For journalists, Jimmy Breslin is the equivalent of a first ballot Hall of Famer. As a columnist for The Herald Tribune and later Newsday and the Daily News, Breslin gave voice to the city’s everyman for generations. With his rapier wit, honeyed prose and arsenal of sources, he epitomized the hard-nosed, surly muckraker who would stop at nothing in pursuit of the truth—becoming, in the process of covering New York City, not just a chronicler of his hometown, but a storied part of its identity and its history.
Still going strong, Breslin last year published his most recent book, a biography of trail-blazing Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, and is currently working on a new novel.
City & State Editor Morgan Pehme spoke with the Pulitzer- and Polk-award winning writer about some of the politicians he has covered, the state of the media today, his famous 1969 run for City Council president and whether he thinks the Son of Sam should ever be let out of prison.
The following is an edited transcript.
CS: You have said that Rudy Giuliani was the worst mayor we ever had. Who was the best?
JB: I don’t know, because I wasn’t alive when some of the good ones—maybe—were the mayors. [William] O’Dwyer was a very good mayor. He was a smart man. He had honor and he would invest it in honorable causes.
CS: In retrospect, what do you think of John Lindsay?
JB: He had some class that he gave to the city government. It was very hard to dislike him.
CS: And yet you joined Norman Mailer’s ticket as the candidate for City Council president when he ran for mayor against Lindsay.
JB: Oh, that was fun. We just did it. I don’t know when he decided. At the bar, obviously.
CS: Would you urge other writers and artists to take a stand in electoral politics like you did?
JB: I think it would be very good if they would. They’ve got the ability to put words together that might reach the ears of the people of the city who vote.
CS: You have written good things about Mayor Bloomberg in the past. Do you still feel that way?
JB: Yeah, but I wish he’d go away now. It’s been long enough. He’s making me weary. He has money! That’s what keeps him erect. You wish it was something else, but that’s what it is in the end.
CS: One of your great sayings is, “Media is the plural of mediocrity.” Do you still feel that is so?
JB: Oh, sure. It has to be… The Daily News [and] the Post, I think their days are gone. There’s an open field with the newspapers stumbling and going out of style, and the television news—when you see people in their suits and ties coming on news programs, and obviously they’ve never done any reporting, and they read a script, I mean, it’s terrible.
CS: For what should journalism strive?
JB: It should be a) truthful [and] b) entertaining. You know, with news and important facts you can entertain people too. Have a little humor. Life isn’t all that deadly all the time, but while you’re having [fun], tell the truth. [If] every word of a column [is] deadly serious, I can’t read it. It makes me throw up.
CS: What was your aim as a journalist?
JB: To please a reader: me. I didn’t care about anybody else. If I thought it was humorous, if it made me smile, I put it in. I wrote it in the paper and didn’t care what anyone thought.
CS: But you took up so many causes célèbres and you helped so many people with your writing. Clearly it wasn’t just for your own edification.
JB: I think that could have been an accident. [Laughs]
CS: Your wife, Ronnie Eldridge, was a City Council member. Are you still interested in New York City politics?
JB: She is, but the City Council bores me. I think there’s nothing there. I don’t even want to know their names anymore.
CS: This past May, David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” was denied parole for the sixth time. Do you think he should ever be allowed out of prison?
JB: Oh no! He would shoot somebody! I’m drinking in a bar in Long Beach one summer—I got out of New York one day—and I met my wife. She was out there. She had to move. You couldn’t have her in New York, because this guy was around looking for me! So we’re out… at night in a bar on the main street, and… the traffic outside was slow… and I’m sitting near the window with my wife. And [Berkowitz] went right past [the bar], but he kept going, because the dog in the back seat—his dog—was upset by the rain and didn’t like to get wet. So he passed by me, but rather than shooting, he took the dog home. The night he got arrested… I walked into the courtroom in Queens and he pointed at me [and] said, “There’s Jimmy Breslin, my friend.” What was that? Shoot him, I said.
CS: Practically every journalism student reads your famous article about the man who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave. Do you think that’s one of your greatest articles?
JB: I don’t know if it is. I know it’s my style. That would be how I look at something and think, let me get something off that would maybe tell you more than I could tell you from writing just right on the thing itself. The part of that [article] I like was that the gravedigger, when he finished doing the grave for JFK, the head of the cemetery told him to go over a hill and to dig one for some clerk who was getting buried later that day … so the big glamorous funeral is being held, and he’s over there digging, lonely… I remember that part. And that’s the story of life too. When there’s something like that going on, think of somebody off in right field who might be very important. The view from the side is very good.
CS: How did you develop your unique style? Were they any particular writers that you were emulating?
JB: There were ones that I always read: Steinbeck, Hemingway… O’Hara, [but] I’m not living with anybody in my head [now]. I wish I were. I could steal off of ’em.
CS: What is some wisdom that you can impart to young or aspiring writers?
JB: Go around with your eyes like a camera. Don’t lose it by talking. Go and listen. And work! The trap of being young [is you] might enjoy it too much. At night, out at that age, women. A broad can kill you when you’re writing! You don’t need anybody near you. It destroys your concentration as she walks across the room. Thank God, now I’m too old. Anybody could walk across the room now… [Laughs] You could fill the room with women. I wouldn’t even look. I don’t even know what they are. Let me write.
CS: Does writing still give you pleasure?
JB: What would I do, be a steel worker?
CS: It’s never too late to be a steel worker!
JB: That’s the trouble with it! But it’s always too late to be a writer if you don’t look out.
CS: Lastly, are you working on a book now?
JB: Yeah. I better be… It’s fiction, and it’s long and hard, and it better be received or I’m a dead man. It’s a woman in Manhattan, a doctor, who is the central character, so we’ll see where we go with it.