Jimmy Breslin—A Thousand Guys
I got a good break in 1962. I worked for a suburban Philadelphia newspaper and had covered the PGA golf tournament at Aronimink Golf Club outside of Philly. My soon-to-be wife was a stewardess for United Airlines, and I sent her the clips, which she chanced to show to a fellow she met on a flight, who chanced to be the sports editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, who promptly invited me out to audition for a job at his paper. I covered the American Golf Classic at Firestone Country Club. I apparently passed muster and was offered a job for 50 percent more than I was making in Pennsylvania. I accepted until I got home and my paper not only matched the money but also gave me another offer no young newspaper guy could refuse—my own daily column.
Shortly after I began the column, another reporter at the paper, Don Murdaugh, who spent his last years as a deskman at the Sun-Sentinel, dropped a paper on my coffee-stained desk and said, “This is how it’s done.” The paper was the New York Herald Tribune, of which I was only vaguely aware, and he wanted me to read Jimmy Breslin. From that day, until the day Jimmy Breslin passed away, which was Sunday—the feast of St. Joseph—I have appreciated Don Murdaugh’s advice.
Breslin used to joke that after he became famous—just about the time Don Murdaugh discovered him for me—papers around the country hired columnists with Irish names to imitate his style. It was hard not to, like a high school sophomore first discovering Ernest Hemingway or J.D. Salinger, but I tried not to slavishly mimic his words. What I did do, with mild success, was take advice I did not hear from his lips until years later. Breslin took justified pride in inventing the “news column” in which the writer follows the day’s big story, and takes a fiction writer’s liberties, including personal opinion, in bringing it to the gut of the reader.
“What you do is follow the news, interview real people, and you use real quotes,” he told me around 1987. “It begins with shoe leather. You can’t miss. Nobody does it.”
Breslin did it several times a week, and many of his pieces that were written on deadline could win prizes as short stories. They were complete with symbols and original phrases. He described the Asian invasion of New York: “Korean Airlines is flying in with planes so crowded people are sitting everywhere but on the wings.” On the Kennedys: “No drawing room pallor these Irish, truck driver red in their faces.”
He was funny, and half his words in private were not fit for a family newspaper, although he always cleaned up his language in his many TV appearances. He never tried to change his rich, vulgar everyman style. In fact, he cultivated it, although he sprinkled his conversation with words like “canard," which not too many bar characters use on a regular basis.
His range was immense. Covering the Vietnam War in the mid-60s, one day he would make your eyes glisten with descriptions of the body bags lined up at an airport for shipment home, and the next he’d describe 16 jockeys all trying to throw a race by turning their horses around in the home stretch. I can't find the exact quote, but he wrote that of all the qualities the Vietnamese have shown during their long ordeal, perhaps the most salient and least recognized was that they were “the greatest thieves who ever lived” and “the wust fightin’ in the Tet Offensive was around the Saigon race track—the Viet Cong were all disgruntled bettas.”
I got to know him a bit after a story that began with Gold Coast magazine wound up as one of Breslin’s biggest scores. In the mid-70s I wrote about a con man named Michael Raymond who was suspected in the disappearances of three people in South Florida. One of them was Adelaide Stiles, a newspaperwoman who had been romanced by Raymond. She was a friend of our associate editor, Margaret Walker. Gaeton Fonzi, our Gold Coast partner who is becoming famous as a man who revealed the truth about the Kennedy assassination, was already known for his investigative reporting. He got interested in the Stiles case in the early 1980s. Fonzi had become friendly with Doug Haas, a Fort Lauderdale detective familiar with Raymond’s background. Haas had information that Raymond may have killed more than a dozen people, but that he managed to stay out of jail by being an FBI informant.
Together, Fonzi and Haas discovered that Raymond had gotten out of prison at the request of the FBI. They further learned that he was being used in a sting operation in Chicago. The Justice Department was trying to nail major politicians suspected of taking bribes from people who got contracts for collecting parking tickets, a lucrative business. Justice thought Fonzi knew a lot more than he did, and to protect agents working the case, offered him the whole story if he would hold it for a few months. Fonzi eventually broke the story in the Chicago Tribune and Miami Magazine. By then, Fonzi had learned that Raymond might have been working with the Feds on a similar sting in New York.
He took the story to Gil Spencer, editor of the New York Daily News, whom Fonzi had known from our days in Philadelphia. Spencer ran with the story, and Jimmy Breslin, at the time working for the Daily News, jumped all over it. In short order a major New York political figure, Donald Manes, borough mayor of Queens, committed suicide. He had been deeply involved in bribery. Others went to jail. In his 1996 book, I Want To Thank My Brain For Remembering Me, Breslin called the episode the biggest scandal during his long New York writing career.
A few years later, I followed Breslin around his old neighborhood of Queens, New York, for a piece for Avenue magazine in Manhattan. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize and published a highly acclaimed novel, Table Money. We met outside his apartment in Central Park West. He came out half dressed, carrying his suit jacket, unbuttoned shirt hanging out and tie dangling over his shoulder. He introduced me to his wife, who was leaning out a window a few stories up. He was a gracious host, inviting me to spend time at the Daily News. He was writing a book on Damon Runyon and showed me a book written “by the guy I’m stealing from.” Breslin constantly threw away entertaining lines. I expected to see them in print the next day, but there was only one that showed up later in a book. He described working politically with Geraldine Ferraro, who ran for vice president. Her husband had gotten some bad ink, and when Breslin asked him if this would be a problem for the campaign, the husband assured him it would not be.
“I didn’t know he was talkin’ about the statue of limitations,” Breslin said.
I noticed at the time that Breslin, although he had a reputation as a hard drinker, took nothing stronger than a Coke. The bartender at Costello’s on 44th Street, at the time a Daily News hangout, joked with him about it. Much later I learned that Breslin had stopped the booze, and did not drink for the last 30 years of his 88-year life.
Breslin often pretended to not like his family. He described his first wife who died at age 50: "she uses knives." In reality, as anyone who knew him saw, he was devoted to his family of six kids. His own father had abandoned his family when Breslin was 6 years old. He had his son Christopher, at the time a college student, with him on one of our trips to Queens, and in his office he seemed to be on the phone with one of his children every five minutes. One of his great columns was about the death of his daughter Rosemary, a distinguished writer herself, in 2004. At the moment she took her last breath, Breslin imagined his late wife sitting by the bedside, as Rosemary had sat by her mother years before. "The mother took her hand, and walked her away, as if to the first day of school."
Jimmy Breslin knew that his parking collections story had begun with Gaeton Fonzi in Florida. I spoke to him occasionally over the years, and he always began the conversation the same way: “Boinie, how’s Fonzi?” He came to Florida a few times and Fonzi, Doug Haas and I had lunch with him. It had something to do with the ongoing saga of Michael Raymond, the murderous con man, who was to die in jail after finally being convicted of murdering a bank teller who was about the testify against him in a New York embezzlement case. It was then that one of Breslin’s many intellectual gifts became manifest. The man could hold several conversations with different people on different subjects, bouncing back and forth, and seemed to remain in command of each subject.
“He was a complex guy,” Doug Haas said Sunday after learning of Breslin’s death. Fonzi, no longer with us, phrased it differently at the time. “He’s a thousand guys.”
I knew where Fonzi got that line. He stole it from a Philadelphia civil rights leader who was only in it for the money and wound up in jail. Jimmy Breslin, who got famous remembering other people’s quotes, would appreciate a good thief.