed. He believed that most of the world’s evil took place under totalitarian regimes, and from this came his obsession with communism. When he died, he was at work on a book whose central premise was that every American ever accused of spying for the Soviets actually was (House Un-American Activities Committee investigator Herb Romerstein was his co-author; the book is due out in the fall).
But there was also an upside, a positive view provided by this prism through which he saw the world: his lack of cynicism about America. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was the child of immigrants. America was the country that saved his parents. “In a strange way, he was a throwback,” says the Observer’s Peter Kaplan. “In his politics, in the quality of his thought, in the intensity of his passions and his delight in America. It was our parents’ experience, not ours. We were dulled by the success of America and everything that came along with it. But he was experiencing this country the way people who are now in their seventies did 40 or 50 years ago.”
When Breindel got to Harvard, his obsessions served him well. They were the foundation on which he built what would turn out to be the seminal relationships of his adult life – those with Moynihan, Peretz, and Podhoretz. Breindel was the perfect protégé and intellectual playmate: He was eager, respectful, brilliant, obsessed with the past, and full of ideas. Most important, he cared deeply about all the struggles they cared about.
“He seemed to move in a higher circle than most college kids,” says Nicholas Lemann, a writer at The Atlantic Monthly who was one year ahead of Breindel at Harvard. “You have to understand that the average student will go through four years of Harvard and not have even one tenured faculty member who could pick him out in a police lineup. The fact that Eric was spending time with people like Moynihan was really unusual.”
In his torn black jeans and frayed white Brooks Brothers button-down Oxford shirts, Breindel was an alluring figure on campus. He escorted Caroline Kennedy (his father didn’t approve, because she wasn’t Jewish). He roomed with David Kennedy and palled around with Bobby Jr. On a trip to Israel, he secured an interview with Prime Minister Menachem Begin and wrote a piece for Rolling Stone. “He was mysterious,” says classmate Philip Weiss, who writes for the New York Observer. “He was sophisticated, he had a private life, he had girlfriends. And he had people who loved him. There were many people who were fiercely attached to him.”
But there was also a dark side to his personality that came into full public view during his junior year. The episode happened during what’s known as the Turkey Shoot, the annual vote to choose the president of the Harvard Crimson. The top spot at the legendary student newspaper, long a fecund breeding ground for some of journalism’s best-known names, is one of the school’s most coveted undergraduate prizes.
In 1975, the battle was between Breindel and James J. Cramer, the hedge-fund manager, ubiquitous financial journalist, and co-founder of TheStreet.com. There were clear differences of style and personality: Cramer was the fiery, abrasive, indefatigable worker (some things never change), while Breindel was the cool, sophisticated, worldly thinker. Though almost all of the players involved were Jewish, Breindel was somehow cast as the Waspy, polished, urbane private-school kid and Cramer as the raw public-school product who was a little gruff but had all the solid, honest virtues Hollywood always ascribes to simple, hardworking people.
Breindel lost the election by one vote. Half an hour after outgoing Crimson president Nicholas Lemann called everyone to tell them the results, Breindel and his supporters arrived at the offices of the paper. “They were really upset and angry,” says Lemann. “They were borderline violent. One of Eric’s guys literally put his hands around my throat and started to squeeze, as if to strangle me. It was simply an awful night.”
It was a night many of the participants would go back to when Breindel was busted for drugs. “Some people theorized that the drug problem explained his behavior over the Crimson vote,” says Lemann. “I’m not sure about that, but it was clear from his behavior that he was a troubled, unhappy man. I saw a side of him that was in pain of some kind.”
Weiss, who voted for Cramer, says he learned some early political lessons from the way Breindel reacted: “He was so sophisticated in this dark way. He said to me, ‘I understand what you did. You voted for your friend, and you have to be loyal to your friend.’ This principle was not unfamiliar to me, but I’d never before heard it stated so baldly. Cramer and I were such innocents by comparison. He was vicious and calculating, and that was new to me.”
The theories about how and why Breindel began using drugs fall somewhat loosely into three categories. Close friends and acolytes see his addiction as an obvious response to the physical pain he endured – primarily from a wrist injury he suffered while on the wrestling team at Exeter that was never completely repaired despite several surgeries. From his time at Harvard till his death, he didn’t have a day without pain, they say, and his search for relief led him eventually to heroin. While it is true that he was struck by a series of physical problems – chief among them cancer in the early nineties and a recurring kidney ailment that required hospitalization for the first time only a few weeks before the Turkey Shoot – both his father and his sister are doctors. It would seem that he would have had easy access to legal medications.
Theory No. 2 blames Breindel’s fall on – who else? – the Kennedys. Listen: “He was mixed up with the Kennedy kids Bobby and David, and they were junkies,” says Norman Podhoretz. Or this: “Eric got in trouble by hanging out with the Kennedys. I think he was quite impressed by them,” says photographer Freddy Eberstadt, a close friend.
The third theory is that as smart and ambitious as Breindel was, he was still capable of a monumentally stupid, immature act. Perhaps he was looking for a rush, or for a way to express his manhood. Or maybe he was even looking for an escape from the pressures of the life he’d created for himself. Whatever the trigger, it’s important to remember it was the seventies, and drug use among the elite was rampant.
After the arrest, his friends closed in around him. Norman Podhoretz, who saw drugs as one of the most destructive results of the counterculture – they went against everything he believed in and had been devoting his intellectual life to – still stuck by him. So did Marty Peretz, the Harvard lecturer and owner of The New Republic. Peretz met Breindel when he saw a piece he’d written in the Crimson about Israel. Impressed, he dropped the undergrad a note, they had coffee, and a bond quickly developed. Now Peretz was there for him, letting Breindel stay in his Georgetown house and hang around The New Republic for months.
Both Podhoretz and Peretz claim, however, that they had only the briefest of conversations with Breindel about what happened. Podhoretz “read him the riot act,” and that was pretty much it: “He made no excuses and promised me he’d straighten out.” Peretz says they talked only about the future: “I don’t know what he felt at two in the morning, but with me he had essentially only one concern. He wanted to know what kind of professional life he could have after an experience like this.”
Breindel’s tragic early death made it difficult – particularly for those who knew his history – not to think about what could have been. But it was also hard not to think about how far he’d come back. Though it’s unlikely the name Winston Prude crossed the mind of anyone at Breindel’s funeral last March, perhaps it should have. Prude, once a young Justice Department lawyer, was arrested at the Holiday Inn with Breindel; they had gone to buy the drugs together. Two years later, however, while Breindel was really just beginning to rebuild his life in New York, Prude was found lying facedown on the kitchen floor of his Washington home. The cause of death was a heroin overdose.
Breindel’s return from post-arrest exile happened, all things considered, very quickly. He wrote a little for The New Republic, and barely half a year after the bust he took a low-level research slot on a PBS show called American Interests. Soon after, he left to teach a course at Georgetown. He continued to write the occasional piece, and he asked his friend Christopher Buckley to make contact for him at the New York Times. He’d written a piece about Whittaker Chambers that he wanted to get placed on the op-ed page.
Buckley hooked Breindel up with Tamar Jacoby, who was then the deputy editor of the Times’s op-ed page. “As soon as we met, we knew there was something there,” says Jacoby, whose most recent book is Someone Else’s House, a look at race and the struggle to achieve integration in America. “He was smart, he was funny, and he cared about the same things I cared about. I knew he’d been through a lot, but that often makes someone stronger and more interesting. I fell in love with him, and his problems certainly didn’t get in the way.”
Within a matter of months, Breindel was living with Jacoby in her apartment on the Upper West Side, and things were changing rapidly. With her help, and recommendations from Podhoretz, Peretz, and Moynihan, Breindel landed a job writing for the editorial page of the New York Daily News. James Hoge, now the editor of Foreign Affairs, gave him the job, but Breindel left the News after less than a year.
“He came to me and said the New York Post had offered to make him head of their page and to give him a column,” says Hoge. “He agonized about it, but I told him I thought he’d earned it. He shouldn’t feel indentured to me because I’d helped him out when he needed a job.”
The Post offer had Podhoretz’s fingerprints all over it. He’d been writing a column for the paper for two years. News Corp., Murdoch’s company, also owned the syndicate that peddled his column around the country. And Podhoretz had a personal, social friendship with Murdoch. “Of course I talked to Murdoch about Eric,” Podhoretz says.
Shortly after joining the Post, Breindel was having lunch on Saturdays at Gracie Mansion with then-mayor Ed Koch and the members of his inner circle. Breindel and Koch also went to the movies together. “I liked him enormously,” says Koch. “I enjoyed talking to him about issues, and he was someone I could depend on.”
Breindel and Jacoby decided to marry at the beginning of 1988, four years into their relationship. The wedding was at the Harvard Club, and the guest list was, of course, eye-opening. “We both knew a lot of people, and we took some mischievous pleasure in Elliot Abrams having to shake hands with Anthony Lewis and Norman Podhoretz having to shake hands with Bob Silvers,” Jacoby says, laughing at the memory. “Eric and I joked about having to have different rooms to accommodate the various ideologies.”
The relationship, which had always been combative, deteriorated not long after the wedding, and their split yielded one of the most often told and heavily embellished breakup stories in the history of New York’s chattering class. The tale begins when Breindel and Jacoby embark on a two-week trip to Europe with Breindel’s parents to visit the concentration camps. When they reach Auschwitz, about midway through their journey, Breindel announces that something has come up at the paper, and he must return to New York immediately.
Off he goes, leaving the wife, with whom he hasn’t been getting along, at Auschwitz with his Holocaust-survivor parents. As she soldiers on and dutifully continues the trip through Eastern Europe, Breindel is back in the city, moving out of their apartment and in with Lally Weymouth. While Jacoby is still traveling with his parents, Breindel calls and tells her its over. When she returns home a week or so later, it’s to an empty apartment.
Though Jacoby understandably has no interest in continuing to give life to this story, she would like to set the record straight. They were, in fact, in Europe with his parents when they decided to split up. They were in Hungary, not Poland, and she had always planned to stay on in Europe – without Breindel – to visit her sister in London. When she got home, the apartment was not empty, and Breindel was staying with his parents. It’s painful and embarrassing for her to even discuss the story, which she believes was spread by Breindel’s ideological enemies.
Jacoby was, according to people who know her, extremely bitter and angry after their split. Still, the funeral was difficult for her. “When I married Eric, I had all kinds of expectations and hopes about life. I’m a different person now, but at the funeral I spent a lot of time thinking about those two people.”
Even without the apocryphal rendering of the breakup, the cynical view is that Breindel chose women the same way he chose his friends – based on who could help him the most. Tamar Jacoby was the right woman for him at the right time, and when times changed, he found Lally Weymouth, Katharine Graham’s daughter, far more useful.
“At first, I absolutely thought his relationship with Lally was a merger,” says former Post editor Jerry Nachman. “It looked like an arranged marriage. But then I went to one of those soigné parties they threw in Southampton under a tent for Kay Graham. I stood around for a while looking at all the important bold-face names and all the nine-figure guys. And then Eric got up and spoke about Kay and Lally and Lally’s daughters, and everybody knew this was for real. It was very moving and very touching and very personal,” says Nachman, the prototypical tough-guy tabloid editor who is hardly prone to weepy, sentimental musings.
Living with Weymouth, however, did help broaden and intensify Breindel’s relationships with powerful people, including, of course, the people he was ostensibly writing about. He told friends that the job of an editorial writer was to influence policy. What did it matter, then, if he did it over dinner? In the end, it was all the same thing. Still, surely he’d find it much harder in print to enthusiastically criticize a friend – someone who’d been to his home – than someone with whom he had only a professional relationship.
Breindel found himself in a difficult personal spot when the Post was on the verge of going out of business in the early nineties. He’d been working the phones and combing his network day and night to try to do something to save the forever-ailing newspaper. In 1993, at the eleventh hour, Rupert Murdoch, who’d owned the paper in the early eighties and then sold it, emerged once again as a buyer. But he’d need a waiver to get past the FCC regulation that barred someone from owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market (Murdoch owns New York’s Fox station).
Governor Mario Cuomo, who’d gone to great lengths to help save the Post in the past, took up the fight one more time. But with Murdoch in the picture, Cuomo would be helping to save a newspaper that would undoubtedly begin to hammer him as soon as Murdoch took over. Regardless, Cuomo lobbied on Murdoch’s behalf with Congress and the FCC. Murdoch got his waiver and bought the paper, and Cuomo had played a key role in the rescue. However, when Cuomo was fighting for re-election, not long after performing his good deed, a distraught Breindel called him to say the paper was going to endorse his opponent. Murdoch also called. “At one point, Rupert said, ‘I like you, and I think you’re sincere and hardworking. But I think you’re wrong about the issues. I’m sorry you chose to run.’ I told him I was sorry he was going to back my opponent, because frankly, as close as that race was, they could beat me. They’re dynamite when they go to work,” Cuomo says with surprising equanimity. “And as it turns out, the margin in the election was only three and a half points.”
Breindel’s friendship created a very uncomfortable situation for him. “Eric desperately tried to convince Murdoch to endorse Cuomo,” says columnist Jack Newfield. “He nearly cried over it.”
Though it is tempting now for people on both sides of the ideological spectrum to try to turn Breindel into some kind of one-dimensional stick figure to fit their agenda, it simply doesn’t ring true. He was, in the final analysis, a tightly wound, complicated mass of contradictions. He was cold and calculating. But he was also warm and sincere. He was ambitious and in it for himself, but he really did care deeply about the Jewish people, the communist threat to America, and making New York a better city. He was the archetype of the loving, dutiful son, yet he got himself addicted to heroin. He was enthralled with proximity to power, but he was a giving, enthusiastic uncle who doted on his sister’s children. And for much of his life, he harbored a deep wound over his own lost possibilities, but he was a loyal, generous friend, always willing to help others with their careers.
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.