By Leonard Novarro
“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.”
According to New York columnist Jimmy Breslin, that was the formula for success Donald Trump’s father gave him when he started in business.
In another column, Breslin wrote that “the news business today is so utterly dishonest that the people are below taking bribes. Instead, Trump buys them with a smile, a phone call or a display of wealth that so excites these poor fools that they cannot wait to herald his brilliance.”
Trump, now President Trump, was only one of many skewered by brash and brassy journalist-turned-columnist Jimmy Breslin, who died last week at the age of 88. Breslin also came from Queens, the same New York borough that gave birth to the future president of the United States. Like his beloved New York, the city was like a dubious lover — sometimes good, many times bad and most often worthy of retaliation.
Breslin came up in the 1960s, an age that was turning journalism into the “New Journalism,” a movement in which the reporter often became the protagonist in his or her own stories, such as the time when feminist Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy bunny to expose male sexism. In the early 1970s, when the old New York Herald-Tribune turned its Sunday feature section into New York magazine, its stable of talent included not only Breslin and Steinem, but also Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, Hunter Thompson, editor Clay Felker and other stellar journalistic talent of the day. Some have called it the “Golden Age of Journalism.”
It truly was a new age for reporting the news, never to be repeated and forever lost with the advent of the Internet and Google, which ultimately destroyed newspapers.
When I became a copy boy at the now-defunct Long Island Press in the 1960s, Jimmy Breslin, a copy boy there in the 1940s, was already a legend. The story going around was that sports editor Mike Lee fired Breslin, telling him that he would never make it in journalism. Breslin went on to win every major journalism award, including the Pulitzer Prize, in 1986, as well as write 21 books and hundreds of columns, three of them on future president Trump.
The column most cited by fellow journalists was Breslin’s coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral as seen through the eyes of the man who dug the grave at Arlington National Cemetery. In Breslin’s obituary, the New York Times wrote: “With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers” that was copied by “legions of journalists.”
In addition to column writing, Breslin also campaigned unsuccessfully for New York City Council, along with writer Norman Mailer, a candidate for mayor. And while he hobnobbed with the rich, the powerful and famous, he mostly relished sharing his life and observations with the downtrodden and scrappers of New York City struggling to survive.
At times, he also became a part of a story, as in 1977 when he received a letter from the serial killer dubbed “Son of Sam.” He published the letter, but the killer, later identified as David Berkowitz, killed twice more, leading Breslin’s detractors to accuse him of exploitation.
His penchant for cruising the underbelly of New York and cultivating ties with some unsavory characters would have its consequences. In 1970 he was beaten up by mobster Jimmy Burke, portrayed by Robert De Niro in the 1990 movie “Goodfellas,” because of an article he wrote about a friend of Burke’s.
Breslin wrote for almost every newspaper in New York City, except the Times, at one time or another. And he left the business many times to do other things, such as writing books. But he always returned to journalism.
“Once you get back in the newspapers,” he once told an interviewer, “it’s like heroin. You’re there. That’s all.”
Leonard Novarro is co-founder of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society.