There are certain names of newspaper journalists who convey universal respect. Just about all of us have fans and enemies of our work, people who like our style and others who think it’s nothing more useful than to line the birdcage with.
But for a rare few, their writing and reporting are so damn good, everyone kind of stands back in awe.
That’s the case for two New York City legends from days gone by. Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were wordsmiths of the highest order, though very different in their styles and approaches, and they’re the subject of a fabulous new HBO documentary I saw recently called “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.”
Jimmy Breslin was a New York City legend, a Queens kid who was pushy, arrogant but outstanding as a reporter in any situation. He was by all account a pain in the ass to work with, but he took on so many powerful institutions like City Hall and the NYPD by championing the underdog, the little guy, the minorities whose rights often get trampled on. He became a major celebrity after corresponding with the Son of Sam serial killer through a series of letters in 1977, and continued to make headlines throughout the rest of his life, which ended in 2017.
Breslin’s most famous story, though, came after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. While hundreds of reporters covered the funeral in the traditional way, Breslin brilliantly chose another path: He found the man who’s job it was to dig the President’s grave, and interviewed him.
Here’s the lede:
Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did.
He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The only journalist in New York who could rival Breslin in the 1960s-1990s was Pete Hamill, who had a more literary style than the pugnacious Breslin but was equally as talented.
Hamill also was a legendary drunk, and dated Shirley MacLaine and Jackie Kennedy Onassis while enjoying his celebrity. But man, could he write. Personally I remember reading Hamill in college and being totally inspired by his beautiful prose, and how direct he was.
Here’s a snippet of Hamill’s column from the early 1990s, when real estate mogul Donald Trump, in a full-page advertisement, demanded the Central Park Five (accused of raping a white woman in Central Park) be sent to the death penalty for their “Crime.”
“Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtue of stupidity, it was the epitome of blind negation,” Hamill wrote of the ad.
“Hate was just another luxury. And Donald Trump stood naked revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who live well-defended lives. Forget poverty and its causes. Forget the degradation of millions. Fry them into passivity.”
Back when newspaper voices were the loudest and most important in town, Breslin and Hamill were giants, and this brisk documentary covers their lives, and their impact, really well.
My only quibble is that “Deadline Artists” focuses too much on Breslin and not enough on Hamill; I’d say it was like 70-30 in favor of Breslin, when Hamill’s influence was just as strong.
But it was a great, great documentary; here’s a little bit of the trailer to get you interested.
**Next up today, the NBA just had it’s All-Star Weekend, and it’s usually a pretty boring affair. We’ve seen all the dunks, all the 3-point shooting greatness, and the amazing lack of defense in the actual All-Star Game.
But once every couple of years there’s a pretty special moment, and I really liked this dunk by Hamidou Diallo of Oklahoma City in the dunk contest.
He leaped over Shaq on his way to the rim, then put his elbow inside the hoop after the slam.
**Finally today, there was a pro tennis result Sunday that probably didn’t mean much to 95 percent of sports fans, but it was very cool and special to see for me.
I’ve written in this space before about Reilly Opelka, the 7-foot pro tennis player who I’ve known for a decade since I wrote my first story about him when he was a 12-year-old in Palm Coast, Fla., and I was a sportswriter in Daytona Beach. I’ve gotten to know Reilly and his fabulous parents over the years, and they’re all good people.
Anyway, this past week I was headed out to the New York Open, a small ATP Tour event that Reilly was playing in at Nassau Coliseum, about 30 minutes from my house, to do a story on him for FlaglerLive.com.
I never get to interview Reilly in person much anymore, so I was looking forward to a little “catching up with” kind of feature on how well he’d been doing lately.
Much to my surprise, the kid caught fire this week and won the whole tournament, finishing with a thrilling 3-set win Sunday night. It was his first ATP Tour-level title, it vaulted him into the No. 56 world ranking (pretty damn good, I’d say) and the best part was his Mom, who rarely gets to see him play in person, was there all week to watch him, then celebrate afterwards.
So many times as a journalist you are taught not to root for the individual, but to root for the story. Well, sometimes you can do both. Here’s my story I wrote on Reilly for FlaglerLive.com today.
It was a very cool moment to see, a kid accomplishing something huge and knowing you saw him when. (As I always tell people, sure, he’s 7-foot tall now, but when I met him I was taller.)
Keep an eye on him, he’s going to keep doing big things.