By Barnard Law Collier
In a crowded corner of the New York Herald Tribune newsroom in the early 1960s stood a cluster of cigarette-burned desks and beat-up typewriters for Tom Wolfe, Walter Kerr, Jimmy Breslin, Gail Green, Hunter Thompson, and me.
Most of the time the writers’ corner was empty because it was when Trib reporters were expected to be out and about in the metropolis.
It is the emptiness of the writers’ corner that I remember most, because the times I sat at my desk was usually very late at night when quietness was what I craved.
Kerr was out in less than an hour after a new play to catch a train to the burbs. Wolfe happened into the space now and again with his white sleeves rolled up, ideas like the water in a fire-hose spewing from his intellect. Green was the city’s best known restaurant and food critic. The last place she liked to be was at her desk. Hunter Thompson visited his desk perhaps once a month, for six minutes, and disappeared.
And then there was Jimmy Breslin.
He was called the black Irishman, as earthy as peat, husky, ham-handed, hairy, with dark eyes that blazed as bright as coal burning in a furnace.
I was never sure that there wasn’t a bit of a bully in him because he liked to fill up a room with his theatrical being. So, when he came into a small corner, he took up a lot of space.
He spent a lot of his time with folks that a lot of people thought were tough bad guys, but Jimmy Breslin looked at them and portrayed them as funny and tragic humans, at which some of the tough guys took umbrage. Jimmy learned the dangerous power of words by getting the shit kicked out of him by a few mobsters he truthfully depicted in print.
There is a difference between guys who are not afraid of toughness and guys that are tough. Jimmy knew when he was playing with fire but he was drawn to the flame of the crazies, the rebels, and the outlaws. He loved stories, especially front page stories, where people got their just desserts.
He’d sometimes rock back in his chair and in a New York accent tell a story about a character he’d encountered, or a nasty political situation he smelled developing, or express his true admiration for Norman Mailer for saying what he wanted to say better than he could say it.
I never asked him what he read or what writers besides Mailer he was drawn to, but there was no doubt when you listened to him spin a yarn that some very good poets and story tellers were on his bookshelf.
I left the writers’ corner to explore South America and never saw him again. Jimmy went on to earn a boatload of kudos and kept on writing until on March 19, 2017, he died.
One memory about Jimmy Breslin:
Behind the eyebrows, under the guile and gruffness, he truly hurt for the people of the villages when the elephants fight. He wrote about the elephants and the people, and he wrote from his heart.