Jimmy Breslin's Doing Famously, but He's Still Out to Write Wrongs

updated 06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 01:00AM

It's noisy and messy and grim in the emergency room of New York City's Bellevue Hospital. A guy already gray is sucking his last taste of air from a portable respirator. Bleeding, tormented souls are huddled in all the sad stages of drug withdrawal. And here comes Jimmy Breslin, looking to make a living.

Only now he's not just some bum who works for the New York Daily News newspaper. Now he's got a Pulitzer Prize and a novel (Table Money, Ticknor & Fields, $17.95) that is, if you are in the music business, a big crossover hit. And perhaps most significant of all, he was recently culturally anointed by playing host of Saturday Night Live. So all the hospital big shots are spread out in a receiving line and Breslin, that overweight burglar-journalist who steals the words right out of our lips, takes one look and groans, "I can't make a living here!"

While these administrators and directors and chiefs of staff are distracted, this cat-footed Breslin is up to his old tricks. He's off in a corner talking to a working nurse, finding out what's really going on. He's slipped past the wall of high officials and vanished right into a real conversation.

It is, of course, what Jimmy Breslin has been doing for the past four decades—avoiding pompous bureaucrats, sticking needles into public balloons, and writing what may be, pound for pound, drink for drink, the most entertaining newspaper column 35 cents can buy. He is 57 years old, and the man still chases misfortune like he's scared it's going to escape notice. He hikes up tenement staircases; he runs on police calls; he cocks one ear for the sound of a breaking story. ("That's why I like the newspapers; it's 24 hours. You can always call there and get someone.") And always, to anyone and everyone, the question: "So what's doin'?"

It's not easy being Jimmy Breslin these days with this encroaching threat of respectability. All the prizes, all the fine reviews from all the grand masters of the arts, and, foulest of all, the worst possible abuse to his character: The man has been exposed as honest! For years Breslin hid behind a rogue's gallery of hilarious and colorful characters who populated his newspaper column. Fat Thomas. Marvin the Torch. Klein the Lawyer. If there was any controversy among the more fastidious keepers of the journalistic flame, it was whether any of these characters—Breslin included—really existed. The jury invariably broke against him. His stuff sounded too real, too authentic. No one, said the cynics, could get it that good.

Then this scandal breaks out in Queens, a working-class borough across the East River from Manhattan and, by long tradition, Breslin' sturf. Facing indictment, the borough president commits suicide, and a bunch of lawyers wind up scrambling for cover. One of these lawyers, reportedly implicated in various misdeeds, happens to be a person named Melvin Lebetkin, known to prosecutors and a few students of Queens Boulevard sublife as Klein the Lawyer.

Breslin, who provided the first tangible proof of corruption in the whole sordid scandal ("I would have to leave the country if I get beat on this one"), wakes up one fine morning and finds Lebetkin in the New York Times. The paper dryly notes that Lebetkin is often referred to as Klein the Lawyer in columns by one Jimmy Breslin. Now it's official.

When Lebetkin calls Breslin to cry on his shoulder, Breslin has no sympathy: "Never mind you, they stole my character!"

You could hear that cry from the heart all the way from chic Central Park West, where Breslin now lives, to Queens, whose neighborhoods and precincts are stamped upon him forever. It has been almost four years since Breslin left Queens and all its characters behind. "You know, they never would have had this scandal if I was still there," he says. "I would a put a stop to it at once. They would not have dared!"

He misses the blue-collar texture and the intimacy of his old neighborhood, but it was time to move on. He left Queens after the cancer death of Rosemary, his wife of 26 years and the mother of his brood. A year later he took his six kids with him when he married Ronnie Eldridge, an executive with New York's Port Authority, and a psychiatrist's widow with three children of her own. The adjustment has not always been easy.

"I went for this stress test, right," says Breslin one night in Costello's, the famous newspaper bar in mid-Manhattan. "They put you on a treadmill and make you walk. They call that stress? I got the doctors in a room and I say to them, if you want real stress, get the nine kids together in a room and then hook up the machines."

Ronnie Eldridge, 55, his newly suffering bride, smiles ruefully at another Breslin truth couched in humor. Later she explains what happened when Jimmy Breslin and his four boys and two girls (now ages 18 to 30) moved into her family's co-op overlooking Central Park. "My kids were expecting the Brady Bunch. They had no idea. The Breslin children are rough."

Breslin laughs. He is an indulgent father who hands out money to his children as fast as it comes in. But then, he always has treated money with a certain contempt.

He feigns the same belligerent indifference at the prospect of fat royalties from Table Money. "The reviews are pretty good, but money hasn't come in yet. Not a dime. What money? I still gotta pay the rent."

They are dining in New York's Little Italy one night when Ronnie asks, "What did you do with the Pulitzer check?" All the tables are occupied by people who know Breslin, and he feels publicly challenged. "It was a thousand dollars," persists Ronnie, somewhere between a joke and a reproach. Breslin looks around to see if anyone is witnessing this small humiliation. "I don't know," he replies. Then, with some defiance: "I left it over a bar."

There is this clash between them: She is well ordered, systematic, Jewish. He is all chaos and wild Irish. But there is also this other thing: They get each other's jokes and agree politically and like each other fine. They meet on a common ground of blunt admiration.

"The kids will be the death of us yet," he says. "Getting them out of the house is no solution." The bonds are never broken, but one by one, through marriage and career and college, they leave the apartment on Central Park West. Breslin claims, "We'll have spent our last dime on tuition. I'm going to spend the rest of my life in hock to the bursars."

Yet as the nest slowly empties, an adjustment seems to be taking place. "When I first moved in here," says Ronnie Eldridge, who met Breslin when she was active in liberal politics, "I had the apartment done in off-white. It was lovely. But Jimmy, in case you haven't noticed, tends to spill coffee. So I'm having it all redone in speckled coffee-colored material."

Breslin is half sitting up in the master bedroom. To the front he has a panorama of the park, to the side a view of the streets to the south. "It's the best view in the city," he says. "I'm in the country in the front, or in the city on the side."

One phone sits atop the highlands of his exposed belly. Another awaits in the valley of the sheets. It is 5 in the afternoon and he isn't up yet. He's still recovering from a round of celebrations. A movie script lies half open on the bed: "This guy De Palma wants me for the lead. I'll do it if it don't demean me." He watches the drug deals in the park and the basketball game on the television and the cabs pushing through traffic. An ideal vista in Breslin's city. The phones ring incessantly. The conversations are rough and to the point. "Yeah, what?" says Breslin. "And one other thing: Don't you think you should tell someone if you decide to get married?" This to son James, 30, who has announced his engagement only to select members of the family.

Breslin's telephone manner is brusque. "You could say succinct," says Jim Bellows, a former executive with ABC's World News Tonight and a longtime Breslin crony. "The people who answered the phone at ABC always said, 'It's Mister Polite.' Well, he isn't polite. Although he's matured, no question. And there is no better newspaperman. He always knows what to go for."

There is a new kind of arrogance to Breslin, now that the committees and critics agree with what he has been saying for years, namely that he's the best in the business. "I waited long enough," he says. "Where were they? What were they looking at? I'm the best. I'm the only one. It's great. If all this happens when I'm 35, I'm dead. I couldn't handle it."

Breslin is sitting with a couple of old newspaper guys, and up comes the subject of his now famous pursuit of former New York Gov. Hugh Carey. Breslin mercilessly satirized the Governor's use of official planes and perks and finally pinned him with the nickname "Society Carey."

"You were too hard on Carey," says David Nyhan, a columnist for the Boston Globe.

"Maybe," concedes Breslin. "But you should have seen the nail, I never got such mail. They loved ft. I got carried away by the roar of the crowd."

His followers celebrate his triumph at odd moments and at odd places throughout the city. People lean out of buses. Drivers stop cabs.

Kevin Breslin, James's twin, watches his father fielding the handshakes of strangers and he smiles. "It's too bad my mother couldn't see it," he says. "She has half that Pulitzer. Who do you think drove him around? He doesn't drive. I remember her getting everyone up in the middle of the night. Five o'clock in the morning, piling all the kids in the car and driving to a homicide in the Bronx. And us kids'd sit in the car and have to be quiet. Homicides and fires. My mother should have been here."

It is graduation day at Dean Junior College near Boston. Christopher, 18, the youngest Breslin, is being nice. He's not arguing, not fighting; even his hair is combed. It is 94° in the shade, and the lawn is crowded with people. Father and son look at each other and smile and say, one to the other, "Be nice." Breslin is introduced to the various deans and members of the faculty and to each and every one he says, in that New York City growl, "So what's doin'?"

In his new maturity, Jimmy Breslin makes a sober, almost solemn commencement speech. Limiting himself to a subtle political dig, he tells the graduating class to ignore "important voices" that disdain compassion.

"Listen to your heart," he says. It is by usual Breslin standards a whisper against the current Administration. "I coulda taken off Reagan's head," he says. "I coulda started a riot. But I figured it's 94 degrees, and it's only a junior college. But I coulda started some scene."

He sounds as if he's sorry.

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