Jimmy Breslin: Master of old media (photo: David Shankbone CC BY SA 3.0)
It was striking to see how frail the legendary New York City newspaperman Jimmy Breslin appeared in a recent television interview. He turned 85 in October, and with each passing tribute, awards banquet, reunion and interview, it is more apparent that his irascible personality is on a slow gurney ride into the “relic” section of the giant mortuary housing the remains of the non-digital newspaper business. They just don’t make them like Jimmy any more.
Many of Breslin’s peers, from the early days of New Journalism, usually hard-drinking white males, are already in the grave. His cryptic yet elegant sign-off was simply “Thanks for the use of the hall”, which resonates with anyone who grew up reading Breslin’s work. His groundbreaking John F. Kennedy funeral coverage involved the brilliant ploy of seeking out and interviewing the deceased president’s gravedigger, detailing what the working man from Pittsburgh had for breakfast and how he felt about his job.
Breslin also starred as an inadvertent pen pal in the “Son of Sam” murder case, which menaced 1970s New York, making his columns “must-read” material for an entire summer. In his 65 years of meeting deadlines, Breslin also found the two cops who drove a dying John Lennon to Roosevelt Hospital, and routinely had church officials, mayors, governors and city bureaucrats feeling the sting of his words.
There is an end-of-an-era sadness in saying goodbye to talents like Breslin and his infallible work ethic. Newspapers are closing all around us, or having their staffs downsized to three interns with Twitter accounts. Amid this industry torpor, Breslin seems quiet now in his apartment high above Central Park West, away from the vast and dusty corners of Queens where he often used to wear out shoe leather climbing tenement stairs. He was out there meeting common people and writing the story of their struggles for the next morning’s tabloid. Sleeves were rolled up, neckties were loosened (but always worn).
Health issues have bothered him since August 1991 when he was assaulted by a rioting teenage mob in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, while the car service he was using to get to the scene was halted in traffic. He ran for Mayor once as a kind of publicity stunt, and he tried his hand at television with a late-night show on ABC in the mid-1980s, hosted from an ersatz newspaperman’s desk. One well-coiffed host asked Breslin about the rise of Brooklyn-born boxer Mike Tyson, who was obliterating opponents with uncanny ease at the time. Breslin shirked the sports achievement angle and pointed out Tyson’s self-confessed criminal background. Breslin said he was glad the old women carrying their groceries out on Atlantic Avenue were much safer now that Tyson was a famous boxer instead of the local teenager who would follow them into their public housing elevators, punch them and steal their handbags.
In September 2006, the New York Times sent a reporter to cover a reunion of the remaining New York Herald Tribune staff. The best quotes of course came from Breslin: “I gotta say the atmosphere was delightful,” he said of his big break at the Herald Tribune. “At least you got a smile back then. These jerks today, they don’t have one thing in ’em to make you smile.”
Which online content provider will interview Breslin’s gravedigger, and which hashtag will they use for their award-winning 140-character tweet?