In New York there was a species of hard-bitten reporters who could munch a hot pretzel while cracking jokes over a crime scene that looked like a case of stewed tomatoes fell off a roof. The best newspaper writers would listen so well to what they heard on the street that they could channel it, all the filthy music and lush profanity, get it raw on paper the next morning. They were drunk, combative, cynical, and rude, but they also had flaws.
Today these guys are pretty much gone. The idea of really covering a city — the trash collectors and barkeeps and city-council members — seems to bore today’s Gotham journalist, who pulses with ideas about capitalism or feminism or Trumpism but probably couldn’t tell you what police precinct he lives in or where to find a bookie. Today’s journalist dreams up stories. Yesterday’s reporter chased them.
“That’s the key word — chase, chase, chase,” the late Jimmy Breslin tells us in the documentary Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, which debuts January 28 on HBO. You went to the scene. You talked to people. You got the story, the way a dingo gets a squirrel. Then you got up (late) the next morning and went tearing around again.
Breslin, who died two years ago at 88, was the mouth of the street. A drinking buddy told him how arson is done, so Breslin told the city: It’s a three-man job. Two pour fuel. One is the blanket man. What’s a blanket man? “He holds an old car blanket and throws it over anyone coming out whose clothes are on fire.” Breslin loved talking to lowlifes and gangsters: “Legitimate people — they’re boring, they’re terrible,” he’d say.
Breslin’s people were of the class that operates New York. Today’s journalists come in with fancy degrees and seem to float above the city and the state, never really taking much interest in the particulars. They go to a self-styled dive bar as if going on safari. To guys like Breslin and Pete Hamill (who was hired by the New York Post because it needed someone like Breslin and later joined “J.B. #1,” as he called himself, at the Daily News), a dive bar was an office where you met the characters, learned the secrets. Who does that anymore? “You know, the New York Times used to cover local news,” remembers Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. “No longer does. I mean, nothing!”
Breslin — “ a genius who spent a good part of his life trying to persuade people that he’s not,” according to fellow columnist Jim Dwyer — and Hamill both came from Irish stock, both had dad problems, both received their bachelor’s degrees on the pavement. Breslin used to say that he didn’t drop out of high school: “I stayed the full five years.” Hamill didn’t finish high school.
Fortunately for them, a humming metropolitan newsroom will wise you up faster than the Ivy League. “Newspaper people,” Breslin once put it, “were flamboyant, hard-drinking, Bohemian anarchists with great gifts for obscenity. I loved being in their company in city rooms, at murder scenes, or standing at the bar after work.” Or as an old city editor puts it, “Everyone was strange.”
Breslin was very much a character (I crossed paths with him once or twice as a young tabloid reporter; we were all scared of him). But he was also extraordinarily creative, and I don’t just mean his choice of words. Great reporting is all about where to go, whom you talk to. Breslin went into the emergency room in Dallas to talk to the doctor who tried in vain to save John Kennedy’s life. Following an instinct that became legendary, during the president’s funeral Breslin left behind the 3,000 reporters on the scene and went to the cemetery to talk to the gravedigger. The column was stark, poignant, controlled, heartbreaking. “Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday,” Breslin wrote. “A phone call came in during breakfast: ‘Polly, please could you be here by 11 o’clock this morning? I guess you know what it’s for.’” The pay was $3.01 an hour. The quotation “Why, It’s an Honor” was Breslin’s headline.
Consider the virtuosity of the following sentence, its hidden turns, how its rejection of sentimentality makes it overpowering: “My first wife Rosemary and I lived together in love and affection that was deeper when she died in the middle of a rainy night in June in 1981 than when I met her on a Saturday night in the spring of 1952.” The day after he buried his wife, he kicked the bed of one of his sons at 6 a.m. and said, “Get the f–k up and go to work.” Years later Breslin’s two daughters would also die far too young. The younger one was named Rosemary. In a column Breslin spoke of a vision he had of his wife reappearing at the moment of her daughter’s death. “The mother took her hand and walked her away, as if to the first day of school.”
Both Breslin and Hamill embodied a vigorous, questing pugnacity underlain by a fierce protectiveness toward underdogs. Breslin, at a moment when a white New Yorker named Bernhard Goetz was becoming a folk hero after he shot some black youths who were going to mug him on the subway with sharpened screwdrivers, took the side of those who were shot. He frequently butted heads with the police, famously in the case of a young cop whose career was derailed after her superiors learned that she had once posed nude for a magazine. Breslin defended her and said she, unlike most cops, was at least in good shape.
At the peak of Breslin’s fame, the “Son of Sam” serial killer, David Berkowitz, sent the columnist teasing letters in mid-spree. Breslin, drawing him out, went on television to praise the psychopath’s prose style: “He probably is the first killer that I can ever recall who understands the use of the semicolon.”
Hamill, who is 83, is much the lesser writer, although he lived a swaggering New York life, dating Jackie Onassis and Shirley MacLaine. His columns tended to get clogged up in purple prose and bitter railing against all the things that made him angry, and he rarely neglected to make sure you understood he was the star of the story he was telling. On 9/11, he wrote, “The street before us is now a pale gray wilderness . . . my wife is coming out the door about to race back into the death-stained city to search for me.” An editor of his at the Daily News says that whereas Breslin sweated over every word, Hamill would phone in from the Hamptons, or else bang out something in the newsroom in 45 minutes and then disappear. Hamill loved to pull favorite themes off the shelf, regardless of whether they were applicable to the situation. “I knew that America had struck again,” he wrote on the occasion of Robert F. Kennedy’s murder, which is an odd thing to say about an act carried out by a Jordanian national. (These sentences are cited as some of Hamill’s best works.)
Both men kept going as long as they could, never losing their fascination or their irascibility. “Life goes on. The clock doesn’t stop,” Breslin would tell his sons. He instilled in them something of a newspaperman’s version of a moral code: “I’ve decided that boring people are the true criminals. In a world where you live for about a minute and 40 seconds, what right does anybody have to deaden one moment of time?” So it delighted him to remarry, to the city politician Ronnie Eldridge, and with her form a huge melded family of nine children. “Everybody hated everybody,” Breslin said. “It was beautiful.” He could have been speaking of the big dirty city he loved so well.