I discovered Jimmy Breslin’s writing somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and met him years later in the Palm Beach County Courthouse.
Breslin died on Sunday at the age of 88. And I’m just one of a long line of lesser scribes who are left to feel in debt.
New York’s greatest newspaper columnist had eluded me through my youth on Long Island. The extent of my newspaper reading in those days had been the baseball box scores and the daily Cryptoquote.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, making three extended sea cruises on a Navy aircraft carrier, that I discovered Breslin. Sea duty offers an opportunity for the kind of extended reading time you rarely get outside of prison. And so that’s when I became a reader.
During that self-guided tour through Western literature, I made a detour for the New York Mets. I was 7 years old, a great baseball age, when this new team of hapless losers joined the major leagues as my new home team. Breslin wrote a book about the team in that year.
Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? was so enjoyable I scoured around until I found another Breslin book, a novel called The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight — a tale of Papa Baccala and his band of under-achieving Brooklyn mobsters.
And that led me to Forsaking All Others, Breslin’s Romeo-and-Juliet novel set in the South Bronx. It featured a Puerto Rican legal-aid lawyer who fell in love with the married daughter of the local Italian-American drug kingpin.
It was only when I ran out of Breslin novels I could find that I turned to his newspaper columns. I had never read a collection of columns before, but I had come to admire Breslin’s writing so much, I was eager to read anything by him.
And that’s what led me to The World of Jimmy Breslin, a collection of his columns that opened up a new world to me.
Yes, there would be others. When I got to Chicago, I would discover Mike Royko. And when I got to Miami, there was Carl Hiaasen. And along the way, Molly Ivins and Calvin Trillin lifted me on their shoulders too.
But Breslin was the first. He made me want to be a newspaper columnist. He made me realize that when my Navy days were through, this was the next voyage for me.
And I got to tell him that in person.
In 1986, while I was the courthouse reporter for The Miami Herald in Palm Beach County, I was covering a sensational murder trial over the death of Martha Dodge Gerlach, the third wife of auto heir Horace Dodge Jr. The 72-year-old former showgirl died in her Jupiter condominium with a red groove around her neck, a telephone cord under her body and alcohol and barbiturates in her blood.
The only adult in the condo at the time was Charles Harris, her 39-year-old son-in-law. The autopsy concluded she was strangled with the cord, and Harris was charged with murder.
As murder suspects go, Harris was a pretty lovable guy. He was free on bond, which allowed him to hitchhike to his murder trial every day. People actually picked him up.
And the medical evidence in the case was muddled by the testimony of eight conflicting experts, which allowed the defense to offer the explanation that the intoxicated Dodge may have just fallen out of bed and accidentally strangled herself on the phone cord.
Early stories about the trial caught the attention of the ABC television network , which had just signed up Breslin to do a late-night TV show called “Jimmy Breslin’s People.”
And so during the middle of the trial in West Palm Beach, the back door of the courtroom swung open and the ever-rumpled Breslin walked in and took a seat in the back of the room.
Naturally, all the local reporters fawned all over him. And Breslin couldn’t have been nicer. He went to lunch with us, and of course, told stories.
And we watched him do his TV stand ups.
”Moydah. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me,” he would say.
The trial ended in a not-guilty verdict. And Palm Beach Circuit Judge Richard Burk was about to dismiss the jurors. This always is the most nerve-wracking time for courthouse reporters. We all want to find out from the jurors what swayed them in reaching their verdict.
And judges frequently make this tougher for us, because instead of just saying that the jurors are no longer compelled to be silent about the case, and they may discuss the case with anyone they care to speak to, the judges sometimes ad lib a couple of extra lines that say something like, “There may be reporters who want to talk to you, and you don’t have to talk to them. It’s perfectly within your rights not to say anything to them.”
But this was the only time in my years of courthouse reporting when I actually heard a judge bend the other way. After Judge Burk gave his final instruction to the jurors, he looked out in the courtroom and asked Breslin to stand up.
Then he told the jurors that Breslin was a famous journalist, and he’ll probably want to talk to them. Then he said something like this:
“So I’ve set up a special room for you all to go, if you want,” the judge said. “The bailiff will take you there, and you can talk to him there.”
No running into elevators with jurors or chasing them in the parking garage. The jurors all obediently walked to the room and we all interviewed them at length about their verdict.
Thanks for that too, Jimmy.
Breslin’s TV show would last only 13 weeks, ending when Breslin famously quit in a front-page ad in The New York Times: “ABC Television Network: Your services, such as they are, will no longer be required as of 12-20-86 — Jimmy Breslin.”
Breslin didn’t like that his show wasn’t airing in some markets, including New York, and in others was showing at 1:30 in the morning. He had his pride and he didn’t suffer fools.
The next year, after 23 years of writing columns, the journalism gods awarded him him a Pulitzer Prize. His response: “What took you so long?”
Breslin was a solo act. He worked alone. And he was really hard to imitate.
I know. I tried. Five years years after that trial, when I started writing this column for The Palm Beach Post, I set out to do a Jimmy Breslin impression. But it wasn’t me, so it didn’t stick.
The one and only Jimmy Breslin, I learned, just has poor imitators.
If there’s something as preposterous as a heaven for newspaper columnists, Breslin would have shambled into that dimly lit room on Sunday and plopped down on an open barstool. And Mike Royko, the guy sitting on the next stool, would have given Breslin a sideways glance and said, “What took you so long?”