Why you should care

Because once upon a time, tough was a requisite for getting ahead in a big-city newsroom.

The author is a veteran reporter and editor who worked for the New York Post, Newsday, the Los Angeles Times and others.

I covered plenty of stories with Jimmy Breslin. But then everybody else did, too. If you were a member of the New York working press covering crime scenes, you got lots of sightings of the famous rumpled newspaper columnist, shaggy-haired, beetle-browed, with a vague sense about him of unsatisfied appetites, shouldering his way out of a cab.

“There’s Jimmy,” somebody would say.

“I wonder what he’s got.”

Everybody was wondering what Jimmy had. Especially Jimmy. It was the summer of 1977. July 31. The Son of Sam killer had been on his rampage for exactly a year and two days. So far, 13 victims, six dead. The killer stalked young women sitting in cars, and the men who accompanied them, with a .44 caliber handgun. His favorite targets seemed to be women with shoulder-length hair.

The pageboy was out that summer; pinned-up locks were in.

My city desk had called me at home in Brooklyn that morning to tell me to get out to the Bath Beach neighborhood. The killer’s latest victims had been sitting there in a car at about 2:30 that morning, parked on a popular lovers’ lane overlooking the city’s lower harbor and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. A witness, watching from his own car, described seeing the killer crouched behind the car before opening fire on the couple in the front seat.

Dead was Stacy Moskowitz, 20. Blinded for life was Bobby Violante. Both shot in the head. It had been their first date. They had stopped to neck at the scenic spot, only to become the killer’s 12th and 13th victims.

There wasn’t much to look at, except New York Harbor on a summer morning. The car had been hauled away. No blood on the street, no bodies on the sidewalk and the lobster shift had all the details. Just me and Breslin looking at each other as some cops searched the bushes.

“Whatcha got, Jimmy?” I said. “Any messages?”

It wasn’t an idle question. The killer had taken a perverse liking to Breslin, sending him a disturbingly jocular letter about the murders and the police investigation, which the Daily News published in full.

“Hello from the gutters of NYC which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood,” the killer had greeted Breslin, before tweaking the cops for their fruitless investigation and tossing a macabre bouquet of friendship at the columnist.

“Not knowing what the future holds I shall say farewell and I will see you at the next job,” the killer offered. “Or, should I say, you will see my handiwork at the next job?”

Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy in his office at the New York Daily News May 19, 1983.

Source Yvonne Hemsey/Getty

The rest of the city may have been shaking with paranoid terror, but Breslin had a look of cloaked triumph that morning. Like a gambler with four matching face cards cradled in his hand, or a reporter about to bust a big story.

He gave me a munificent look, pointing down the block. “There’s some people down there, three or four houses from the corner,” he said, pointedly not addressing my question. “You should talk to them.”

I was understandably suspicious of a tip from a competitor known for his raw irascibility. There’s usually little camaraderie between reporters pursuing the same story, and Breslin was perceived to have a particularly high SOB quotient while in the hunt.

I interviewed a few people and phoned in some descriptive details to the desk. The New York Post was a fairly new Rupert Murdoch acquisition, and the desk had reserved the Sam franchise for a hometown Aussie lad, the feral, hard-drinking Steve Dunleavy (according to Burt Kearns’ Tabloid Baby, he “would fuck anyone, do anything — fuck anything — for a story”). Whatever I had would go to Dunleavy.

The last time I saw Breslin, he and a uniformed officer were deep in intimate conversation, like long-lost brothers.

But the next day, Breslin’s piece was a sidebar to the Daily News’ main story (“the wood,” as the big front-page tabloid headline is called). It was a classic postmortem, with the requisite feedback from family members of the dead balanced against the delicate necessity of being unintrusive. In this case, the delicacy was particularly important. As Breslin talked to the parents at Kings County Hospital, both victims were still alive in the ER.

The important thing in a postmortem is to look and listen a lot and not ask too many questions, which Breslin did with exquisite control. Moskowitz’s dad “had bare, powerful truck driver’s arms and an exceptionally pleasant face, topped with brown curly hair.”

And this: “A growl came out of Pat Violante and he spun and he put his body and his life into a punch at the cement wall. The smack echoes through the hallway. Pat Violante drew the right hand back to throw it again. ‘Get him away from the wall,’ somebody called out. A cop fell on Violante. The cop wrapped his arms tightly around Violante and did not let go. Long seconds passed.”

Not far away, doctors were opening Stacy’s head, Breslin wrote, “and they took out a .44 caliber slug, a slug as big as a thumb.”

Breslin and Pete Hamill were the great storytellers of the press in those days — both from New York, both with an unerring ear for New York dialect and sense-of-place distinctions. Another veteran New York journalist, Ken Gross, once called Breslin “that overweight burglar-journalist who steals the words right out of our lips.” But Breslin was no Damon Runyon, with the dese and dose dialogue out of Guys and Dolls. He was more like New York’s Raymond Carver, with his feel for the bits of spoken language that told much more than the speaker intended.

After David Berkowitz was arrested as the Son of Sam killer (10 days after that morning on Bath Beach), he spied Breslin in a crowd of reporters in the Queens courthouse. He tried to elicit a wave from Breslin.

Breslin shot him a look that would freeze a cobra. “Shoot him,” he said.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.