THINGS may get a little awkward next Monday, December 7, at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. A galaxy’s worth of Irish American writing stars will be gathering to pay tribute to legendary author and columnist Jimmy Breslin, who this year is celebrating his 60th year in New York journalism.
Those expected to be on hand include Pete Hamill, New York Times columnists Jim Dwyer, Gail Collins and Dan Barry, former Daily News editor Mike O’Neill as well as famed lawyer Stephen Murphy.
They will have much to celebrate. Breslin’s decades of reporting and commentary, his Pulitzer Prize, his seven novels (including World Without End, Amen about Northern Ireland) and 10 books of non-fiction, and even his run for citywide office in the late 1960s, alongside Norman Mailer.
Something else that will be hovering in the air that night is the fact that as the newspaper world continues to change, you simply are not likely going to see a character like Jimmy Breslin ever again.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to have these Irish American luminaries gathered to celebrate a man who, a few years back, wrote, “(The Irish) are a race that sat in the rain for a couple of thousand years and promoted the most crazed beliefs in personal living outside of the hillbillies.”
Then again, isn’t that quintessential Breslin -- brash, provocative, hilarious, and bordering on offensive.
As Breslin himself told me during an interview in 2003, “Slaughter me if you want. But you gotta admit the stuff is true.”
Breslin grew up in 1930s Queens, so his knowledge of the New York Irish is substantial. But he has always had an ambivalent relationship with the Irish.
Rewind to that infamous run for office in 1969. Mailer was running for mayor on a platform that included, among other things, having New York City secede from the rest of America and become the 51st state.
Breslin, meanwhile, was running for city council president. He made a campaign stop up in the Bronx at Gaelic Park. You would think this would be a friendly audience.
But by then, Breslin’s instinct for controversy and contrarian opinion had kicked in. He opposed the Vietnam War, stood up for political radicals and hippies. This earned him acclaim in some circle but disdain in others.
The conservative Irish Catholic crowd in the Bronx leaned heavily on the disdainful side. Breslin was roundly booed and the tires of his car were slashed. So much for a friendly crowd.
Of course, such angry episodes make it easy to forget what made Breslin famous in the first place -- his ability to tell a beautiful story.
Rewind again, back to what some feel is one of the darkest moments in Irish American history -- the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Breslin could very well have written a great column about what it was like, as a kid who grew up working class Irish American, to then see America’s first Catholic president gunned down.
Instead, in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, Breslin introduced the world to Clifton Pollard.
As Breslin described it, Pollard was eating a breakfast of bacon and eggs when he received a phone call from his boss, the foreman for the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery. Pollard would have to go to work that day.
His job? To dig a grave for the slain president.
Breslin’s poignant, common-man angle on the JFK assassination story is still taught in journalism courses across the United States. No matter what Breslin says about the Irish or the Catholic Church or anything else, it is inventive journalism such as this that will never go away.
And, of course, Breslin is still going strong. Last year he published The Good Rat: A True Story, a novel about bumbling mobsters.
My personal favorite of Breslin’s recent work is The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Guttierez, a stunning portrait of Mexican immigration to New York as well as dirty local politics.
Another thing Breslin once asked me, rhetorically, is this, “Did anyone ever conform more than the Irish?”
Well, on Monday night, when Breslin’s long career is celebrated, at least it can be said that there was one Irish kid from Queens who didn’t conform.
(Contact Tom Deignan at [email protected])