Better late than never, a toast to Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin of the New York Daily News speaks to reporters after winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1986. Breslin, the chronicler of wise guys and underdogs who became the brash embodiment of the old-time, street smart New Yorker, died March 19.
Jimmy Breslin of the New York Daily News speaks to reporters after winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1986. Breslin, the chronicler of wise guys and underdogs who became the brash embodiment of the old-time, street smart New Yorker, died March 19. AP Photo/Mario Cabrera, File

When Jimmy Breslin, the New York newspaper columnist, died March 19 at age 88, I read his obituary with interest. Not because I knew much about him, but because I didn’t.

About all I knew was one piece of newspaper lore: that when other reporters were covering John F. Kennedy’s funeral, Breslin was talking to the gravedigger.

It’s the stuff of legend, a shorthand way to express the news concept of breaking from the pack. Everyone else was dutifully noting the pomp, the collective grief and the official remarks, while one lone writer addressed the same story from the humblest of angles.

Until Breslin’s death, it was the only column by him I’d read, that and “A Death in Emergency Room One,” about the efforts to revive Kennedy.

They’re in the book “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” a 1967 collection of the best of his work for the New York Herald Tribune. I’d bought it at a used bookstore in St. Louis eight years ago and had only read those two famous pieces.

Now, with Breslin gone, the book came off the shelf.

Many of these ’60s columns are remarkable: subdued, understated, closely observed, seething with quiet anger.

He spent a few days in Harlem as tensions simmered one summer.

“Money makes the way of life, and low money shows everywhere you go in Harlem,” one paragraph reads. “In a supermarket on 135th Street, in the middle of the Saturday rush, the totals on the cash registers kept showing $7.30 and $10.58 and $5.97 while, at the same time, in a supermarket in Baldwin, Long Island, the figures were $28.60 and $41.12.”

He went to Selma, Alabama, for the voting rights march to Montgomery. As protesters marched on U.S. Highway 80, under federal protection, the sheriff, unable to intervene, uttered a string of racial insults shocking in their vitriol. Breslin writes:

“He stood there with his hatred. And when the march started, Nellie Moore walked right past Sheriff James G. Clark, Jr. She walked by him holding hands with a colored girl and a white minister, tossing her head in laughter. The last time she tried to walk past Jim Clark she was beaten, but yesterday she was laughing and she didn’t even bother to look at him because he didn’t count anymore.”

Let me say, “Selma” was a very good movie, but Breslin’s dispatches rival it for bringing the story to vivid life.

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He went to Vietnam, writing about troops in the field, what black soldiers thought about the Watts riots back home and about the incongruity of a majestic aircraft carrier deployed against an enemy that might consist of “six men coming out of the water in a rice paddy somewhere.”

In a lighter vein, Breslin wrote about characters he knew: 450-pound bookie Fat Thomas, arsonist Marvin the Torch and shoplifter Jerry the Booster. Whenever he mentioned his wife, he called her “the former Rosemary Dattolico.” Once she was “the former Rosemary Dattolico, prominent Queens housewife.”

But let’s get to the JFK columns.

Breslin took the first jet to Dallas and interviewed the emergency room doctor who tried to revive the president, then the priest who administered the last rites, then the man who provided the casket, prodding them for enough details to write the story as if he’d observed the whole sequence of events firsthand.

And then there was the famous one, whose events, quotidian as they were, he did witness.

Breslin recalled in 2013 that he wondered almost immediately where Kennedy would be buried, phoned Arlington National Cemetery, was told who would be digging the grave, rushed that morning to the man’s house and traveled with him to the cemetery.

“Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday,” the column begins. He’s at the breakfast table in his overalls, eating his breakfast, when the expected call comes in to report to work.

“Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” his boss says when they arrive. Pollard demurs: “Oh, don’t say that. Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.”

Breslin gives Pollard’s background, notes that he is an equipment operator, grade 10, and writes: “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.”

That and the emergency room column can be found online and are well worth your time.

Breslin went on to write for the New York Daily News and Newsday and won a Pulitzer in 1986.

It appears he might only have one other collection of columns, amid his myriad of novels and single-topic nonfiction books. But just as fellow titan of the typewriter Mike Royko got a best-of book after his 1997 passing, perhaps we can look forward to “A Jimmy Breslin Reader,” or something like it.

As columnists go, Jack Smith, the late L.A. Times scribe, is still my main man. But a couple of months after reading Breslin’s obituaries, I get it now. It’s an honor to read him.

David Allen tries to get things Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact dallen@scng.com or 909-483-9339, visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

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About the Author

David Allen

Reach the author at dallen@scng.com or follow David on Twitter: davidallen909.