Wick Communications

The greatest of all time

In Writing on March 30, 2017 at 12:50 pm

I would be remiss if I didn’t use this space to say goodbye to Jimmy Breslin, perhaps the greatest newspaper columnist of all time.

Breslin died at the age of 88 earlier this month. He was publishing columns right up until the week he fell over. He was possibly New York City’s most famous journalist throughout much of the last century. He once ran for city council (and lost). He was beaten savagely at a Mafia restaurant owned by Henry Hill, who was memorably played by Ray Liotta in the movie “Goodfellas.” Son of Sam David Berkowitz wrote him letters all through the “Summer of Sam” crime spree. He was a legend, and for good reason.

I wanted to share a column that still brings chills to my spine. It appeared in the New York Daily News on Dec. 9, 1980. That is the day after John Lennon was shot and killed at the Dakota Apartments in New York City. (For what it’s worth, it was also the day after I heard the news on the radio while riding shotgun in my friend Jeff Elliott’s old Cadillac. It wouldn’t be long before Jeff was dead, too.)

Four things I want to mention about this column.

Sense of place. Please note the New York feel. The dialogue, “Where’s the guy shot?”, the colloquialisms, such as “most famous living places,” the detail about New York streets and landmarks. There is no way I could write that story, because I don’t know that place.

Repeating first names. Over and over, Breslin repeats the full names of the cops. I think he does this to deliver the names with a thud, like a busted bass drum. It takes an extra beat to render Jim Moran and John Lennon and Tony Palma. I don’t know if he ever used that technique again. Consequently, it stands out here. …

For and about the little guy. Breslin was famous for this particular technique. He told stories by writing about the regular people who were briefly caught up in big events. He did it famously again, when he covered the funeral of John F. Kennedy by writing about the man who dug the grave.

Emphasis on beginnings and endings. If you are going to tell stories, it’s all about beginnings and endings. Here’s the gloriously comma-filled ending:

Tony Palma said to himself, I don’t think so. Moran shook his head. He thought about his two kids, who know every one of the Beatles’ big tunes. And Jim Moran and Tony Palma, older now, cops in a world with no fun, stood in the emergency room as John Lennon, whose music they knew, whose music was known everywhere on earth, became another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York.

There isn’t a 10-penny word in that batch. It’s a very adult thing written in a way a child could understand. Breslin begins and ends with the cops, who were just trying to do their jobs and get home without getting any of the city grit on them that day. It isn’t a story about John Lennon or the shooter. It’s a story about us.

Have a good rest, Jimmy.

Clay

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