A talk with Jimmy Breslin, New York’s “New Yorkiest” writer
NEW YORK (AP) — In May 2002, Associated Press National Writer Jerry Schwartz interviewed the famously blunt-yet-lyric author and columnist Jimmy Breslin about his life and work. Breslin died Sunday at age 88. The following story was originally published on May 25, 2002:
At 73, he’s no longer the hulking Irish wild man of yore.
He’s slighter. His hair is white and thin, not black and tangled. It’s been years since he knocked back beers at Pep McGuire’s or the Lion’s Head or his friend Mutchie’s saloon — Mutchie is dead, like the bookmaker Fat Thomas and Shelly the Bail Bondsman and so many of the characters who peopled his columns for so many years.
But Jimmy Breslin says he has not changed.
Thirty-nine years after his first story appeared in the New York Herald Tribune — a Page One piece on the Mets, their four-game winning streak and their bungling first baseman, Marvelous Marvin Throneberry — he’s still writing columns, three a week, but now for Newsday.
His columns are still littered with blunt and beautiful phrases, and they’re still fueled by rage at how the powerful afflict the powerless. Now, he writes of pedophile priests, and of cardinals who “will say anything, cling to any piece of driftwood and hide anywhere, but never mention that the problem is their lying, covering up and betraying their people as they do so.”
He has a new book, too — a fine, angry book about an 18-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico who came to New York in search of opportunity but instead tumbled from a collapsing, substandard construction site into three feet of concrete, and drowned.
He cannot tell you how long he worked on “The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez.”
“When people ask how long did it take ya, ya gotta say, ‘my whole life,’” he says.
“But I was obsessed with the topic. I did it without any thought of money. Because I know I’m selling a book about a dead Mexican. That REALLY is gonna be a huge success. I did it because I wanted to do it, it should be done. I don’t know of any good it can do beyond that. You do it honestly, you tell the freakin’ truth and go home.”
This is how he does his job. In that sense, Breslin has not changed at all.
He still awakens at 4:30 or 5 a.m., and announces to his sleeping wife, Ronnie Eldridge, “That’s it. I’m up.” He rumbles around the apartment, spilling coffee. He calls his editor at Newsday, John Mancini, and asks, “What’s out there? What do you have?”
And then he goes out and finds the story he wants. He writes it, turns it in, and then he tells Eldridge all about it, before Newsday’s 578,000 readers find out.
Other columnists have owned their cities, writers like Mike Royko in Chicago, Herb Caen in San Francisco. Breslin survives them.
And through the years, other New York columnists have been ballyhooed as “new Breslins.” But none has ever matched Breslin’s outsized bond with this city.
There is nobody out there like Jimmy Breslin.
“There never was,” he says, with a swagger that is unchanged.
Jim Bellows came to New York to edit the Herald Tribune by way of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Columbus, Ga., and Miami. He didn’t know his new city. He needed a guide, and he was convinced that the Herald Tribune needed a guide as well.
The Trib was renowned for its national and international coverage, but not for its reporting on New York; Bellows was determined to change that, and Breslin was part of the plan.
Queens to the bone, Breslin had started as a copyboy and worked his way up to sportswriter at the Long Island Press. He wrote sports for Scripps-Howard and for Hearst. Bellows wanted him to bring the creativity of a sports columnist to the news pages. He wanted to get away from reportage that featured the “high muckety-mucks,” and give voice to the city’s people.
Breslin “was just so New Yorkie,” says Bellows, who remembers those days in his new book “The Last Editor.” ″He knew the city and its streets and exactly what we needed.”
Breslin always knew that he could write about large issues by focusing on human stories. “You keep the facts alive with people,” he wrote, in a 1964 memo to Bellows proposing a series of stories about life in Harlem.
When other reporters zigged, Breslin zagged.
“I ain’t gonna get nowhere if I’m with everybody else,” he says. “They’ll drown me. I better go out on my own. If I’m all alone in a place I feel safe.”
Sent to Washington to cover the funeral of John F. Kennedy, Breslin left the roiling crowd of reporters behind to write about the $3.01-an-hour laborer who dug the president’s grave. Along with his best-selling novel “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” the 1,042 words of the gravedigger’s story are perhaps Breslin’s most famous.
He specialized in a spare, straightforward prose, with the occasional line that left the reader gasping and laughing:
—“The first funeral for Andrew Goodman was at night and it was a lot of work. To begin with they had to kill him.”
—“Football is a game designed to keep coal miners off the streets.”
—“The auditorium, named after a dead Queens politician, is windowless in honor of the secrecy in which he lived and, probably, the bank vaults he frequented.”
His writing and stories and personality brought him celebrity. In 1969, when Norman Mailer ran for mayor, Breslin was his running-mate for City Council president. They lost, but the campaign waged from the Lion’s Head tavern was legendarily loopy.
It was Breslin to whom David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, wrote as he terrorized young women across the city in 1977 (“I also want to tell you that I read your column daily and find it quite informative”). It was Breslin whose carousing was so renowned that he appeared in a commercial for Piels beer (“a good drinkin’ beah”).
He won a Pulitzer Prize, at The Daily News. He hosted “Saturday Night Live.” He even had a late-night television show. “Jimmy Breslin’s People” lasted just 13 weeks in 1986; Breslin was constantly enraged at ABC for allowing stations to air it at all hours, and finally placed a front-page ad in The New York Times:
“ABC TELEVISION NETWORK: Your services, such as they are, will no longer be required as of 12-20-86 - Jimmy Breslin.”
He had canceled his own program.
The fact is, he didn’t like doing the show. Ronnie Eldridge remembers one morning during its run when they were on vacation and they were lying in bed. Breslin was agitated.
“You don’t know what it’s like to get up in the morning and do something you don’t want to do,” he announced.
That’s when it hit her. In all his life, Breslin had never endured drudgery.
“He loves his work, and every day he does what he wants to do,” she says.
He doesn’t go to the Newsday office much anymore. In 1990, he was suspended after a display of the fabled Breslin temper. He had written a column in which he suggested that women officials were spending too much time away from home; Eldridge was a City Council member at the time.
A Korean-American reporter sent Breslin a message, criticizing the column. Breslin erupted with a tirade that included an obscenity and ethnic slurs. He apologized — “I am no good and once again I can prove it” — but the damage was done, and now he writes his columns from home.
He says he does not miss the newsroom, because the newsroom of his youth no longer exists.
“The Daily News, 5:30 at night. Typewriters. The noise was like a subway, the smoke was thick ... and the nervous energy that I think is required for newspapers was there. And afterwards, everybody ran to the bar, and you discussed stories and leads and people involved and everything and it was a whole business. Now, it’s gone,” he says.
When Breslin does visit the office, “it’s like a tornado coming into the room. He likes to make a lot of noise,” says his editor, Mancini.
He was there in November 1999 when somebody mentioned a Mexican immigrant’s death in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Instantly, Breslin thought of a favorite book, “Christ in Concrete,” written in 1937 by Pietro di Donato. The book tells the story of an Italian immigrant who drowns in concrete at a construction site.
Breslin ran to Williamsburg, he says, “and then I never left.”
He went to San Matias, the town in Mexico where Eduardo Gutierrez grew up and where he was buried. He combed the border, tracking the trails of immigrants. He visited dumpy apartments in Brooklyn, barracks for depressed and homesick Mexicans. He delved into papers detailing the corruption that allowed a death trap to be built.
He did not use researchers. “You don’t have the immediacy. Your fingers must be on the subject at all times.” He has always depended on his own hands and feet, and that too will not change, he says: “Climbing staircases. That’s all I do.”
Like that morning last September, when he looked downtown from his penthouse apartment on Manhattan’s West Side and saw smoke. “Oh baby, it was there,” he says, and he ran to catch what was probably the last subway train downtown, to the World Trade Center.
Now, though, he scoffs at suggestions that the attacks altered the world.
“It changed nothing for me nor for anyone else. I don’t believe a (expletive) word of this, ‘We changed forever,’” he says.
(Except, of course, in lower Manhattan. “Because it ain’t there anymore.”)
He feels the same way about his own brushes with death: in 1991, when a mob yanked him from a cab during the Crown Heights riots, beat him and stripped him to his underwear; in 1994, when he underwent surgery for a brain aneurysm. He survived — unchanged, he says — and turned the page.
Perhaps it’s because he’s “very Catholic,” says Ronnie Eldridge. When a friend dies, he scratches their phone number from the book and writes “1-800-HEAVEN.”
“He believes in heaven and hell. He believes he’s lived a good life, and he just believes in fate,” she says.
And he believes in being Breslin — brash and blustery and bombastic, climbing staircases, raising hell. A life lived any other way is not worth living.
Today’s reporters “are the best educated there ever was, and they go home at night and they go to the health club and have a glass of wine at home, with their wives and families. Which is the worst thing they could do all day. And as a result they’re going to live long, and they’re the most boring (expletive) people who’ve ever worked in the news business.”
To be boring, he says, is more than a sin: “That’s a felony.”
He pleads not guilty.