When the infamous columnist Jimmy Breslin died last week at the age of 88, his piece on Clifton Pollard, the man who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave, was absolutely everywhere, which is understandable because it’s a stunning piece of writing. But that’s always the issue with a recently dead famous writer, isn’t it? The work that catapulted him into living rooms past are socialed by every publication with a Twitter account. Adopting this, “Remember? Remember what he did?” mentality chops down his legacy to one, admittedly mind-blowing, piece.
In the case of Breslin, who for decades wrote for the New York Daily News, concentrating on only one column does his writing prowess a great disservice. He was on fire long before the idea of blowing the president’s brains out was on anybody’s mind. Take for example, “A Death In Emergency Room One.” Somehow Breslin was able to get himself inside the operating room where he documented Dr. Malcolm Perry’s attempt to save the life of the 35th president of the United States. Just being in the room is a feat deserving applause, but it’s the work that Breslin produced that brings forth holy shit moments.
“The call bothered Malcolm Perry,” is how Breslin decides to start that very first sentence. The details outlining Perry that Breslin packs into the following paragraphs separate him from his peers. “The aluminum cart was high. It was too high. Perry was up on his toes so he could have leverage. ‘Will someone please get me a stool,’ he said.” It’s an exchange that would be passed over by most other journalists, who’d likely be more intent on capturing just the chaotic moments.
But just like his column about Pollard, Breslin wrote in the exact opposite way that was expected of the press. Instead of covering the fact that the president had just been assassinated, he covers the precise, quiet movements of the doctor who tried to save him. It’s a decision that to any regular journalist, would have their instincts screaming, “You’re missing out!” But it’s in his capturing of the minutia that he draws out the bigger impact of the historical event.
Then there’s Breslin documenting the death of John Lennon in “A Part of Cop’s Past Lies Dead.” He starts the piece as far away from Lennon as possible, and focuses on the cop instead, a Beatles fan, who put Lennon’s body in the back of his cruiser. Even then, we don’t get a mention of Tony Palma until the second paragraph with a passing mention that he went to Beatlemania the year prior.
Breslin wasn’t interested in status or celebrity, and instead treated every subject of his reporting as a human being: “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.”
The death of one music icon is almost trivial in Breslin’s eyes—another victim in a city full of violence and death. Just one more number on a sheet of statistics. Choosing to cover those close to Lennon’s death, when every other reporter is lamenting about the soul society just lost, is refreshing and daring.
It’s the small bits of dialogue, peppered throughout the column that really standout in his treatment of the star.
“’John Lennon,’ somebody said.
‘Yes, it is,’ Moran said.
…Somebody called to Palma, ‘That’s Yoko Ono.’
‘Yeah?’ Palma said.
‘They just took John Lennon in,’ the guy said.”
Only the most important details are included here. It doesn’t matter who said what; the words themselves are the centrepiece. Breslin’s referring to “somebody,” or “the guy” makes it all the more clear who is and isn’t relevant to this piece.
The column about the death of John Lennon isn’t about John Lennon at all, but Breslin never makes that clear, and never states what the reader should be focusing on. Instead, he guides our view over to the people that are affected by the ripples of the event. A passing sentence lingers on someone realizing it’s John Lennon in the back of the cruiser. The moment is gone as quickly as it’s brought up, and we’re back with the cops as they drive to the hospital. It’s these documented moments that make Breslin so effective as an observer, writer, and documentarian. Celebrated as a columnist and as a journalist, he’s always been more than these defining terms. In the wake of his death, there were eulogies and long looks at a man that we didn’t really know. And how could we? Because for us to truly have any understanding of Jimmy Breslin the human being, Jimmy Breslin would have had to written a column about it.