Monday, 20 March 2017


My obit of the newsman Jimmy Breslin is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, and what has been left out is what I needed to omit for space, and in consideration of an audience who were not familiar with his work. Luckily, I was writing for an audience of journalists, who understood it well.

One trim was the best quote I'd found about Breslin, from the Village Voice's ace muckrakers Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett. It would have preceded the story that led up to his 2002 book about Eduardo Gutierrez. They had called Breslin "an intellectual disguised as a bar room primitive" and that was in many ways true. Damon Runyon was certainly his model, but his writing drew on a lot of literary sources, not the least of them Dickens, as well as endless hours on the phones and in the bars, and endless days with people.

The other I missed was the story of his jumping into a cab to cover the race riots in Crown Heights in 1991. When he cab got there, rioters pulled him out and beat him seriously, leaving him with, as he wrote, only his underwear and press card. He wrote that from the scene, calling in his copy before being patched up, as cops stood by. "How do you like your friends now?" they asked.

I probably should have stressed the hard reporting he did as well. I did mentioned he'd won a Polk award in 1985 for metro reporting. His 1986 Puzliter cited his AIDS story, but in 1986 he had also brought down Queens borough president Donald Manes in a payoff scandal; Manes would commit suicide a few months later.

I had also given his wives a bit more prominence. When he married his second wife he moved from Queens to Central Park West, began swimming every day, and as I mentioned stopped serious boozing after that bender with Moynihan. I couldn't get into much detail after the cast of Runyon characters he was often accused of gilding, if not inventing, in his stories. And I would have liked to have examined the nature of the Irish-American reporter: Breslin and Pete Hamill and so many others in their trench coats and tweed hats. But that's another essay. As might be his campaign with Norman Mailer, but Breslin wrote that one himself in Running Against The Machine (1969).

I had mentioned his nomination for a Golden Turkey award for his role in the 1978 movie If I Ever See You Again. He had a brief late night TV interview show on ABC, but he was no Studs Terkel; his skill at drawing the stories out of people in print didn't translate to the screen. When he got fed up with the network he bought an ad in the New York Times announcing that when his contract was up he would quit. I had also discussed the argument he had with a woman in the Newsday newsroom who accused one of his columns of being sexist, and for which (the argument) he was suspended. He took his case onto the Howard Stern radio show, not a bastion of feminist sensibility.

He was direct. I didn't speculate about his childhood, but his father literally walked away from the family: went to the store one night and never came back. In a different context I might have used the story the New York Times used, but it didn't fit my piece, and besides, they'd used it. But I'll repeat it here, verbatim from Dan Barry's obit:

after Mr. Breslin had become famous, his father, destitute in Miami, came back into his life “like heavy snow through a broken window,” he wrote. He paid for his father’s medical bills and sent him a telegram that said, “NEXT TIME KILL YOURSELF.” 

And I wanted to use this quote from Ron Rosenbaum, who called him "one of the great prose writers in America. Period." Asked for his favourite Breslin line, he quoted this one: "somebody always hangs out at a collision shop." Think about it.  RIP.

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