An Appreciation of Jimmy Breslin

An Appreciation

of

Jimmy Breslin 

by

William O’Shaughnessy

March 20, 2017

He was the Dimaggio of a profession which included Pete Hamill, Nat Hentoff, Gay Talese, Mike Barnicle, Wayne Barrett, Nancy Q. Keefe, Phil Reisman, Denis Hamill, Peter Maas, David Hinckley, Jack Newfield, McCandlish Phillips, Dennis Duggan, Richard Reeves, Sam Roberts, Terry Golway, Mike Lupica, Malachy McCourt, Michael Daly, Nick Pileggi, Meyer “Mike” Berger and Jimmy Cannon of sainted memory who was the Mother Lode and inspired damn near everyone here mentioned to write with passion, conviction and honesty.

And, I’m sorry, but if we’re talking here about those who can maneuver words like Nelson Riddle arranged notes and put them into actual graceful sentences and then insert them in elegant paragraphs that fill entire pages that move people … I suggest that one Mario M. Cuomo, although he went to work each day as a politician and possessed a business card that said “Governor,” has to be included in this fraternity too. 

They were practitioners of a journalism that produced lean, strong, direct, muscular, unadorned, passionate, declarative, on-your-sleeve writing.  USA Today called it “simple, but stirring prose.  The New York Times referred to the product of Breslin’s genius as “narrative non-fiction.” By any name, it was sui generis:  unique and able to be defined only in his own terms.  So was he.

Breslin’s modus operandi:  after a sporting event or political race, don’t go to the winner in the spotlight … find the loser: That’s where the story is … at the locker room of the vanquished.

During my own 58 years at the microphone of this community radio station, many friends have caused their sons and heirs and their daughters too to seek our advice and counsel … making them repair to a white-haired broadcaster completely lacking in wisdom or good judgment and possessed only of a good Rolodex.

So as I sat majestically and all-knowing in high council in my office:  if a youngster wanted to spend his or her life in Law Enforcement, I would send them to Joseph Anthony Spinelli who once headed an FBI SWAT team and participated in seven shootouts as a federal lawman.  “Go see Spinelli.” And if the kid was any good, Spinelli would ring up the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with instructions to “hire this guy.”

If a youngster liked show biz or the Theatre, I would send them forthwith to Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. And if government or Public Service was mentioned, I would ring up a failed baseball player with too many vowels in his name.  And Mario Cuomo, of sainted memory, would get the kid’s head filled with all sorts of crazy notions like “God didn’t finish creating the universe, that’s your job.”

If on occasion a young man or woman mentioned newspapers, journalism or broadcasting and seemed destined for the Columbia School of Journalism or the Newhouse School at Syracuse, I would reach over to my library and pull out a book, one of 16 written by Jimmy Breslin.  “Go home and read this … it’s all I know.  It’s all you need to know.  It’s everything you need to know.”  Sometimes I would also thrust a Jimmy Cannon book across the desk.

Many years ago before two busted marriages, I sat with the great Breslin at Costello’s bar which was near Grand Central and Saint Agnes Church where suburban Catholics go with their sins if they are too lazy to take a subway ride to the Garden and walk to 31st Street where the generous and forgiving Franciscans assess only three Hail Mary’s for anything up to a homicide.

Anyway, Breslin and I sat on this one long-ago afternoon in the smoky now-gone Costello’s midtown bar. Reaching way above my pay grade and for another Canadian Club, I told the greatest American journalist during our time that I loved his columns on Jack Kennedy and his brother Bobby and certainly the magnificent one he dispatched from London, in England, which was my favorite. “The pigeons were on the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square while a few blocks away, at Number 10 Downing Street, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill lay dying.  He was a man of beef and brandy and cigars and the last great statue of the English language.”

I told the great Breslin that although I most certainly loved all the iconic columns describing the Kennedys and Mr. Churchill, he had recently taken to writing about guys named Ramon and Jose and Pedro and I gently suggested he might return to the “mythic” figures abroad in the land.  “Who’s to write about …?”, said Breslin. And then he went out into the night to write of a Queens neighbor named Mario M. Cuomo.

They teach Breslin in “J” school at Columbia, NYU, Hofstra and Ithaca which cite his legendary piece about the gravedigger who made $3.01 to dig a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy who, in an earlier sad November day some 55 years ago, had his brains blown out in Dallas, in Texas. 

It was a great piece of writing. But the Churchill piece stays with me because I am well aware that, with the encouragement or forbearance of the Jesuits, I have written some six books, anthologies which contain pages of sentences containing many words, not any of which would permit me to loose the strap on Jimmy Breslin’s sandal. 

He did to a typewriter and yellow legal pads, and later to a computer, what Michael Jordan did to a basketball and Sinatra did in a recording studio to Cole Porter lyrics.

He would take words and put them in strong, passionate, muscular sentences that caused Mario Cuomo to tell people “Nobody can describe a scene like Breslin.”

Jimmy Breslin’s final, personal “30” comes at a most inopportune time.  For it is 2017 and there is, abroad in the land, no Mario Cuomo to do Jimmy’s eulogy. So I guess the graceful lines Dan Barry wrote in Monday’s New York Times will have to do.  These words leap out from among all the many written every day in our beloved Times which exhausts itself trying to find ways to tell just how awful President Donald John Trump is. Here are those beautiful words said of Breslin in our most important newspaper which survives him and will survive Trump. 

“Jimmy Breslin, the New York City newspaper columnist and best-selling author who levelled the powerful and elevated the powerless for more than 50 years with brick-hard words and a jagged-glasses wit, died on Sunday in his home in Manhattan.  He was 88, and until very recently was still pushing somebody’s buttons with two-finger jabs at his keyboard.  Love him or loathe him, none could deny Mr. Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. At the same time, Mr. Breslin was unmatched in his attention to the poor and disenfranchised.  If there is one hero in the Breslin canon, it is the single black mother, far removed from power, trying to make it through the week.”

I can’t do better this sad morning than Dan Barry who had some help from Jim Dwyer and Richard Goldstein in the Times.

In the hours since James Earl Breslin left us, many other lovely, admiring pieces have been written in all the journals of the land about just how special Jimmy Breslin really was.

There were quite wonderful and graceful tributes from Jim Rutenberg, Jim Dwyer, Dan Barry, Sean Patrick Farrell and Richard Goldstein of The New York Times … Kevin McCoy, John Bacon and Adam Shell of USA Today … Jason Silverstein, Arthur Browne and Josh Greenman of the Daily News … Christopher Bonanos of New York Magazine …  Verna Dobnik and David Bauder of AP … Joe Mahoney in upstate papers … Tom Allon of City & State … Michael “Lionel” Lebron, Phil Reisman and Sarah Fagan Greenberg on Facebook … Paul Duggan of The Washington Post … Mark Moore and Joe Marino of the New York Post … and Debby Krenek and Michael O’Keeffe of Newsday.

But who, I wonder, will come into a funeral home or stand up in a Roman church this week to speak a eulogy of Jimmy Breslin? There really was only one equal to the sad task: Jimmy’s old sparring partner and dear friend Mr. Cuomo, who himself departed on January 1, 2015.

So now lacking the eloquence and presence of his friend, the Gov, to define and celebrate Breslin, we are left with just these gracious remarks Mario put together for the 60th anniversary of Jimmy’s career in journalism organized by Pete Hamill.

I’m not eager to go out to events at night.  Like a lot of other people, my day’s work is sufficiently challenging to make me look forward to quiet evenings at home.  It takes a really good reason to get me out, so when Pete Hamill called and told me that on December 7th there would be an event at night to honor Jimmy for his sixty years as a writer, I wanted to be sure it was real.

I asked Pete … “Does Jimmy know?”  And he said, “Yeah, he’s all for it.”

At first it didn’t sound right to me.  Jimmy didn’t even celebrate sixty years of being alive, so why would he be eager to celebrate sixty years as a writer?

Logic gave me a quick answer.  “Just being alive meant a lot less to Jimmy than being alive and writing.

That’s the way it is with truly gifted people like him.  Writers will remind you this evening of his Pulitzer and a wall full of other significant honors over the years acknowledging his unique and vibrant writing skills.  As a reporter he became the uncommon voice of the common man with his uncanny ability to find in newsworthy events, details that made the events more meaningful to the people of New York’s boroughs and millions of other people like them.  Interviewing the gravedigger at John F. Kennedy’s burial is a good example.  The writers will remind you how he could make people smile, or laugh out loud when they bring back some of Jimmy’s inimitable descriptions of hapless ballplayers, second-rate mobsters and third-rate politicians, or reintroduce you to “Fat Thomas” and “Robert J. Allen.”

There may even be a tear-or-two if someone chooses to read from “Short, Sweet Life of Edward Gutierrez,” or parts of “World Without End, Amen.”

But no matter how many bits of Breslin inspiration are shared this evening, they will amount to only light hints of the immense amount of great writing he has done in his uniquely long, productive and heralded career.  Think of it:  he still works every day … writing or thinking about writing and he has done it for sixty years – nearly 22,000 days and nights – except for the short hiatus when doctors were forced to drill a hole in his head to let out of his congested brain some of his unused lines.  Then … he wrote a book about it!

That’s a lot of “Jim Breslin Writing” to cover in a single night of celebration.  And the challenge is even greater because, as Pete has pointed out – there are really at “least two Jim Breslins.”  One “Breslin” is the public person, Writer, Raconteur and Celebrity figure.

The other is the private guy from Queens when he’s not on the stage or on the screen but is himself, on the phone or having an otherwise quiet dinner, explaining to you the world and it’s various dysfunctionalties.  And excoriating those who are responsible for the disorder, by creating it or by not doing enough to fix it … that often includes the people he’s talking to at the moment.

That’s when he’s just “Jimmy” and that’s the way I know him best and have for more than forty years.

I met him when I was a youngish lawyer trying to help sixty-nine barely middle-class homeowners in Corona, Queens, save their homes from a Mayor who was about to condemn them to accommodate t he builder of a huge housing complex.

They couldn’t afford a big law firm and I was neither prestigious nor politically influential, so the sixty-nine would probably have lost their homes if Jimmy hadn’t gotten involved.  He came to a meeting of the group, did some research then wrote a long story and some short ones, and talked to some influential people at City Hall.  He convinced them the Mayor was wrong and the sixty-nine stayed in their homes.  That was Jimmy at his best and it led to a friendship that has survived all the years since then.  Good days and hard days.  Days when we enjoyed some lucky breaks and other days when we got hit by tragedies.

And most of the real tragedies were on Jimmy’s side of the relationship.  Heavy, heavy blows that would have left me and most people crippled and helpless.

But not Jimmy.

It had to be hard for him for sure, but Jimmy just kept writing.  He had to!  His world was too big, too complex, too filled with great characters.  There were too many great stories that needed telling and retelling.  And there were too many big problems that needed solving!

There still are!  As there have been for sixty years:  nearly 22,000 nights and days!

# # #

Almost every morning before he goes to his typewriter, he’ll call one of his many friends to describe some of the problems …

As war we should be ending, a healthcare bill we need to pass.  I can hear him now, “Did you see the first page of the Times?  Food stamps are back!  Food stamps … and they say the recession is over!  What are you doing about it?  Write a damn letter!  Call somebody – some big shot.  You must know someone!  Tell them about the abused immigrants and the abusive landlords, the crooked politicians and the bad priests.

# # #

Every morning Jimmy has a bowl of oatmeal:  and his outrage.

And I suspect that’s the way it will always be.  He won’t ever stop thinking about the world he lives in and writing about it.

Why?

Because way down deep “Jimmy” is a believer.

He will argue with the priests of his Church, but he knows the God they are supposed to be working for has given him a personal gift.  A gift that is given to only a few.

And he will not offend his God by not using that gift.  And he will use it until there are no more stories to tell nor problems to solve.

Thank you Jimmy.  Keep going!

He leaves a profession which is fast becoming a “Between you and I” industry as he once called it even before the bimbos – male and female – attempted to speak the English language from teleprompters in every television studio in the land.

One more memory of Breslin stays.  It came out of an afternoon on the West Side when John Hay Whitney and Walter Nelson Thayer came to shut down for all time to come a magnificent newspaper called the Herald Tribune which had been founded by Horace Greeley.  As many at the “wake” for the paper crowded around Walter “Red” Smith, the Trib’s iconic sportswriter who sat on the edge of a desk with a shaky hand trying to light a cigarette, there was Breslin over in a corner with the cleaning women trying to put together a story which survives in one of his books.

 

Breslin wrote 16 books including:

 

“Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”

“World of Jimmy Breslin”

“World Without End.  Amen”

“Forsaking All Others”

“I Want To Thank My Brain for Remembering Me”

“Damon Runyon:  A Life”

“The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez”

“The Church That Forgot Christ”

“Branch Rickey”

“The Good Rat

“The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”

But he once told me that “Christ In Concrete” a long out-of-print book by an obscure Long Island writer Pietro DiDonato was “the greatest novel ever written.”  Breslin would know.

Dying is something you have to do all by yourself.

It’s a solo act.  There are no accomplices, compadres, colleagues or cohorts to accompany you. But James Earl Breslin was attended by several marvelous and unforgettable characters: (some real, some imagined, all magnificent) Marvin the Torch, the loveable arsonist … Fat Thomas, the bumbling bookie … Klein, the love-struck lawyer … Un Occhio, the scary mob boss who ran a candy store and kept a wolf behind the counter … Shelly, the bail bondsman who was a sucker for a sentimental song … and Pep Maguire, saloonkeeper in Queens.

So I idolized the guy.  I’m not sure he returned the favor.  At a dinner one night he announced “Forget the swell way he dresses.  You have to like O’Shaughnessy … he does so much for the poor of Mamaroneck!”

That’s not so bad, I guess … ?

 

 

 

 

William O’Shaughnessy, a former president of the New York State Broadcasters Association, was chairman of Public Affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington.  He has been a point man and advocate for the broadcasters of America on First Amendment and Free Speech issues, and is presently chairman of the Guardian Fund of the Broadcasters Foundation of America, the national charitable organization.  He is also a longtime director and member of the Executive Committee of the Foundation. He has operated WVOX and WVIP, two of the last independent stations in the New York area, for 56 years as president and editorial director.

 

He is the author of “AirWAVES” (1999) … “It All Comes Back to Me Now” (2001) … “More Riffs, Rants and Raves” (2004) … and “VOX POPULI: The O’Shaughnessy Files,” released in January, 2011. He is currently working on his fifth book for Fordham University Press, another anthology. He has also completed “Mario Cuomo:  Remembrances of a Remarkable Man,” a tribute to his late friend Governor Mario M. Cuomo which has just been published. 

 

 

Contact

Cindy Gallagher

914-235-3279

cindy@wvox.com

 

 

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