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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: When columnists led journalism's way

Jimmy Breslin wasn't my hero.

Not when I first started as a News reporter in 1969, he wasn't. (I'd previously worked as a Buffalo Evening News copyboy in 1964.)

I couldn't have been in more of a Breslin minority at the time. The News was in a youth hiring wave at that moment and almost all of the new young arrivals worshiped at Breslin's beer-washed altar -- especially the large cadre of guys who came here almost directly from the fine journalism school of St. Bonaventure University.

My "hero" (if I had one) was Dwight Macdonald, the iconoclast and film critic of Esquire Magazine in the '50's and the '60's critical terror likely to show up with reviews of everything from Webster's dictionary to epochal studies of American poverty (Macdonald's review of that one is often credited with getting LBJ's "War on Poverty" off the dime). A couple years later, Pauline Kael joined Macdonald on whatever might be considered my "altar."

My benign neutrality on the subject of Breslin was by no means a matter of taste at the time, it was a matter of simple ignorance. Until I started working as a daily reporter myself, I didn't really know how much there was to admire.

I was, you see, always devoted to critics, even the lousy ones, whom I read assiduously no matter how constantly godawful they were (no one worse than Bosley Crowther, the most powerful American film critic -- and the worst -- at the New York Times). I was always happy to read, back then, The News' impressive film and drama critic Ardis Smith and classical music critic John Dwyer (who later became something of a mentor).

That ignorance of mine is why I now think anyone who has ever had a passing interest in journalism in America ought to see HBO's "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists" at its premiere at 8 p.m. Monday or after on HBO's offshoot stations.

You may well come to the conclusion that a lot of contemporary journalism's current problems stem as much from artistic and spiritual undernourishment as they do from too many rich guys buying businesses they couldn't understand on the best day they'll ever have. (I removed a low-level profanity in that sentence. I was taught to have manners, if at all possible.)

Breslin was one of the most influential journalists America ever had or ever will have. In the HBO documentary, Ed Kosner, the former City Editor of the New York Post analyzes the ethnic identities of the newspaper readership of New York City when it was a journalistic paradise of competing papers employing a large battalion of talented people.

"The WASPs read the New York Herald Tribune and the World Telegram, the Jews read the Post and the Times, and the Irish and Italians read the New York Daily News and the Mirror. And at each paper there was a number one columnist. Usually, it was an Irish columnist."

And, eventually, that "Irish columnist" had other ethnicities, but was clearly a talented version of Jimmy Breslin. In New York, Breslin's friend and frequent partner Pete Hamill was one, in Boston there was Mike Barnicle and in Chicago there was Mike Royko.

Look at American newspapers today and you'll still find current incarnations of the great New York tabloid columnist who, as a pre-teen, reacted to his mother's failed suicide attempt by inventing his own newspaper called The Flash, making it the lead story and taking it across the street to the neighborhood bar where he knew there'd be an interested readership.

His father, you see, had gone out "for rolls" and never come back.

Breslin began his journalistic life as a copyboy for the Long Island Gazette. He turned into the guy who went to JFK's funeral in Washington and despaired of his ability to write anything people would read amid that infestation of writers seeking immortality.

I was at Syracuse University at the time. Future journalist Ken Auletta -- full, even then, of the inside lowdown on just about everyone, it seemed -- read the JFK funeral results and pronounced Murray Kempton to be immortality's winner for his funeral piece called "Romans."

Quite frankly, I found the Kempton piece to be a bit of a crock.

What I didn't know at the time is that Breslin found himself unable to compete with the tidal wave of  information about to be loosed on America about the funeral. So he went to Arlington National Cemetery, found gravedigger Clifton Pollard who was, on a Sunday, going to dig the hole in which the assassinated president would apparently rest for the remainder of history.

"It was an honor" to dig that grave Pollard told Breslin. As we watch Breslin comment on that column years afterward, he says -- with perfect Breslinesque emotional punctuation -- that it was a certainty of the time that Pollard wasn't paid overtime either.

Breslin would later become the columnist who carried on a public correspondence with the Son of Sam (he was flabbergasted, he said, by David Berkowitz's first letter in which the serial killer indicated that he "knew how to use a semi-colon") and who, met both subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz and the AIDS phenomenon with columns guaranteed to be massively unpopular. We see, in the doc, Donald Trump's full page ads condemning the accused rapists of the Central Park Jogger, who were later released from prison and found to be innocent by DNA and the rapist's confession.

Breslin is the unquestioned star of "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists." He and Hamill -- who became a friend of Bobby Kennedy's after the JFK assassination -- were both there in that L.A. hotel kitchen when Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed Bobby Kennedy, too.

Hamill's career is, to be sure, properly attended to, especially his work after 9/11 and his New York tabloid editorships. But he is never more sympathetic onscreen than when, an aged and frail Breslin, sits down next to him and his old friend Hamill throws a comradely arm around his shoulder and pulls him closer.

Hamill was known, among friends, for the surprisingly high quality of his romantic life, which included Shirley Maclaine and Jackie Kennedy among his intimates. It was so impressive that, ultimately, Breslin couldn't resist writing about it.

What the (fill in your own profanity in caps) yelled Hamill at his friend, when he read the column. It was a barren Sunday, explained his columnist buddy Breslin. "I needed a column."

Later, when the filmmakers (who include Newsweek's superb media writer Jonathan Alter) ask Hamill about his romantic life, Hamill answers by quoting Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We all have three lives, said the great Colombian Nobel prize-winning novelist -- the public life, which everyone knows, the private life, in which we're allowed by invitation only and the secret life, which is no one else's damn business.

No one who ever cared a whit about what is now a struggling profession, should miss the glorious robustness of it in "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists," a doc whose supporting cast of commentators includes Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Spike Lee, Robert DeNiro, Gloria Steinem, Mike Lupica, Gary Trudeau and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

While we're on the subject of things not to be missed, let me add a few more things to the list: The Coen Brothers film "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma," as well as the Chuck Lorre sitcom with Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, "The Kominsky Method," the first genuinely great sitcom about failure, old age and death (which, by comparison, makes most other sitcoms look like baby drool).

As great as they all seem on Netflix, the cinematography of the two movies is so sublime that no one should pass up a chance to see them on a big theater screen. "Roma," thank heaven, is coming to the North Park Theatre on Feb. 8.

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