By Jonathan Alter March 20, 2017
The death of Jimmy Breslin, pictured here in 1986, the same year he won a Pulitzer Prize, ends a storied era in American journalism. The death of Jimmy Breslin, pictured here in 1986, the same year he won a Pulitzer Prize, ends a storied era in American journalism.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL BRENNAN / GETTY
Jimmy Breslin’s first big break came when he was hired, in 1963, as a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune. There was a reason so many American newspapers were called Tribunes, after the Romans who represented the plebes. These newspapers, many now dead or much diminished, saw themselves as voices of the people, a concept that today sounds almost quaint. All over the country, shoe-leather columnists became local celebrities when they wrote with wit and empathy about ordinary people and savaged the powerful. At their best, they captured the soul of a particular city, helping to create an identity that digital journalism—with its global reach but clumsy local coverage—often cannot. When I was growing up in Chicago, my god was Mike Royko, who ended his career at the Chicago Tribune, but the most famous and influential was Breslin, whose death, on Sunday, ends a storied era in American journalism.
Jack Newfield described Breslin as “Charles Dickens disguised as Archie Bunker.” Mike Lupica said that “watching Jimmy write was like watching Willie Mays play baseball.” Between novels and other books, Breslin managed to crank out four or five columns a week, most memorably for the New York Daily News, a publication that still exists but is now painfully thin. His run extended through the second half of the twentieth century, from 1951, when he covered a drunk Senator Joe McCarthy arriving at LaGuardia Airport and knew he was a liar (because he lied about being on his way to attend mass, which had already occurred), to 2001, when he happened to be on Liberty Street in downtown Manhattan on September 11th, and wrote about running from the smoke, and about the firefighters who didn’t. In between, he brought his talent and ego to bear on nearly every big national and local story of his time—Vietnam, Watergate, the Mafia, Son of Sam—and thousands of little ones, from the homeless man who slept on a median strip to the Latina cop wrongly fired for posing nude for a magazine before she joined the N.Y.P.D.
Breslin made his name covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He arrived in Dallas on the night of November 22, 1963. The next day, he stuck with the doctors at Parkland Hospital after other reporters left and interviewed them with a novelist’s eye for detail. He found the undertaker who provided the casket, and enlisted his wife to use their Queens parish to find the Dallas priest who administered last rites. That evening, he filed a twenty-five-hundred-word story for the Herald Tribune that contained so much chilling and evocative detail that readers might have thought there were seven people, not six, inside Emergency Room One: the dying President, his wife, Dr. Malcolm Perry, Dr. M. T. Jenkins, Dr. Kemp Clark, Father Oscar Huber—and Jimmy Breslin. Breslin wrote that Perry “saw only the throat and the chest, shining under the huge lamp, and when he would look up or move his eyes between motions, he would see this plum dress and the terribly disciplined face standing over against the gray tile wall.”
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