A man of his words
Jimmy Breslin speaks bluntly about the church, politics, and his daughter's death
Maybe if she were from New York, the young woman at the front desk of the Millennium Bostonian Hotel would recognize Jimmy Breslin's name when a visitor asks to see him.
Maybe she'd know that the dapper white-haired gentleman in the royal blue shirt and dark blazer who emerges from the elevator a few minutes later has for decades been one of America's most colorful and controversial newspaper columnists. Maybe she'd lean forward to hear that thick Queens accent and blunt tongue at work.
But she doesn't, so Breslin, who is 75, and his visitor stroll unnoticed across the street to Quincy Market to sit outdoors and talk about Breslin's new book, "The Church That Forgot Christ," and politics and journalism and other things, too.
"In the news business," Breslin says, "if you have the column, and you have the freedom, and every day it's up to you, it's terrific."
For more than 40 years it's been up to him. In November of 1963, Breslin covered the funeral of John F. Kennedy for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune and found Clifton Pollard, the $3.01-an-hour gravedigger who considered it an honor to open the earth for a slain president's casket. In 1977, David Berkowitz, the notorious -- and, at the time, elusive -- Son of Sam killer wrote to Breslin. In 1986, Breslin, then at New York's Daily News, won a Pulitzer Prize "for columns," the citation notes, "which consistently champion ordinary citizens." This summer, one reader wrote to Newsday, Breslin's home since 1988, to praise his "great wit and deep compassion," and another dismissed his work as "sob sister drivel."
Breslin's target in his 14th book is the Catholic Church, which he left after the sexual abuse scandal broke. "Why should I be in a church like this?" he asks. "The answer is I'm not." That wasn't easy for a man who'd always been a regular churchgoer. "Your whole life," he quips, "was based on beer after church on Sundays." The church, he says, "was a vaccination that took. All of a sudden to get rid of it is hard, but they made it impossible."
In his book, Breslin interviews victims of abuse. He rails against a church that battles abortion but transferred pedophile priests from parish to parish. "And they're living with this crazy idea that they're going to have this institution without women," he says. "And they don't have married priests. They're not going to last."
He lost respect for the church, he says, not his faith. He remembers his first wife's battle with cancer. "We prayed endlessly," he says. "You believe. Priests at the bedside." Rosemary Breslin died in 1981. In 1994, Breslin had surgery for a brain aneurysm, which prompted him to write a memoir, "I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me," published in 1996.
"I've been known to write about blacks an awful lot. The night before the operation, I was absolutely at ease. I wasn't nervous. I said it was because of the blacks. A state of grace -- I've always been with the very poor," he says. "I went into the operation in the morning as if nothing could happen. That was powerful reliance on faith."
For 15 years, Breslin's daughter Rosemary battled a rare blood disorder. "She said she'd be all right if we prayed for her," Breslin says. She was the only one of his six children who was no longer a churchgoer. "She hated churches since the mother died," Breslin says. He recently introduced her to a priest who ministers to the poor. "He looked like Brooklyn to her," Breslin says. "He talked to her and she took Communion and thought she'd be back in the church. The prayer didn't work."
Rosemary Breslin died on June 14. She was 47. "Thank God," Breslin had written two weeks earlier, "she will be around for a long time." Less than a week after she died, he wrote, "The mother took her hand, and walked her away, as if to the first day of school." A month later, in Boston, he is stoic. "What are you going to do?" he says. "I've got to go to work. You've got to go on. A person to be pitied becomes a bore."
That is a fate to which Breslin vows he will never succumb. He is a loquacious raconteur practiced enough in the art of talking on television and writing for newspapers that, usually, he censors himself when he speaks.
Occasionally he slips and utters the epithet that sounds a lot like "freaking." But when he talks about the Jewish man who married into his first wife's otherwise all-Catholic family, he is careful. "That made a freaking difference. Diversity always does," Breslin says. "It put a wedge between you and the ignorance and stupidity that was around."
Breslin has known controversy. In 1990, Newsday suspended him for two weeks after he used a racial slur to criticize an Asian-American reporter who had criticized him. This April the paper ran an editor's note critical of him for not indicating that a quote he attributed to the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition was the gist of a conversation that took place in 1992.
Breslin's columns have been populated with such people as "Marvin the Torch" and "Klein the Lawyer," and he once declared he had them sign his notebooks as proof of their existence. Klein, it turns out, was Melvin Lebetkin, a friend of Breslin's involved in a corruption scandal in Queens who was sentenced in 1989 to two years in prison for mail fraud.
He sees his job as one part shoe leather and one part storytelling. "You do it with your feet. That's the most important thing you've got," Breslin says. "You take poetic license, and you try to make people smile." Ask Breslin about Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter, and he insists he hasn't given it a thought. Ask him about today's newspapers, and he complains, "Tell me if you see anything in them that makes you laugh." But ask him his favorite column, and he mentions a serious one -- about a man who heard a thud outside his apartment and saw the body of a baby who'd been tossed out an upper floor window, then heard another thud and saw the baby's mother.
"Royko" -- the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko -- "and I, neither of us would be hired today because all we do is give you trouble," Breslin says. "Not much compared to what we get you."
Breslin comes to Boston with political credentials of his own. He's been a candidate himself, in 1968 when he ran for president of New York's City Council on a slate headed by writer Norman Mailer. "The problem was we didn't take it as strongly as we should have, because it was a very good idea," Breslin says. He's been a political spouse. His second wife, Ronnie Eldridge, whom he wed 22 years ago, served on the New York City Council from 1989 to 2001. What's his advice to Teresa Heinz Kerry? "I wouldn't talk so much," he says.
Breslin was a delegate for George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic convention. In 1984 he took on the role of informal political adviser when an aide to Walter Mondale asked whether he foresaw any problems nominating his Queens neighbor Geraldine Ferraro as Mondale's running mate, and he said no.
"Don't put it all on me," Breslin says now, then invokes the name of the man from Queens who was governor of New York at the time. "So did Cuomo." Ferarro's campaign was hurt by stories questioning the business dealings of her husband, John Zacarro.
From his table on a Quincy Market patio last week, Breslin surveys a bustling summer scene as he snacks on Maryland crab soup. Amid the men in white shirts and women in capris and tourists in Bermuda shorts is a trio whose IDs dangling on red-white-and-blue shoelaces tag them as early arrivals for the convention. Does Breslin see anything that piques his interest for his column? He dismisses the question with a flick of the hand and a smirk. "I'll start looking for wherever it's tough," he says.
Five days later, Breslin writes a column from Boston blasting the wire-fenced protest zone outside the FleetCenter. He must be sporting a different look, or else taking poetic license, because he describes his attire as rumpled. "Nobody knows precisely what the protesters are for or against," he writes, "but they are performing the most important role of a citizen: criticizing his government."