He's long been one of New York's most prominent columnists. It's hard to imagine a more iconic voice of the city than that of New York-born and bred Jimmy Breslin. NY1’s Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1.
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Spending a day with Jimmy Breslin is like watching his column come to life. He's direct and opinionated on any number of topics. Such as being a good columnist:
“You shouldn't be comfortable unless everybody is against you. Then you know you're right,” he says.
And on his 1986 Pulitzer Prize:
"I don't need some college to validate my life and what I’m doing with a certificate. To hell with them!” says Breslin.
And the war:
"If we lost as many cops as they lose in one week in Iraq — can you imagine eight cops killed here in one week? There'd be a riot,” he says.
Breslin is back writing columns for Newsday, on topics including Iraq and the 2008 presidential election.
But for much of the summer he was asked about the 30th anniversary of the Son of Sam murders, when Breslin famously received a letter from the killer, David Berkowitz.
But use a column to write about the past?
"It isn't news. If it's dead, it's dead. Let's go on to the next. Get something to tell people to look out what’s going on in their lives. They don't cover this war. They haven't covered this war since it started. But they cover the funerals from 30 years ago,” says Breslin.
Long ago, Breslin came out of the sports department, where the old adage is that the more compelling story is almost always in the losers’ locker room.
He used a form of that when he started writing a column, going where the others weren't. One of the most famous examples: On the day of President John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963, Breslin interviewed and wrote about the gravedigger.
"When it was over, he smoothed the dirt around the grave, and he looked at it and said, ÎIt's an honor to have done this," and that was the day,” says Breslin. “But it was the only story about anything that wasn't just tears and measured strides that followed the casket, with the horsemen and all of the junk."
Breslin is also the author of 18 books. The latest is “The Good Rat,” a lifetime of anecdotes about the world of gangsters.
His most personal work is perhaps his 1997 memoir about his own brain surgery, "I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me."
Ever the reporter, Breslin says he sat in on 25 other operations for his research.
"They saw through the skull, and with a whine. Wow!” recalls Breslin. "They got the guys head uncovered, all broken down. There’s the brain, and they pick on it like you pick on a freakin’ turkey dinner or something."
Breslin has put himself at risk to write some of his columns.
In Vietnam, in the south, even getting assaulted and robbed during Crown Heights in 1991. He says the key in those situations is the need to remember everything so that you can write it.
"It’s a great buffer against immediate fear or nervousness,” says Breslin. “But the next day you collapse. How the hell did I do that? I ought to be nuts.”
How important is good writing to Breslin? Prominent in his hallway is a family heirloom, some original writings by the Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats.
"It’s simple and it’s good. It's good, you remember it when you read it. It’s very good. Its Yeats, it's the best. You're not going to get any better than that?" says Breslin.
He grew up in the Richmond Hill/South Ozone Park section of Queens. His father left when Breslin was young.
Generations of New York politicians and fat cats would have been happy if he'd pursued one of his earliest loves, the trumpet.
But Breslin fell in love with newspapers, specifically a baseball roundup column that he thought was written on the road.
"The dateline: Boston. The next day would be Chicago, and I’d sit and I’d dream. Jeez, riding a Pullman car from Boston out to Chicago,” recalls Brisling. “Just what a life, and then you cover the game, and write it. The greatest thing.”
Early on at the Long Island Press, Breslin wrote obituaries.
There were some growing pains, like one obit that confused the deceased with the man tending to the deceased.
“Eddie Gottlieb was the editor of the paper. He called over in the morning and said, ÎCongratulations, young Breslin. You're a professional newspaper person. You've buried the undertaker,’” recalls Breslin.
He went on to work at the Journal American, The Herald Tribune, The post, The News and Newsday. He’s a newspaper lifer.
But in 1969, fellow writer Norman Mailer ran for mayor and Breslin joined the ticket as a candidate for City Council president.
One of their ideas was to make New York City the 51st state.
"I had a book called ÎThe Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.’ It was doing huge and I could only help it. So I said, to hell! But Mailer got excited. He really wanted to do it."
Mailer and Breslin were soundly defeated.
Then, Breslin almost became a movie star. He was considered for the lead role, the Gene Hackman character, in “The French Connection.”
"But I had a novel at that time, ÎWorld Without End.’ Amen. That was my life's blood, and I, for anything, I didn't want to give it up,” says Breslin. “It was a bestseller, but even more important than that, it eased that uneasy feeling in my stomach about not doing it."
Through the years, his blunt style has occasionally gotten him in trouble. In 1990, Newsday suspended him. An Asian employee had sent an e mail in the office criticizing one of Breslin's columns about women. He reportedly responded in a profane way, using an ethnic slur.
But Breslin says he was taking a line out of one of his favorite books, “Lord Jim.”
“When you yell at someone, ÎYou yellow cur!’ You know that line? I used that, and they thought it was real. I can't help them. That's my answer. Can't they freaking read? That's my line. I use it all the time anyway. I love it.”
Breslin apologized, but the paper suspended him for what it termed his "lack of sensitivity" after talking about the apology on the radio.
He's been married to the former City Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge since 1982, after his first wife died in 1981.
He has five children. His daughter Rosemary died in 2004.
On the day of our interview, Breslin had just come from the funeral of a friend.
"I had a wife and daughter, both named Rosemary and both died the same way. And I don't wanna· I saw them both take their last breath, and I don't want to go anymore,” says Breslin. “That's all. Over."
But what's not over is his need to write, even at the hardest times. Always write.
“The one thing that's paramount at all times is do it. It's a job, just do it,” says Breslin. “Now, if I’m going to write and I had a wife die, yeah it bothers you, but write it. Do the work."
But does writing get any easier?
“No, it's still is hard! Never comes easy,” he says.
— Budd Mishkin