Jimmy Breslin was called the guru of shoe leather by his colleagues because he used a lot of it. Even in his late seventies and early 80s, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist still climbed stairs because, as he put it, “the story is never on the first floor.” Breslin was a reporter’s reporter, much loved in the city of New York where he covered everything from civil rights to political campaigns to his own brain surgery in one of the best of his many books, I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me. Among his other volumes are The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a funny novel about a real-life Mafia gang in Brooklyn, Table Money, about an Irish-American alcoholic and his long-suffering and life-saving wife, and Damon Runyon: A Life, about another famous columnist and Breslin hero, who wrote about the guys and dolls on Broadway. Breslin was also champion of the working-class, and made it into journalism schools for his portrait of the man who dug the grave of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Instead of interviewing the high and mighty at the funeral, Breslin focused on the gravedigger who earned $3.01 an hour and though it was an honour to dig the slain president’s grave. The piece below is the one I wrote to accompany a cover story I produced with cameraman Richard Moran and editor Tim Wilson in 2007 for the Channel Nine Sunday Program. The video narrated by then Sunday presenter Ellen Fanning is now posted on the bottom of the story. Here’s a longer print version (updated):
When you Google the phrase “classic journalism,” you get at least 21 million, eight hundred thousand results – probably more by the time you read this.
But are there really nearly 22 million pieces of classic journalism on the Internet? Of course not. And that is the problem. Too many journalists are Googling, instead of using shoeleather –climbing stairs, for example — to get their stories.
There was a reporter who wrote classic newspaper journalism, and was not afraid to climb stairs – Jimmy Breslin, the legendary American columnist and author, who died at the weekend, aged 88. I thought he was 86, but his devoted wife of 34 years, Ronnie Eldridge, corrected the commonly made mistake. He covered everything from civil rights to Vietnam to politics and his own brain surgery. He also wrote a column for the Herald Tribune in 1963 that they still use in journalism schools about the man who dug the grave for President John F. Kennedy — Clifton Pollard:
Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in
Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers
Battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment
operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of
the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-
fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns
$3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.
Denis Hamill, a former columnist for the New York Daily News and brother of Pete, another famous American writer, explained why this Breslin column is still being used by journalism professors and editors: “People were running around interviewing the dignitaries of the world at the funeral, but he went to interview the gravedigger and what it meant to him, digging the hole where this man, this great president, was to be buried. And to this day, editors still ask reporters to try to find the gravedigger in any story, which is to find the kind of odd, unexpected kind of person who is connected to a big story, the smaller person.”
I went to New York City in the American summer of 2006 to profile Breslin for a television documentary, and the conversation always seemed to turn to journalism and good writing and what’s wrong with newspapers.
Jimmy Breslin said journalism is simple, which he learned from his early days as a sportswriter with The Long Island Daily Press. “Don’t fall into the trap of just say writing three paragraphs and then reiterating,” he said, “but go and do some work. The most important thing you have is your two feet. Your column is your two feet first … because the story is never on the first floor of the building. It’s always six flights up, with no elevator, so walk.”
Denis Hamill agreed that journalism is about climbing stairs, and nobody does it better, even then at the age of 78: “When you read a Breslin column, you’re reading twice the reporting that you read in anyone else’s. He puts an enormous amount of shoeleather in it … Last year he was doing columns where he climbed three or four flights of stairs in the middle of the night, and that was classic Jimmy Breslin stuff. He would go and get stories no one else would get … and always bring it to you with an unbelievable writing flair.”
Speaking of flair, this is an excerpt from a Breslin column in 1965 in the New York Herald Tribune:
Nothing ever again can be the same after yesterday in Selma, Alabama. Here on Sylvan Street, a rotting piece of the Negro section of a Southern town, simple little people stood up in the sun and asked for a thing which was theirs and never had been given to them because they are black. They are people who have been beaten because they are black. They have had friends and relatives killed because they were black. They have been laughed at and spat at because they are black, and they have been held down on the dust of their streets and made to be dirty and uneducated for all their lives because they are black.
Yesterday they stood up from the dust and they asked for the right to vote which is the start of the right to live. And they asked for it gently, and in prayer, and with the dignity of human beings. And then they left Sylvan Street, and they marched out onto United States Highway 80, and they put all the beauty of the march on Washington back into the civil rights movement, and now it never can be stopped. There was greatness in yesterday.
Vintage Breslin. Keep it simple. Richard Wald, who was Breslin’s former managing editor at the Herald Tribune and Fred Friendly Professor of Media Emeritus at Columbia University, explained: “The thing about those columns that makes them reverberate 40 years later is that they’re about a specific place and time and person, but the emotion they convey is in a relatively simple language. I’ll bet you Jimmy never used a semicolon key on any typewriter he ever approached. They’re all in straightforward English. They’re all in simple declarative sentences. There are never any words that try to evoke emotion in you, and yet they do, and that’s the trick. It’s a kind of poetry, it isn’t prose, it isn’t just simply recounting of the facts. It is a way of writing that is infused with the push from Jimmy’s head and heart that you sense just reading what is basically straightforward reporting, and I think that’s it.”
Straightforward reporting. That’s what you got from Jimmy Breslin and his contemporaries, like Steve Dunleavy, the Australian journalist considered by some to be the ultimate tabloid reporter. This is what Dunleavy wrote in the New York Post the day after September 11: “The response to this unimaginable 21st Century Pearl Harbor should be simple as it is swift – kill the bastards. No, I don’t mean hunt them, arrest them, extradite them and prosecute them in a court of law. I mean a far quicker form of retribution … A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them … and if Saddam Hussein makes so much as a peep, do him, too.”
Dunleavy was also a great admirer of Breslin’s shoeleather approach: “He wasn’t a guy who reported from behind the barricades. I remember just after a very, very big shootout during the Cleveland riots years ago, the African-American population was very, very angry, and it was very, very dangerous … and he was wandering around … from door to door. He ignored the hostile crowd, even though it could get ugly. So Jimmy certainly showed me his mettle at a very early age.”
A long-time rival of Breslin, Dunleavy was also a self-acknowledged legend in his own lunchtime, who says journalists aren’t what they used to be: “All journalists were hard drinkers, all smokers, and really that was their life. They only lived and drank newspapers. And that doesn’t exist under the young people. Certainly the younger reporters, they’re just as good, I’m not criticizing their performance, but they don’t live their jobs.”
Jimmy Breslin agreed, but he also blamed it on computers. And if you really wanted to get his Irish up, you only had to ask him if newspapers are dying: “Well, they’re dying of suicide, they’re not dying. Stultifying writing, the writing’s awful, and I think that comes from computers. It will change, but I hope that changes in time. But you had at one time, the New York Daily News, the New York Herald Tribune, at deadline time, the smoke was as thick as the old fight films’ boxing arenas, the noise was tremendous, like a subway train going through the city room because of the typewriters, all going at once, and out of all that noise, and out of all that smoke, came nervous energy, which is what words must have for a newspaper … They must be the product of nervous energy and they don’t have that now. And afterwards, of course, everybody went into the bar, and that was vital because they discussed the day’s work, ‘this is a great line,’ ‘that was good,’ they go over it. Instead now, you have these marvelous computers and they make no noise, so there’s no excitement to them.”
Jimmy Breslin (Photo above of his days as a drinker. Photo Michael Brennan, Getty) came from a hard-drinking school that included Pete and Denis Hamill. Denis, now a contributor for the Daily Beast, said he agreed totally with Breslin: “It’s kind of sad. You don’t get the old teletype machines and the people banging on the old manual typewriters, and people shouting across the room for copy, and people email each other, and it’s all silent, and it sounds like a typing pool of crickets … Newsrooms used to reflect the street corner, it sounded like a street corner when you went into a city room, right?”
Richard Wald said journalism needed people like Breslin now more than ever: “It is so easy to get information off the Internet. It is so easy to trade emails instead of going to talk to him or her that Jimmy has become a sort of guru of shoeleather. He is somebody who preaches literally about going out and seeing the people, not because he thinks that’s the only way to do it, because he does it that way, but because it’s becoming rarer and rarer, because technology has made reporting impersonal, and Jimmy’s reporting is personal.”
But Professor Wald, who was also president of NBC News, had a solid rejoinder to old hacks who claim newspapers aren’t what they used to be: “The minute you hit 50 nothing is as good as it used to be. And journalism is better than it ever was. It’s more honest, it’s more informed, it’s more interesting, it’s got more stuff in it. There are terrific problems in newspapers because the advertising is moving away, not because they are badly written. They were always badly written. There are always some good writers. But the economics is changing because the technology is changing and because the culture is changing.”
Wald worked in the Columbia School of Journalism offices on 110th St and Broadway and just outside stands the statue of the crusading publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, who left Columbia $2 million in his will to set up the school. (Breslin above at a press conference in 1986 after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Photo: Mario Cabrera AP) Pulitzer might have been spinning in his grave as I talked to a number of students on the campus lawns. Only one of four knew who Breslin was, which wasn’t surprising, given that he only wrote the occasional column then. While they still read newspapers, they believed they were under threat from the Internet: “Yeah, absolutely, for breaking news and those sort of things,” said one young articulate student. “I think they need to redefine themselves in commentary, in-depth reporting, investigating pieces, things like that. If they do style pieces … things like that, they will be able to go forward.”
Good writing, in-depth reporting, stories about people, that’s what Jimmy Breslin was all about, according to Mike Daly, a friend and former protégé of Breslin at the New York Daily News, now a columnist at the Daily Beast: “That’s what they want to see,” said Daly. “That’s also what television can’t do, what the Internet can’t do. One thing that newspapers do that nobody else can.”
Denis Hamill said his brother Pete credited Breslin with reinventing the Cityside column, which offered a point of view, with a lot of reporting. He spoke to a lot of people other people wouldn’t speak to. “You don’t need to go to journalism school to know how to learn from Jimmy Breslin,” said Hamill. “You just have to read Jimmy Breslin.”
And Jimmy Breslin was still writing about ordinary people until the end because he could identify with them. As Richard Wald put it: “He can go out to any place in America and sit down and start talking to people, and they’ll talk to him, because he really is interested in them, and this is just reporting. And too many journalists forget that.”
In his final days, Breslin continued to take up the cudgels against Donald Trump. His good friend Pete Hamill told the Daily News: “He was a bit addled by (President) Trump. He knew Trump’s father, because Trump’s father was a Queens guy and Jimmy was the poet laureate of Queens.” Hamill said Breslin saw the 45th President as the kind of guy from his old neighborhood who “is all mouth and couldn’t fight his way out of an empty lot.”
Breslin is survived by his second wife Ronnie Eldridge, a formidable woman and his constant protector, as well as four children, three stepchildren and 12 grandchildren. His first wife, Rosemary, died of cancer, and two of his daughters — Rosemary and Kelly — died in their 40s.
When Jimmy Breslin left Newsday in November 2004 after predicting that John Kerry would defeat George W. Bush in the presidential election, he farewelled his readers with an old Irish expression: “Thanks for the use of the hall.” Thanks for the memories, Jimmy, and for looking after the little guy.