You could walk down the hall from the sports department in those years at the Daily News, and there was Jimmy Breslin in one office and Pete Hamill in the other, and all this cigar smoke and cigarette smoke in between them, and genius, and all the magic that made all of us want to write for newspapers in the first place. The soundtrack, always, was the glorious sound of their typewriters.
“If you don’t blow your horn,” Jimmy liked to say, “there is no music.”
But Jimmy Breslin never required self-promotion, as much as he liked to proclaim himself “JB, Number One” in his sidewalk voice, with all his big-city swagger and brio. All you ever needed to do was read him, really from the time he got a column at the old New York Herald Tribune and changed the business forever with the force of his talent and reporting and humor; and his ability, as he once told me, in as reflective a moment as I can remember from him, as he tried to describe what it was he did, to find “eloquence in simplicity.”
There was never anyone like him. There will never be anyone like him, now that he is gone at 88.
“You know, it’s just an honor for me to do this,” Clifton Pollard told Breslin at the end of the most famous newspaper column ever written, the one about Pollard digging the grave for President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963, one now taught in journalism schools.
But the true honor, always, was reading Breslin, at the Herald Tribune and at The News and New York Newsday, and in all his books, starting with his first big one, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”
When they finally got around to awarding him the Pulitzer Prize, it was because Breslin, more than anyone else at that point in America, had finally put names and faces to AIDS patients. More importantly, he did something else: Jimmy gave them a voice. His.
There has never been a voice quite like it in newspapers. It was splendidly his own. He was the poet of his city who climbed stairs and knocked on doors and found ways to take the biggest stories and tell them through such as Clifton Pollard; who could tell you with one sentence about the true meaning of a single tragic death in New York, as if he had delivered a white paper on crime with these six words:
“Dies the victim, dies the city.”
But Jimmy Breslin was more than just New York, as much as he was New York. He went to London when Churchill was dying and to Vietnam and to Selma, where he wrote from marches and from churches and made you feel as if you were there. As brilliant as the column on Clifton Pollard is, go back today and read “A Death in Emergency Room One,” about a doctor named Malcolm Perry treating John Kennedy when Kennedy was first brought to the Dallas hospital that day.
Here are just a few paragraphs of that, in the business that Hamill has always described as “history in a hurry”:
“John Kennedy had already been stripped of his jacket, shirt, and T-shirt, and a staff doctor was starting to place a tube called an endotracht down the throat. Oxygen would be forced down the endotracht. Breathing was the first thing to attack. The president was not breathing.
“Malcolm Perry unbuttoned his dark blue glen-plaid jacket and threw it onto the floor. He held out his hands while the nurse helped him put on gloves.
“The president, Perry thought. He’s bigger than I thought he was.”
I knew Jimmy Breslin from the time I was 20 years old. I can say that he made me want to do this kind of work for a living and all that does is put me in a club about as small as the U.S. Marine Corps. But he did. I met him in Cambridge, Mass., when I was at Boston College, at the home of my friend Michael Daly’s father. His old boss James Bellows was running the Washington Star, and needed a young columnist. But I didn’t want to go to Washington. I wanted to go to New York. Breslin and Hamill were there.
Then I was working with him at the Daily News, on 42nd St., between Second and Third, past the giant globe in the lobby, the one you saw in the “Superman” movies, and then up to the seventh floor. Suddenly everything I’d ever wanted to be was just down that hall.
“I thought he would just go on and on forever,” Pete Hamill said on Sunday morning after he got the news. And Jimmy’s widow, Ronnie Eldridge, a former member of the City Council and a New Yorker of the highest rank herself, said, “He was a presence, wasn’t he?”
In his last years, he was still writing away. You’d call him on the telephone and ask what he was doing and he’d yell, “Working!” If he called you, the conversation, on his end, would always begin the same way:
And so often it would end with this:
He was Jimmy Breslin, who wrote hilarious books about the Mets, and the mob, but who knew such pain in his own life; who buried his first wife, Rosemary, and a daughter named Rosemary, a wonderful writer herself, and his other daughter Kelly. Somehow he kept going and kept coming. They chased him out of Crown Heights one night when things were bad there. Still he kept coming. And kept writing, even in the late rounds.
“It is a day,” Pete Hamill said, “to both mourn and celebrate.”
The columns come rushing out of the past on this day, out of memory: A column he wrote once about the great opera singer Marian Anderson, and her farewell concert, and a note running around Carnegie Hall that let everybody know who was singing.
The night he wrote about his dear friend Mario Cuomo’s keynote address at the Republican Convention in 1984, and Cuomo reaching out to the country with his ballplayer’s hands. And the magnificent column he wrote, on deadline, through the eyes of cops, about the night John Lennon died.
A lifetime of work like that, from the sidewalk up. A voice, silenced now, that is as famous, and as much his own, as any his city has ever produced. So go back and read him today. Celebrate that way, with a book or an old column. It is the best way to honor the great Jimmy Breslin. The only way. Yeah. He was here.
LUPICA: Remembering Jimmy Breslin, old-school genius and voice of New York – New York Daily News