A genius gone
“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
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