In the Writers’ Corner of the Newsroom With Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin in his 30s when he looked like a dark Irish cupid.

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.

Comments

  1. David Colton says:

    David Colton is the former executive editor of USA Today.

    The first breaking news story I ever covered was a massacre by a crazed Nazi-sympathizer in New Rochelle, N.Y., in February 1977. The gunman killed 5, then himself, surrounded by 300 cops at a moving company near the New England Thruway.

    Working for a tiny weekly newspaper in Pelham, I was among a handful of local reporters standing behind the police line in the cold. The big New York City media wasn’t there yet.

    Suddenly a rumpled and grizzled figure came up to us. Jimmy Breslin. Incredibly, he asked me, a neophyte reporter, “So what’s the situation here?”

    I felt validated that he had come up to me (!), even though I had little to say except “The guy’s still in the building.” I pointed, “The cops have a command post over there.” Off he toddled, scarf and raincoat and all.

    I never saw Breslin again that day.

    The next morning, picking up the Daily News, I saw that Breslin’s column wasn’t from New Rochelle. While everyone else wrote the same police account from the scene, he had tracked down the relatives of one of the victims in Queens, and wrote about how tragedy had once again visited the block where the victim’s family lived.

    It was quite a column and quite a journalistic lesson. Breslin knew that the best stories weren’t at the press conferences or briefings but out in the streets and bars and neighborhoods where real people lived and struggled.

    Those were the stories Breslin did best. He was everything a reporter should be.

    Breslin had a wild and crazy career, winning a Pulitzer and losing a crazy run with Norman Mailer for mayor and city council president in 1969.

    But every time I see reporters standing in front of a microphone at some news event waiting for the briefing to start I think, “That’s not where Jimmy Breslin would be.”

  2. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Dear Jack,

    David Colton nails what New Journalism was truly all about.

    Breslin was the life’s blood of New Journalism, and for exactly the reasons Colton illuminates.

    If Jimmy was doing the story of his death, he’d be doing it about how his passing makes people feel.

    For some strange reason, Jimmy, it brought tears to my eyes.

    Barney

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