In early 2003, as American troops invaded Iraq, Jimmy Breslin would call me, often in the middle of the night or the very early hours of the morning. We both worked for Newsday, the daily based on Long Island, NY. I was covering the war from the Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq; he was the paper’s marquee columnist.
Once, he called — or, more likely, he left a message with the Newsday foreign desk asking me to call him back because he got frustrated trying to dial a satellite phone — to say that he liked a story I had in the previous day’s paper. It was a profile of a young Kurdish man who at the last minute had changed his mind about carrying out a suicide bombing.
“But you know, your lead could have been stronger,” he said. “Sometimes you gotta hit ’em over the head.” Then he asked why I broke up some paragraphs. I grumbled something about the editors.
“What?” he shouted. “Don’t let ’em [expletive] with your copy. You’re there in Iraq, and they’re sitting behind a [expletive] desk.”
At the time, I was too tired and sleep-deprived to realize that Breslin — whose 1963 column for the New York Herald Tribune on the civil servant who dug President John F. Kennedy’s grave is taught in journalism schools and textbooks — was giving me writing advice.
Breslin, who died Sunday at 88, was a legendary big-city newspaper columnist, a best-selling novelist, a giant of journalism. He championed the underdog, resented authority, befriended rogues and mobsters, skewered politicians and always announced what was on his mind. He helped pioneer “New Journalism,” the craft of infusing news reporting with novelistic devices and narrative techniques.
“You climb the stairs,” he once said when asked to explain his shoe-leather reporting philosophy, “and all the stories are at the top of the stairs.”
Early on, Breslin was skeptical of President George W. Bush and his war. Breslin’s questions about the invasion — and the columns he would write throughout the Iraq conflict — were shaped by his experience covering the Vietnam war, both from the ground and from the upheaval it caused in American life.
During the early days of the Iraq war, as so many journalists dutifully lined up behind the president who took America to war, Breslin wasn’t buying it. He understood, long before most, that the American public would become disillusioned with a war based on falsehoods; that Iraqis would quickly grow frustrated by an inept, and sometimes cruel, occupation; and that the US military would end up bogged down fighting an insurgency.
We talked and argued about all of these things in those late-night calls. In his staccato fashion, often without bothering to say hello, he would fire off one question after another: What were people saying in the coffee houses? What did the streets look like, how did they feel? How long would the fighting go on?
But soon, I realized that Breslin was calling me not just to ask what’s going in Iraq or to think through material for his column. (Breslin was known for calling friends, politicians, fellow journalists, cops, prosecutors and many others in his search for column ideas.) He was also calling to see how I was holding up, and to make sure that I kept going. Whenever he heard me grumble, he would snap: “What are you complaining about? You gotta keep going. This is big.” Then he would unleash a string of expletives, followed by a short pep talk. When he was done, he’d say an abrupt “goodbye” and hang up.
Breslin was sparse with his praise, and generous with his criticism. But despite his cynical exterior, he also mentored — in his own grumpy way — a generation of young and not-so-young reporters at the New York Daily News, Newsday and the city’s other media outlets. He was melancholy, empathetic, sometimes a romantic and always fiercely loyal. He cared about his friends and those he worked with, as much as he cared about the people of his city.
“Breslin is an intellectual disguised as a barroom primitive,” the journalists Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett wrote about their friend in the book “City for Sale,” describing Breslin’s crucial role in exposing a series of New York City corruption scandals in the mid-1980s. Breslin broke a scandal that was centered around his stomping ground: the bars and municipal offices of Queens Boulevard, where the Queens borough president, Donald Manes, was taking payoffs. Within a few months, Manes resigned, and then committed suicide. The scandal almost brought down the popular New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
In their book, Barrett and Newfield quote a eulogy that Breslin delivered in May 1983 for one of his favorite Queens Boulevard characters, a political operative named Sheldon Chevlowe:
“Dying is no big deal. The least of us can accomplish that.
“The trick is to live.
“And live Shelly Chevlowe did. And with exquisite taste…
“He laughed while everybody else frowned.
“He paused and told a story while everybody else was in the dreary pursuit of absolutely nothing.
“He lived as much as he could each day, while everybody else died a little each day.”
After Breslin discovered that Chevlowe was a central character in the scandal, collecting payoffs for the Queens borough president, the columnist wrote of his late friend, “Always he will be the one most lovable rogue of my time in my city.”