Murder in Manhattan, no matter how varied the circumstances, is invariably horrific, and it is hard to imagine the reporter, however street-toughened, who can’t recall the first he or she ever covered.
I was a young police reporter at The New York Post in the mid-1970s when the old police teletype started clattering. Out came what was then called a “slip,” a paper-punched message bearing bare-bones facts of a homicide, and off I raced to a Morningside Avenue crime scene.
A detective looked at me with pity: “He was already here.” Who, I wanted to know. “Breslin,” he said. How was this possible? The slip had only moved 20 minutes ago. Maybe someone called him, the detective suggested.
A more helpful cop filled in the gaps. Yes, Jimmy Breslin of The Daily News, who did not drive and never would, had arrived by taxi, examined the woman’s body before it was covered by a sheet, interviewed the neighbors, clambered up to the tenement rooftop from which she’d plunged and hitched a ride back to the stationhouse with the commanding officer.
As if this wasn’t dispiriting enough, I made my way to the precinct, and sure enough, there was Breslin deep in animated conversation with the desk officer, and though I don’t want to venture into the fabulism the columnist sometimes indulged in, he may have had his feet up on the desk, may have been enveloped in cigarette smoke, may have displaced the officer from his own chair, although of these facts I cannot be sure.
What I do know with certainty is that this poetic loudmouth — this big, bad, brassy, brilliant, bullying, boorish, cranky, dark-humored columnist who spewed bucketfuls of profanity and pearls of wisdom in equal measure — could also be benevolent, and, grudgingly, infrequently, even kind and tenderhearted.
“He talked like a longshoreman but he wrote like an angel,” said longtime press agent, publicist and political-fixer Morty Matz, 92, who was immortalized in a Breslin column as the man who invented the use of the draped raincoat during perp walks to conceal the presence of a suspect’s handcuffs. The two used to dine together at the old Mamma Leone’s in the 1960s.
All of this came rushing back with word that the 88-year-old, self-styled greatest-columnist-in-the-world-with-the-Pulitzer-to-prove-it had died of pneumonia on March 19 at the West Side home he shared with his second wife, ex-City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge.
It was quite a journey: Breslin fancied himself the “unlettered bum” from Jamaica, Queens, he championed the blue-collar citizenry with whom he shared roots, and he elevated the vast expanse of Queens Boulevard, which Manhattanites can be forgiven for finding a tad prosaic, by proclaiming it the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
Yet for years, until Sunday, he lived in Eldridge’s spread on Central Park West, light years away from his beloved courthouses in Kew Gardens, bookie parlors in Maspeth, social clubs in South Ozone Park and gin mills in the Rockaways. No matter. No one was truer to his origins.
Take a look at the old Daily News Building the next time you walk past East 42nd Street, and you’ll see a grand three-story limestone entryway with a bas-relief of the people of New York, the rays of the sun shining through, and an arched inscription trumpeting the words, “HE MADE SO MANY OF THEM.”
The Art Deco building was completed in 1930, and ever since, people have gazed up in puzzlement. But the explanation is simple. It is a line attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “God must love the common people because he made so many of them.” Breslin was a two-fisted Everyman who loved them, too, and he relished duking it out on behalf of those he saw as disenfranchised.
And that takes me back to the east side of Morningside Park in the high-crime ‘70s and the sad saga of a young African-American woman, who, in police jargon, “fell, jumped or was pushed” from seven or eight stories to her death. Cops swiftly ruled out the first two.
I vaguely remember Breslin and the desk officer batting around theories. Did the superintendent have a criminal record? Had the victim been romantically involved with a tenant? More likely was their view that a miscreant had probably followed her home from the park.
But what I remember with great clarity was Breslin’s outrage. You see, the poor woman lived on what had become known as the “wrong side of the park.” Back then, junkies, dealers and muggers found sanctuary amid its thick forests. Largely unpoliced, the park had morphed into a no-man’s land separating Morningside Heights and Columbia University to the west, atop the hill, from Harlem to the east, at its base.
Crime spilled over onto both sides, of course. But typically, when it happened near Columbia, it was front-page news, like the stabbing death in 1972 of Dr. Wolfgang Friedmann, a law professor and refugee from Nazi Germany, who was mugged on Amsterdam Avenue near 122nd Street.
It was Breslin’s impassioned belief that when tragedy strikes at the bottom of the hill, it is just as searing and visceral and horrific an attack on New York City and all New Yorkers as when tragedy strikes at the top of the hill. He felt the victims merit the same kind of coverage, and that we, the journalists who report on these terrors, are duty-bound to provide it.
And that’s the lesson I remember the most: “She lived on the wrong side of the hill.” Do not discount her because of the accidents of demography and geography and crime patterns. Her story must also be told. Yes, Jimmy Breslin was hot-tempered, difficult and disputatious by nature. But he knew that her life mattered, too.