Almost a Century
There was no BLAST this morning because the Lovely Carol Marie and I drove out to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to visit my Mom --- who will be 90 years old in August. Because of the passing of Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin over the weekend, who were 90 and 88, respectively, I (quite naturally?) reflected on how long a time this group has/had spent on this mortal coil. They were born when Calvin Coolidge was President. Calvin (f*$#in’) Coolidge! The man best remembered (presciently, it seems, in 2017) for saying, “America’s business is business.” Consider this: Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump. 16 presidents. 35% of the Presidents who have ever been. Not just that: it’s also a Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the Moonwalk, Watergate, the Gulf War, 9/11, the first Black President --- just as “highlights.” I wrote about Chuck Berry yesterday and I want to write about Jimmy Breslin who, in his own way, was a pioneer in much the way Chuck was.
Breslin was part of a wave of new writing that emerged in the 1960s that became known as “The New Journalism.” New York Magazine’s February 14, 1972 cover story featured: The Birth of 'The New Journalism'; Eyewitness Report by Tom Wolfe and it not only coined a new term but also rewrote journalism’s style from that point on. One of the pioneers of the New Journalism was Jimmy Breslin (another, of course, was my hero, Hunter S. Thompson) and Wolfe had this to say about the born and bred New Yorker:
Not long after that Jimmy Breslin started writing an extraordinary local column for my own paper, the Herald Tribune. Breslin came to the Herald Tribune in 1963 from out of nowhere, which is to say he had written a hundred or so articles for magazines like True, Life, and Sports Illustrated. Naturally he was virtually unknown. At that time knocking your brains out as a free-lance writer for popular magazines was a guaranteed way to stay anonymous. Breslin caught the attention of the Herald Tribune's publisher, Jock Whitney, through his book about the New York Mets called Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? The Herald Tribune hired Breslin to do a "bright" local column to help offset some of the heavy lumber on the editorial page, paralyzing snoremongers like Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop. Newspaper columns had become a classic illustration of the theory that organizations tend to promote people up to their levels of incompetence.
In any case, Breslin made a revolutionary discovery. He made the discovery that it was feasible for a columnist to leave the building, go outside and do reporting on his own, actual legwork. Breslin would go up to the city editor and ask what stories and assignments were coming up, choose one, go out, leave the building, cover the story as a reporter, and write about it in his column. If the story were big enough, his column would start on page one instead of inside. As obvious as this system may sound, it was unheard of among newspaper columnists, whether local or national.
If you caught any of the eulogies in the press or on the television news programs you heard about Breslin’s famous columns about JFK’s gravedigger, about the surgeon in Dallas who operated on the assassinated President, the Son of Sam letter (sent by David Berkowitz to Breslin before the killer’s capture), and his column about the first police on the scene at John Lennon’s murder (“A part of a cop’s past lies dead”). Breslin won the Pulitzer in 1986 and he was a tireless defender of the little guy --- and was always, always a “Noo Yawka.” After he moved to New York Newsday in the late 1980s he wrote a number of scathing columns about Donald Trump, clearly seeing through the Queens con artist long before he ascended to the Presidency. In June of 1990 Breslin wrote this about Donald Trump:
Trump survives by Corum's Law. Bill Corum was asked to become the head of the Kentucky Derby. He was a round little guy who was the youngest Army major in World War I . . . He read Balzac at the bar, often wrote exciting English, drank a ton of whiskey and lost as much money as he could find at the racetrack. He was a tough guy who understood weakness and “ this is the rule. A sucker has to get screwed." Today, Corum's Law runs all of Donald Trump's situation. But instead of horseplayers, the suckers who must get screwed are a combination of news reporters and financial people. All Trump has to do is stick to the rules on which he was raised by his father in the County of Queens: Never use your own money. Steal a good idea and say it's your own. Do anything to get publicity. Remember that everybody can be bought.
Jimmy Breslin’s direct yet lyrical prose summed it all up and he cut a wide swath in New York and nationally as a writer and voice of the common man --- far more so than the “Blue Collar Billionaire.”
Like Chuck Berry, Jimmy Breslin left us this weekend but like Chuck and his records & YouTube videos, Jimmy left a huge legacy for us to “Google” and read so they are gone but never forgotten. My Mom was not a rock and roll pioneer (beyond being a huge supporter of the genre and her sons guitar playing). Nor is she a crusading journalist (though she certainly supported any cause Breslin championed). But she is someone who, by her own account, has had “a good life” and has very astutely witnessed the almost one century of history that she has lived through. She’s still a feisty and funny and proud woman who goes outside on chilly days and smokes a cigarette. Unlike Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin, she won’t get a front page obituary on the New York Times when she finally leaves us, but Jimmy Breslin would be the first to tell you that people like “Gracie” were the heart and soul of New York and what always made it a great city --- people who keep their heads down and worked their asses off, people who will tell you, quite directly, what they think, and people who appreciate the warp and woof of this crazy place that’s unlike anywhere else. We all leave a footprint behind and as I saw the imprints left by Chuck and Jimmy this weekend I was reminded to pay attention to the one that Mom has also made and appreciate it for what it is.