September 23, 2016

The Daily Beast will publish Saturday the first major piece of writing by famed New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin in more than a decade.

That news comes from John Avlon, the Beast’s editor in chief, who once included five Breslin columns in his anthology of great newspaper columns titled “Deadline Artists.”

The Daily Beast has been running The Best of Breslin, reprinting his classic columns on weekends. “We are huge fans of his work,” Avlon wrote to Poynter. “He is one of the all-time greats. We take pride in running many classic columnists, and when we heard that Jimmy was at work on an autobiographical novel, years after his last published column, we asked if we could publish an excerpt. This is the result. And it’s great.”

The previously unpublished 2,500-word excerpt, running a few years after his latest column for The New York Daily News, is from a longer work that Breslin has been cooking for some time. Breslin is about to turn 86, a New York survivor of countless bad habits, but his prose shows no signs of decline.

The piece begins:

My Aunt Harriet took me up on the bus to the Wurlitzer store on Sutphin Boulevard and bought a used trumpet, which she paid for with bills and change from the grandmother’s purse. Afterwards, each Saturday morning, my mother gave me three dollars for a music lesson and carfare. I took the Q-11 bus to the Jamaica Avenue el and rode it to Kosciusko Street in Bushwick section. The trumpet teacher, Jack Chernecke, lived one flight over a furniture store. He had pouchy eyes, smoked a cigarette, and sat at the kitchen table in an undershirt, black tuxedo pants, and bare feet. His fingers danced nervously on the valves of his brilliant gold-plated horn.

The fingerprints of Breslin’s style evident in that paragraph mark the entire work, a tale studded with names of products, places, and people and stamped with the particularity of a participant observer.

It is not just a store, but the “Wurlitzer” store; not just a bus, but “the Q-11.” The trumpet teacher wears character details one might expect to find in a Breslin anti-hero: pouchy eyes, cigarettes, undershirt, bare feet, but it’s the “black tuxedo pants” that mark Jack Chernecke as a musician ready for a gig.

Breslin’s New York is a crowded, at times claustrophobic place, where walk-ups, bodegas, and saloons offer little freedom, where joy is fleeting and death lurks around every corner, where a jazz number played on the street corner can become transformed into a funeral dirge.

The first time I saw Breslin in person was 1969 when I got a summer job at Rockefeller Center in midtown New York. From a distance I could see his Brobdingnagian figure towering above a street corner crowd. When I got closer, the crowd parted and there, as if hiding under Breslin’s jacket, was the diminutive Norman Mailer. Mailer and Breslin, two tough-guy writers, were running for Mayor and City Council President on a ticket that sought secession of New York City from the rest of the state.

A decade later, now thoroughly immersed in journalism, I remember reading Breslin with a microscope, trying to learn his moves, arguing with others as to whether Breslin’s work was that of a responsible eyewitness, or whether it was “piped,” that is, made up in opium dens, as they used to say back in the day.

It’s not clear what standards Breslin carried into the piece for The Daily Beast. Avlon describes it as a passage from an “autobiographical novel.” It has the feel of a memoir. For journalists, that means usually trying to stick to the memorable truth. For novelists it means fabricating whatever you can’t remember. Breslin has been both, so who knows?

We offer him the benefit of the doubt, understanding that sometimes an 86-year-old man can remember a bus trip he took in Queens more than 70 years ago, even if he can’t remember what he ate for breakfast.

As for his legacy, I could make the case that Breslin wrote one of the most memorable newspaper columns of the 20th century, perhaps the most memorable if you were to take a vote of other journalists.

It featured the man who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. For decades it became what high school teachers call a “mentor text”: it showed how a writer can break away from the crowd, even on the biggest possible story; how, in the words of the great editor Gene Roberts, an enterprising reporter can zig when everyone else zags.

Breslin carries the scars (or maybe he doesn’t!) of countless controversies and calamities: from being pen pal to the Son of Sam, to getting beat up by the mob, to having to apologize for a vicious verbal attack against a copy editor who thought one of his columns was sexist. (What? Just one?)

One final gripe. Among his prizes, Breslin won the Distinguished Writing Award presented by the American Society of Newspaper Writers. Since their inception, Poynter administered those awards the way Columbia manages the Pulitzers. From 1979 to 2007, we published a collection of the winners with commentary and an interview with the writer. Of the more than 100 writers who won during that period, only one of them declined a request for an interview: Jimmy Breslin.

I don’t care anymore. I’m happy to have him back.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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