A ge­nius gone

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - John Brum­mett John Brum­mett, whose col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette, was in­ducted into the Arkansas Writ­ers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrum­mett@ arkansason­line.com. Read his @john­brum­mett Twit­ter feed.

“It’s like 30 peo­ple left the room.”— Writer Pete Hamill, on learn­ing Sun­day that Jimmy Bres­lin had died.

Igot a call in early 1992 at the lit­tle weekly Arkansas Times from a shout­ing man iden­ti­fy­ing him­self as Jimmy Bres­lin, per­haps the most leg­endary Amer­i­can news­pa­per colum­nist ever.

He said he’d read and liked a col­umn I’d writ­ten about Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial front-run­ner Bill Clin­ton. He wanted to talk about Clin­ton leav­ing the cam­paign trail to at­tend to the ex­e­cu­tion of a large brain-dam­aged black man.

Rickey Ray Rec­tor had saved the dessert of his last meal to eat for a later time that wouldn’t come. His killing had been a groan­ing mess of mis­fired in­jec­tions.

Im­plau­si­bly, Bres­lin and I got along all right. We talked a few more times on the phone. He ended up invit­ing me to be his house­guest dur­ing the

New York pri­mary in April.

When my taxi pulled up in front of his town­house at

75th and Cen­tral Park West, di­rectly across from Tav­ern on the Green, Bres­lin was stand­ing on the side­walk in a trench coat, await­ing my tardy ar­rival be­fore he made his daily out­ing to pur­sue a col­umn sub­ject. He had to see what he wrote.

See­ing me, he sized up thusly: “You look all right for a hill­billy.”

That night he and his wife—New York Coun­cil­woman Ron­nie Eldridge—took me to Green­wich Vil­lage for a preview of a play Bres­lin’s son had writ­ten.

It starred Ta­tum O’Neal, who had to be prompted on sev­eral of her lines, dis­pleas­ing Jimmy, who, dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion, was loud, which is re­dun­dant, in ex­press­ing his dis­plea­sure over her poor prepa­ra­tion.

He asked me where I wanted to go for din­ner Satur­day night. I said Sparks Steak House, site of the John Got­tiordered mob hit. Jimmy, who chron­i­cled wise guys and wrote The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, said all

right.

He, Ron­nie and I took a taxi. Ron­nie and I were walk­ing into the restau­rant when we re­al­ized Jimmy wasn’t with us. We looked back. He was ly­ing on his back, splayed, in the street at the edge of the curb.

When he saw that we’d spot­ted him, he shouted, again re­dun­dant, “It was right here, just like this,” meaning the mob hit.

Inside Pete Hamill joined us for din­ner. So did Lee Grant, the ac­tress. Bres­lin said he’d in­vited Nor­man Mailer, who couldn’t make it.

The day be­fore I was to leave town, Bres­lin was in his pa­ja­mas and on the phone in his town­house and say­ing, “I’ve got the guy in my house right now who knows Bill Clin­ton bet­ter than any­body” and “hell, yeah, he can write.”

He hung up and told me to go to an ad­dress on Fifth Av­enue to meet a hot young lit­er­ary agent. I said, oh, hell, I don’t have any idea for a book. And Bres­lin said, “You know Bill Clin­ton and he’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be the next pres­i­dent. You don’t have to have an idea.”

So I went. I told the agent I had no am­bi­tion to write a book and no idea for one. “You’ve got a hell of a con­nec­tion and a hell of a ref­er­ence,” he said.

I got a book con­tract out of it to write about Clin­ton’s first year as pres­i­dent, which Bob Wood­ward did first and with much more inside in­for­ma­tion. Know­ing the pres­i­dent was less an ad­van­tage than know­ing the Wash­ing­ton cul­ture that the new pres­i­dent found be­dev­il­ing.

It’s the same to­day: Know­ing Don­ald Trump would be less an ad­van­tage than know­ing the peo­ple leak­ing.

I would hear from Bres­lin by phone from time to time, in­clud­ing the morn­ing in July 1993 when he read that Vince Fos­ter had been found dead in Fort Marcy Park from an ap­par­ently self-in­flicted gun­shot wound.

“Get to the scene be­fore the cops screw it up,” Bres­lin said in a call to me in Wash­ing­ton. “This is your book. That’s un­less you’ve got a brunch to go to.”

I went nei­ther to the crime scene nor a brunch.

I should have gone to the crime scene—to see it, smell it, recre­ate it, to imag­ine Fos­ter ar­riv­ing there the af­ter­noon be­fore.

That was Bres­lin’s ge­nius. When the re­port­ing herd went that way, he went the other way. Why see and write what ev­ery­one else sees and writes?

—————— B reslin died Sun­day at 88 from pneu­mo­nia. Obituaries cited his street-wise re­port­ing, the “rage” he said fu­eled any good colum­nist, his cor­re­spon­dence from Son of Sam and his fa­mous col­umn about the man who dug JFK’s grave at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery.

They said he was maybe the great­est Amer­i­can news­pa­per colum­nist ever, or tabloid colum­nist, if you pre­fer, and per­haps the great­est chron­i­cler of the Amer­i­can 20th cen­tury. I sus­pect he was all of that. What I know from brief but pow­er­ful ex­po­sure is that he was gruff and gen­er­ous, lov­able and iras­ci­ble, abra­sive and soft, in a way I’d never en­coun­tered and am sure I never will again.

Jimmy Bres­lin, 1977

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