"The puzzlement [&] terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has seen it knows, that it is over." Jimmy Breslin, 1965 pic.twitter.com/xzLAbTgb6I
— Joshua Zeitz (@JoshuaMZeitz) March 20, 2017
Jimmy Breslin describing a white cop observing an "old black woman with mud on her shoes" singing "we are not afraid," Montgomery, AL 1965. https://t.co/dNZMmFBHm6
— Joshua Zeitz (@JoshuaMZeitz) March 20, 2017
Jimmy Breslin was one of my NYC role models, when I was growing up. (The others that I remember were Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm.) The man was a storyteller, and a fighter. He knew that every businessman and most politicians were pathological liars (at least to themselves). He knew that even the worst tragedies were threaded with a vein of humor, and that even the funniest story had an undertone of tragedy. Most of all, he never truckled.
Kevin Cullen, in the Boston Globe, remembers “the greatest newspaper columnist ever”:
… Seven years ago, they had a big thing for Breslin at NYU in Greenwich Village. It was a cross between an Irish wake and “This Is Your Life” and we were all shocked that Breslin would actually venture out at night and go downtown and listen to people tell him how wonderful he is.
But Ronnie got him to go and he sat in a big puffy easy chair on a stage at NYU and rolled his eyes as everybody got up and told stories and suggested he was a nice person.
Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist, recalled the day that Breslin and his Daily News editor Sharon Rosenhause were screaming at each other in the newsroom. When Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, he stood up in the newsroom and announced, “This award actually belongs to Sharon Rosenhause, but I’m not speaking to her.”
Michael Daly, a columnist at the Daily News, remembered how Breslin took a taxi to cover the riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 1991. Breslin never learned to drive. “Why would I?” he used to say. “I can get a taxi anywhere.” The taxi got torched, Breslin got beat up, and he wrote columns sympathetic to the people of Crown Heights, because he knew what it was like to be poor and ignored.
Dan Barry, a columnist at The Times who grew up reading and admiring Breslin, told of how when he was diagnosed with cancer, Breslin, who barely knew him, showed up at his side and walked with him across Manhattan and into Sloan-Kettering.
“He gave me the gift of distraction,” Dan Barry said.
And that was Breslin, to his core. He distracted us, from apathy. He made us care…
From the Washington Post:
Jimmy Breslin, long the gruff and rumpled king of streetwise New York newspaper columnists, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose muscular, unadorned prose pummeled the venal, deflated the pompous and gave voice to ordinary city-dwellers for decades, died March 19 at his home in Manhattan. He was 88…
For an “unlettered bum,” as Mr. Breslin called himself, he left an estimable legacy of published work, including 16 books, seven of them novels, plus two anthologies of his columns. What set him apart as a writer was the inimitable style of his journalism across the last great decades of ink-on-paper news, in the 1960s for the old New York Herald Tribune and later for the Daily News and the city pages of Long Island-based Newsday, where his final regular column appeared in 2004…
Born Oct. 17, 1928, in Queens, James Earl Breslin was about 6 when his father, an alcoholic piano player, abandoned the family. His mother, who became a welfare worker, was given to drunken spells of depression, he said. He recalled that as a child, he once wrested away a pistol she was holding to her head.
He began his career on the copy boys’ bench at the old Long Island Press and worked his way up without a college degree, covering news and sports for several papers in the decade before the hapless 1962 New York Mets came along, like a gift.
His humorous book on the team’s 120-loss inaugural season (“Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”) was a love song to historic baseball ineptitude. And it brought him to the attention of John Hay Whitney, publisher of the Herald Tribune, whose sister, Joan Whitney Payson, was the Mets majority owner.
Hired as a columnist to help liven up the broadsheet Trib, Mr. Breslin filed one of his best-remembered pieces in 1963. Covering the Kennedy funeral, he recounted the slain president’s burial through the lens of Clifton Pollard, an African American backhoe operator at Arlington National Cemetery who said of digging Kennedy’s resting place, “You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”
Mr. Breslin called his enterprising technique “the Gravedigger Theory of news coverage,” and it became his signature approach to column-writing…
One of my prized pieces of NYC memorabilia is campaign sticker from Norman Mailer/Jimmy Breslin's 1969 election run. pic.twitter.com/l2hZAWUCtV
— Jeremy Olshan (@jolshan) March 20, 2017
I was thirteen that summer, and my mom (who was a big Norman Mailer fan, for all the worst reasons) actually worked on that brief campaign. Which meant that *I* had to stay home and baby-sit my four-year-old siblings on the afternoon both Breslin and Mailer showed up at the Bronx office for a grip’n’grin, and she got to shake hands with her idol. It puzzled her that Mr. Mailer didn’t seem to be taking his campaign very seriously, because she just knew that making NYC the fifty-first state was both righteous and doable. It outraged her that ‘Jimmy’ not only didn’t seem to be taking it seriously, he didn’t seem to be giving his ‘superior’ his due, either…
My friend George, who handles tables at the Copacabana night club, probably had it right all along. One night in May, when I was trying to cut down on the wrangling at home, I told my wife I’d take her to see Tom Jones, the Welsh singer who was playing the Copa. I had a table for the midnight show. But at 11 I was still in this rattrap Reform Democratic-clubhouse one flight up from Amsterdam Avenue someplace, and I was telling everybody about my personal brilliance and great ability to save the city from doom. I was talking about myself so much that there was going to be no Copa that night. My wife, mad as hell, left the room and went downstairs to a phone booth and called George at the Copa to cancel the table.
“Mrs. Breslin,” George said, “tell your husband to stop being a politician and come back and be a playboy. It’s more fun.”
Which it is. After Norman Mailer and I finished seven weeks of a mayoralty campaign adjudged unlikely, I still came away nervous and depressed by what I had seen of my city. I saw a sprawling, disjointed place which did not understand itself and was decaying physically and spiritually, decaying with these terrible little fires of rage flickering in the decay. Rage which, with heat and humidity and crowding and misery and misunderstanding and misused or misunderstood authority, could turn the city into a horror on any night soon. On top of the city was an almost unworkable form of government and a set of casually unknowing, unfeeling, uncaring men and institutions. The absence of communications in a city which is the communications center of the world is so bad that you are almost forced to believe the condition of the city is terminal. There is an awesome, incredible pool of talent and caring and humor in the people on the streets in the city. It is true: the New Yorker talks a little faster and walks a little faster and thinks a little faster than people in any other city in the world. The chances for survival and greatness should be very good. But I saw nothing in the city of New York which told me this pool of ability either has been recognized or is being directed. I saw nothing which really told me that the city will not be a charred, stagnant place with a night-time population of 4 million or so some very few short years from now….
At the bar one night a couple of weeks after the primary, I looked up from a drink and saw my face and Norman’s face floating across the screen on the NBC First Tuesday show. It is a network thing, and they did a 20-minute look at our campaign. The show reinforced my opinion that Norman and I had some of the most terrific lows in the history of anything that ever took place in this city. And, perhaps, a couple of highs that could be recognized as time passes a bit. Like maybe colleges for years will be using the things Norman Mailer was saying out in the streets…
Breslin on Trump and the media…in 1990. Every Trump thing that happened in 2016 was written about long before. https://t.co/5pQalELkEG pic.twitter.com/CCnSApxoGl
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) March 20, 2017
Can you imagine a media outlet hiring someone like Breslin to be a reporter today? Not gonna happen. My dad’s sister married a man who went to work at age 12 as an office boy at a mortgage title co. He later ended up running the title co. Time changes everything and not always for the better.
This will not happen again. A kid can’t even get in the city room door (in the few places where there are still city rooms) without at least a bachelor’s degree. No experience at a small town weekly, no experience of the real world, but gotta’ have that piece of paper.
It’s sad. It really is. Some of our greatest journalists and writers gained their skills by chasing ambulances, monitoring the police scanner, and writing obits.
With Breslin gone, his kind of journalism mostly goes with him.
Now, It’s All the
NewsPundtwitry That’s Fit to Print.
One of my dad’s younger brothers went to law school on the GI bill without ever having attended college. Passed the bar and had a nice, very successful, very lucrative practice.
On my mom’s side, her two oldest brothers never finished high school. One became leading salesman and eventually sales manager for an upscale furniture company and got rich. The other sold furniture and had a nice middle class lifestyle, sent his son to MIT for two degrees.
Never really read Breslin much. Maybe it’s the time, or the different coasts. But he wrote from himself, not above or beneath himself, if that makes any sense. He understood his life, at least better than most of us do ours and he seemed to be OK with it, which many are not.
He understood most ordinary Noo Yawkuh’s lives, which is what made his writing so compelling. He never talked down, he never patronized, but he also didn’t elevate ordinary people into sainthood.
I would love love love to have seen his take on the dumber than shit Shitgibbon voters that the Villagers keep telling us about.
Molly Ivins makes two.
That’s a great story about your mom, AL.
In other news, Cosmo is keeping it real:
Wow. And let’s have more of this!
Like she knows or cares.
@efgoldman: Of course she doesn’t. That’s part of the point of the article. I particularly liked:
Yep. Nice to see a major publication say it. Teen Vogue and now Cosmo. They know what’s going on.
A la LBJ….when you’ve lost the Wall Street Journal, you are in deep shit.
Also too, can someone tell me how many weekends Trump has spent at Mar A Lago since January 20th? I know the good citizens of Palm Beach are getting tired of it.
I read Mailer’s contemporaneous book. I remember thinking Breslin should have written it. Whatever else was true, it had to be one of the funniest campaigns of all time.
Both Cosmo and the Wall Street Journal are being shrill!
Adam L Silverman
@Yarrow: I still can’t figure out how this doesn’t violate the Anti-Deficiency Act. Emphasis by me.
@Adam L Silverman:
Yeah, Evil Leprechaun’s DOJ and the congressional majorities will get right on that….
ETA: Right after they tackle all the cabinet appointees who perjured themselves before the committees, and make sure to replace fired US Attorney Bahara in New York with somebody who’s going to follow up Price’s insider trading case.
Don’t hold your breath; your doggies won’t like it.
This is from our time of growing up. There weren’t so many college graduates at the time, and people could eke out a living without a degree. Colleges weren’t profit centers and huge endowment sinks. But as more people got successful it of course got more difficult to enter business, especially by the side door. And a lot of those successful people of our generation didn’t have to look forward to only a life of only sweat and backbreaking toil. The industrial revolution had started to take off, helped by WWII a bit and just by being the right place and time. This changed work by huge amounts. Prior to this not much changed in a normal lifetime. But the 19th century was huge in this regard. My grandparents and my infant father moved from Kansas City to LA in 1918 in a horse drawn wagon, which was quite normal. In his lifetime grandad got to see men on the moon. The world had never changed that rapidly before. Now think what life was like in 1969 and what it’s like today. For some people this much change in one life is not just difficult, it’s scary. Add in those changes in education and what business expect and I can understand why some want to go back to a time that they think they understand. That they can’t go back because the world doesn’t work that way is a huge problem for them. Add in racism, the republican southern strategy and stir. What you see is what we got. Notice that in a lot of places in the world there is no southern strategy but there is still the movement towards backwards, toward conservatism.
@Adam L Silverman: Rules and laws are for the little people. That’s how it doesn’t violate it.
Tongue so firmly in cheek as to protrude from the vulgar bodily orifice, to quote a different wordsmith (R.A. Lafferty).
My late mother, bless her addled heart, had no sense of humor whatever. You had to tell her a joke was coming, tell the joke, and explain why the joke was funny before she knew to laugh.
My sister and I joke that our sense of humor is x-chromosome linked, and we’re lucky to have inherited it from our old man. Because all four of our brothers have the same earnest inability to understand humor that isn’t labelled in a big legible font…
@Ruckus: Thank you for this. This is one of the best explanations of why people voted for trump. It also explains why no amount of “outreach” to these folks would have done any good.
@danielx: All of them Katie.
I loved Breslin. He didn’t write “about” topics. He gunned them down, lucidly and with malice.
A friend of mine’s mom was like that. A group of us used to go hunting and sit around a fire in the evening telling stories and jokes then sleep in tents. Almost without fail 2 to 4 hours after the fire we’d hear her laugh as we were all trying to sleep. Nicest, kindest woman I think I’ve ever known, but while her sense of humor wasn’t dialed to zero it was damn close.
Never a problem in my family, although pop’s sense of humor was so dry it was desiccated. I can still remember being 8, 9, somewhere in there, and asking “what did Pavlov’s dogs do?” My dad, without missing a beat or cracking a smile, said “they ate a lot”. I didn’t get it at the time and felt bad about it, because my older sister and mom were practically rolling on the floor.
@lollipopguild: Jinx, you owe me a hetap.
I think it might have something to do with growing up in the depression. It was hard to see humor in those years. Although legend has it that my dad was a regular purchaser of Cap’n Billy’s Whiz Bang, which he had to hide from his parents, as I did, Mad magazine at first.
Somehow, I learned to look at the world sideways; mrs efg is the same. Daughter also, and granddaughter is showing definite signs of wise assery at 3.5.
Hilarious. Yet more Republican voter fraud. This time, a state GOP chairman. It’s just the way they roll.
@Adam L Silverman: “When the President does it, it’s not illegal.”
Fucking cheat and a coward.
As we age, and get past a certain stage in life (and I’m at least on the landing to that stage) there just isn’t as much future as there is past. And in a lot of ways that future is more uncertain than any teenage years. So, many people look back and think of that as a better time, even though for many it really wasn’t better and maybe just plain sucked. But that movie of life in our heads is almost always a rosy picture, because we forget the painful crap.
And life today is better in many ways. Yes wages haven’t kept up, many are not doing all that well, the middle class seems to have been decimated and aiming high takes a lot more than it used to. And yet it is easier. How many of us have to do backbreaking labor any more? I still work in the same line of work that I started in over 50 yrs ago, it’s manual labor, but it isn’t backbreaking, like digging ditches or hand pouring concrete. It is physical work, one does get tired for sure but it takes decades to wear out the body. And that happens anyway. If you want to see the difference, look up pictures of the building of Hoover Dam and then look for vids of modern heavy construction.
Molly Ivins makes two.
Russell Baker makes three, though few remember him now.
His memoirs are startlingly clear; most political writing since reads like the emanations of a fog machine by comparison.
my dad was a regular purchaser of Cap’n Billy’s Whiz Bang
Probably re-buckled his knickerbockers below the knee the minute he left the house, and used certain words: words like “swell”, and “so’s your old man”.
I never read him much, because we weren’t a NYT household, although I certainly knew of him.
I think I remember him as a semi-regular panelist on one of the PBS talking heads shows.
ETA: And Art Buchwald, who’s synidcated column appeared in the Boston Globe, makes four, although he was much less biting than Breslin or Ivins.
He was born in 1915, after all.
@joel hanes: trying out Bevo, trying out cubebs, covering up tell-tale breath with Sensen
Ah. Well then, about ten years too young to be in the cohort depicted.
Okay, who is the lowest form of media life who’ll pretend they’re Breslin’s heir?
Slightly on the subject of starting at the bottom & working forward, I found on my FB page. It is an easy way to contact your fed rep & senator. You text to 50409 and enter ‘resist’. Follow the prompts and a group of volunteers turn your text into a formal letter & fax it. They have sent over 10,000 in a week or so. They just set this up. This sort of thing, if it goes well, is another way people start out with not much more than their phones, and make a wave in a movement.
He hasn’t had a writing gig for almost 20 years. I think he THOUGHT he was Breslin’s – and Mike Royko’s – heir, but neither of them got fired from a major daily for plagiarism. I understand he bloviates on the teevee from time to time, and has a radio show, but he couldn’t carry Breslin’s wastebasket – except to take out Breslin’s throwaways and steal them.
On entry #38 I was trying to put in the URL https://resistbot.io. I hope this makes more sense now.?
@efgoldman: I too remember his being scraped off the Globe’s hull. A never was who thinks he’s a has-been.
Very strange times at the Globe. Two columnists (the other was Patricia Smith) canned in the same year for plagiarism and/or making up stories and sources.
KS in MA
@joel hanes: Big Russell Baker fan here … he got me through the 60s and 70s, bless him. He would be so all over this. And how about Anthony Lewis? Just pining for the golden age of yore (though in this case it actually existed).
Barnicle doesn’t need the writing money, he married a top-rank Bank of America officer (Anne Finucane). Yapping on the radio with Howie Carr keeps his hands busy, and the occasional Morning Joe or Hardball gig provides cash for those hobbies which Anne might not approve.
When he had his Boston Globe gig, back when I first moved out here, I considered Barnicle entertaining enough for read-and-dispose purposes. He obviously didn’t intend to work very hard, even in those days.
Someone could probably write a thesis about Barnicle (and his ilk) failing to achieve Breslin/Royko/Ivins stature as an exemplar of the generational shift from ‘working class reporter polishing a voice on a gradual rise to national attention’ to ‘promising columnist gets sidetracked by moving into the cocktail-party demographic, by marriage or promotion.’ Being a smartmouth at Beacon Street parties is easier than actually tracking down ideas and turning them into stories, and much more highly compensated.
Yup – up to the point where you make up somebody else’s stories (Barnicle) or you make up stories and quotations from people who don’t exist (Smith).
ETA: You’d think somebody like Finucane would have better taste. Then again, Judge Nancy Gertner married Steve Mindich. He was kind of like Bannonazi without the nazi part.
That is someone I have not thought about in years. His memoir “Growing Up” was a terrific book…have to put that on the list to reread.
When it came to New York City, Breslin was the Weegee of words.
And Jack Germond makes it a foursome.
Me, I thought Patricia Smith got treated very badly. IIRC, she didn’t plagiarize; she was punished for ‘inventing’ a gay character in a column about the value of gay relationships. My impression at the time was that she got shitcanned by the corner-office suits because (a) euh, queers, and (b) they needed to noisily fire an African-American female columnist for make-believe ‘balance’ to keep the Howie Carr listeners from setting fire to the building after they canned Barnicle.
Hah! — just googled her, and she’s done well for herself: Fallen Journalist Finds Solace and Success in Poetry. The Grey Lady, of course, is too squeamish to mention that it wasn’t ‘inventing characters’ that first got Barnicle in trouble — it was ripping off big chunks of George Carlin without attribution.
No more of those guys left, either. A Speed Graphic is something you find in a museum or antique store.
@joel hanes: Oh, absolutely Russell Baker — I still have some of his books, too!
His was a much gentler voice than Breslin’s, though — the NYTimes felt secure publishing Baker, even if I suspect a lot of his anger sailed high over their square little heads…
Carr’s listeners for the most part weren’t Globe readers, although slagging it was one of Howie’s favorite easy subjects. They were the precursors of the shithead Tangerine Torquemada voters now, except if you’d suggested to their faces that they were Republiklowns, they’d have hit you upside the head.
Their newspaper of choice was the various iterations of the Record and Record American, until it went under, then they migrated to the Herald.
@efgoldman: And the 2012 Olympics. https://petapixel.com/2013/02/08/david-burnetts-speed-graphic-photos-of-the-london-2012-olympics/
But not in newsrooms any more. No more rushing film back to be developed, so the photo editor could choose a picture for the morning edition.
@efgoldman: Yeah, now it’s all emailed out and done in half the time. Pity that.
Yeah, I didn’t think they were gonna cancel their subscriptions, I thought they might actually set fire to the Globe building.
Never been a Carr listener — I intend to keep as many brain cells as I can functioning — but I do remember ‘news’ of him using THE SNOBBY N*****-LOVING GLOBE BASTIDS FIRED POOR MIKEY!!! as a topic to keep his mouthbreather base riled up for what seemed like months.
Years ago he was the afternoon guy on the same station (WRKO) as the Red Sox, so occasionally I’d get in the car in the afternoon, after a night game, and there he’d be.
I remember very little, but what I do remember was (1) He loved to slag state employees about their exorbitant (public information) salaried, which weren’t at all, of course, and (2) he also loved picking on them, especially the overweight ones or the less than attractive women, about their appearance.
I don’t expect his act has changed very much.
@Anne Laurie: Ehhh … I would propose TNC as a counter-argument.
@efgoldman: Royko was an early hero of mine. I read him religiously as a teenager (and a Daily News delivery boy!). Later on I would run into him in bars sometimes in the 70s. We even got thrown out of some of the same joints! (Not at the same time, mind you. But still.)
If you’re going to plagiarize, it’s a good idea to restrict yourself to obscure sources that don’t (or haven’t) appear(ed) in public all the time. I didn’t follow the Barnicle downfall, but ripping off Carlin seems like a really bad idea. The lesson (for cheaters): if you can’t be creative in your writing, at least be creative in your choice of people to steal from.
@John Revolta: The LA Times published Royko’s columns sometimes, starting in the 70s (I think) and he was a delight. I have a book by him, “Like I Was Sayin'”.
@TriassicSands: Not only that but he said he had never read the book. But that hadn’t stopped him from recommending it before being called out.
@KS in MA:
And how about Anthony Lewis?
A great one, IMHO — but a somewhat more elevated tone than Breslin or Russell Baker.
JosieJ (not Josie)
I loved Russell Baker. I’ll never forget his coinage of the term “sabbath gasbags” to describe the Sunday morning political shows; I use it to this day. I loved Breslin, too, but I always admired how Baker could slip the knife in so smoothly his targets often wouldn’t notice until too late. Breslin would straight up plunge the knife right into your heart!
As for today’s columnists, thanks to the Internet (and his hilarious novels), I’m a regular reader of Carl Hiaasen. As a kid growing up in Queens, it was hard to find out of town papers. The Internet has been a godsend!
@efgoldman: Until the1970s, most reporters and editors were high school graduates, if that. They started as copy boys (that of course as the name suggests, should take some of the shine off the nostalgia)was the negative, 90% of newspaper staffs were male). College was the way women like Nora Ephron got into the business (with the NY Post, not the Herald Tribune). One of the explosions of talent that were the 1960s were the writers of the New Journalism like Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Gail Sheehy, Gay Talese, etc. For these people, as Ephron said, “Everything is copy.”