BOB GARFIELD: This month, the legendary Jimmy Breslin retired from writing his thrice weekly column for Newsday. It might have passed you by, since his final column ran November 2nd, election day. His final headline proclaimed "I'm right again, so I quit. Beautiful." It called the election for John Kerry. If going out on a mistake is embarrassing, Breslin doesn't seem too fussed about it. He may not have been a perfect prognosticator, but there was plenty that he did get right. For over 40 years, his column entertained and infuriated readers with tales of colorful New York City characters and the occasional bombshell investigative piece. Jon Kalish has a profile of a man famous for his leg work. [TYPING ON MANUAL TYPEWRITER -- STOPS ABRUPTLY]
JIMMY BRESLIN: I told you that's what it's for! [PHONE RINGING] Take them all. Hello? Ah, don't -- you know, don't. Forget it - I ain't gonna do it. [PHONE RECEIVER SLAMMED DOWN] [TYPING ON MANUAL TYPEWRITER]
JON KALISH: He was the tabloid voice of the little guy who made a name for himself writing about a flock of characters so colorful they seemed to be fictional. When Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, there was a champagne toast in the city room of the New York Daily News. Breslin declared that his success was based on a simple approach.
JIMMY BRESLIN: I still pursue the art of climbing flights of stairs. Go to the scene. Go ring the doorbell and ask the guy. Nobody does that. It's an art that's going to come back, however.
JON KALISH: Breslin began writing a column for the old New York Herald-Tribune and went on to toil for all three of the city's tabloids. In the mid-1980s, when Breslin wrote for the Daily News, he exposed a multi-million dollar kickback scheme that resulted in the conviction of one of the city's major political bosses. Around the same time, he broke the story of city police using stun guns on suspects. Such writing provoked the ire of the police union which took out full page ads attacking the columnist, and Mayor Ed Koch, who Breslin referred to as Copout Koch and blamed for widespread corruption.
ED KOCH: You know, Jimmy Breslin cuts the hell out of people every single day he has a column. And then, on one occasion, when in jocular mode and mood, after he's attacked me again, I say something about him, and suddenly he becomes wounded, like he's not allowed to be criticized.
JON KALISH: Do you still read Breslin's column?
ED KOCH: Of course I do! I happen to think that Jimmy Breslin is an excellent writer. A lot of fiction -- but an excellent writer.
JON KALISH: But when Breslin won his Pulitzer, it was for commentary, not fiction. Still, his detractors have repeatedly questioned whether some of the Runyonesque characters in Breslin's newspaper column, including the arsonist he referred to as Marvin the Torch and a 400 pound bookie known as Fat Thomas, did in fact exist. But A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, confirms that at the height of such suspicions, probably in the early 1970s, he ventured out to a bar in Queens with Breslin to check up on the veracity of these characters. Rosenthal met Fat Thomas and a member of the team that subsequently pulled a huge armored car heist in the city. According to novelist and newspaperman Pete Hamill, Breslin eventually soured on organized crime after seeing what heroin did in the city's ghettoes. Hamill says Breslin's great triumph was not just putting a column in a newspaper but adding voices to the city's chorus.
PETE HAMILL: What he saw was that the guy you're sitting next to on the subway could have a dense, complicated, interesting life. I think he was trying to figure out who are these people that I'm living with? And that kind of curiosity made him into a terrific reporter and a very good novelist.
JON KALISH: Many who know Breslin personally say he isn't always a terrific human being. In 1990, Breslin angrily referred to a Korean-American colleague at Newsday as a "yellow cur" prompting his suspension from the paper for two weeks. And over the years, Breslin has been notorious for promising to make personal appearances and then failing to show up. But Les Payne, an editor and columnist with Newsday, praises Breslin's lifelong dedication to the poor.
LES PAYNE: We say that in journalism one of our goals is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. But we almost never do it. I mean what we invariably do is to comfort the comfortable and continue to afflict the afflicted, normally, by ignoring them. And I think that one of the things that Breslin has done over the years is, is to pay some attention to the afflicted in ways that journalism preaches but so very often refused to practice.
JON KALISH: Jimmy Breslin turned 75 last month. He's seen a lot of change in the newspaper business over the course of his nearly 60 year career. The columnist contends that the changes have been healthy for journalists, but bad for readers who get dailies with less thump than the old days.
JIMMY BRESLIN: At 5 o'clock at night in the New York Daily News, you couldn't see from one end of the city room to the other because of the smoke. Tremendous scene. Looked like an old fight club. And the noise of the typewriters was loud, like subway train running through. And out of all this noise, the smoke, came nervous energy -- words in a newspaper are made of nervous energy. And they had that. Afterwards, there was bars people went to, and you discussed how people wrote. Used to be discussions about writing styles at the bar. There's no such thing today. Afterwards, nobody goes to a saloon and discusses language -- newspaper reporting language. They go to a health club, and then worst of all, they go home to their wives and families.
JON KALISH: Breslin isn't retiring from writing a regular column to spend more time with his family. He'll write books and play a bishop in a motion picture based on the recent account he wrote of the pedophile priest scandal. A devout Catholic, Breslin stopped going to mass because of the scandal, but insists he continues to follow the life of Christ. In a brief chat with OTM this week, the legendary columnist made a reference to the loss of his daughter Rosemary in June, saying "I'm in very bad shape since this summer. But I'll get going again." For OTM, I'm Jon Kalish in New York. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director, and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kosseff. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org, and email us at onthemedia@WNYC.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [THEME MUSIC TAG]