Fellow journalists joined Jimmy Breslin, above, to celebrate his 60 years as a newspaper reporter. ©NYU Photo Bureau: Creighton.
It was Pete Hamill’s idea.
Because he is a writer, Hamill knows it is important to recognize important work.
Because he is Irish, Hamill knows the best way to do this is to put a bunch of people in a room and make them tell stories.
Because it was for Jimmy Breslin, Hamill knew the only way to get Breslin there was to enlist the great Ronnie Eldridge, who just happens to be married to Breslin.
“Ronnie says she’ll get him here,” Hamill was saying, looking nervously at his watch, as we stood in New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House, a stately brick townhouse on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village.
Nobody believed him. Breslin leaves his Midtown apartment every day to go swimming. And you can occasionally get him out to lunch at Ralph’s on Ninth Avenue, around the corner from his apartment.
“I wish [Mike] Royko was still alive,” he told me at Ralph’s, the day it became known that the governor of Illinois was shopping Obama’s old Senate seat like it was a hot car stereo.
But getting Breslin out at night is hard. Getting him out to listen to a bunch of people tell him how swell he is should have been downright impossible. But Ronnie used to be president of the New York City Council so she can handle anything. And so, about a half hour late, Ronnie and Jimmy came walking in and two dozen of us burst into applause.
Breslin likes people to read him. He couldn’t care less if they like him. In fact, he’d rather you didn’t like him. That means he got to you.
But he couldn’t stop himself from smiling as he moved around the room and saw old friends, the ones who are still alive. There was Mike O’Neill, the former editor of the (New York) Daily News, who took Breslin’s calls in the middle of the night—a bad headline, a dropped word—with a rare equanimity.
Breslin hugged Mary Ann Giordano, one of his many protégés, now a deputy metropolitan editor at The New York Times. He did the same to Bella English, a reporter for The Boston Globe. He saw Carl Hiaasen, The Miami Herald columnist and author, and had one question: “Why the hell would you leave Florida in the middle of December?”
For you, Jimmy. For you.
And so Breslin waved his arm, dismissively, as if to say, “All you people are nuts.’’
All the nuts walked across Washington Square, under the arch, to an auditorium at New York University. There were 500 people in the auditorium. New Yorkers who read Breslin for any number of his 60 years in the newspaper business. (Breslin published his last regular column for Newsday in 2004 but he hasn’t stopped writing.)
There were 14 uncomfortable metal chairs on the stage, and a nice puffy easy chair to the right. Breslin was forced to sit in the nice puffy easy chair and he rolled his eyes.
People who know and love and sometimes were driven crazy by Breslin sat in the metal chairs and took turns going to a podium and saying how wonderful and maddening and indispensable Breslin has been to journalism and to the human condition. It was a cross between “This Is Your Life” and an Irish wake, the important difference being, of course, that the corpse was still warm and still pretty ornery.
Gail Collins, The New York Times columnist, remembered the day that Breslin and an editor named Sharon Rosenhause were screaming at each other in the Daily News newsroom. When Breslin won the Pulitzer for Commentary in 1986, he stood up in the newsroom and announced, “This award actually belongs to Sharon Rosenhause, but I’m not speaking to her.’’
Jim Dwyer , a columnist at the Times, read one of Breslin’s columns, filed from Alabama when segregation was the law of that land. Michael Daly, a columnist at the Daily News, recalled how Breslin took a taxi to cover the riots in Crown Heights in 1991. The taxi was torched, Breslin got beat up, and yet he wrote columns sympathetic to the people in that part of Brooklyn.
Dan Barry, another columnist at the Times, said that when he was growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, he would come down for breakfast and his father always greeted him the same way. Not “Good morning.” Not “I love you.” But “Read Breslin.” Barry didn’t really know Breslin but Breslin heard that Barry was about to start treatment for cancer so Breslin called him. Breslin’s first wife, Rosemary, died of cancer in 1981 and Breslin survived a bout of cancer and so Barry found himself walking across Manhattan one day, on the way to Sloan-Kettering, and there was Breslin walking beside him and Breslin wouldn’t shut up. When they got to the hospital, Breslin followed him inside and Barry thought Breslin was going to get on the gurney with him. Breslin told Barry to write about all this and he did.
“It wasn’t until later that I realized the gift Jimmy had given me that day,” Barry said. “He gave me the gift of distraction.”
Breslin gave the same gift to his readers. We went about our daily chores, thinking we had it tough, and Breslin would distract us, showing that somebody always had it worse, that life wasn’t fair and neither were many of those who had the power to change things.
“When Jimmy walked up to the fourth floor of a tenement, people didn’t have to explain to him what it was like to be poor in the richest city in the world,” Hamill said. “He knew. It was in his DNA.”
Hamill grasped Breslin’s genius.
“He wrote a column,” Hamill said. “Therefore he was entitled to engage in opinion. But the opinion was based on reporting. When he did express it, he had a knack for not saying it, and letting the reader say it, which was, again, based on the reporting.”
When all of the testimonials were over, a guy who like Breslin grew up in Queens, a guy who Jimmy Breslin knew as Anthony Benedetto from Astoria and who everybody else knows as Tony Bennett, walked on stage and sang some songs and Breslin tapped his foot.
Breslin got up and said that if there was a draft, we wouldn’t be fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as usual he’s probably right.
Then he sounded wistful. He referenced a bygone era, a Runyonesque lifestyle, when newspapermen peopled saloons and found stories and arguments and hangovers in equal measure.
“I’m not drinking,” he said. “If I was, we could go to the bar and I could tell you a lot of lies and I could almost be charming.”
When it was finished, the people, ordinary people, got out of their seats and swarmed Breslin.
It was late and I hugged Ronnie goodbye.
“Did you say goodbye to Jimmy?” she asked
I said no, that I didn’t want to bother him. He was surrounded by his favorite people, ordinary New Yorkers. She ordered me to go say goodbye.
The only thing Breslin and I have in common is that when Ronnie tells us to do something we do it.
So I walked over, waved and mouthed the words that I had to go. Breslin beckoned me closer and held his hand up to silence the people surrounding him and he asked a question, the question he always asks whenever he sees me or calls me on the phone, a question that for Breslin is like “ciao” because it can mean hello or goodbye.
“Hey,” Breslin said, “you workin’ on any good stories?”
Kevin Cullen, a 2003 Nieman Fellow, is a columnist for The Boston Globe.